Thursday, December 29, 2011

10 Day Creative Bootcamp

I'm off work following Christmas for a week and a half and though I've lots of mundane things to do, my mine reason is to put some serious time and effort into my creative work. How to do that? Concentrate on one particular project? Well, that would be fine, but I'm not sure I've got one at the moment. Instead, I'm treating it as a 10 day creative "bootcamp" - to get my creative work into some kind of shape. Whether I'm doing new or old work, music or writing, I've set myself a few ground rules that take into account that I've still got to eat, drink, live, socialise etc. etc. whilst making some serious inroads into a range of creative projects.

Not too many rules as that would be counter-productive but here's what I've come up with....

1. Do something creative every day (music or writing - either is fine, but it should be related directly to my creative work, not this blog for instance!)
2. Finish the thing I am working on before starting something new (though this could be a phase e.g. finishing a first draft of a story, rather than the whole project)
3. I can do other things, like reading, housework, shopping, Facebook as long as it doesn't replace the creative stuff - and I need to mix things up a bit anyway, don't I?
4. New stuff is good, but getting old or half-finished stuff into shape is also good - and may well be the driver for the first few days.

I'll let you know how I get on.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The modern novel is obsessed with secrets withheld. In an age when everything is potentially known, from the private messages left on a celebrity's hacked phone to the open threads and conversations on Facebook, it's as if the old novelistic trick of pulling a rabbit from a hat has to find new ways of cloaking its secrets. The first person narrator and their inevitably selective memory and retelling offers the novelist the equivalent of a personal twitter feed, with others' own conversations crowded out by the protagonist's self regard.

Accept the magic trick and the novel can win prizes, amaze the readership - but will you want to go back to it, once you know the revelation? In "The Gathering" Anne Enright's narrator keeps the key fact from us, though she could have told us on day one - and in Julian Barnes' "The Sense of an Ending" the narrator, Tony, gives us a partial account of a university love affair - only to find out the truth of his actions forty years later.

In a horse race, gamblers bet not just on the horse or jockey on the going, the course and the distance. Barnes' book is slightly more than a sprint, but less than a chase, with the winning post visible even from the start. It makes the first part of the race untidy, as his characters jostle for position. A novel needs to have veracity and in the first half of the book, Barnes struggles to achieve it. Beginning at a boys school in London, three friends add the new boy, Adrian Finn, to their number. In the first few pages you'd be forgiven for thinking this was a draft for a sixties episode of "The Inbetweeners" with less sex-talk and more philosophy. They split, as friends do, to go to university, where, almost absently, our narrator tells of his own first relationship, with a girl called Veronica, who, despite it being the sixties is reluctant to "put out." Both precise in its time (the late 60s) and sloppy in its detail, you feel that Barnes, or more truthfully his unreliable narrator, is just in a hurry to get round the bend. Is there such a difference between studying at Bristol as Tony does and Cambridge as Adrian does? Are the class differences between him and Veronica's family really as marked as he makes out? This is hardly Alan Sillitoe territory. Tony listens to Tchaikovsky and Dvorak whilst his girlfriend has more sophisticated (but unremarked tastes), and, oh, he's got "the Beatles, the Stones...etc." a generic list of 60s music if ever there was one. Though I can well believe that priggish middle class boys would have a bit of classical alongside their pop music, the details of this life are slapdash, reading like a first draft that should be fixed later.

For later is when the novel delves into the psychological ripples of events - and harsh words said and written - nearly half a century before. We meet the retired Tony, post-divorce, his marriage and daughter written off in a couple of paragraphs, as his past comes back to him via a letter from a solicitor regarding the estate of his ex-girlfriend's mother, a woman he only ever met the one weekend. On these thin pivots, Barnes weaves a meticulous plot of secrets withheld, misunderstood - and lives twisted out of what they might have been. Without the "sense of an ending" that this letter and the subsequent events provide, it would be hard to single out these lives as different than any others. Again, as so often in the work of Barnes and his contemporaries (Amis and Kureishi in particular), male friendship and the betrayals that can come from pursuit of the same woman are central to this short, poignant work. If Tony isn't particularly telling us the "whole truth" the holding back of information which is the thing that allows these novels to work comes here from Veronica who in a single email could have made the second half of the novel redundant. Without her voice we are left with Tony's gradual realisation - as he comes to the final furlong - of what the sequence of events both on and off stage, actually was.

It's impossible to say any more without "spoilers". However, despite its many structural and psychological qualities, it is not without major flaws. In "On Chesil Beach" Ian McEwan writes about a more innocent time - pre-sixties - as if to remind us that it once existed and here, writing about a similar middle class cohort, Barnes gives us the line that for many people the sixties only actually came about in the seventies. Very true for working class people in the Midlands and the North - but for the southern middle classes heading to university in the late 60s? Perhaps...but one wonders. The cultural references all seem wrong somehow - and its like Barnes doesn't really care. His narrator is prone to saying he lacks interest in things - whether music, football or cars - then will digress enough to list long-forgotten British sports car marques. Our own memories might be flawed, but we expect more from a narrator. It hardly seems enough to say "I'm not sure" or to dismiss memories as unimportant, when in the next breath he's reciting conversations verbatim.

There's something else though - Barnes is usually complimented on his elegant prose, but elegant or not, much of the first half of this book seems barely competent, stock scenes that are meant to take the place of more considered character building. In his rush to get to the denouement, with his carefully assembled architectural structure, I found myself despairing at the inauthenticity of much of the novel, the arbitrary nature of much of the writing, as if he was more interested in the scaffolding than the building. Whereas Stephen King's "11.22.63" which I read the previous week takes infinite care over the minutiae of his fictional late 50s, here we have a casualness that seems all too common in even our better writers. Detail, whether its pop cultural references or socioeconomic truth is somehow seen as unecessary. The psychological truth of the book is all that matters. Read Coetzee's "Summertime" and you'll find a preciseness to both the language and the subject matter that is lacking here. Adrian Finn is given to us in second-hand, through broad brush strokes of verbatim sparring with his schoolmasters, yet this all seems to be telling rather than showing. Veronica and her family are all described so disparagingly that the idea that she was ever any more to Tony than a casual university relationship would seem absurd. As always in these novels of male friendship, the crucial friendship is the other one - between Tony and Adrian - yet in reality it hardly exists - and when they are separated by a circumstance, you feel it is with mutually beneficial.

Barnes has always been at his best in the immediacy of the moment - whether its the satirical thrill of the ark in "A History of the World" or the psychological menage of "Talking it Over." And he's back there again, excelling at a small psychodrama that wants us to examine life, regret, memory and love. Yet it seems to me that however effectively he does this, the tools he uses elsewhere in the book are becoming blunt - the novel relies too much on our good grace. Contemporary British writers have a tendency to extol masters like James, Proust and Flaubert, yet seem to offer a mere echo of them, and think that is enough. The lives we are reading about in "The Sense of an Ending" seem inauthentic, the story schematic, and the detail uneven and prosaic even as, with his usual masterly application of narrative structure and psychological motive, he drags us breathlessly to the finishing line. It's an effective conjuring trick, but feels somehow old hat - a trick that the experienced reader has seen once too often.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Snowdrops by A.D. Miller

"Snowdrops" is a first novel that was surprisingly shortlisted for this year's Booker. The "surprise" was because it is essentially a thriller, and they don't usually get mentioned in such circles.

Set in early 21st century Moscow, its a short, succinct novel about contemporary Russia, its contradictions, chaos and corruption. A "snowdrop" we are told from the off, is a body that is only found after the thaw when the snow recedes. Yet if this implies a post-Glasnost KGB tale - which I was perhaps expecting - its far from it. Like Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland" its a tale told after the fact by a youngish male narrator who has somewhat absently ended up in a particular place and time. The narrator is in his mid-thirties, and is writing down the story of what happened to him in Russia so that his wife-to-be (who we never encounter) can know about this particular episode in his life.

In tight, short chapters Miller sketches out a Moscow that we probably imagined, but hadn't seen, of corrupt officials, manipulative oligarchs, cheap prostitutes and naive foreigners, stranded there, not on some Soviet-era diplomat mission but as emissaries of the new money pouring into Russia. Miller gives us two stories of corruption - the one, an oil deal that is taking up Nick Platt's day job, and a love story when he meets Masha on the train. Told in retrospect, we know from the off that the story is not of true love running smoothe and the device provides both an intimacy to the novel but also its weakness. When Ford Madox Ford or Graham Greene "looked back" it was a framing device which then left us with the story, told as it unfolded, but here our narrator frequently interjects as he knows the ending and offers his regret even before the deeds he is ashamed of take place. Nick is a "reliable" narrator, but it is Masha, the Russian lover he takes, who is "unreliable" though we never hear from her except through him. There are plenty of clues about her suspect nature - from her travelling everywhere with her "sister" Katya, to her introducing Nick to her "aunt" and getting him to help with the paperwork around a property deal. The plot is more like an episode of "Hustle" than a Le Carre, with Nick our unwitting mark. But you can see what Miller is trying to do. The back cover references both Greene and Robert Harris. He takes from the latter the near-screenplay slickness of storytelling, and from the former a classic foreigner abroad scenario. Yet a corporate lawyer seems curiously without jeopardy, even if he's as distanced from his home town (Luton of all places) as any number of Greene heroes.

In many ways, the novel seems a device to look around the new Russia with the eye of someone who is both an insider (he has been there 4 years, and speaks passable Russian) and a visitor. The small cast of characters that Nick interacts with, may appear to be stereotypes (and that he meets the same policeman twice or bumps into Katya accidentally in a bar seems to imply Moscow is little more than a village), but they are drawn with care, and you want to be there be his side as he begins to fall into the trap that is clearly being laid for him.

I enjoyed the book, its a decent first novel, clearly structured despite its single sitting length. Nick is a distant character in many ways, but never really comes to life. His mother visits and she makes the comment that Masha is "too cold" for him - yet he seems a curious innocent abroad - having fled to Russia in his mid-thirties when the work opportunity arose, but without much of a life behind. Indeed, had Greene wrote this, you'd feel there would be a love affair behind him, not in front. It has a certain "mock noir" feel to it that you find in quite a few contemporary novels - where the experience seems second hand, somehow. It's that lack of jeopardy again; with the experience in Moscow both a life-changing one but also unimportant. He will return to the life he always expected to have - with Moscow an interlude that could have either made or break him but in the end does neither.

"Snowdrops" is well worth a read, and the sense of Moscow at a time of momentous, constant change is well-drawn, yet I can't help thinking that compared to, say, Ian Rankin's Edinburgh, the description of the city seems partial. Even the love affair at the novel's heart doesn't seem to come alive. Compare to the dark forces that Ian McEwan writes about in his 50s cold war thriller "The Innocent" for instance. Perhaps its not its genre attributes that got it to the Booker shortlist, but more its desire to read something from the story - yet Nick is hardly a compelling character. With the other characters - including Steve, his drunken, priapic journalist friend - drawn straight from central casting, the relationship with Masha has too much work to do; but it feels as distant to the reader, as it does to the narrator telling it retrospectively. I think there's probably a desire, via the scenes with the "aunt", Tatiana Vladimirovna, to contrast the old and new Russia, but again Nick is too distant a figure, too much of an onlooker. As the plots around him unfold you find he's not even the key actor in his own story, merely an attendant figure. Like a "mark" in one of "Hustle's" long cons, he could be anyone - though that, perhaps, is the point. Even this "new" Russia is seen as a passing phase - a moment in time before some of the darker practices become frowned upon, the gold rush over. In this world love, property, even life, are seen as transitional - and Nick, looking back, misses feeling that alive.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

National Short Story Day

Today is National Short Story Day - as its the shortest day.

Stories and information here

And I've put one of my stories "My Life According to the Albums of David Bowie 1968-1983" on my author website.

11.22.63 by Stephen King

"The past is obdurate" says Jake Epping (aka George Amberson) repeatedly in Stephen King's 750 page time travel novel. Its a phrase that could apply to writers, when faced with "watershed" moments in history, such as the JFK assassination. The big subject requires the big book, as Elroy's "American Tabloid", Mailer's "Oswald's Tale" and now this make clear. King takes a literal approach to this literary time travel, and Epping, following the prompts of a dying man who has been doing this for years as it is, pops down the "rabbit hole" into a particular space and time in the past. This simple device gives a structure to the otherwise torturous business that writers have when negotiating time travel. King, though always aware of the paradoxes about time travel, doesn't want to write a SF novel as such. He's also not that interested in highlighting those differences between then and now, though highlight them he does. For though Epping has stepped back before he was born, the smalltown America of 1950s America (1958 in fact) has always been a touchstone for King. You could argue that most of his early novels were sat in a pretty unchanging version of this landscape. There's not a single McDonalds or other chain restaurant, the cars are like those lined up like the Boston Aquarium in Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead" and people habitually leave their back doors open or trust a written reference from an unknown college. But there's also segregated toilets, and even the smalltown people of Jodie, near Dallas, where Epping makes his home, think a woman's place in the home even when she's being beaten up by her husband. There's almost as much violence against women in the novel as in a James Elroy, but in Epping/Amberson King has a defending angel who has come back to stop it happening. He has also come to stop that other wifebeater Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK, but that's another story.

Though we begin in the present, and there's an obligatory 9/11 reference or two, King's world is not the one we currently inhabit. The distance from here to the 1970s when he first was published is a longer one than between then and 1958 after all, albeit with the sixties revolution in the middle. Going back in the past Epping becomes Amberson, a name taken from a gravestone, and - importantly - given that he is going back to finish another mans task (the dying Al), he has his own quest, to right the wrong that happened to one of his students. The sense of dread, that he so often turned into a physical supernatural horror in his earlier novels, is here from the start, but the horror is a human one - albeit, because it is a past event that the narrator already knows about, one that can be changed. But what is the consequence?

Structurally the novel is superb, with the chance to repeat the past like a video game offering a second chance if things go wrong. You can stop, pause, start again. The paradox is that you are getting older. Also, as George Amberson begins to live a life in the past, he begins to see that it is not immune to his presence. How do you write about such a vast subject as the Kennedy assassination? King is not a political writer, and the journey to Dallas is a long one, punctuated by more typical King fare. Jake Epping was a good schoolteacher and George Amberson becomes one. That he can also face the dark challenge of murdering another man, even to save lives, is a sign of his own moral complexity. Even though he knows the big things that are going to happen, he doesn't know the things that will take place in his own new life, and he creates one with the lovely Sadie. As Amberson is our narrator we're able to take on board his uncertainties as he weighs up his own happiness against the reason he is there, to "stop Oswald." But before he does so he has to be sure the conspiracy theorists were wrong, and that Oswald was a lone shooter.

There are contrivances here, but in many ways, the book's strength is its willingness to address them. All King's storytelling skills are here, and the long preambles in earlier books before the horror shows itself, are reflected here. For the horror is here a very human one. That if we know what is going to happen then our attempts to change it will bring consequences. In this alternative past that Amberson is creating, things keep repeating or stopping his progress, as if it is a dream he is living through. King, the arch chronicler of smalltown dread, manages to turn the whole of 50s America into a series of smalltowns. He reimagines Oswald's tale as primarily a family saga. The political conspiracy you get in Elroy is hardly hinted at. In all of America Amberson can't use his foreknowledge to put a bet on without coming into contact with the same Mafia-connected group of bookmakers. But isn't this always the way? Even as we change our lives - our location - our name - we then recreate what we have before. Sometimes better, sometimes worse.

The weakest part of the book is when Amberson begins to reconaissance Oswald. After all he is not an all-seeing-narrator and he has with him only those tools that you can buy from an electronics shop in 1958. Though one applauds King's ingenuity, Oswald and his family seen from afar seem almost invisible, and, of course, there is no motive. But again, these scenes are to set-the-scene, rather than anything deeper. Amberson's motive for getting rid of Oswald is as much about him being a wifebeater as him killing the President.

As you'd expect from King, there is plenty of action, but the length of the novel provides many other pleasures. King's 1958 is meticulous, and his narrator is a winning, if sometimes emotionally distant, guide through those years. There is more than getting up close to history in the book, rather, King has used the device to talk to us about the fundamentals in our life - the chance moment that means you get caught by a stray bullet, or meet the woman you love. The novel could be called "chance and consequence" for the latter is never far away - every action, after all,creating another reaction.

Though there's nothing in the novel strikingly original - the time travel motif is well worn; the Kennedy assination more so - King has crafted a remarkably compelling novel about the 20th century, which as we begin to see the chance and consequence of the 21st, gives us pause for thought - as well as a superb read.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Books of the Year

I find it hard to have a books of the year, given that I don't always get time to read that much. However, one or two gems have come across my path and it might be a late present prompt for somebody.

All Roads Lead to France by Matthew Hollis

Hollis's biography of Edward Thomas is justly acclaimed. Beautifully written and paced, despite one knowing the inevitable sadness of the ending; though for a poet, death is not the end, and being forgotten is perhaps the ultimate tragedy - yet Hollis brings us a sense of Thomas the man, an exhaustive and exhausted literary critic, who, at a relative late stage, finds his poetic voice fully formed. As "romantic" of the myth of the poet dying is, we get a feeling that this tragedy is a shared one: his friends (including Robert Frost) and family; for English letters. An exemplary work, and excellent read.

Salt Modern Voices Pamphlet series

I was published in this series myself late last year, but there's been a flurry of others since. It would be unfair, having read with some of the poets to single any one out in particular, and I'm not entirely sure which were this year and last. Thanks to Angela Topping, JT Welsch, Clare Trevien, Lee Smith, Emily Hasler and Shaun Belcher for reading with me this year, and I'm only sorry I haven't yet managed it with Robert Graham, Mark Burnhope and the new writers in the series. As they say on the BBC, "other pamphlet series are available," but this one has plenty to show for it.

Best British Short Stories 2011 ed. by Nicholas Royle

The first in a series, it attempts to bring together the best short stories from the last 12 months. Like all anthologies it has its ups and downs - but there's something to please everyone. Particularly liked stories by David Rose and Leone Ross. I'm still dipping into it so not read them all, and if some are decidedly pedestrian, most zip along with the brio you hope to find from the form. Felt the bigger names or staider magazines were the least interesting in many ways. It will be interesting next year to see if Royle's choice for the Manchester Fiction Prize make the cut when there's another editor - as he didn't find prize stories to particularly appeal this one.

11.22.63. by Stephen King

I'm half way through and thoroughly gripped - the first King novel I've read for about 20 years. He takes on the biggest story here - JFK's assassination and his contemporary hero goes "down the rabbit hole" to 1958 to prepare to change history. King's great skills, in talking about smalltown America, the country's mythos, and a sense of impending dread are all here in plentiful supply. Not finished it yet, but think it will be one of the books of the year, regardless.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Having not read much fiction recently, this prizewinning novel impressed me with its brilliance. In amongst all the spats about this years Booker, it seems to get forgotten how the best American novels seem light years ahead of most things the commonwealth is producing. Egan's is a contemporary masterpiece that even tries McSweeney's style trickery (a Powerpoint presentation in one chapter) and pulls it off admirably.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

My Artistic Year

Where did these 12 months go? After last year's interregnum - when I was out of action for several weeks after an operation - I spent much of the year catching up on the projects I was working on. My Salt pamphlet "Playing Solitaire for Money" came out in late 2010, and so I was spent some time working on the website for that launch, and have added content to that during the year.

I had the launch of the pamphlet as a joint reading with JT Welsch in January at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester, and we'd read together several more times during the year. Although I was determined to take opportunities for reading and promoting the book, it sometimes takes time to develop this side of things. Thanks to the Salt Modern Voices tour, and the hard work of the other writers on it, I've read in different places to different audiences. Probably over 300 people have seen me read since I first read from the pamphlet in late 2010 at Didsbury Arts Festival, taking in the University of Manchester, St. Ann's Square and the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, Northwich, Market Drayton, London, Nottingham and the University of Warwick. Although I've been steadily writing new poems, these haven't really found their way out into the world as yet. I've also been writing various fiction pieces, but intermittently, as time allows, though I can't not mention, "The New Club" which appeared in the Quickies anthology of "very short adult fiction" premiered at an uproarious Didsbury Arts Festival event. Over Christmas I'll try and finish some of these pieces off.

My music was also in consolidation mode - as most of my 3rd album since 2007, "In Times of Troubled Lives" was recorded last year, but I finished the work and got it duplicated in the spring, followed by a side-project EP under the name "Monochrome Industrial Dystopia" in the summer.

A busy year work wise, with the threat of redundancy hanging over me for the first half of the year, and alot of travel around my job seeing me have ten trips abroad during the year, including first visits to Germany and Finland.

This blog has taken a bit of a backseat, and as the conversation moves to Twitter and Facebook, I have a sense that it may soon have run its course, but we shall see - there's occasionally things I want to say about literature and art, and this is a convenient place to say them.

So overall, its been a year when my thoughts have turned from the "making" of work to the performing and promoting of that work. It's been nice to be offered opportunities to read in different places and contexts - culminating in last night's appearance for the Whitworth Gallery "Dark Matters" exhibition and a large piece in the Manchester Evening News about the performance.

Too early for New Years Resolutions of course, and its strange to be in a position when I've been concentrating on work from the recent past, rather than the work I'm doing at the time. One thing about reading a lot is that you also listen a lot, such as the other Salt Modern Voices, and I've tried to get to see interesting writers when they've come to town, or regular nights such as The Other Room, which remain inspiring. Literature, like music and art, remains an inspiration to me, as well as something I continue to practice myself. In some ways 2011 was a year when I more fully integrated these interests, and began to exploit them a bit more. I hope 2012 offers further opportunities.

Shadows in the Snow Mirror

Reading at the Whitworth Gallery last night as part of their "After Hours" event. I am reading in front of Daniel Rozin's "Snow Mirror" and my audience have materialised in the mirror beside me. I'm having to use my mobile phone flashlight to illuminate my poetry book.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Albums of the Year 2011

I can't pretend its been a year when I've gone out of my way to listen to new music, and with a few exceptions, that which I have heard hasn't been that exceptional. There seems to be a lot of competent music in whichever genre you like, whether Americana, indie, electronica etc. but few records that crossover to a wider audience. Meanwhile, the biggest selling albums of the year hardly get a mention in the critics' polls. The days of a "Lexicon of Love" or a "Welcome to the Pleasuredome" or a "Different Class" gaining both sales and kudos seem a thing of the past. The music press divides between a love of UK indie bands such as the Horrors, Wild Beasts and Metronomy, on the one hand, and more Jools Holland type music on the other. As ever, I won't have heard all the good stuff's that out there, but listening to a few of the favourites in the various polls released to date, I'm not expecting to find a Caribou or a Warpaint; though I've finally got round to ordering Kurt Vile and White Hills sound interesting. So this is a very partial selection of albums that I've enjoyed, whatever their provenance. And with the year's best moments being singles like "Video Games" by Lana Del Rey, Drake and Rihanna's "Take Care" or even multi-million seller Adele's instant classic "Rolling in the Deep", I'm sure my year's best of would probably contain as many singles as album tracks.

James Blake - James Blake

Probably my favourite record of the year, a dubstep artist that has retained credibility whilst gaining critical acclaim. His debut album showcases strong songwriting and singing (on Feist's "Limit to Your Love") as well as a spirally, ghostly production that owed as much to old 4AD records as the late night dubstep of Burial. I was reminded of the late Arthur Russell's beguiling sub-disco productions as well. A short, beautifully sequenced and inventive album, it made the top 10, but was always going to be too beguiling to truly crossover - though it soundtracked more than a few hip wine bars.

Welcome Reality - Nero

A UK number one, packed with hit singles, and apparently not particularly favoured by critics or dubstep afficiandos alike. I really don't care; I picked it up on a whim, and I've been listening to it with great pleasure ever since. A great anthemic pop dance album, that reminds me of the debut by Utah Saints as much as more hip properties. I first heard Nero with the BBC Philharmonic recording a "Dubstep Symphony", and their signature anthemic breaks, which wouldn't be out of place in a Prodigy show, were in full effect. The number one "Promises" is a great place of retro pop-soul, but the album is full of such highlights, confirming my suspicion that rather than being a recognisable sound in its own right, dubstep is a smorgasbord of dance styles from house, to hip hop, to jungle to old skool funk. As a connoisseur of pre-house electronic dance music, Nero's nods in that direction are particular welcome, reminding me of forgotten classics such as Haywoode's "Roses" (and even covering two, with the Jets' "Crush on You" and a remake of Carmen's "Time to Move.")

Build a Rocket, Boys - Elbow

I was perhaps a rare dissenter in finding Elbow's last prize winning album, "The Seldom Seen Kid", a little on the dull side, albeit well written and recorded. It was more one paced than this band usually are, particularly given their tendency across the 3 previous records for sonic invention - the reissue of debut "Asleep at the Back" reminding me of how they could be thrilling as well as anthemic. I shouldn't have worried, for "Build a Rocket, Boys" was perhaps their most complete album since their debut - including another handful of Elbow classics for their ever growing live audiences, especially the title-quoting "Lippy Kids." Guy Garvey's singing, always emotional, is given an even cleaner canvas this time round, and there's echoes of John Cale at his most emotional. Single "Neat Little Rows" Sounded like a Simple Minds outtake from their Arista period, whilst "Jesus is a Rochdale Girl" continued Garvey's knack of adding a gritty edge to what might otherwise be sentimental material.

Let England Shake - PJ Harvey

Almost universally acclaimed as album of the year, Harvey's latest took a while to grow on me, and still I'm not as convinced as the critics that it stands out from her always fascinating discography. For me, its an album with a number of incredible tracks (most notably the stunning "All and Everyone") around which the other songs act as a welcome setting. The "concept" element of the album reminds me of artists like Robert Wyatt or Fairport Convention, and its very English sense of place and time - picking apart a century of conflict, is obviously ambitious. To me, a good, rather than great record, but with Harvey's own songwriting and singing at a high level of excellence. If I'm at all underwhelmed its probably because it lacks the harder edge of works like "To Bring Me Your Love."

Helplessness Blues - Fleet Foxes

Without the shock of the new that characterised their debut, this second outing could have been a disappointment - but its almost as beautiful, and certainly has a wider musical palate. There's echoes of Brian Wilson at his best to match the pastel shades of the Laurel Canyon sounds of their debut. If anything its an even prettier album, and though the harmonies are still in force, it seems a less lyrical album in some ways; experience replacing innocence. That said, its a genre that they've made their own, and when the template was such a beguiling one, a second imprint from it was a welcome one.

I'm With You - Red Hot Chilli Peppers

I'll always like the Chilli Peppers but albums such as the bloated "Stadium Arcadium" make our relationship a little trying. Now without Frusciante, the new album is as chock full of the kind of nagging pop-rock melodies as they've always excelled at - but with a slight return to the more sinewy funk of pre-Californication days. At the end of the day, its a well crafted album with more than its fair share of memorable tunes, with Anthony Keidis and Flea working together as ever to make a kind of always-adolescent punk-pop-metal-hip-hop that done by anyone else would soon pall. In their hands however, nonsense like "The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie" and Manics-style "Monarchy of Roses", still sound playful and refreshing. Not to everyone's taste of course, but in a year where big rock albums seemed perilously thin on the ground, "I'm With You", with its typically too-late-to-the-party Damian Hirst cover, was a welcome return.

Mofo - Liam Finn

I saw Liam Finn (son of Crowded House's Neil) a couple of years ago in the acoustic tent at a festival and loved his songwriting and his stage presence. This, his second album, expands on the more homespun charm of his debut, and should have got much more attention than it did. Like his father, he can write a good song, and sing it well. There's elements of Elliot Smith or even Bon Iver in his make up, but he's probably even more contrary than either of those and the instrumentation - less sparce than on his debut - is varied and inventive.

Passive Me, Aggressive You - The Naked and the Famous

This New Zealand band's debut is in some ways an old fashioned pop-rock album, aimed squarely at the mainstream (and a young audience) but with enough familiar tropes to ensnare older listeners such as myself. Its curiously avant garde in part - with the atmospherics of the XX or even later Cocteau Twins - though glorious single "Young Blood" could be Katy Perry riffing on MGMT's "Time to Pretend." Its basically an adolescent pop rush of an album, but feels homespun rather than created in the A&R laboratory of a major label.

David Comes to Life - Fucked Up

Here primarily as a soundtrack to my gig of the year, Fucked Up at Islington Mill at the FutureEverything festival, with the whole venue turned into a mosh pit, and one of the most incredible examples of audience/band bonding I've ever seen. This double concept album owes as much musically as American icons like Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen as it does to the hardcore scene - perhaps a welcome reminder of that great fusion that took place in the early 80s with Bob Mould's Husker Du. In a year where guitar bands hardly set the world alight (though I've high hopes for rated albums by White Denim and Iceage)it was a reminder what the format could do.

Psychic Life - Jah Wobble & Julie Campbell

Though I've been a friend of Julie (aka LoneLady) for years, she kept this project under wraps until it was almost finished. Sneaking out at the end of the year, this unexpected collaboration got a bit of press for reuniting PiL alumni Wobble and Keith Levene. The unexpectedness continues into the music, where each track is very different - and though there are some influences, in a year where most music could be easily categorised, it does feel something of a one-off. Lead single "Tightrope" is as sinewy as the title implies, "Feel" would be as big as "Rolling in the Deep" in any sane world (and reminds me, distantly, of much loved 80s popsters the Motels), whilst "Slavetown pt.1" is an unexpected jazz/soul track. Her vocals throughout are superb, and Wobble (and Levene) provide an inventive and crafted backing. Running in at under 40 minutes and beautifully packaged nothing feels left to chance; a late year gem.

So, ten albums that I've listened to a lot, regardless of their credentials. I've managed to make more gigs this year than for quite a while, though mostly older bands. Electralane's reformation led to a stunning gig at the Academy 3, whilst Todd Rundgren's "greatest hits" set was also phenomenal at the Manchester Ritz. I was surprised and touched by Paul Heaton's MIF show - a musical tableau that turned into a "round the campfire" jam, made even more poignant by the stage collapsing before the show! And as stated above, Fucked Up's Islington Mill show was a phenomenon. John Foxx and the Maths at the University was also a surprising highlight.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

In Praise of Lists

Its a list time of year: lists for Santa, lists of Christmas cards, lists of provisions required for the Christmas dinner, best of year CD and film lists. I was asked to do a reading and a workshop in Market Drayton library this week, and since there were going to be both poets and fiction writers present I wanted an exercise or two that could be appropriate for both.

The night before I remembered Jennifer Egan's short story "To Do" which was in one of the Guardian's short story supplements. "Written in 20 minutes" according to the Guardian's preamble, it reads like an intensely potted version of "Mrs. Dalloway."

I've long been a fan of "list" stories - having written stories that are a series of answer phone messages and made entirely out of classified adverts. The list is what we put together when we're planning something, yet in many ways it can be the essence of the thing itself. Its probably even more prevalent in poetry, famously, in this poem by Sylvia Plath. When do we make lists? When we're planning something, or need to catalogue things, or put in some sort of order. There are all kinds of lists, of course, from inventories and catalogues, "to do" lists and "instructions", electronic programme guides, and, at the front of any book of poetry or short stories, a table of contents.

The attendees at the workshop came up with quite a few nice little approaches - one played with the word itself, and wrote a piece called "The Listing Ship", whilst others told of a life through a house clearance or a little boys' Christmas list. The McSweeney's school of writers likes lists - in their endless footnotes, or epistolary pieces like David Eggars' "Letters from Steven, a Dog, to Captains of Industry." In the recent Guardian collection of stories, Helen Simpson takes an existing list - Tube stations leading to "Cockfosters" - to concoct a story of loss, friendship and memory.

And it wouldn't be good to leave creative lists alone, without mentioning list songs - which from REM's brilliant "Its the end of the world and we know it" to Billy Joel's portentous "We Didn't Start a Fire", to the Nails' self explanatory "88 Lines about 44 Women" to my own "Ammunition is a State of Mind" are a staple of the songwriters'toolkit.