Thursday, 17 March 2016

Infinity On High (The Lost Time Accidents)

I’m a sucker for novels which treat genres as a game and run rampant, laughing at the idea of easy classification. This is such a novel, a confident melding of science-fiction, an intergenerational family saga, physics, mystery, satire, history and even a classical form of tragedy. We’re dropped in at the deep end, meeting our narrator Waldemar Tolliver who’s engaged in writing a history of himself and his family in an unusual setting in terms of both space and time. The enigma of just what constitutes lost time accidents begins with Waldemar’s great grandfather and a note he leaves just prior to a fatal car accident. This note is the novel’s MacGuffin, inspiring the members of the family to a kind of century long collective madness and one which sets them up in direct opposition to a physicist known to them by the disparaging nickname of ‘the Patent Clerk’. The novel unfolds their opposition to Einstein’s theories at leisure, being careful for much of its length to leave it to the reader to decide whether it genuinely works in context of the novel’s world or whether it’s a delusion related by an unreliable narrator.

It’s this strange theory which allows the author to get at the issue at the novel’s heart; how we’re the physical and psychological product of our ancestors and the recipients of their hopes, fears and neuroses and what that means for us. The ultimate fate of our narrator indicates that, even if we might physically step outside that, we’re largely stuck with the weight their inheritance bestows upon us, unable to escape our family. Family ends up being destiny, determining our way. It’s something of a downbeat thought but one the novel powerfully realises, particularly with the last few lines which, if you’re paying attention, complete the tragedy and the theme of tragic circularity. It might be trying to make a grand statement that’s been made by other contemporary novelists but it wears that gravity of Trying To Say Something Profound lightly; wrapping it up with a comedy, tragedy and a host of interesting and entertaining characters. The events these characters go through are always unlikely but the fascinating kernel most of them have keeps things grounded – the weird aunts, the cult leader, the Nazi great-uncle and the unwilling L Ron Hubbard of a dad are all believable, convincingly motivated human beings who contrive to struggle fruitlessly in the web of their family’s mania. They’re rarely likeable as we can clearly see their faults (often through Waldemar’s eyes and even his narrative exposes his flaws) but Wray’s exceptional at understanding the way people are broken which makes them interesting and portraying that. Thought-provoking, absurdist, challenging and ladled with great lines understand that the impact of a good punchline derives in part from how the joke is told.

(STANDARD DISCLAIMER – The copy I read was an advance eBook provided gratis by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review).

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

....and it was a gas

New York of the 1970s was one of those scenes; a thriving, vital hotbed of freaks, dropouts and weirdos getting artistic whilst the Big Apple rotted around them. It started roughly with the kinky subversion of Warhol and the Velvet Underground and would end up manifesting itself in a myriad of forms; Patti Smith’s punk poetry, the geek funk of Talking Heads, the rampant sleaze of the New York Dolls and the heads down ramalama racket of The Ramones. Even the musical forms which ended up being culturally dominant (disco and hip hop) began as the songs of the marginal. Blondie’s Parallel Lines is a document of that scene; a record of how it grew, evolved, splintered and eventually how it was refracted in one of the finest and most stylish pop albums of all time.

Very little of the book focuses on the album itself; perhaps only in terms of what Mike Chapman brought to producing the album and how remarkably the album was broken by the fourth single; a song buried halfway through side two. In modern times it’s insane to think that a song which still sounds like it should be an instant pop smash was almost sneaked out apologetically. It’s a wise move on McLeod’s part; he’s correctly divined that whilst Parallel Lines is a magnificent pop album what really makes it interesting is how it messes with what pop should be; you can enjoy Harry’s femme fatale persona as performance act or simply as an iconic pop star; you can enjoy the ridiculously infectious songs or enjoy the subversively provocative lyrics; you can enjoy the album or marvel at the sources it’s drawing on. It’s a melting pot of New York influences; punk, power pop, disco and they’d even stir in hip hop later on. In many ways they were as magpie as Bowie but playing with a 50s trash aesthetic rather than sci-fi and mysticism (they’re minor strands in Blondie’s music). Further parallels with Bowie come in Harry’s awareness of the power of image; the band’s at its strongest when Harry has control of the visual imagery. Harry and Bowie share an instinctive understanding of the importance of image and presentation in pop; something they were ahead of the game in as they broke through in the pre-MTV era. What’s really treasurable is how the book reminds us that it’s an underdog story; how no-one thought Blondie would make it let alone be the most commercially successful band of the scene.

The whole thing’s laced with the interviews from important people in the story; the band members themselves and those around the scene at the time. It doesn’t shy away from less glamorous aspects of the band’s story (the money troubles, the state of the area they lived in, the sex and drugs, Chris Stein’s illness) but it’s all covered compassionately and with proper context.  And that’s the triumph of the book; to put the band and album in context of the scene it came from; in its importance in the band’s history and the little tricks they were pulling beneath Chapman’s immaculate pop sheen. A sharp enjoyable tribute which fills in the details lost in the dazzle when the spotlight hit the glitterball.

(STANDARD DISCLAIMER – The copy I read was an advance eBook provided gratis by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review).

Dance Songs '97

I love Sleater-Kinney; they’re one of the last bands for my generation that you could fall in love with, who could mean the world to you and who would who loved the fans as much as the fans loved them. They always seemed aware of the fan reaction and the political statement of being three women playing fast, often angry music. They seemed to want to be the feminist equivalent both the Sex Pistols and the writers of Sniffin’ Glue.  It’s a beautiful ambition. I love that the album Babovic has chosen for the 33 1/3 series is Dig Me Out; whereas Call the Doctor and All Hands on the Bad One feel more obvious choices Dig Me Out is where the ‘classic’ line-up coalesces and things began to take off for them commercially. It’s a portrait of a band on the cusp of their big artistic and commercial break; almost invariably it’s the most interesting point of any band’s career. Even Coldplay’s.

As with the best books in the series this is barely about the album itself; although the circumstances of recording are discussed as they’re important to the record’s mood Babovic wisely realises that the technicalities aren’t important and often the album itself isn’t either. It’s simply the cultural artefact that triggers everything; the eye of the storm. As with the last 33 1/3 I read (Blondie’s Parallel Lines) this is about putting the album into context; its roots, its reception and the consequences for the band and music in general. I’d perhaps have liked a little more on Riot Grrl (although I appreciate there’s not a great deal of room to discuss it a little more beyond depth beyond Bikini Kill would’ve been nice) but Babovic drills down to just why the movement made little impact outside its heartland of Washington state and the UK but Sleater-Kinney did. It’s perhaps a simple conclusion but it might have been interesting to see it linked to Nirvana and Cobain’s inability to marry his purist ethic to grand scale success.   Not comparing female rock stars to male stars is very much the point but equally the comparison could simply be made band against band. Riot Grrl wasn’t equipped to handle mass success but Sleater-Kinney’s willingness to meet mainstream press and the music business whilst maintaining their principles means they were. You can’t spread a message, no matter how worthy, with an insular attitude. My favourite part of the book remained the details of the interactions of fans and band; the late 1990s and early 2000s feel like the last hurrah of fanzine culture and it’s fantastic to see it detailed here. Hey Soundguy sounds like the DIY punk zines of the late 1970s; a love of music (not necessarily technique) combined with a willingness to expose the workings of the system.  It’s about artists genuinely interested in having a conversation with their audience rather than preaching at them; that’s my favourite kind of band and a reminder of just why I love what they mean as much as any individual song or album.

If there’s a minor fault it’s perhaps that Babovic lapses into dry academic tone occasionally but it’s not at the expense of clearly dealing with the issues surrounding the band; it’s clearly as much about using the language of rock criticism to communicate as the band were using musical language to get their point across. That very much feels like the right way to write a book about the band; it covers what makes the band important in a relatively small wordcount.

And now I’m off to play Dig Me Out loud and take myself back most of two decades. Driving you back to the album is always the best sign of a good book.

(STANDARD DISCLAIMER – The copy I read was an advance eBook provided gratis by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review).

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Volcano Day!

Well, book release day anyway.

Along with the three other excellent titles in the series Rose is now available as an ebook from the Obverse website, along with the other three launch titles. I'd recommend waiting for the very sexy print editions but if you want to save a few pennies/are impatient/don't want to fork out for postage run, don't walk, Obverse's way and throw your pounds and pennies at them. Throw them enough and they'll do a funny little dance too.

Plus! Details released of the first two books in the monthly schedule: Simon Bucher-Jones's study of Image of the Fendahl and Jonathan Dennis's take on Ghost Light.  The summaries for both of these should have you slavering in antici...

...pation and wanting to throw more moolah Obverse's way.

Don't let me keep you; please go and make some authors, the editor and the publisher happy little elves.  Thataway!