July 2017 reading round-up

Time is precious

July was a quieter month than June was or than August promises to be. Which meant I finally got to spend a few lazy days reading for hours on end, which I often miss out on in the summer. I think our next free weekend is in September, and no doubt that will get booked up soon!

One thing we did do in July was go to see Raghu Dixit live. Tim and I were complete newbies but a friend had persuaded us to join her and I’m so glad she did. He and his band are hugely talented and super upbeat. It was a really good time, and an interesting experience being at a gig where I didn’t understand the lyrics to any of the songs (well, except one line in one song that was in English). But we did still have a stab at singing along when Dixit encouraged us to.

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Sunday Salon: Long weekend of culture

The Sunday SalonTim and I have just got back from four days in London. We saw lots of art, mostly photography, hence the new purchases below. I highly recommend the Malick Sidibé exhibition at Somerset House. And I have loved Philippe Halsman’s work ever since being prompted to seek him out after reading a novelisation of his life, called The Jump Artist, five years ago.

But the eagle-eyed will spot that not all the below books are photography-related. We also bought the script of Lazarus, the musical written by David Bowie and Enda Walsh in 2015. The main reason for our trip to London was that my Christmas present to Tim was tickets to the production of Lazarus in London. It’s the Broadway transfer, so we got to see its original star Michael C Hall, AKA TV’s Dexter. That was pretty exciting.

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But I want to look like this

never goodnightNever Goodnight
by Coco Moodysson

This graphic novel is set in 1982 and tells the story of three young girls who start a punk band. If that sounds oddly familiar, it may be because Coco Moodysson’s husband, Lukas Moodysson, adapted it into his 2013 film We Are the Best! (It’s an excellent film, I highly recommend it.) Having seen the film first, I was initially confused by some of the differences I found in the book but I’m trying not to compare the two.

12-year-old Coco lives with her divorced mother and her 17-year-old sister Magda. Their mum’s a bit of a party animal and gives the girls a lot of freedom. Coco’s best friend since third grade is Klara. Klara’s big sister Matilda (her age is never given but it’s implied she’s very close in age) often hangs out with them, and the three of them have decided to start a punk band. None of them can play an instrument but it’s punk, so that doesn’t matter.

The story is about female friendship first and foremost, touching on a few coming-of-age moments such as trying alcohol and starting to see parents as human beings. These girls have turned to punk because they are outsiders by nature, and they’re proud of it. They’re scathing of mainstream music and they talk about politics and environmental issues. The day they first heard the Clash they all cut their hair into spikes and dyed it black. But they’re also a little socially awkward, reliant on each other because they can’t really talk to anyone else.

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Musical interlude: the White Stripes

“The hardest button to button” is not just a great song that reminds me of university and the friends I made there, it’s also a great video by one of the masters of music-video directing: Michel Gondry. I’m really pleased he’s come back to music videos this year (for Metronomy’s “Love letters”) after a few years’ hiatus. His creative genius works so well in this format.

But it’s also a really good song.

Film review: Begin Again

On Friday night, Tim and I wanted to see something light at the cinema, which for us usually means superhero action, but we decided to brave the description “rom com musical” and try Begin Again. We weren’t entirely out of our minds – writer director John Carney was behind one of our favourite films, Once, which we have watched together almost as many times as Scott Pilgrim. Almost.

It was a good decision. Begin Again is a beautiful film that charmed our socks off. “Rom com” it isn’t; I’d venture “indie musical” as an alternative description. If you’ve seen Once then you know just what to expect – in fact, the films are very similar, but this time Carney clearly had more money, though I’m willing to bet it was still small potatoes on the sliding scale of film budgets.

The story follows two people: Greta (Keira Knightley), a songwriter who moved to New York City with her musician boyfriend only to find herself single when he hit the big time; and Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a New York record producer who hasn’t produced a record in years and is estranged from his wife and daughter thanks to a drinking problem. They meet at an open mike night and decide to make a record together.

If you’re familiar with Once you’ll immediately see the similarity. There’s a great moment in this film when the characters discuss making an album in each of the world’s great cities and I immediately wondered if that is actually Carney’s plan (apparently it is). After all, Once is about making an album on a shoestring in Dublin. I think Begin Again acknowledges this similarity with a few overt references to Once, not least the scenes of James Corden busking.

Begin Again is a film about people who love music. Knightley’s voice isn’t the strongest but that wasn’t a problem for me, because it wasn’t about trying to sell her as a singing star. The key is people listening to music, creating music, really enjoying music. The human drama is relatively simple: will Dan reconnect with his daughter? will Greta be okay on her own (or rather single, as she has a good friend she lives with)? The film asks questions about record companies and music production (it is of course unashamedly on the side of the indie musician). But simplicity is the key. If you love music, New York, Keira Knightley (not so much for me, usually) and/or Mark Ruffalo (oh, yes) then I heartily recommend you check this film out.

Death and Treason, Rhyme and Reason

Bristol Old Vic Studio, 7 May
Twisted Theatre

Death and Treason, Rhyme and Reason
(Twisted Theatre/Bristol Old Vic)

You can tell when you walk into the Studio Theatre, with toys and cider bottles strewn between the instruments on their stands, long-stemmed roses and little plastic figures arranged on the tables, that this is going to be an unusual night’s entertainment. It’s a musical cabaret, with some acting and storytelling mixed in. It’s different, and I liked that about it.

The theme is nursery rhymes – the dark side. Twisted Theatre have investigated the historical origins of those familiar childhood songs and from that research, written original songs (and a couple of poems set to music) that illuminate those stories with a sense of humour and pathos. I must say from the outset that the music that forms the basis of this show is amazing. Lead singer and compère Nuala Honan’s voice is incredible. In the first song there is a section where she is wailing, in the character of a mother whose baby has died, and I felt chills down my spine. She’s also funny. I liked her eye rolling imitation of a decapitated head. Trust me, it’s better than it sounds.

It’s certainly not all about the laughs. They allow the sadness of the stories to come through as well. The end of Jill’s monologue to Jack (styled as a series of text messages) is heartbreaking. And their retelling of “Pop goes the weasel” as a tale of poverty is moving both lyrically and musically.

Twisted Theatre
(Twisted Theatre/Bristol Old Vic)

The troupe’s musical style reminded me of Hugh Laurie and the Copper Bottom Band, which is the highest praise I can give, but I don’t just mean that they’re good. The combination of instruments (cello, viola, violin, drums and occasional glockenspiel) and the blues style of singing had the definite feeling of a New Orleans jazz club, though the stories being told are thoroughly European. Though Honan very much led the performance, all the musicians are great singers as well as being excellent at their own instruments. There’s a brilliant section when the four women descend on the one man on stage, drummer Robert Burgess, ousting him from his seat, and the women proceed to drum altogether, with cellist Jessica Macdonald doing a fine job of leading the rhythm.

This is not a slick, neat show. In fact, it’s a little…rough. I got the impression that the cast know they tend to the chaotic and decided to make a virtue of that, and their plan worked better in some places than others. I loved the meat cleaver chopping celery (I mean, it was slightly scary, in a frantic crazed way, but it was also funny and impressively rhythmical) but the pantomime of the electric leads getting tangled every time violinist Elizabeth Westcott and violist Emma Hooper moved around the stage got a little bit tiring. It’s good to see that the cast are having fun and that they grasp that what they are doing has its silly side, but a tiny bit more polish might not hurt.

They will certainly have plenty of time to add that polish before the end of their run as this show is touring for the rest of the year. Do check www.twistedtheatre.com for details of dates and venues. To get a flavour you can listen to their song “Baby plug hole” on Soundcloud. I quite fancy a second helping myself.

Disclaimer: Tickets were kindly supplied to me by the theatre in return for an honest review.

Musical interlude: McAlmont & Butler

We spent last weekend with friends and one of our recurring conversations was favourite songs. I am terrible at favourite lists and tend to swap and change, but there’s a small number of songs that will always stand out for me – “Baba O’Reilly” by The Who, “Opus 40” by Mercury Rev and “Yes” by McAlmont & Butler.

What are your favourite songs? Or do you hate that question and wish everyone would stop demanding lists?!

Anyway, enjoy the song.

Listening to music and seeing faces in its fire

31 Songs

31 Songs
by Nick Hornby

I love Nick Hornby. And this collection of his essays about music might be Hornby at his best. Because when it comes to music, Hornby is a true fan, but not the kind of fan who knows it all and lectures on the roots of all music; he’s a fan in that he loves what he loves with great enthusiasm, and his enthusiasm is infectious.

As the title suggests, these essays centre around a list of 31 songs. Not necessarily Hornby’s favourite 31 songs, though they are for the most part among his favourites. Instead he has chosen songs that give him something to write about. So his selection of “Smoke” by Ben Folds Five gives us an essay about pop lyrics and whether it matters that most pop lyrics aren’t the stuff of great poetry (a subject of great interest to me; in fact I wrote my dissertation on it). I was happy to find, as a fan of Ben Folds, that Hornby’s decision on this matter doesn’t affect his belief that “Smoke” is “lyrically perfect”, and he adds a fascinating postscript:

“It’s possible that this sort of craft goes unnoticed because ‘Smoke’ is just a song, in the way that ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Something’ weren’t just songs. The young men who wrote them were also, unwittingly or not, in the process of changing the world…Their songs have therefore become imbued with all sorts of magic that doesn’t properly belong to them, and we can’t see the songs as songs anymore.”

I found some essays better than others, just as some are more personal than others. There’s a very touching essay centred around “Puff the Magic Dragon” because Hornby’s autistic son responds positively to that song, which is a huge deal when you have a child so severely autistic that he only has three or four words at the age of ten.

Hornby does sometimes contradict himself. For instance, he accuses others of being unnecessarily bleak about the state of pop music today and then makes similar dismissive statements himself. His opening essay says that this is not about songs that are connected with a certain memory, and he’s actually pretty harsh about that as a reason for picking out a song, and yet at least two of the essays are exactly that. I don’t agree with all Hornby’s statements (it’s possibly a product of the time of his writing, but I don’t think the age of the Internet has narrowed musical styles, I think it has widened and democratised them wonderfully), and I don’t always share his taste, but then that’s not the point anyway.

“This book isn’t predicated on you and me sharing the ability to hear the same things; in other words, it isn’t music criticism. All I’m hoping here is that you have equivalents, that you spend a lot of time listening to music and seeing faces in its fire.”

As someone who does indeed listen to a lot of music and loves that moment of being transported by a good song, I really really enjoyed this book. I liked that it demands to be read while listening to music, ideally pop music, which is something I tend not to do, to avoid distraction. Even though Hornby is older than me and we don’t entirely share our music taste, I felt compelled to make a playlist from this book, not of the 31 songs themselves and not of every song mentioned at all (that would be a long playlist) but instead of every song he enthuses about. I used Spotify, so not all the songs were available, but I’m enjoying the results. If anyone’s interested in listening, the playlist is here. But even if you don’t like the look of the song selection (and there is a lot of Rod Stewart on there, I’ll grant you) I still highly recommend this book to any pop/rock music lover.

“‘Caravan’ isn’t a song about life or death, as far as I can tell: it’s a song about merry gypsies and campfires and turning up your radio and stuff. But in its long, vamped passage right before the climax, when the sax weaves gently in and out of the cute, witty, neo-chamber strings, while the piano sprinkles bluesy high notes over the top, Morrison’s band seems to isolate a moment somewhere between life and its aftermath, a big, baroque entrance hall of a place where you can stop and think about everything that has gone before.”

Published 2003 by Penguin. Published in the US as Songbook.

Source: I bought this secondhand.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.