Dark, grimy, snide, and sleazy, Mick Herron’s often hilarious portrait of the down-at-heel black sheep of MI6 is easily the best take on spy fiction this century. If you come across any reviewer who is lazy enough to trot out the usual “reminiscent of Le Carre” rubbish make sure you wallop them across the back of the head with the Sunday edition of the New York Times.
I first picked up on the brilliance of Roxy Music on a school trip to France in 1989. Once I heard Virginia Plain, Pyjamarama, and Street Life I was hooked. Their first five records are very close to my heart and it’s only recently that I paid attention to their final three, Manifesto, Flesh and Blood, and Avalon. Avalon gets the plaudits but Manifesto is far more rewarding. Here’s a great live performance of Still Falls the Rain, the strongest song on the album.
Rodney Crowell is the lower profile contemporary of Steve Earle and Guy Clark. While Clark left us last year, and Earle hasn’t come near the heights of his astounding 90’s output Crowell has left it to the second half of his career to make his best music. “It Ain’t Over Yet” a track from his upcoming LP Close Ties is a case in point.
Seeing Jello Biafra live in 2011 was a dream come true. He is bona fide punk rock legend and there is absolutely nobody like him. His performance on the night was all that I had hoped it would be. Anyway check out his youtube series “What Would Jello Do” where he deals with everything from selfie culture, and Trump to the death of his father and sister.
It’s hard for me to match all the year-end “best of” lists as I listen to very little new music…It’s not that I don’t listen to new music, I do, but I tend to give new arrivals the time they deserve as opposed to flitting through Spotify play lists… Streaming isn’t my thing, and I find that it’s a poor medium for listening to music critically with all the distraction and interruption. Also, if I like a band and what they’ve produced, well I think they deserve to get paid for it, and most importantly I like to own an artefact. Great art deserves a tangible presence in my life.
Similar to other years, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to my favourite Americana bands like Son Volt, and The Jayhawks, as well as my go-to punk bands – The Misfits, The Ramones, and Rancid along with old staples such as the Beatles, Bowie, Danzig and Zeppelin.
Live highlights included seeing former Go Between Robert Forster in Whelan’s – what a very pleasant man he is, as well as Suede in the Big Top in Galway, Teenage Fanclub in the Academy, Slayer in The Olympia, Sleaford Mods in Vicar Street and Elvis Costello in Iveagh Gardens. Anyway, here’s the new music that made an impression on me this year in no particular order.
David Bowie – Blackstar
According to a friend who works in Tower Records on Dawson Street, Blackstar is their biggest seller on vinyl this year. I didn’t get around to listening to it until August as I wanted to avoid all the hype and hoopla after the great man left us in January. I reckon Bowie’s steady run of excellence in the 70s is matched only by Neil Young. Both artists fell off a cliff in the eighties with Young returning to form much earlier than Bowie when he released Freedom in 1989. I’m unfashionably fond of the first Tin Machine album (1989) and quite enjoy Black Tie/ White Noise (1993) and Outside (1995). Blackstar is as good as the hype says it is and is probably Bowie’s best work since Station to Station (1976) – the album it resembles more than any other in structure and style. The electro-jazz vibe throughout brings Scott Walker’s The Electrician to mind and the title track is stunning and up there with his finest work. The man bowed out in the way that only he could.
Gojira – Magma
This is undoubtedly the most interesting metal album I’ve heard in years. In fact I thought I was beyond being able to like this kind of record. Gojira hail from Bayonne in France. They are regarded as being a very technical band with thrash and death metal influences. To be honest what they’ve cooked up on Magma is far too good to sit easily in conventional classifications. I’ve always struggled with the approach of certain metal bands to vocal delivery, and I abhor the guttural death metal toilet bowel delivery style that bands like Lamb of God have used. Gojira frontman Joe Du Plantier’s vocals are a mix of clean and growl that I can live with. When I listen to Magma I hear Voivod; I hear their compatriots Air; I hear Spiritualised; I even hear a bit of Skip Spence. The arrangements are tight, technical and very atmospheric. Metal mightn’t be your thing and it’s a genre that seems to be viewed through the prism of the work of a number of the heavyweights from the late 1970s and 1980s. Gojira might be one of the few modern metal bands that have managed to build something outside of that figurative sarcophagus.
Suede –Night Thoughts
I picked up a ticket to see Suede play the Big Top at the Galway Arts Festival as I’d never seen them live and love their first three albums. Bowie’s influence runs deep through Suede and if their first album riffs more than a little bit off Hunky Dory well who’s complaining. It’s their second album Dog Man Star (1994) which is their deepest, most enduring and rewarding record and it’s no lie that the rest of their output has lived in its shadow. This year’s Night Thoughts is their first album to stand on its own two feet without suffering from an inferiority complex. It’s a proper long player without any obvious singles and that’s fine by me. Highlights include No Tomorrow and Like Kids. The album’s release was accompanied by a feature film which they played during the first half of their shows earlier this year before launching into the hits. Night Thoughts was probably the big surprise of the year for me.
Teenage Fanclub – Here
For a band that have produced so many fantastic songs – and they’ve produced heaps – it’s amusing how un-rock ‘n’ roll Teenage Fanclub actually are. How can a band who have produced superb rock songs like The Concept and Alcoholiday just look and behave like a bunch of your mates from the pub who appear to be ageing as you are and have the same problems? The band will always be remembered for Grand Prix (1995) and Songs from Northern Britain (1997) – their best records by far – but they’ve produced plenty of strong material in the meantime. This year’s Here blends the mellow low-fi approach of Man Made and Shadows with the edgier pop songs from Songs from Northern Britain. Songs such as the magnificent I’m in Love, Thin Air, Hold On, The Darkest Part of the Night, and With You continue with and develop the darker lyrical themes that began to appear on Man Made and Shadows but they don’t suffer for it and sit well alongside the band’s very strong back catalogue in a live setting.
Calexico – Edge of the Sun
Ok, Edge of the Sun was released in 2015 but I wasn’t paying attention and didn’t hear it until half way through this year. I was impressed – so impressed actually that I went on a binge and bought, borrowed or stole any of their stuff that I hadn’t already heard. I enjoyed Hot Rail (2000) and Feast of Wire (2003) back in the day but as good as those records are they’re not as enduring as the album that was their template, 1998’s The Black Light. A sprawling mess of brilliance that mixes mariachi, Americana, and jazz, it’s possibly the most atmospheric album for driving through the countryside of any country in any climate at dusk. They adopted a more conventional and focused approach to their song writing with 2008’s Carried to Dust. Edge of the Sun is possibly Joey Burn’s best and most cohesive set of conventional songs yet, but they are heavily embellished with the return of their earlier Latin and mariachi influences and it works a treat.
Happy Christmas and see you in 2017.
“In 1991 as his band partied their socks off with Nirvana in the penthouse suite of the Fairmont Hotel, Norman Blake fired a television over the balcony, destroying the Lamborghini below and launching Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque into the stratosphere like a katyusha rocket….The band finished the 90s with album sales in excess of 20 million units before finally breaking up in 2001 to tend to their broken marriages and heroin habits.”
Absolute nonsense of course…Anyone who loves Teenage Fanclub knows that the above scenario may have happened in a parallel universe, but even there it’s doubtful. If it had happened there’s no hope that I would have seen them for the tenth time when they played a wonderful show in Dublin’s Academy on December 2nd. I first saw them when they played Midnight at the Olympia on June 20th 1997. I’d never heard their music before but that night a mate – who’d introduced me to both the Go Betweens and Husker Du – sprung a surprise by bringing me along. He didn’t think there was much risk that I wouldn’t like them.
We watched from upstairs and while I wasn’t doing cartwheels in appreciation – I rarely do – I was impressed. My main memory was the audience reaction at the end of “Don’t Look Back.” It was like a scene from the Muppet Show when everybody stands nodding their heads at the end in appreciation of how good the song actually is.
They’ve played that song every time I’ve seen them and if there’s a track with a better guitar solo at the start, well I haven’t heard it yet – though Johnny Hickman’s guitar break at the beginning of Cracker’s “River Euphrates” comes close.
Yes it would be magnificent if they got their dues and sold millions, if they weren’t so bashful and apologetic before introducing yet another brilliant song…Heck I would also love if Francis MacDonald murdered the skins like Joey Castillo or Chuck Biscuits but that’s never going to happen. There have been numerous pieces written over the years bemoaning their sleepy existence and how they could do with a good old kick up the arse from a thick culchie farmer, but ambition only gets you so far. Would more ambition have improved the stellar set list they worked through the other night?
Most bands are lucky to come up with a handful of genuinely outstanding songs but Teenage Fanclub have produced bucket loads and though the majority come from their brilliant nineties output the albums they’ve produced since then have more than added to their cannon. “I’m in Love” the superb Norman Blake-penned opener on their latest, Here, is very uplifting and proved to be even better live – probably the highlight of the show for me. In all they played for an hour and forty five minutes, which is long for them, but a show without close to ten tracks from Grand Prix and Songs from Northern Britain just wouldn’t feel complete.
At the opening bars of “Ain’t that Enough” my brother mumbled that it was the track he’d been waiting to hear all night. Whatever about the harmonies on their other songs there’s something incredibly beautiful about how the voices of Gerry Love and Norman Blake work on that track. On the rare occasion that I’ve needed a bit of picking up as I’ve gone through my life “Ain’t that Enough” along with the rest from Songs from Northern Britain usually does the trick.
A big surprise on the night was their cover of the late Grant McLennan’s Easy Come, Easy Go. Gerry Love handled the vocals. I remember listening to that song on my old red walkman as I passed through Llandudno Junction on the way to Euston in August 1993. It has always been one of my faves of his. Just to think that if they hadn’t played it I would never have heard it performed live. What a way to remember one of the greats.
Going to see them is like going to see your mates from down the road. They come around on average once every five to six years, and while it would be nice to see more of them, maybe it isn’t good to sample the genuinely good things in life too often.
Sound Opinions replayed a 2006 interview with music producer Jon Brion last week. I’m a big fan of the Aimee Mann albums he produced, and I reckon “I’m with Stupid” is her best work. The interview is possibly the best feature I’ve heard on Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis’s fantastic podcast, with the highlight being the looped track “I was Happy with You.” What a talent….AND he mentioned that both “For Your Pleasure” and “Siren” , the Chris Thomas produced Roxy Music albums, were their finest recordings. Well there was never any doubt about “For Your Pleasure” but I’ve always enjoyed the overlooked “Siren” the most and it was nice to here some form of validation for that piece of work from Brion.
Check the show out when you get a chance here.