Counterpart — Review

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A still from the preposterous 1974 cold war movie, Who?

~spoilers~

One of the most haunting films I ever saw was Who?, which was a Cold War movie about a scientist who was injured in a car accident and abducted by the East Germans. Later, he is returned to the West, but has undergone such extensive surgery that the Americans don’t believe he is their abducted scientist. It’s not just that he’s had plastic surgery: his whole head is encased in a metal mask. It was a somewhat over the top and ridiculous way to tell a story about identity, but it stuck with me, even though I haven’t seen it since the 70s.

Kim Philby’s first wife, Litzi Friedman, was a communist agent, operating in Vienna when he met and fell for her. That Philby, one of the notorious Cambridge spies, was married to a known communist from 1934 till their divorce in 1946, did not seem to affect the decision to put  him in charge of a section of Soviet Counterintelligence and later head of the SIS Turkish station and then chief British Intelligence representative in Washington.

I say all this as a preamble to my review of Counterpart, which is the best TV show on an obscure network you’re ever likely to find. Fittingly, given the show’s themes, you’ll only be able to access it in the UK from the 28th of this month, via the Starzplay Network, which in turn you’ll only be able to access through Amazon Prime Video. It’ll be an additional subscription on top of your Amazon subscription. Wheels within wheels, worlds within worlds.

*Or, you could get it off the back of a truck.

That there is a prominent intelligence operative who is compromised by his wife, who is an infiltrator from the “other side”, should not be surprising in an espionage show, which is what Counterpart is.

It’s set in Berlin, whereto an international cast of characters have descended because Berlin is the hub, the interface between rival factions, as it was during the Cold War. As in all espionage texts, you find yourself in a wilderness of mirrors, unsure who is who, who can be trusted, or whether anyone’s motivations are really pure.

J K Simmons plays an office drone, who has been engaged for nigh on 30 years in mundane drudge work for an organisation he little understands. He carries sealed papers into a locked room and reads out codes to someone on the other side of the glass. He ticks boxes. He applies for promotions, doesn’t get them, then goes home, shoulders slumped, his breathing out of rhythm. He meets a friend by the river and plays Go, the Chinese strategy game in which you try to box-in your rival’s tiles with your own. He visits his wife, who is in a coma, in hospital, and reads poetry to her.

On the other side of the glass, it turns out, is not another country in the East/West Berlin sense, but another world. This other world was created just a few decades ago, a mirror of the original, and until that point identical. But then, once it was created, slight changes began to appear, events unfolded differently, and 30 years later it’s a very different place indeed.

How would powerful people react if there was a duplicate of this world at the other end of a tunnel? Think about the greed and venality that they already exhibit. What if you knew that there was a recently discovered oilfield you could exploit? Or a cure for a disease that had no cure in your reality? What if you could somehow weaken or destroy the other side so you could just step through and take what you wanted?

To prevent and control this kind of thing, strict rules are put in place. To cross over, you have to be issued with a visa; you’re photographed against a backdrop on the way in and on the way back, as a way of checking that you are the same person. You enter a code and wait for the green light.

Office drone Howard Silk is called into the office, not for a promotion, but because someone has come over from the other side and will only speak to him: it’s the other Howard, who believes he can only trust himself.

Counterpart_EW_Image[1].JPGThis Howard is different. He moves, breathes, and speaks differently. He’s an experienced operative, knows how and who to kill, and he knows what’s going on in a way that our Howard never has. An assassin has infiltrated this side of the tunnel, and is targeting individuals on a kill list. Operative Howard needs more time to track the assassin down, so suggests that he and Drone Howard swap places.

Such is the set up, but there is so much more. The season-long story arc is gripping and tense, as the various plots unfold, leading to an episode 9 climax that brings these worlds to the brink. What happened to make the worlds diverge? Why does one side harbour resentment and suspicion against the other? There are also individual episodes and moments along the way that are devastating. One of the key questions concerns the two Howards: why are they so different? What happened along the way that meant one became a stone cold killer and the other lived anonymously in the shadows? And if they swap lives, do they become each other? Unmissable.

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Ryan Culwell – The Last American

6EQ UJ5

is anybody out there alive

can you hear me

can you hear me

out on the highway

on the dark side of the moon

I got my wheels spinnin’

can you hear me

bang real loud and get down low

make a little love on the radio

dial it in boys and let it ride

send a little call out to heaven tonight

can you hear me

can you hear me?

I’ve waited a bit to review this in hopes of gaining some perspective, but after three months the lead track still haunts my mind. It keeps unpacking itself, more like a movie than a song, and the album is something like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, a series of short films about broken and disappointed people. Culwell gives voice to a series of characters, in varying states of hurt, defiance and confusion in a world which is both timeless and timely. A documentary about both the America that is lost and the America that is.

The opening line of “Can You Hear Me” refers to the “wow” signal picked up by a radio telescope in 1977, a moment of clarity in the background noise of the universe, which came from the direction of Sagittarius. That’s how the song begins. It sounds like electronic noise, a falling note. Then you pick up what sounds like a Springsteen song you’ve never heard. “Bang real loud and get down low / Make a little love on the radio”. This places the song immediately in my wheelhouse, making me remember the many nights I spent shifting the dial of my AM radio under the bedclothes, listening to the drifting signals refracting off the ionosphere, the KGB signal jamming, Radio Moscow, Radio Luxembourg, Radio Caroline and the World Service.

Culwell writes a scene from an unfilmed 70s sequel to American Graffiti. Our narrator is on the road, speaking in CB Radio jargon, being followed by a motorcycle cop, but also thinking about the murder of Eric Garner, who kept saying “I can’t breathe” while being choked to death by cops:

“When Eric Garner was murdered I started pacing around the house repeating, ‘I can’t breathe,’ but the words had nowhere to land so I just kept repeating them for weeks. My wife probably thought I was losing my mind,” Culwell tells Rolling Stone. “It’s not the kind of song you write in a day. My only regret is that I run out of air after singing ‘I can’t breathe’ 10 times while Eric Garner found the strength to say it 11 times. You can’t love your neighbor as yourself if you’re not even listening to him.”

Like a drifting radio signal, the song shifts from being a Springsteen banger to a protest song, and drifts back again, finally fading away with the message, “I’m at threes and eights”, which (I believe) is CB code for best wishes, or indicating that a channel will now be clear.

So goes the album, a camera eye that dips into people’s lives and out again, sometimes coming through clear, sometimes drifting off into the static, or the “old, weird America” of the basement tapes. Culwell’s voice can sound like he’s a mad old bluesman or hillbilly screaming from the bottom of a well (on “Dig a Hole”, for example) or sitting at a piano in a church, or strumming on his back porch. In “Tie My Pillow to a Tree”, when he sings, “Make some room for me”, his voice breaks with polite uncertainty.

I smell like rosin

I taste like leaves

would you scoot on over

make some room for me

books I have read

lovers I have known

when they forget me

oh where will I go

I set sail on seven oceans

there ain’t no country with my name

I wrapped myself in pleasure

and I kissed myself with pain

And if you have this record on in the background, you hear some really pretty songs, that kind of folky, polite Americana. And then you check what song it is you’re listening to, and you realise, for example, that it’s called “Dog’s Ass”.

The title track comes over as an interview with a political pollster, as the subject proclaims, “I am the last American / On this earth / I’d like to quit this talkin’ / Get back to work”.

guess I’ll vote the ticket

like i always do

if I can figure out

who to stick it to

you can keep asking your questions

if you think it’s going to help

do I believe in God

mr you go straight to hell

I got my old man’s heart

and a broke down Chevrolet

The Last American is a powerful, uncomfortable record, not the kind of thing you can have on as background, but the kind of music that compels you to listen, to pay attention to the words. I can’t think of the last time I was driven to look up the lyrics of an album like this. I’d put it on the level of Darkness on the Edge of Town. It’s an immense achievement.

Sinatra’s career crisis

911218946-612x612Since watching a DVD (a gift from my daughter) with three of Sinatra’s late-60s TV specials on it, I’ve been pondering the crisis that clearly took hold of him when he hit the age of 50.

I can look at this period now with the personal experience of having hit 55 last year, which was the age at which Sinatra announced his (first) “retirement” in 1971. Much as I’d like to retire myself, this was in hindsight an astonishingly young age for an entertainer to announce the end.

It was the TV special featuring easy listening vocal group The 5th Dimension, and Sinatra (jokingly) adopting their Liberace-style costume that got me thinking. This was his clear attempt (in 1968) to get down with the kids and perform music that was somehow more contemporary and relevant than his usual fare. He had absolutely no need to do this, of course, but he was acting out a very public mid-life crisis (his short marriage to Mia Farrow, 30 years younger than him, had just ended) that was culminating, before our very eyes in him perching awkwardly on a stool in a Nehru jacket and beads.

The following year, 1969, his final TV special was just him and a swing orchestra, doing the old stuff, and reminiscing (hilariously) about his Hollywood career, which he was also giving up on.

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Beads, Frank?

For me, the crisis that led to his premature retirement started towards the end of his Capitol contract and the beginning of the Reprise years, which I’ve written about before. In 1961/2, his Capitol contract overlapped with Reprise, so that he was recording albums simultaneously for two labels, phoning in performances to fulfil his obligations to one whilst also trying to embark on something new with the other. The cognitive dissonance must have been extreme.

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That late-60s Nehru look in full

And what was Reprise for, really? A little bigger piece of the pie? Sure, and why not? Which is why so much of the Reprise material consists of re-recordings of his classics from Columbia and Capitol in order to tap the lucrative Greatest Hits market. But give or take the three albums he recorded with Count Basie (including the live one), not much of what he recorded for Reprise was particularly good. And some of it was desperate.

He knew that popular music was changing and he wanted to matter, but at the same time, he hated rock music. He was casting around for new songwriters, but he didn’t know this new material in the way he knew that Great American Songbook. I always thought it was a dead giveaway when he performed George Harrison’s “Something” on one occasion, but credited it to Lennon and McCartney. Anyway, this stuff is painful to listen to. He drags on the beat, his timing is off, he doesn’t swing.

There are four albums that lead up to the retirement.

SinatraCyclesCycles comes first, in Christmas 1968. He’s just turned 53. He’s pictured on the album cover sitting on a suitcase and holding the bridge of his nose, as if to say, either, “What have I done?” or “This stuff stinks” – or both! This is an album that features “contemporary” songs from the likes of Joni Mitchell (!), Jimmy Webb, and John Hartford. It was as close as he came to recording a 60s country pop record. It wasn’t a disaster: #2 in the Easy Listening chart, #18 in the Billboard 200 chart.

Then, just three months later, comes his late career motherlode, My Way, which is another pop album, with its title track a version of a French-style chanson, “Comme d’Habitude”, rewritten/reimagined by Paul Anka. Sinatra reportedly didn’t like “My Way” which thus became a millstone around his neck. I personally have always hated the fact that this is the one “everyone” knows. Other tracks on the record include more Jimmy Webb, a song by Ray Charles, a Stevie Wonder number, “Mrs Robinson” and “Yesterday”. Another decent chart performance, #11 in the US and #2 in the UK, but I strongly suspect that Sinatra absolutely loathed this material.

Just five months later, still in 1969, he released A Man Alone, which consisted of songs (or poems?) by Rod McKuen (sort of set to music). Sinatra is still only 53, but this now seems like a man who has given up on life. To quote the Wikipedia: “Despite his popular appeal, McKuen’s work was never taken seriously by critics or academics.” This album hit #30 in the US and #18 in the UK. My mum had a copy. It was terrible.

Finally, Sinatra takes a good long break, sits down and has a Big Think, and a wholeWatertown(1970album) seven months later, he releases an experimental concept album called Watertown. The songs were written by Bob Gaudio and Jake Holmes and told the story of a broken man from the titular town. It reached #101 in the Billboard charts, but inexplicably hit #14 in the UK. I don’t remember my mum having it.

(Christ knows what was happening in the UK in 1970. Ted Heath. Jeremy Thorpe. For further context, I’ve previously noted that Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, also released in 1970, didn’t chart in the UK at all.)

Anyway, Watertown is a flop, Sinatra is done, and the next thing you know, he’s announcing his retirement. Which seems now to be a bit of a flounce, but the voice was still strong in a way that it wouldn’t be later. I think he felt he’d run out of material to record, and couldn’t very well re-record all the good stuff for a 3rd or 4th time. But we know now, in a way people didn’t back then, that he could have given up recording and stuck to the live work. The audience would have continued to be there.

Sinatra’s mid-life crisis lasted at least 5 years, but that core period, 1968-1970, was the hardest for him, I think. My own mid-life crisis seems trivial in comparison. But you want to scream at him, Slow down, Frank! No need for three or even two albums a year. Just wait, the pendulum will swing back your way.

Fellow New Jersey musician Bruce Springsteen last released a studio album four years ago.

Alternate Routes by Tim Powers and Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers – two reviews

alternate-routes-9781481483407_hrAlternate Routes by Tim Powers

Tim Powers has been writing about the ghosts of Los Angeles since his 1990s Fault Lines series, which started with Last Call in 1992, and finished with Earthquake Weather in 1997. Back then, people were huffing ghosts like drugs, absorbing them, being possessed by them. 

With his LA-set novels, Powers likes to pick a location with some weird history and weave his urban fantasy ideas into it. In the case of Earthquake Weather, he chose the Winchester Mystery House, which was built by the widow of the firearms company founder, and constructed over decades without building plans. In his more recent Medusa’s Web, he took us into Old Hollywood and Bunker Hill, and places that aren’t places populated by people who aren’t who they appear to be. To these locations, Powers links mythology and literature: the Fisher King, Troilus and Cressida, the cult of Dionysus.

The setting for Alternate Routes is the LA 405 freeway, with a side order of Mulholland Drive. This time, the fantasy elements are woven into the eddies and currents created by traffic patterns, and the ghosts are those who died on or near the freeway, and the mysteries concern what happens when you take an exit that isn’t there, or catch a voice from a car radio that you weren’t supposed to hear. The mythology is the labyrinth and the minotaur: Daedalus and Icarus.

Los Angeles is a fascinating sprawl of a city, and Powers clearly finds endless inspiration in its no-place weirdness. But this book, like Medusa’s Web (2016), feels somewhat peremptory and by-the-numbers. As if, one hopes, he’s just getting all these ideas out of his system. As a fan, I still bought this on the day of publication and read it quickly, but this novel does not reach the heights of his best work, Declare, The Stress of Her Regard, and Hide Me Among the Graves, The Drawing of the Dark – all of which have a historical setting away from the West Coast of the USA.

Terrible cover, too. I’ll doubtless come back to it to reassess, but for now I’m disappointed.

32802595Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

This third novel by Becky Chambers, after The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Close and Common Orbit, takes place in the same universe, at more or less the same time as the other novels. This time, the focus is on the human crew of the Exodus Fleet, the refugees from Old Earth, who have been living on the generation ships built to flee the environmental disaster we’re currently creating. To the other alien races they’re a curiosity, sometimes viewed as a charity case, with very little to offer in terms of technological innovation.

There are several focus characters, and the chapters flip between them in a regular rhythm. One is an ethnographer from a different species, who visits one of the ships in order to learn more about the humans who have not left the fleet. Others live and work aboard ship, experiencing day to day life or going through personal crises. There’s a Caretaker, who looks after the dead as their bodies are recycled; an archivist, who is there to record the important events on board; a teenager who is disillusioned with life in the Fleet; and an engineer who faces potential unemployment due to the introduction of outside technology. All of these people lead separate lives, and have individual narratives, which gradually intertwine to become one.

And this is the genius of Becky Chambers. For a while, I was thinking that, like Tim Powers, she was producing work that wasn’t up to her best, not quite as engaging as her debut or its brilliant sequel. But then, towards, the end, I found myself reading through tears as the emotional impact of this story hit home. While A Close and Common Orbit weaves two narratives into one powerful whole, this novel takes thinner threads and delicately entwines them until you are caught in the middle of the quietly devastating web, wiping tears from your eyes.

 

Wonderboom

wonder - 1Concerned as I am about privacy and the abuse of that privacy by companies like Amazon and Google, I was never in the market for a smart speaker. I was of course more interested in the Apple HomePod, but it’s not a product that would fit my particular life.

For example, the idea that you would have a speaker, or a pair of speakers, plugged into the mains in a room that you would listen to music in, is not something that happens round here. If music (or a podcast or the BBC Radio player) is on, it’s because I’m up and about, moving between rooms. I don’t want my speaker to be tethered to a particular spot. I have this anyway: there’s a decent speaker box sitting under the TV I can use for music in the living room (almost never), and I’ve got a pair of great music speakers in the conservatory with a Bluetooth adapter plugged into the back (used more often, but still relatively rarely).

What I most often want is a speaker that can move with me, or can be paired up with another speaker and play simultaneously in two rooms. Multi-room audio is something you can have up at the higher end, but again, something plugged into the mains in one place is not a scenario that would work for me.

So I want my speaker to be portable, truly wireless, and fairly robust. Which is where the UE Wonderboom comes in. I was skeptical that something as small as this could sound good, but it really sounds pretty decent. Whatever artificial means they use to boost the bass works very well for the kind of music I listen to. It doesn’t sound weird or get on your nerves after a while. It’s good for voices, and it’s good for country music and 60s/70s rock and soul.

It sounds great and is loud enough that I’ve rarely had it above 50% volume, and the battery life is very good indeed. In terms of range, you can take your phone quite a considerable distance away without losing the connection. This is ideal for me, for example, at our place in France, where I am frequently preparing food in the kitchen, then walking around to tend the barbecue in the garden.

I got my first one a year or so ago, and it impressed me enough that I wanted to get a second so as to pair them up. Which I now have. Pairing is a simple matter of holding down the central logo button for three seconds, until you hear one of its noises, and then waiting for 10 seconds or so while the speakers pair. The volume is automatically equalised between the two speakers, and you can control it with either speaker or your connected device. And you don’t have to download a special app to achieve any of this. Smart.

Now you can have stereo, which is fine, but the real beauty is in having the “radio on in every room” effect, where I can have one in the kitchen, and one out in the conservatory or the garden. And because it’s Bluetooth and not Airplay, no wifi network is required, which is great in France, because we don’t have wifi there.

Amazon sell a pair of these for £123, but you can buy two separately for about £60 each, and if you monitor the price you can do even better.

This, for me, is the perfect combination of sound quality and convenient portability, and I couldn’t be happier really.

So, Farewell then, The Americans

Season 6 of The Americans has drawn to a close, with a stunning finale, almost silent in its final half, reminding us that so much of this story was told without dialogue, and with strategically targeted musical nuggets, such as Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms” in that last episode. Even, I grudgingly admit, U2’s “With or Without You” which I’d normally run screaming from the house to avoid.

The_Americans_Season_6

[Contains spoilers]

I previously wrote about this show just before Season 5, which was an in-between seasons, designed to build inexorably to the climax that would be Season 6. At the end of Season 5, after a disastrous operation, Philip announces that he doesn’t want to do “the work” any more, and Elizabeth agrees to take on new assignments herself, while Philip only works to wind up existing operations.

So it is that Season 6 begins on a tense note, three years later, with an exhausted Elizabeth running on fumes and shutting herself emotionally from her husband, who is trying to make a success of the travel agency front operation—and failing. In other words, not to put too fine a point on it, this man who had really started to want to be an American was failing at being a capitalist. Gorbachev is in office in the USSR, experimenting with openness and reform, and reactionary elements within the KGB are seeking to destroy him. Inevitably, this conflict at the top level of the Soviet Union infects the Jennings’ marriage, building mistrust and resentment.

It was the sound of The Americans, in the end, that haunted me. It probably took me three or four seasons to understand why the soundtrack always sounded so odd. In every scene, interior, exterior, office, home, street corner, there was a lot of background noise. Where there was dialogue, it was clear enough, but there was always a great deal of background hum, as if the volume (or gain) had been turned up on everything. And then I twigged: every scene in The Americans sounds as if it has been recorded using a listening device (or, in the case of outdoor scenes, a shotgun microphone eavesdropping from a distance).

What does one do when something so good reaches an end? I think, probably more than any other show, I might watch it all again.

(Seasons 1-5 are on Amazon Prime video. I assume/hope that Season 6 (episodes currently on the ITV Player in the UK) will end up there in due course.

Childhood Canon

CometmoominlandSometimes you hear a podcast episode and think wistfully how you’d like to have been on it. Recent Incomparable episodes about childhood canon and recent conversations with colleagues about learning to read had me thinking about the media that shaped my tastes. I’m less interested in film and television than I am in books.

I learned to read with Dr Seuss – Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on Pop, and The Cat in the Hat – but at a very early age started the exploration of science fiction that continues to this day. I’m going to credit Tove Jansson with this: Comet in Moominland (1951) was the first Moomin book I read (when I was off school with whooping cough, I think), and although it isn’t scientifically accurate, it would be churlish to hold that against it, given that most science fiction of the time was similarly inaccurate. The description of the approaching comet’s effects on the earth and the crossing of the dried up sea on stilts gave me an early taste of the apocalyptic strand of SF that remains popular to this day.

I moved from the Moomins onto Enid Blyton’s Adventure series and Arthur Ransome, but started to spend more than 50% of my time reading about space and time.

220px-Blast_Off_at_Woomera_front_coverThe first science fiction proper I read would have been Hugh Walters’ series of books that included Destination Mars, Nearly Neptune, and Blast Off at Woomera (1957), which features another implausible plot as a 17-year-old kid is sent off to photograph the moon because of a feared communist plot. Having devoured those books, I moved on to Arthur C. Clarke, and his Islands in the Sky (1952), which also featured a teenage boy going up into space.

I then switched to Clarke’s more adult-oriented books, the most memorable being Childhood’s End and Clarke_Rendezvous_With_RamaRendezvous with Rama (1973), which at the time was Clarke’s most recently published novel. It lacks a proper plot, as much of his stuff does, but does manage to convey a sense of wonder at the (alien) technological sublime, which is another ongoing theme. Most recently, I’ve enjoyed Robert Charles Wilson’s take on it, with books like The Chronoliths, Spin, and Blind Lake.

My Clarke obsession was long enough ago that his novel Imperial Earth (1975) was published while I was in the midst of it. I turned 13 that year. But that novel was disappointing, as was his novelisation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which might have been better left as the short story “The Sentinel”, which I had in one of the many short story collections I had accrued by then. These included his classic Tales From the White Hart, a fun collection of tall tales which gave me a taste for the playful side of science fiction.

I tried, around this time, to read some Isaac Asimov, but it never took. I never could read Asimov and only managed Heinlein in small doses.

A side trip to Durham to visit relatives led to me scoring a pile of interesting, more grown up, SF books from a distant cousin. I’ll forever be grateful to him, whoever he was, because he let me choose a bunch of stuff from his shelves, which I never was to return.

1255867Two of the most important of these were Larry Niven collections: A Hole in Space and Inconstant Moon (1973). The title story of the latter collection was an echo of Comet in Moominland, as a too-bright moon signalled a catastrophic problem with the sun to people on the dark side of the Earth, who realise they have just one night to live. These harder SF collections exposed me to ideas such as ramjets, time dilation, teleportation booths, and flash mobs. Another book in that particular grab bag was the very first World’s Best Science Fiction collection edited by Terry Carr. This included the canonical Harlan Ellison story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” but more importantly gave me a taste for these annual collections. I raided the library for every one I could find, and in later years, when Gardner Dozois picked up the torch, I have made a point of buying his annual collection every summer.

The final taste-forming book of my teens was a gift received during a hospital stay when I was 16 or 17. This was the all-time classic Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, edited by Brian Aldiss. There were more good stories in that one book than in any number of annual Best ofs, and it remains the best introduction to Golden Age science fiction.

Besides all this, the importance of Doctor Who and Star Trek were comparatively minor. When it comes to film and TV science fiction, my support is grudging at best. Only Alien really cuts the mustard from that era, and I mainly watched Doctor Who for the companions.

A few album reviews

There have been a few big releases in 2018, and more to come. I wish Sugarland would drop their comeback already, instead of drip-drip-dripping pre-release tracks (four so far). The biggest surprise for me so far is that I didn’t prefer Ashley Monroe’s Sparrow to Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour.

Ms Musgraves and Ms Monroe have been on the same release cycle since their debuts in 2013. So far, I’ve preferred Monroe’s releases: prefer her voice, her songs, her production – especially on The Blade, released in 2015, and which sounds terrific.

DbP9MieW4AEqehsBut now comes Sparrow, and I’m shocked to say, I don’t think I like it. I just relegated the opening track, “Orphan” from my phone’s playlist, and I never do that so early in an album’s life. But it sounds awful to me. Her voice sounds off key and whiny to my ears. I felt the same about the pre-released “Hands on You”. It sounds like someone struggling with their voice, struggling to hit those notes. Sounds like she has a cold, or is too tired. The same problem crops up throughout, on the chorus to “Mother’s Daughter”, for example. “Wild Love” starts off more promisingly, with some nice tremolo guitar, but then the strings kick in, and instead of the strong voice such production requires, you get this shaky, tentative, thin voice. In terms of music, the album sounds less soulful than The Blade, and there are more strings in the background. Maybe it will grow on me, but so far I’m disappointed.

Golden hour Kacey MusgravesMeanwhile, Kacey Musgraves has a solid hit in Golden Hour. Ironically, my criticism of her sound has always centred on her voice, which I think weak and limited for a country singer. But I think it actually sounds stronger this time around, and certainly doesn’t suffer from the problems afflicting Sparrow. There’s certainly an attempt here to take her across to the pop charts, but that’s merely to consolidate her popularity outside country circles. She’s broken through sufficiently in the UK to penetrate the obstinately retro UK iTunes country chart, which is usually wall-to-wall Dolly and Johnny with recycled compilation albums. Musgraves’ sharp witticisms are poignards thrust into modern relationships. Even now, weeks after its release, Golden Hour sits at number four.

And let’s not forget that Ms Musgraves’ (and Ms Monroe’s) breakthroughs are taking place in an industry where female artists still don’t get played on US country radio.

Golden Hour has a bright, modern sound, and of course Ms Musgraves’ voice is clear and pure, perfectly pitched for the songs she writes herself. And there’s nothing here to frighten the horses, a basic backing of drums and guitars with some modern keys. Yes, there’s pedal steel guitar, she’s not leaving the genre behind like Taylor Swift. But then there is “High Horse”, which marries her witty lyrics with dance beats and techno sounds. It’s a new Modern Sounds in Country Music, and a clear progression from her last release. Getting better.

AshleymcbrydeBut Ms Musgraves doesn’t win the prize for best country album of 2018 so far. That goes to Girl Going Nowhere by Ashley McBride, which kicks off with a simple song about being written off by friends and family, which when she performed this title track at the Opry a while ago brought the house down.

Elsewhere, Ms McBride trades in heartland rock, on the likes of “Radioland” and “El Dorado” – to the point that I wonder if Mr Springsteen has heard the latter, which reminds me of nothing so much as “Dancing in the Dark”.

Meanwhile there are more country sounding songs, such as “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega”, “Home Sweet Highway”, and instant classic “Tired of Being Happy”, all of which foreground the witty, self-deprecating lyrics that make country great.

black-berry-smoke-2018Finally, I was prompted to check out Blackberry Smoke by their collaboration with Amanda Shires on the track “Let Me Down Easy” on their new album Find a Light. With their classic guitars-drums-keys line-up, they’re classified under Rock, but if iTunes had a category for Southern Rock, this would be it. Lead vocalist Charlie Starr sounds like a slightly improved Ronnie Van Zandt, and the sound sits somewhere between Skynyrd (with fewer extended solos) and the Allmans (with few extended solos). “Flesh and Bone” isn’t the strongest album opening, but the next track, “Run Away from It All” kicks off the record properly, with driving guitars and heavy hits on the drums. Occasionally, as on “Medicate My Mind” and the aforementioned “Let Me Down Easy”, they pull out the acoustic guitars and sound more like Country Rock. They’re not reinventing the wheel, but sound like what they are: a road-hardened, hard working rock band. And given that I recently filled my Phone’s playlist with the first five Lynyrd Skynyrd albums, Blackberry Smoke certainly fit fit right into my life at the moment.

 

Bosch Season 4

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Angels Flight, Los Angeles

People learn. Huh.

One of the absolute worst aspects of (especially long-running) genre shows is that nobody ever seems to learn anything or develop as a character. One notable exception to this was NYPD Blue, one of the all-time-great network cop shows, which had an 11-season story arc for Any Sipowicz which transcended the limitations of the format.

So to Bosch in its 4th season, and a welcome return for Titus Welliver in the title role, Lance Reddick as the now Chief of Police Irvin Irving, Jamie Hector as Bosch’s ex-partner Jerry Edgar, Madison Lintz as Bosch’s daughter Maddie (given more to do this time around), and Amy Aquino as acting Captain of Hollywood Homicide division.

As before, the season combines the plotlines from several of the Bosch novels by Michael Connelly, in this case the principle storylines come from Angels Flight and 9 Dragons. There is a lot less to do with ongoing cases in court this time around, and much more investigating, with a background of political manoeuvring and protests against police brutality. As such, it feels quite zeitgeisty, though there is a bit less of the stunning cinematography of Los Angeles that characterised Season 1.

This time the principle LA location is the titular Angels Flight funicular railway, which was originally located in Bunker Hill, but has since reopened as a kind of simulacrum that operates as a kind of intermittent and often neglected tourist attraction.

The fallout from previous seasons continues, but while Bosch remains a focus of contempt from many of his colleagues (mainly because he refuses to treat being a cop like being a member of a corrupt club), the people who work with him (including Captain  Billets and Chief Irving) no longer even pretend that he’s anything other than the best investigator they have. In other words, they’ve learned from working with Bosch that he is not corrupt, unwavering in his pursuit of the bad guys, and usually arrests the guilty party. So as much as other cops and politicians complain about him, this time they let him do his job. So there’s a lot less of the you’re off the case nonsense that sometimes besets this genre.

While investigating the murder of a lawyer who was about to embarrass the police department in a lawsuit, Bosch also pursues the man he believes responsible for his mother’s death, and deals with the unexpected death of a close family member. He’s forced to work with a couple of Internal Affairs detectives as well as the antagonistic Jimmy Robertson (Paul Calderon) and his former partner Edgar, returning to the job after injury.

It’s another solid outing for Bosch, and I remain puzzled at the critical disdain/indifference this show receives. Sure, it’s a police procedural, but it is better than anything else in this genre right now.

I previously reviewed Season 1, Season 2, and Season 3.

Strange Town – the perfect single

Introducing my 17 yo to The Jam a while ago, I suggested that they were a singles band, and that their Greatest Hits was the thing to have. Knowing my daughter’s love for classic soul music, too, I revealed unto her the secret of The Style Council, which for her was like discovering that what you thought was a mere Hob Nob was in fact a Chocolate Hob Nob. The purchase of two Greatest Hits collections of Paul Weller solo swiftly followed.

I must admit I’d barely paid attention to his later career, so it’s mostly new to me. And I only ever lent half an ear to The Style Council because it was the 80s and there are all kinds of terrible crimes against production values on those records.

Deep breath.

Anyway, it’s been a blast hearing all that stuff again. I was in the 6th Form at school when “Going Underground” was a monster hit (three weeks at number one). That was when The Jam went mainstream, and everyone knew who they were. I only ever owned one album by the group (All Mod Cons), and I heard the follow up because someone at school had it, which was enough to confirm to me that while they were a proper singles band, in the same way the Beatles and The Who had been (meaning that they released singles that weren’t on albums), their albums weren’t much cop (like The Who, but unlike The Beatles).

“Strange Town” was about a year before that. It got to number 15 in the UK singles chart, though that was when you had to sell a lot of copies to even break the top 20. Weller has said it’s one of the best three songs he’s written. As a single, it’s perfect. There’s something viscerally thrilling about the instrumental breakdown in the middle, which is not so much a guitar solo as a riff that gets repeated and then layered, which when combined with the driving rhythm section (always the best bit of The Jam) lifts the song to another level.

There are a couple of good lines in the lyric, too, delivered with a broad English accent, which totally nail both the national character (“They worry themselves about the dreadful snow”) and being a teenager in the 70s (“RUSH my money to the record shops”). That last defines my teenage self perfectly. I would get paid at my supermarket job, then walk around the corner and spend it immediately on records.

Weird isn’t it, what a national institution Paul Weller is, how popular the Jam were, and how little impact his various incarnations have had across the pond. I know there’s no rhyme or reason to that kind of breakthrough. The Cure, for example, have broken the US top 10 on a couple of occasions, but the best Weller has managed is with The Style Council – in the lower (three figure) reaches. And as far as his great run of singles with The Jam goes, well. “Start” managed a number 31, and that’s it.

He does have a US audience, but when he plays gigs over there it’s at venues like The House of Blues (somewhere around 2000 seats), but he probably likes it that way.

Saw them play from the back of a lorry at a CND rally once.