Good Things

Nightfall – Little Big Town

Here we are then, twenty-twenty, the year of hindsight, and my first (new) album purchase of the year is this new record from vocal harmony group Little Big Town. And it’s great, beautiful, and if you’re not uplifted by the opening track, “Next to You”, you’re dead inside. The band wrote 34 songs for this album, whittled down to a lucky 13 for the release. There are lush songs reflecting on things worth getting up for, drinking songs, questioning songs, heartbreak songs, and all of it lifted by the soaring power of the human voice, the harmonies and arrangements, as ever, superb. It’s not all Karen Fairchild, either. At times, I’ve felt that she’s carried the rest with her amazing voice on their standout tracks. Not this time.

On Chapel Sands – Laura Cumming

Finally got to read this, a book that was on my list from the moment I read an extract in the Graun last year. I listened to the abridged version on Radio 4, but still wanted to read it. It’s an intriguing story about a child who gets snatched from a lincolnshire beach in 1929. The child was the author’s mother, and the story is both a deeply personal story about identity and a documentary about rural life and hard times in the Britain of long ago. The author is an art critic and tells the story through images, including both family photos and paintings. She highlights the mysteries of both, from the blurred faces of long-dead relatives to the carefully composed works of old masters. The writing is beautiful, the story tightly controlled, with startling revelations that keep coming. Having read this and Mark Lewisohn’s first volume of his Beatles biography, and knowing some of my own family history, you start to form a picture of British family life that’s completely at odds with the conservative myth of “family values”. 

My one criticism of On Chapel Sands is that it tries very hard to be a beautiful (hardback) book, but is let down by the reproduction of the images that are so important to the telling of the story (like the one above). What it needed was an insert of glossy pages. What it ends up with is what Kurt Vonnegut so memorably described: “They were grainy things, soot and chalk. They could have been anybody.”

The Whisperer in Darkness – BBC podcast.

You ay have heard this recommended. Radio drama can be hit and miss; there are so many things that can go wrong. They can rely on grownass adult women to deliver the voices of children: bad. They can have extended sequences of grunts: boring. They can dumb things down too much: Journey into Space, I’m looking at you. They can be too depressing or too middle class. But The Whisperer in Darkness is properly good, so much so that I even forgive it the already tired trope of being a podcast about a pretend podcast. It even manges to be decently creepy and scary. 

(In contrast, the latest BBC attempt at this kind of thing, Murmurs, becomes quickly unlistenable. It relies too much on irritating sound effects which are, well, irritating. And it uses a sound effects library of sounds that telephones haven’t made in a long time. Also, it relies on the conceit that all of this drama is happening over telephone conversations – and who, these days, ever really talks on their phone?)

Best Music Downloads of 2019

8. Sheryl Crow Threads

It’s not that Sheryl Crow is retiring, but she says that Threads will be her last album. I guess that doesn’t preclude EPs, singles, and other download formats. Here, she calls on a variety of different friends and performs across a range of genres. Not everything here is to my taste, but once I’ve weeded out the unlistenable from the original 17 tracks, there’s still a core of decent stuff to make up a 10-12 track album. It’s too eclectic to hang together, but there are still highlights, including “Prove You Wrong” (performed with Stevie Nicks and Maren Morris) and “Everything is Broken” (performed with Jason Isbell).

7. J.S. Ondara Tales of America

Born in Kenya, J.S. Ondara won a Green Card lottery and relocated to America, which is the place where all the music he listened to growing up comes from. He taught himself guitar; obsessed with folk music, he says he “Dove deep and fell hard.” Ondara sings poignant songs about the American experience, the promise and betrayal of the American Dream, with a hefty dose of Dylan influence. Songs of America is full of pretty melodies accompanied by his plaint vocal, sounding completely like American folk music but with a Kenyan accent. Highlights include the beautiful “Torch Song”, “Give Me a Moment” and “Days of Insanity”.

6. Trisha Yearwood Every Girl

Hearing Ms. Yearwood’s voice again after such a long hiatus was to rediscover an old friend. When I first heard her music (I can picture the scene) it was in the form of a single track on a sampler CD that came with a Country Music magazine. This was in the 90s, and I was pottering around tidying up in the first house I shared with my girlfriend (now wife). The clarity and power of her voice was immediate, and with the right material, she’s unbeatable. Highlights here include Lucie Silvas’ “Find a Way”, the title track “Every Girl in This Town”, and “What Gave Me Away” (performed with her husband Garth Brooks.

5. Maren Morris GIRL

While Maren Morris had a huge impact with her first album (notwithstanding her inability to get airplay on so-called Country radio), it was nothing like the high profile she maintained throughout 2019. It all starts with this, her second album, which swaggered onto the stage daring radio programmers not to play its super-catchy and soulful title track and then sailed to #1 on the Country album chart (and #4 on the mainstream album chart) and finished the year by winning the CMA Album of the Year Award. Whatever you think “country” sounds like, this isn’t it. This is dance, electronic, rock, soul, pop, all the genres, and behind it an artist of confidence and integrity who is in complete control. Highlights include the title track, (capital letters “GIRL”), “All My Favourite People” (performed with the Brothers Osborne), “A Song for Everything”, “Common” (with Brandi Carlile) and “The Bones”. But really, you only get the full sense of her broad talent by listening to the whole album.

4. Miranda Lambert Wildcard

Another artist in control of her own narrative is Miranda Lambert, who has come a long way since winning third place in the Nashville Star reality show back in 2003. Her first major label release, Kerosene, hit #1 on the Country album chart and sold over a million copies, and her every album since then has also hit the top spot. She also tends to hit #1 in her “off” years with her group The Pistol Annies. While sales in the streaming era are not what they used to be for anyone, Ms Lambert continues to achieve her status “backwards, in heels”, largely without the support of country radio. Highlights of this strong set include “Mess with my Head”, “It All Comes out in the Wash”, “Pretty Bitchin’”, and “Way too Pretty for Prison” (with Maren Morris). True stories told with a punch to the solar plexus.

3. Midland Let it Roll

I recently mentioned this August release, but here is its place on the list. It’s a great sounding record, with smooth production and that 70s country rock vibe. Highlights include the title track, “Cheatin’ Songs”, “Fast Hearts and Slow Towns”, “Mr Lonely”, and “Roll Away”

2. Hiss Golden Messenger Terms of Surrender

This intense set from the prolific MC Taylor and Hiss Golden Messenger is warm, good-hearted and uplifting. Hard to place on the genre spectrum, this is Americana, folk-rock, singer-songwriter. Highlights include “I Need a Teacher”, “Katy (You Don’t Have to be Good Yet”, “My Wing”, and “Cat’s Eye Blue.” As a bonus, check out the non-album single, “Watching the Wires”.

1. The Highwomen The Highwomen

While Let it Roll may be a better all-round album, and both Miranda Lambert and Maren Morris have a claim to this spot, the larger project represented by The Highwomen places it highest for me. While their singles didn’t penetrate the cloth ears of country radio programmers, the album deservedly hit #1, and the group of collaborators gathered here represents the best in country songwriting and performing at the moment. While the challenge to country radio was rejected, I do think a number of the songs here have staying power, and we’ll be listening for years to come. Highlights include the title track, “Redesigning Women”, “If She Ever Leaves Me”, and “My Only Child”. As a bonus, check out their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” on the soundtrack to the movie The Kitchen.

Fine tunes from Midland and Brandi Carlile

It is somewhat sheepishly that I provide a brief review of Brandi Carlile‘s By the Way, I Forgive You. While Grammy nominations don’t necessarily mean a lot, the six she received in 2018 as a result of this record do speak volumes. I’m sheepish because I did (of course) give her song “The Joke” a quick listen on the YouTube, but for whatever reason it didn’t grab me. Given how great this album is, I want to nag at that a little more. Carlile has a powerful, distinctive voice, and I’m wondering if trying to listen on crappy laptop speakers gave it an unpleasant timbre. Furthermore, I found the cover design offputting; turn a light on, I want to say.

Still, thank goodness for The Highwomen, which album has given me cause to go back and listen more properly to By the Way…, and I’m here to confirm what everybody from the Grammy nominations committee to Barack Obama already knew. It’s a tremendous album, full of confidence and swagger, a shout to the rafters of the kind of popular music that defies categories. The great pleasure for me now will be in going back and listening to her earlier records.

Meanwhile, Texas-based Midland have recently released their second album, and it too is a cracking listen. Perhaps because lead singer Mark Wystrach was also a soap opera star and model, people found it hard to take Midland too seriously at first. Early singles were good, but was this for real? Was this pastiche? The Nudie-style suits certainly nodded towards Gram Parsons, while the smooth harmonies recall Eagles and the 70s West Coast scene. Ultimately, the vibe is Alan Jackson mixed with all of the above, and (pastiche or not) these guys are seriously good.

Their first album, from 2017, was On the Rocks, and I’m still playing it regularly on my 4-star-plus playlist. Their second album, Let it Roll, released in August, proves that the first was no fluke. It’s packed with hits, is a pleasant listen, and doesn’t seem to contain a single duff track.

CMA Awards – State of the Country Music Union

Dolly Parton, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, Tanya Tucker, and Natalie Hemby

I came late to the CMA awards because there was no live broadcast in the UK – as usual – and only an edited highlights package on BBC4. Which, given the state of recent shows, is no bad thing.

This year, perhaps promted by the underlying rumblings over the lack of representation of women on country radio, perhaps by the Ken Burns documentary (which has also just dropped on BBC4), the CMA decided to do a show that was a celebration of women in country. Ken Burns has (unavoidably, because the truth has a feminist bias) demonstrated how integral women have been to the genre, going all the way back to the Carter Family, and so the CMA put women front and centre.

Some of it was good, some of it was bad, some of it was ugly.

The Good

It was so great to see so many of my favourite artists performing on the stage. The opening featured the likes of Jennifer Nettles, the right half of Little Big Town, The Highwomen, Martina McBride, Sara Evans, and Gretchen Wilson, as well as hosts Carrie Underwood, Dolly Parton, and Reba McEntire. Later on in the show, Maren Morris performed the title track of her album Girl, and both Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert got a solo slot. There was also another medley by up and coming women artists (performing the Little Big Town hit “Girl Crush”), and Kacey Musgraves appeared with her pal Willie Nelson. Even Sheryl Crow turned up, performing a spirited “Me and Bobby McGee” with Dierks Bentley. All in all, the representation of women artists was high, much higher than in previous years, and of Bro Country there was very little evidence.

The Bad

Here’s the thing (and I’m not the first nor the only person to point this out). Martina McBride’s most recent (non-Christmas) album was Reckless, released in 2016, and reaching #2 in the Country album chart. Its title track is an absolute corker. But the snippet of a song she got to perform in her opening medley was “Independence Day”, from 1994. That hit dates from the days when women could still get airplay on Country radio, and is probably still in rotation on some stations that don’t play much new stuff – especially by women. Similarly, Sara Evans performed a snippet of her hit “Born to Fly” from 2000, while her most recent album, Words, came out in 2017 and peaked at #4 on the Country album chart. In other words, while the men in the show mostly get to perform current or recent hits, the vast majority of the women were wheeled out to do 20+ year old material.

The Ugly

Luke Combs, for example, who was prominent last year as well as this, got to perform “Beer Never Broke My Heart”, which is fairly typical of the kind of fare that gets automatically added to Country radio playlists without needing to be “requested” or “liked” a million times on Facebook, which is one of the excuses given for not playing female artists. The best I can say about Combs is that at least he didn’t have a dixie cup glued to his hand this year (as last) and also only wore his fucking bro country signifying baseball cap on stage. Is he any good? Honestly, it’s all right, but he’s one of those vocalists – like Blake Shelton – who sings like he’s also trying to do a shit, and once you allow that thought to enter your head, you can’t listen any more.

But perhaps the starkest indicator of how women are still having to “backwards, in heels” their way to the top was the contrast between Carrie Underwood’s elaborate staging and immaculate costuming as she performed her showstopper — immediately followed by the overweight and scruffy looking Combs who performed in black jeans, black shirt and a baseball cap. Can you imagine the conversation if Carrie underwood turned up one year sporting an untucked shirt and a beer belly?

Finally, the show, which at least started with a stage crowded with women, descended into god-bothering religious mawkishness – as first cheatin’ Blake Shelton performed some pious crap about “God’s Country” and then Dolly Parton performed something like fifteen hours of gospel songs. There’s always been a certain amount of religionism in the genre, comes with the package, but this felt like some weird counterweight to all the unruly women we’d seen earlier. You’ve had your fun, girls, the CMAs seemed to be saying, now get back on your knees.

Britannia Season 2: still crazy after all these years

I had to remind myself how much I’d enjoyed the first season of this bonkers historical drama to persuade myself to (figuratively) tune in. Were NowTV smart to drop the whole series at once for a binge watch rather than putting it out weekly? There’s always the danger that you might forget between episodes how much you were enjoying it. Some kind of druid mojo at work, no doubt.

Mackenzie Crook is so good in this that they gave him a second part to play. By Season 3 he might be playing all the parts.

It’s a couple of years on from the Roman invasion of A.D. 43. The Romans are still living in tents, for the most part, complaining about what a shithole country Britain is, but some permanent structures are being built, even if the emperor encourages a certain exaggeration of details. And David Morrissey’s Aulus Plautius is up to something; something he’s so determined to see through that he’ll go to any lengths to ensure he does.

Meanwhile Nikolaj Lie Kaas, the Outcast, is still half-competently vision questing away with Cait, the girl from the prophecy, who suffers indignities (such as trying to fly off a cliff or having fish guts smeared on her face) but sticks around because of the thin shreds of evidence that the Outcast knows what he’s doing.

There are lots of meanwhiles. Too many. The druids are all over the place, there are hallucinogens being slipped into everyone’s water, and even the Emperor Claudius shows up, complaining about his piles. Then there’s the Roman legionary who seems to have stepped out of the pages of Lloyd C Douglas’ The Robe, and even a visit from someone who can only be Joseph of Arimathea. There are already plenty of talking and flying heads, so the Fisher King might be somewhere in there. And if you squint a little bit there’s a wizard and someone who gets turned into a fish and you might be watching a fucked up Sword in the Stone.

Everything is here. It’s crazy, hilarious, brutal, with a killer soundtrack and enough face paint for a dozen village fêtes. And apples. There’s still no sense of geography. Are we in Colchester? Wales? King’s Landing? Honestly, it’s too much fun for me to care.

The Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Okay, well. Throat clearing noises (*turning to hacking cough*). In spite of my long-term aversion of new fantasy trilogies, I started reading this, using my Kindle Unlimited subscription. That’s how they get you: volume 1 was free, volume 2 not so much. My first surprise was to learn that this author, whose books I had seen out of the corner of my eye for years, is actually Margaret Ogden, a prolific American writer. The second surprise was not actually much of a surprise: this trilogy is actually the first of at least three trilogies, all set in the same fictional world, and depending on how you count, there are five trilogies and one of the trilogies has four books in it.

Vietnam flashbacks to the Katherine Kerr Deverry series, which I began with enthusiasm in the mid-1980s, but read begrudgingly to its conclusion, fifteen books and 23 years later.

But here we are, on holiday, and short of reading material in the sense that I have dipped into and rejected a number of books recently. I’m halfway through Ben MacIntyre’s The Spy and the Traitor, at which point I lost interest. I started and abandoned the following: Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge (just not in the mood); Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (existential boredom); and think I will abandon Stephen Baxter’s Time (Manifold) (again, just not in the mood). I don’t know what I want really. So, okay, here comes some high fantasy, some swords and sorcery without too many swords and only hints of sorcery in this, the first of the sequence.

And it must be okay because I stuck with it and even read with some enthusiasm. It’s a fish out of water tale, like The Goblin Emperor maybe, or Tad Williams’ The Dragonbone Chair. A young boy, bastard son of a prince, is abandoned to his father’s care, although never actually meets his father, who goes into disgraced exile. He’s then raised and educated in a fairly haphazard way until he falls under the care of the King’s assassin, and is trained in the ways of poisons and sneaking about.

It’s immediately interesting because if you’ve read anything like this before, you’ll know that the protagonist is usually heroic, noble, able, and certainly not the kind of person who drops poison into peoples’ drinks. Robin Hobbs’ world building is efficient but not burdensome. You get the sense of a bigger picture without being overwhelmed by exposition dumps, and I like the deft way she hints at the future importance of certain events and characters without spending too much time on them. The denouement of this is swift and chaotic, twisting and turning over a few pages without infuriating you as to the irrational decision making of key characters. You never feel like the thing is being padded for length like a Stephen King novel.

I’ve tried and been tempted recently by Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series. I read The Dragonbone Chair but just didn’t feel the need to read on. I enjoyed the first bit of Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, but didn’t feel like reading on after the third, The Last Argument of Kings became a bit of a drag. And while I was initially enthusiastic about Alex Marshall’s Crimson Empire series, I completely lost interest during the third book.

In other words, I know myself well enough to know that while the first in a series might grab me, I’ll almost inevitably be disappointed if I read on. I regret to this day that I didn’t get a time-machine visitation from my future self after I’d read the first 6 of Katherine Kerr’s Deverry books, telling me to stop reading back then.

So I don’t know if I’ll carry on with Robin Hobb. I did really enjoy The Assassin’s Apprentice, but you can never really be sure. Is it better to leave it as a somewhat fond memory (The Dragonbone Chair)? Or to dig a trench and settle in for the long haul?

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

This, for once, is not a sleep diary entry but a review of something I’ve wanted to read for a while, a science fiction mystery novel which was nominated for a number of major awards (though didn’t win). I didn’t buy it immediately, however, because The Incomparable podcast was only lukewarm about it, and it was a bit steep, price-wise, for something that might only be okay.

Now, I feel bad about what I’m about to say, because there’s a little message from the author at the end of the Kindle edition, saying, in effect, “I produced this ebook myself, please help me out by emailing corrections…”

Well.

The problem is, I have produced ebooks myself, and I’m sure there are problems all over them, but this book was originally published by Orbit/Hachette who are professional publishers, not amateurs like me. But there’s something weird about the ebook publication. It took a long time for this book to be available in electronic form, and for whatever reason the quality control was poor.

There are a couple or three recurring problems, which I mention because they kept throwing me out of the story and became irritating and distracting. The first is that there are random line breaks, new paragraphs beginning in the middle

of a sentence – like that. And the second is kind of the opposite problem, because all-too frequently, dialogue is muddled within the same paragraph instead of following the “new person, new paragraph” rule, and you keep having to stop to work out who is saying what. Finally, the third problem, though less common, also added confusion to dialogue: the occasional omission of opening speech marks meant that you kept having to track back to see where dialogue began.

All that said, I wonder if any reader has taken the time to email Ms Lafferty and supply corrections. I haven’t. There were, frankly too many, and they were too obvious. In the end, it reads like a book resulting from an OCR scan that nobody bothered to review/correct.

Now, that’s a huge chunk of my review dedicated to formatting problems. What about the actual novel?

The premise is that there is a star ship containing frozen colonists heading for an Earthlike planet. In this society, cloning is not unusual, but there are many rules, including that each person can only have one body at a time, and an updated “mindmap” of memories is transferred into the new body, which is grown to post-adolescence prior to activation. The ship is crewed by cloned humans, who all have reasons to want a clean slate, and the idea is that they simply get a fresh body when they need one.

The ship has been en-route for about 25 years when all six crew wake up in fresh cloned bodies, surrounded by the murdered corpses of themselves – but no updated mindmaps. So the plot is essentially an investigation into that crime, with the backstories of all the characters filled in. It’s an intriguing setup, but the execution is flawed.

One issue is that a major revelation towards the end is telegraphed from almost the beginning. Another is that the rules of this story (the clones have no recent memories, and have to use mindmaps from just before they boarded the ship) tie the plot in knots. So, for example, one character “knows” she has a safe containing several data drives including backups of the rest of the crew, even though her supposed most recent memory is of a party the night before they boarded. And then you get bits of dialogue where characters explain away these types of plot holes to each other.

In many ways, this reads like a first or second draft, both in the sense that these holes could be more elegantly closed and the revelation less obvious, and also in the sense that the formatting is bad.

In the end, this feels like a missed opportunity: almost but not quite great, which possibly explains why it was nominated for Hugo and Nebula awards but did not win.