Red Velvet Underground – Freda Love Smith

The contemporary memoir at its best to me, is rarely about one thing. Not only that, but the most interesting aspect is frequently not the aspect that drew me in.

When bassist, artist and writer Joyce Raskin told me that former Blake Babies drummer Freda Love had written a memoir, it was downloaded to my kindle within a minute.  A voice from the remarkable late 80s early 90s Boston alt rock scene? Yes please. 

I am making strawberry scones with my son Jonah. Not Jonah at four, rosy cheeks and long eyelashes, or Jonah at seven, outsized front teeth and towhead crew cut, but Jonah at eighteen, scraggly blond mustache and apparent hangover. And yet my heart flutters. It is 10:30, Sunday morning. Jonah has been home for one day from the University of Illinois, where he just completed his freshman year.

He towers over me. I show him how to zest a lemon. He gets the hang of it, producing little ribbons of zest and a bright smell that elevates our little apartment kitchen, with its yellow 1970s linoleum and rusty appliances, to a place of memory and emotion where more is at stake than a tray of scones.

Thus the first paragraph and a half of Red Velvet Underground set the scene. This, and to be fair there were clues I withheld from you for the sake of the review, is a memoir of motherhood and of cooking. Those clues? The subtitle ‘A Rock Memoir, with Recipes’; the contents pages listing food items; the witty title and the cover art.

(Agate Books, 2015)

Freda decides, as her elder son reaches about 16, to teach him to cook. To prepare him for leaving home, and to help him think through his food choices. It becomes a routine, and a bonding experience, so that when Jonah goes to college it is the loss of this shared time that hits Freda.

Chapters focus on a cooking session, such as the scones, stir fry, and huevos rancheros, but evolve into memories and philosphising about the roles of food and cooking in Freda’s life. The dishes mentioned in that chapter are described in attached recipes, some with commentary including at one point ‘Makes enough to feed a 6-piece band or family’. Most are vegetarian or vegan, almost all can be adapted either way. Flexitarian at heart, Freda and family experiment with a raw food week, soup week, Vegan months. Some ideas flow into others.

And yes the rock music comes in too. Jonah asks his mom if she has heard Pixies, so she tells him about gigs together, and playing Euchre with ‘(coolest person in the world)’ Kim Deal. Even in a memoir of that Boston scene, did you expect that line? How about ‘Few people will ever gaze upon a human more beautiful than 19 year old Evan Dando.’?

But when Freda and a reformed Blake Babies go on tour briefly, the other mothers at young Jonah’s preschool have opinions. ‘I think it’s great that you can leave your kids like that for so long, I could never do that.’

Mostly the setting is Jonah’s late teens though, perhaps not the most commonly depicted period of motherhood? The time when Freda and husband and former bandmate, Jake, have gone into reputable employment in academia and administration.

Again and again though Freda returns to cooking, and especially shared cooking.

It was sublimation, an effective distraction, a form of therapy, and had the added bonus of ensuring that we ate extremely well.

That simple sentence amidst the detail of college applications, the stresses of costs, and cooking tilapia in a foil pouch, sums up much of Freda Love Smith’s charming, moving and uplifting memoir (with recipes.) The combination of pragmatic choices and natural human emotions is an unexpected balance where so many other memoirs come from trauma to supposed health, or show indulgent cliché ahead of humanity.

Each episode takes Freda into her own life patterns, occasionally her own parents, and her husband’s. As she ultimately seems to recognise in writing this book, structure becomes visible from a distance, relationships, patterns, echoes that seemed absent at the time emerge later. Her brother, praised her for his soup making but actually an acclaimed jazz bassist, is wise on this.

He claims that it wasn’t restaurant work that taught him most about cooking, it was jazz.

Music and cooking seem interchangeable emotionally for Freda, as the unity and community of the band becomes the unity of the kitchen. Touring memories are of eating free Hare Krishna meals through financial necessity, and of a particular vegetarian diner The Grit in Athens, Georgia, which earns a chapter of its own.

After Jonah goes to University, his brother Henry asks for lessons, but it is Jonah’s decisions on changing college that reflect Freda quitting high school to form a band across the country with her boyfriend.

It was a crazy decision. But it was one of the best crazy decisions of my life.

Quoting Mike Watt, they were ‘jamming econo’ she says. So with Jonah she aims for instilling the same abilities, but with better judgement. And she teaches him to make cake because ‘I know too many women who make their own birthday cake.’

[Cake] had become tied to thornier issues of gender identity and to my identity as a woman and a feminist. And I’m not sure how normal this is. I wanted to convey to Jonah that this was important, that this cooking lesson had, um, layers to it.

There’s the nub of Red Velvet Underground perhaps. Freda Love Smith chatting to the reader, to herself, to her son, about cooking, making a point almost without making a point. Educating not teaching, perhaps, and learning herself as she goes. She calls it a sermon at one point, but it’s exemplar too really. As she talks about work life balance she asks if it even exists. Her book suggests to me that it does, when we aren’t looking.

Red Velvet Underground is funny, charming and light, but deceptively substantial in areas outside it’s apparent focus. The memoir that is about so much more than its purported theme, like any good tune is more than its notes or a recipe its ingredients.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Books of 2019

I read a lot, at times, in the curious mixed year of 2019. Many from earlier times, such as my most recent read, Chester Himes’ Cotton Comes To Harlem.

One 2018 title deserves praise as amongst the very best I read in 2019 before I move on to those actually published this year. Sarah Churchwell’s Careless People is a great telling of the lives of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and their coterie leading up to The Great Gatsby. She combines this with a fascinating true life murder mystery from close to Gatsby’s setting. The result is revealing and gripping.

But from 2019 I eventually produced a list. 25 notable works across a range of genres.

25-11 in alphabetical order

Nina Allan – The Dollmaker

Nina Allan – The Silver Wind (revised expanded)

Zen Cho – The True Queen

Deborah Harry – Face It

Hannah Hodgson – Dear Body

Attica Locke – Heaven My Home

Juliet McKenna – Green Man’s Foe

Judith Moffett – Unlikely Friends

Amal el Mohtar & Max Gladstone – This is How You Lose the Time War

Fiona Moore – Driving Ambition

Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Gods of Jade and Shadow

Temi Oh – Do You Dream of Terra Two?

Gillian Polack – Year of the Fruitcake

Tim Robinson – Experiments on Reality

Kari Sperring – Serpent Rose

So there’s autobiography and memoir, crime, SF and Fantasy, poetry and more.

The top 10 almost wrote itself, with standout works of all kinds, again. I say almost, but a couple of the titles above I was very reluctant to leave out of the Top list. Those who know my tastes may realise which, and may not be surprised at some of the titles to come.

10. Melissa Harrison – All Among the Barley

9. Lisa Goldstein – Ivory Apples

8. Sarah Dobbs – The Sea Inside Me

7.Yvonne Battle-Felton – Remembered

6. Sarah Hall – Sudden Traveller

5. Lewis Shiner – Outside the Gates of Eden

By far the biggest book on the list, it needed to be to tell an epic, personal novel of the rise and fall of idealism across 60s and 70s music and society. Shiner is one of the few writers to get this right.

4. Natalie Haynes – A Thousand Ships

The siege of Troy (and related events) retold from the many, many women involved. Haynes gives passionate voice to goddesses, princesses, slaves, widows and lovers with rage, humour and honesty.

3. Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other

Almost as with Haynes, Evaristo’s cast of multiple women are enlightening, frightening, brilliant, lusty and funny. These are mostly Black British women, and their stories are revealing and affirmative.

2. Jeanette Winterson- Frankissstein

Reworking the overworked and misread is brave, but Winterson has never been a coward. This novel more than engages with its source, with the modern corrupted world, and her own worldview. If anything, there’s a hint of Richard Powers’ Generosity in here, but darker, more thrilling, more potent.

1. Jenn Ashworth – Notes Made While Falling

Quite simply unlike anything else I have read. Beginning in the nightmare of traumatic childbirth, Ashworth takes us through her subsequent psychosis, PTSD and breakdown in brutal, visceral depth. In the deliberately tangled narratives are personal analysis, cultural explorations of decay, faith, history and literary alleyways. It’s a working class, Northern work, but the despair and aspirations gradually balance. Chernobyl, Agatha Christie, trepanning and the recurring touchstone of King Lear make for hard, dark reading but the rhythms hold you as twisted humour flashes illumination.

So there you have it. 25 brilliant books full of dark brutality and shards of incandescence.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Albums of 2019

Well, what a year it was musically. I noted well over 120 albums when I started making this list. I still missed a few that some of you probably love.

It was a year when I went way back in personal time, I’m not sure 15 year old Kev expected to be listening to Angel Witch almost 40 years on. And it was a year of new directions albeit on catch up with some. One of my most played albums this year was Black Origami by JLin from 2017 in part inspired by her set at Queens of the Electronic Underground in Manchester this summer.

Anyway, there’s a Top 30 ahead after some near misses that I also recommend. Kate Tempest, Mekons, Nick Cave, Springsteen, Jenny Hval and Princess Nokia to name a few.

30 Aziza Brahim – Sahari

More of the same, passionate, political Sarahwi blues.

29 Michael Monroe- One Man GangAbout as authentic raw anthemic punk metal as it gets.

28 Utopia Strong Steve Davis, Michael York and Kavus Torabi play swirling, psych synth prog. Simultaneously 1972 and 2019 somehow.

27 Nérija – Blume

A veritable who’s who of contemporary UK jazz in this almost all female lineup.

26 Will Burns & Hannah Peel- Chalk Hill Blue

Burns recites his evocative desideria of land over Peel’s sympathetic synths that then break out joyously.25 The Specials – Encore

Exactly what we expect from a Specials record. Informed politics you can dance to.

24 Angel Witch- Angel of Light

Cracking NWOBHM riffing and epic vocals ftw.

23 Cosey Fanni Tutti – Tutti

For her first solo record in 36 years Cosey did something different. Synths and humanity blend variously in an uncategorisable uplifting album22 Sunn 0))) – Life Metal

The first of two Sunn 0))) records in 2019, is basic, epic, slow and loud of course, but incredibly precise and controlled.

21 Stealing Sheep – Not Real

Dayglo electropop fun from start to finish. Great live too.20 Underworld – Drift series 1

Combined from weekly releases there’s well over 6 hours of everything here including glorious bubbling 30 minute jams.

19 Tenesha the Wordsmith- Peacocks and Other Savage Beasts

Jazz tinged hip hop poetry. Tenesha has something to say and a brilliant style to say it.

18 Mega Bog – Dolphine

If I’d heard this sooner it might have ranked higher. Again hard to classify, one of those eclectic female singer songwriters with electronics that get lumped together despite being quite varied. If you remember (C) that might be a clue

17 Tenement & Temple

The magnificent voice of Monica Queen in a more folkish setting with partner Johnny.

16 Leafcutter John- Yes! Come Parade With Us

Composed and part recorded whilst walking the Norfolk coast, a great contribution to rural electronica (see also Spaceship and William Doyle who also put out great tunes in 2019)

15 SEED Ensemble- Driftglass

Another great young female led UK jazz ensemble. Taking the album title from Samuel R Delany this is both futuristic and reflective.

14 Rock Goddess – This Time

Much as I loved it the NWOBHM wasn’t noted for feminism or humour. Enter the wit and determination of Jody Turner. This is classic stand up rock with stand up assertive lyrics.

13 Lizzo – Cuz I Love You

And speaking of wit and feminism and not taking any crap.

12 Snowdrops – Manta Ray OST

Snowdrops is a duo formed by my favourite Ondiste Christine Ott and keyboard player Matthieu Gnabry. This is a holistic soundscape that soundtracks Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s film about Rohynga.

11 Leonard Cohen – Thanks For The Dance

It is poignant, fitting that the last words on Cohen’s last record are ‘don’t listen to me’ His humour undimmmed even at the end.

10 Pill Fangs – PF2

A step beyond the garage psych of PF1, this is nuanced as often as blunt. Echoes of Paisley underground guitar duels sit alongside abstracted folk that could fit Dan Haywood’s New Hawks in the same song.

9 Yugen Blakrok -Anima Mysterium

Another woman defiantly doing her own thing. Cryptic, mystical South African hip hop with sharp edges.

8 Haiku Salut- The General

Another soundtrack, this time to a remastered edition of Buster Keaton’s great film. Although more restrained than some of HS regular sounds this is still great to listen to without the film or with it

7 Rozi Plain- What A Boost

Subtle, beautiful, soothing, warm, abstract jazz-tinged, folkish shoegazey shimmers. I saw these songs played live 3 times this year.

6 Park Jiha – Philos

Second western release for Korean multi instrumentalist. Another liminal work of traditional classical jazz elements played on yanggeum, saenghwan and piri to haunting effect.

5 The Comet Is Coming – Trust In The Lifeforce of The Deep Mystery

Shabaka Hutchings other band take blazing sax, electronic futuristic washes, and funking drums to new worlds. Jazz as exploration.

4 Honeyblood – In Plain Sight

Deceptively chirpy at times, Stina Tweeddale’s big chorus, raw guitar, eerie takes on punk and pop neatly combine personal and universal.

3 AVA – Waves

With piano and violin mostly, AVA paint pictures that float and soar like the eponymous waves. Stormy moments ease into restful ripples.

2 Holly Herndon – Proto

Hard to describe, this is co-written by Herndon’s AI, Spawn. Bold choral sounds are fractured and recombined in disturbing, intriguing ways. Not for everyone but fascinating.

1 Anna Meredith – Fibs

I knew this was a serious contender after two advance tracks. This time Meredith (MBE by the way, now) teases into classic rock riffs, ominous tuba basslines, joyous dance pop, and more traditional classical lines. So much variety shouldn’t blend this well.

It’s been a good year for music.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Haiku Salut – The General

I should say before we go any further that Derbyshire trio Haiku Salut have been my band crush for a couple of years at least now. Take this as caveat on what follows or as confirmation of how their music affects me.

The General is Haiku Salut’s fourth album and the recording of the score they were commissioned to write to accompany a remastered print of Buster Keaton’s eponymous 1926 silent classic. As such it definitely sounds and feels like a Haiku Salut record with its familiar mix of accordeon, piano, synths, percussion, electronics and samples. The 23 tracks here often incorporate the band’s intriguing knack of making the seemingly disparate and fractured flow seamlessly.

On the other hand the dynamics of the film narrative and the need to support rather than distract from it created limitations and structures that they might otherwise have evaded.

Anyone familiar with the regular Haiku Salut live experience will be aware that virtually every piece involves multiple instruments being used by all three interchangeably. Sensibly for The General the band recognised the risks this entailed with music cued to a film. Amongst other self-imposed restrictions that meant only one track here includes accordeon, previously a major component of the HS sound.

But what of the actual music? As an album without the film behind it, does it work? Well, yes and in two different ways. Many of the tracks here can be extracted as individual pieces successfully. At the same time the 80 minute whole has a coherence and flow that is effective greater than the sum of its parts.

It is a warm album, right from the opening skittering clicks underpinning then making way for lingering piano chords of ‘Start’ and the similar shifting layers of electronics and keys in ‘Intro’. Listening through headphones really emphasises the nuances as the components entwine, taking predominant and supporting roles. Rhythmic patterns such as the beat of ‘Going Back’ are initially simple but as drones ebb and flow above the siimplicity evolves. Although Haiku Salut sound nothing like Thelonious Monk I am nevertheless reminded of how he created intensely catchy refrains that were simultaneously difficult to follow as they changed subtly.

There are other moments that are half-familiar, the beautiful Romantic piano refrain that opens ‘Enlist’ almost expands into something recognisable before leading us away. Somewhere I almost caught a hint of 70s electronic prog. The last 30 seconds of ‘Train Steal’ have a classic electronic boom boom crash pattern that could accelerate into a techno dance piece in other hands. ‘Hide’ too opens with big beats and electronic stutters.

And there are unique sounds. Apparently the deep resonant drone on ‘Reunited’ is Gemma’s voice transposed. Other samples include raindrops (really a household shower) and reversed, manipulated conventional instruments.

Many of the iconic scenes from Keaton’s film were filmed without effects. Most notably the trainwreck scene (sorry if that’s a spoiler, but you’ve had 93 years to see the film!) Although Haiku Salut use effects they retain an organic, human feel to most of this album. In places there’s what Gemma described on the Haiku Salut blog as a ‘cartooonish in a good way’ use of guitar effects that undercuts any hint of sterility in the artificial beats. Sophie explains this better than I can, lacking the technical vocabulary of music:
We wanted to write something wistful and dreamy. To achieve that Gemma put the electric guitar through a pedal which sounds like a warm and happy memory returning from a distant past.

That’s the single ‘Loves’ she’s describing but it sums up much of how I feel about Haiku Salut and The General. They take the precise and formal and transpose it through metaphor and simile to infuse it with a rich complexity and delicate simplicity at the same time. They evoke whilst mostly eschewing excessive literalism.

I said earlier that parts of the album succeed as individual tracks, but such is the Haiku way that within these tracks there are moments of uplift, epiphany, poignancy. The tentative piano a minute into ‘Reunited’; the epic drum tones of ‘Cannon’; the strident intro to ‘Rock River’ and the gentle fades of ‘The Crash’ stand out. The spaces throughout that let the music breathe. My favourite track today is ‘The Flood’ for combinations of every aspect of Haiku Salut I love but tomorrow I might say something else.

Officially The General was released on 2nd August but CD copies were available at the end of April. In those three months I’ve listened to pretty much every genre of music but I return to this album almost daily and am still a long way from discovering all its concealed delights. I love this album.

Haiku Salut will be performing the live score at screenings of The General later this year in York (11 Sept), London Royal Albert Hall (19 Oct) and Leicester (18 Dec).

The General is available on Secret Name records.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Nightcap – a desiderium in a minor key

Those of you who were around Manchester in the early to mid-80s may recall a little place on Oxford Road called Pandemonium Records. Up a rickety wooden staircase was a trove of second hand rarities presided over by the eccentric George.

I may have spent too much time (not to mention money) there. In the end I found myself helping out and being paid mostly in stock. The discoveries I made… The Good Rats anyone? Diane Davidson? I wasn’t the only student doing this.

George also struck deals with local cinemas and venues to display posters in exchange for free tickets. I could probably have taken more advantage of this than I did.

But in June of 1984 there was a gig I fancied at Band on the Wall. Normally our pair of freebies for BotW each month specified a number of exceptions, gigs certain to sell out. Like The Enid who I suddenly realised were playing that very evening.

George was nothing if not a chancer though. Ring up and see what they say, he encouraged me. So I phoned from the shop. Eventually I got through to someone.

I explained the situation and what was the chance of tickets.

‘I don’t know. There’s not really anyone here to ask. I’m the drummer. Let me see if Robert knows.’

Checking Wikipedia I think it must have been Chris North I was speaking to, but I don’t have to look up the next person. The Enid founder Robert Godfrey came on the line. I explained the situation again.

‘So you are a second-hand record store? Have you got a copy of my solo album?’

As it happened I’d filed a copy away that morning. That might have been my prompt about the gig.

‘Fall of Hyperion? Yes we do.’

So Robert got directions and found his way to the shop to buy a copy of his own record. And offered to put me on his guest list for the gig. ‘Is there anyone you want to bring?’

‘What about Pippa?’ George said. Pippa also helped out in the shop, and lived near me in the toblerones, as our halls were nicknamed. ‘Take my car and pick her up.’ Robert agreed to wait.

So a rush down Oxford Road, a knock on the door, an invite, a quick change, and drive back to the shop later, Pippa and I joined Robert in a taxi to the venue.

‘They’re with me’ he told the doorman.

‘Right, but no more, ok?’

The Enid were one of those bands I knew as much by reputation as a great live act, as by their actual records. I’d maybe heard Tommy Vance play the odd session but not really absorbed it. Somehow I knew I should see them onstage though.

I was right. Their classical influenced prog was sometimes a bit thin for a NWOBHM kid like me in scruffy denim, but live it filled with bombast and majesty and epic. In a packed small venue it was strong stuff. Packed, hence the doorman’s concern about letting more in.

I don’t know what time I’d picked Pippa up, but it was late by the time The Enid came on and they played a long set. So it was around midnight when Robert Godfrey announced ‘I think it’s just into D Day now so we should play this.’ And they performed Elgar’s Nimrod to an ecstatic crowd.

Eventually it was over. Time to get home. A two mile walk, Pippa and I buzzing from the gig. I walked her to her flat. It was close to 2 a.m.

‘Do you want to come in for coffee?’ She asked. Pippa was tallish, slim, dark hair, attractive and chatty.

‘I don’t drink coffee’ I said. I was naive, inexperienced and awkward.

‘Tea?’ Nope.

‘I’ve got orange juice I think.’ So she drank her coffee and I sipped my orange juice and time passed. It was getting late now… so I said goodnight and went home to my flat a block away.

It was getting into exam time and I was struggling with my course. I failed and had to resit. By the time I dealt with that life had moved on. I occasionally went to Pandemonium Records the next year, but I don’t think I saw Pippa again.

It was long afterwards that I realised that a coffee might have been more than a coffee. Might have been.

June 5/6 1984. 35 years ago today. I wonder what might have been if I drank coffee?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Rock Goddess ‘This Time’ CD

‘Are you ready?’ Jody Turner screams as this album kicks in. 32 years after their third album Rock Goddess are back with a fourth. It’s been on repeat in my car for a week.

This Time features the original Rock Goddess line-up of the Turner sisters, guitarist/singer Jody and powerhouse drummer Julie, along with bassist Tracey Lamb. Soundwise it is still the classic NWOBHM power trio of the early 80s, but better.

It’s a simple formula, chunky riffs and shoutalong fist-punching choruses. A careful listen reveals depths that list RG above the herd. Take track two ‘Obsession’ where the riff pushes into Julie’s drum patterns at just the right point to emphasise a sense of pressure. Or the brief rumble of Tracey’s bass lifting Jody’s solo in ‘Why Do We Never Learn?’ Throughout the album I’m increasingly aware of the fluidity of Julie’s drumming. Rarely flamboyant but almost always nuanced and pinning everything above it in place. Mixing Tracey’s bass high helps too.

Then there’s the more melodic ‘Drive Me Away’ that almost but doesn’t quite break into an epic ballad album closer.

The other thing that lifts Rock Goddess above many others is the tenor of Jody Turner’s lyrics. Even back in her teens she explored a strong woman’s perspective on flawed relationships. Here she asserts her independence on ‘Flying To See You’ and turns the tables on ‘It’s My Turn’. Not clichéd man-hating or simple role reversal Jody’s characters reveal weakness as well as strengths, are driven by self-esteem more than rage.

Young Jody, although a distinctive vocalist, was occasionally prone to overdone screaming. This time she’s more in control, gravelly and breathy in turn, but belting the choruses.

It’s not the perfect album, ‘Why Do We Never Learn’ is probably the weakest song, despite the aforementioned solo. I like ‘Calling To Space’ but can’t quite work out what it’s saying. There’s a bit of repetition but simplicity can work, and many acclaimed albums are less varied. Quibbles though. This is an album I expect to keep coming back to when I need some classic new wobbum rawk!

And I am so looking forward to hearing these songs live this week.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Signal to Noise – Silvia Moreno-Garcia

You have to admire a novel that almost immediately but briefly digresses into a discussion of the best concept album ever* all whilst developing the protagonist’s harsh yet sympathetic personality.

Mercedes Vega or Meche returns to Mexico City for her father’s funeral, 18 years after leaving, 20 years after last seeing him. On the ride from the airport her cousin reminds Meche of an old friend, Sebastian, and buried memories resurface.

15 year old Meche is the awkward nerd with a love of music. Her friends Sebastian and Daniela similarly are isolated, linked as much by their differences as their similarity. Her mother is largely absent working, her father a musician and drinker. So Meche is loosely supervised by her grandmother who has oblique ideas around magic and witchcraft.

By chance Meche discovers that the record she played focuses a form of magic against a school bully. Angry thoughts listening to ‘Break On Through’ lead, in her mind, to the unexplained fall suffered by her bully on the stairs. She recruits Dani and Seb to experiment with old records in an abandoned factory.

“Guys, I just want to remind you I have to be home by seven,” Daniela said. “I’m also not allowed to do any Satanic stuff.”

Moreno-Garcia skillfully sketches characters through little, often humorous, asides. Amongst other qualities, Signal to Noise is frequently a funny novel.

Back in 2009 the funeral preparations reveal the relationship between Meche and her mother through the difference in their relationships with the late Vicente. Meche has buried him emotionally long ago. Natalia, remarried, still organises the wake, the party, the food.

The teen sections of Signal to Noise have a YA feel. The trio’s responses to school, other people and each other reflect youthful concerns. Fancying the boy who is out of reach, trying to find the right clothes with no money, worrying about being caught by parents. Meche argues with her mother about spending all her time with Sebastian. Sebastian ruminates on his poor family and being bullied. Daniela is ill and thus over-protected by her parents and longs for the freedom she thinks her friends have, but fears it too.

Sebastian wanted it. He wanted that corny, fabricated music video universe in which a couple could pop up from under the waves, water dripping from their bodies, embracing each other.

These moments, where Moreno-Garcia drops in reference to popular songs (in this instance Timbiriche’s Tu Y Yo Somos Uno Mismo) enrich Signal to Noise for me, both fixing the scenes in time/place/culture and developing the characters through their interaction with the music. They bring Meche and Sebastian to life by proxy. The novel could almost have a linked playlist for the reader so inclined.

Later, Meche reflects on Miguel Bosé’s hit Nena.

When Bosé sang about an impossible woman with an insatiable mouth and they fought — and rolled around the floor — it seemed gritty and true. A fucked up relationship, but fascinating all the same.

The 1988 settings show aspirations and anxieties in working class Mexico City. The 2009 scenes haven’t changed but the people have. Meche has, by leaving, changed everything she left behind.

In Mexico City everything returns. The rains and the past and everything in between.

Meche sees Sebastian across the street, neither acknowledges the other. She contacts Daniela but it is clear she begrudges her former friends putting an end to the magic and the friendship.

Why has Meche stayed away from her father for so long? How did the magic go wrong?

At one point Meche cautions against too much use of magic, yet we know she resents the end of it.

“It’s like reverse engineering.” …

“Umm… it’s when you lack the software specifications so you poke around the program interface trying to find the solution. That’s what we are doing with the magic.”

That, of course, is how the fantasy writer usually defines her magic. Working backwards from the results. Here it is also how Moreno-Garcia tells much of her story. It works because magic and music are, in this novel, both plot device and thematic device. The escapism and the empowerment they bring coincide for Meche. Her father was a musician, a would be writer on all things pop and Hispanic. Meche’s estrangements and attachments are tied this way. It creates an intriguing tension.

Ultimately the two strands are unbalanced; 1988 could exist without 2009 but not the reverse. The teenage adventures, bordering on teen cliché occasionally, are dynamic. The later scenes are predominantly introspective. Older Meche is unpleasant albeit understandably at times. The teenage desire to be attractive to the in-crowd, whilst simultaneously despising them, more identifiable.

Signal to Noise is a debut novel but by an experienced author and editor. It takes an unusual idea and builds on it, foregrounding her community, the people and the city above the magical conceit.

I’ve argued before that there is a difference between fantasy taking place in a city, and Urban Fantasy where the specific city environment is significant to the novel. It is hard to imagine translating Signal to Noise wholesale from Mexico City to New York or London without losing all personality and substance.

The throwaway details the author uses, like Sebastian getting too old for his supermarket bag packing job at 15, depict a culture not just a story. The tunes, their significance historically and personally, are introduced deftly too. Passing references build a bigger picture. Meche fancies blond Constantino not dark Sebastian but this contrast is dropped in not laboured.

Signal to Noise is fun, cleverly constructed and original. On those grounds I recommend it.

It is also significant in the nuanced depictions of poor, working class lives. Fantasy glosses over this a lot. Moreno-Garcia’s characters live it. We need books like this.

Note :

*he didn’t know Alan Parsons Project because they sang Games People Play from The Turn of a Friendly Card which, in her opinion was a very nice concept album. Not the best, but nice. The best was an easy pick. Most people would probably say the concept album of all time was The Dark Side Of The Moon, but Meche preferred The Kinks’ Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire). Her parents had met thanks to that album.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment