Ever After – Lisa Goldstein 

Fairytales have meanings. If you believe Betelheim, for instance, they are heavily laden metaphors for puberty & sexual awakening. If you look elsewhere you’ll find them described as consolatory fables by Calvino; offering hope of release from poverty and subjection.

From the late-60s at least, women writers have been revisiting fairytales and revisioning them. Anne Sexton in poetry, Josephine Saxton in SF and then most famously Angela Carter put new (or revisioned old spins on familiar stories.) Carter eroticised her versions, but others looked at other meanings.

Lisa Goldstein in ‘Ever After’ doesn’t take a specific tale and rewrite it. Rather she looks at the next step, the famous ‘happy ever after’. Her story begins at the wedding. The princess’ dress is too tight. She didn’t have money for a dress, it was chosen for her, even to being the wrong colour to match her eyes. She knows nobody. The ladies in waiting struggle with her accent. The Prince puts her to lessons: etiquette, manners and elocution to correct her “pretty little accent.” She joins the court ladies for needlework, which she is good at from sewing for her stepsisters, and gossip, which she knows nothing of. Everything happens to her.

Gradually she becomes isolated & lonely, until she receives a secret message from revolutionaries via a young harpist, Alison. Persuading Alison to give her harp lessons she makes a friend and learns new perspectives on the court and the king. Increasingly she is estranged from her prince, whilst his former love watches with the ladies of the court.

Goldstein throughout her work uses the telling of stories within stories to emphasise meaning and ‘Ever After’ is no exception. From the start, throughout her wedding day the princess is told her place:

“You’re very fortunate,” people told her, over and over again. “Very fortunate.” The princess had smiled and nodded, thinking, But what about him? Don’t they know how fortunate he is to have me?

On her first night with the Prince she notes:

Did he really think she knew nothing about what went on between a man and a woman? There had been nights, at home, when her stepsisters would talk of nothing else.

And in conversation with Alison she realises she is the subject of tales too.

“I know, my lady,” Alison said.

The princess stopped. Of course Alison knew. No doubt the whole country knew. No doubt Alison had even sung songs about the orphan who had married a prince.

Thus Goldstein makes explicit the storying involved. That the fairytale is not real but has real meaning.

As things worsen for the princess she turns to Alison who reveals that her boyfriend the revolutionary is planning something. Will Alison join him?

“…I think he doesn’t love the people so much as he loves himself. That if he does win a war he’ll set himself up as King and start all over again. And I’ve had all the dealings I want with kings.”

So Alison and the princess discuss disappointment, the absence of happy ever after. “You just keep going, that’s all. You do the best you can.” Alison says.

Meanwhile the ladies are gossiping, mocking ‘Cinder Girl’ (for this is after Cinderella in case we weren’t sure.) Their talk of Lady Flora, the prince’s ex-, is abruptly curtailed when the princess enters. Stories matter.

Goldstein has taken what AS Byatt calls the narrative grammar of fairytale and their matter of fact telling but deconstructed it. When the princess finally snaps and decides to escape it is not to join the revolution, what might seem a secondary instauration, but to recognise that the wrongness of the fantasy is in the premise. The justice of the ending is external to the story as told. The princess meets her godmother a final time, thanks her but says of happily ever after:

“I don’t want it,” the princess said. “Give it to someone else. Give it to Flora, she could probably use it.”

Marina Warner writes that “Fairytales evoke every kind of violence, injustice, and mischance, but in order to declare it need not continue.” (Once Upon a Time, introduction, 2014)

Lisa Goldstein has recognised that but challenges the Grimm-through-Disney assumption of the ending. From these familial tales to Tolkien’s Return of the King fantasy has rewarded its protagonists with instauration of a higher place. Goldstein steps outside, the princess regains happiness by rejecting the broken promise of happy ever after. In doing so Goldstein tells us that the stories we have always been told might not be for our best interests. And particularly for women, whether Alison or the Princess, agency is not given in these stories but in Goldstein’s version they sieze it joyously.


‘Ever After’ was first published in the December 1984 issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine but reprinted in Goldstein’s 1994 collection Travellers in Magic (Tor Books) As Goldstein notes in a brief afterword there are echoes of Charles & Diana here.

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New York 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson 

Kim Stanley Robinson’s fascinating and provocative 18th novel New York 2140 is set several decades after two major climate events have raised sea levels hugely.  Coastal cities are therefore largely underwater. New York is no exception. Robinson’s characters live co-operatively mostly in one building, the former Met Life skyscraper, but exist in a variety of colliding worlds outside.

In the comments on Adam Roberts’ Guardian review we find  the following exchange: 

Solarphysicist: Oh. What a stunningly original idea for a story. Yawn.

Robmatic: I’m not aware of any other novels that are set in a future flooded New York.

Here’s the thing though, despite Robinson’s just reputation as a (the?) leading climate change novelist, New York 2140 isn’t about climate change really. Or at least it’s about a lot more too.

Primarily it’s about economics. It’s a polemic about how and more pertinently why our market based economic systems fail and fail again. (Clue: it’s a feature not a bug.)  In this respect a novel set 123 years from now takes on the mantle of a historical novel.  

Each broad chapter in this 600+ page novel is, like the Met skyscraper, split into units focused on 8 character sets.  Mutt and Jeff, coders whose attempted hack on the financial systems precipitates the personal events of the novel; Inspector Gen Octaviasdottir, policewoman who looks into Mutt and Jeff’s disappearance; Charlotte, the lawyer & head of the Met residents; Vlade, building supervisor passionate about his work and nursing a dark past; Franklin, unscrupulous market trader gambling on his algorithms being ahead of the game, and it is a game; Amelia Black, globetrotting cloud sensation with a dirigible from which she films her beloved wildlife; and uneducated 12 year old orphan squatters with impulsive grand ideas Stefan and Roberto.  Each has their own interesting things to say about their world. And each we begin to care about as they grow in the novel. This compartmentalised structure maintains the flow of the novel and neatly disguises something. 

NY2140 is largely a novel with several plots of the conspiracy kind, but almost lacks an overt plot of the story kind.  It is episodic with moments of drama (no spoilers but for those who have read it, Amelia’s polar bears is probably the highest drama.)  Long time readers of Robinson will be aware that this is what he does frequently. He writes process rather than story in a way that makes the process appear to be the result.  NY2140 is a distillation of an approach that has recurred in his novels since Pacific Edge at least.  So where much SF is about something going wrong, for Robinson the crisis is a given.  Small, personal details go wrong, the overarching crisis is already present. The trick is the tying of the personal to the global somehow.

Robinson does this using a character not yet mentioned. Labelled variously ‘a citizen’; ‘that citizen’; ‘the citizen’; these sections explain in clear detail what goes on in market trading, what happens to the virtual money circulating. These sections are a form of Greek Chorus telling us what is happening alongside the sections showing us what happens.  Again this is not new in Robinson’s novels, Michel plays this role in the Mars series at times, the prisoner in Pacific Edge writing his novel, perhaps the whole future sections of Galileo’s Dream add to this.  What this does is allow Robinson to make a meta fictional statement.  Here, he says, you were told this would happen, and it did.  It allows a novel set 123 years from now to be a form of historical novel because these are the scenes where the past is explained. New York’s past, capitalism’s past, the ecological past. The citizen, or perhaps citizens, form meaning out of the chaos.  Amidst the many quotes used between chapters here one by Robinson’s former mentor Frederic Jameson is notable. In part it reads:

The great collective project has a meaning and it is that of utopia.  But the problem of utopia, of collective meaning, is to find an individual meaning. 

I’m about to state what seems glaringly obvious to me. Almost the entirety of Kim Stanley Robinson’s oeuvre is summed up in that statement. His great collective project has been to offer individuals meaning within utopia.  

In a 1994 interview he told me that in a utopia people can still die tragically, can still fall in love with the wrong person.  In New York 2140 he avoids that, or engineers ways around it. There is redemption.   This may be both his strength and his weakness.  We are pulled in to empathise with the cocky, arrogant Franklin, to dream with the boys event as we fear for them, to laugh at and with Amelia as she is both ditzy yet gets things done.  But, we need to ask, where is the edge? This New York has its villains seeking to protect their high-level con but no streetcrime. The universal but not the individual when it comes to the dark side.  It has ties to history, notably in the boys’ confidante Mr Hexter, this novel’s Tom Barnard perhaps, but is oddly detached geographically.  Despite Amelia’s peregrinations we rarely feel this New York is a part of a larger world.  Indeed Amelia’s role is most often to show off the one true science fictional element here, the balloon based cloud cities and cloud ecologies of which perhaps more could be explored elsewhere.

Amelia is involved in a couple of the more physically dramatic scenes here, as are Stefan and Roberto, but these are rapidly dealt with and moved on from.  There are typical Robinson set pieces, diving a sunken city, walking around describing the scenery, conversations about history, that serve to tie the land to the people. This has always appeared a key concern of his, but it doesn’t offer a broad dramatic impetus.  This is not to say there’s no drama, but it is mostly subtle such as Charlotte’s interactions with her ex partner, or almost comic relief in the boys’ scrapes and near misses.  The human things that continue to happen even in utopian scenarios.

Which brings me back to the historical novel.  One of the ironies of the historical novel is that, by and large, the reader knows what is going to happen. There are fixed points. The tension is either in the gap between the reader’s awareness and the characters; or in the journey to that fixed point.  The process.  Robinson’s favourite aspect. Both Science Fiction and the Historical novel have been described as being about the era they are written rather than the time they are set.  In NY2140 Robinson spends a lot of time talking about the past, about what led to the situation now.  Not the now of 2140 but the now of 2017.  The climate change events are glossed over as consequences of the economics of now.  The references to 2008, to Bernanke and Piketty, are our fixed points of history.  The novel is as much about what caused 2008 as about the climate or the future.  The structure is a repeating “I told you so.” to the world, the plot is a reassuring “we can rebuild it.”  

Even in choosing the Met Life building he alludes to history. Briefly the world’s tallest building, it replicates the Campanile in a sunken city we already know. Venice.  History ties this book together.

New York 2140 therefore is a science fictional attempt to take a historical perspective on very recent events.  It is Robinson’s boldest attempt to achieve that fusion of individual and collective meaning that Jameson talks of.  It is full of detail that do nothing to advance the story but do enhance the theme.  It is a novel that couldn’t be written by any other novelist.  Every chapter is soaked in familiar Robinson touchstones. This is a comfort, strength and weakness. The diving (way back to “Venice Drowned” or Green Mars); the wise old figure from the Three Californias, Frederic Jameson of course, and en passant a sly nod to Samuel R Delany alongside an overt reference to Octavia Butler. 

If the solutions seem almost too easy in the end, if our heroes find meaning as individuals and as collectives, well Robinson is a utopian, his optimism in the process, the journey, is infectious at times.  He conveys that very human need to be a part of something, but without losing individuality.  New York 2140 stands alone in his oeuvre yet is ineluctably central to it.  With one slight change of tack maybe. In the past Robinson tried to argue against himself, to debate within the pages of his novels.  That is reduced here, NY2140 is at its core a lecture, or perhaps a seminar, on economics. It is a book to pay heed to.  “I told you so” leading into a call to arms.

And it isn’t, in any meaningful sense, a climate change novel.  

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Winterreise — Andrew Foster-Williams, Christopher Gould and Mariele Neudecker — The Great Hall, Lancaster University

(Originally posted on The Lunecy Review, 20 November 2009.)

The high water mark of the second flowering of German Romanticism is the work of Franz Schubert, and in particular the song cycle Winterreise. Schubert’s setting of 24 poems by Wilhelm Muller tells the tragic story of a young man who travels to the human of a woman he loves, only to be rejected, and of his desolate ‘winter journey’ afterwards.

The German born but British based artist Mariele Neudecker has explored many of the themes of German Romanticism over her career, from early works reproducing the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich in three dimensions to her more recent film setting of Mahler’s kindertotenlieder. Her films comprising her Winterreise are both literal and metaphorical representations of Schubert and Muller and serve as a backdrop and complement to the performance of bass baritone Andrew Foster-Williams and pianist Christopher Gould.
As one of the audience told me afterwards, the combination of recital and film can be a mistake, one distracting from the other, but Winterreise gets it absolutely right. Foster-Williams is a great singer and he performs remarkably across a difficult, arduous work. 85 minutes with a furrowed brow almost, as he portrays the anguish and angst of Muller’s protagonist (himself an echo of Goethe’s The Sorrows Of Young Werther a generation earlier.) It should be noted that recordings of Schubert generally feature a tenor but the deeper voice has equal merits for me. Gould is a sensitive pianist, careful and responsive, coming to the fore in the Sturm und Drang mid sections, fading almost into the mist at other points. His rapport with Foster-Williams and supporting appreciation of both singer and visuals is near perfect to my ear.
As for the visuals themselves? Neudecker has consistently adopted a long view, and that is ever-present here. The films repeatedly look away from the observer (something seen in the paintings of Friedrich) placing us in the protagonist’s mind throughout. Looped film of a boat wake cutting through icy seas draw the eye both towards the departure point and, tellingly, under the ice. Snow covered streets change with the light yet remain essentially the same. Often elements of apparent interest are distant, mist-shrouded and ghostly. Each film takes an epigraph paraphrasing Muller, koan like, suggestive.
There has been much debate over the years about the ending of Winterreise. Muller depicts the appearance of a barefoot elderly hurdy-gurdy man, a scene open to multiple interpretations, and Neudecker maintains this ambiguity. I have my ideas; it is a tragic piece exploring dark emotions and the elemental sublime at the heart of Romanticism.
Winterreise was first made in 2004 and has been performed like this about 25 times since. Whether it is the art, the music or Romanticism that draws you along, the end result is a superb work worth revisiting. LICA are to be commended for bringing such world-class performers to Lancaster.

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The Museum of Shadows and Reflections – Claire Dean

(Unsettling Wonder, 2017)

Fantasy almost always admits to being Fantasy, always contains that moment of recognition of being story.  Fairytales are arguably more explicit on this point than other fantasies, being dependent on familiarity for affect.  

Claire Dean’s stories collected here have something of fairytale and fantasy about them, yet most also eschew that knowing declaration of story.  Here be, not dragons, but bird women, miniature cities and transformations.  Usually however, these fabulations don’t acknowledge anything magical.  In her best stories Dean makes the quotidian marvellous.  

Take opener ‘Raven’ where only the epigraph from Grimm even tentatively recognises anything abnormal about a baby transformed into a bird.  The narrator is more concerned with looking after what is still her child, than with how or why.

“I’d always said there was no way I was breastfeeding her once she got teeth. I hadn’t expected a beak.”

Birds in human form, or women in avian form, occur in Feather Girls too.  This matter of fact telling of a man meeting his feather girl date in a pub exemplifies one of Dean’s traits.  That defining characteristic of fairytale that Marina Warner identifies, the happy ending, has arguably already happened.  That recognition occurs outwith the text.  

“‘You have to catch their coats whilst they’re young.’ That’s was the saying he’d been brought up with”

But he has been meeting her for years, and he hasn’t trapped her. We get the feeling she would allow it but they don’t. There’s acceptance but an understated longing too.  

In subsequent stories Dean returns repeatedly to the idea of a miniature city or town being nested within our world.  Characters flow between here and what I want to call not-here rather than there.  ‘There’ is a specific place even when mysterious and unknown.  Claire Dean evokes a non-place, abstract and displaced from the world.  It is interstitial to such stories as “Growing Cities” and “Glass, Bricks, Dust” and particularly the poignant farewell to an old woman: ‘Stone Sea’ which reflects Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant.  That French surrealist anti-novel provides the quote prefacing these stories:

“New myths spring up beneath each step we take.”

If Claire Dean is creating new myths she sits in a long tradition of feminist writers retelling fairytales back through Le Guin, Saxton, Carter, McKinley, Goldstein, Winterson or Attwood.  Her way isn’t the eroticism or the assertive role changes of some of these writers or the overt retelling of the too familiar tale.  Like much of their work however these stories sit outside their putative genre.

Only ‘The Silent Kingdom’ and ‘The Woman Who Wore Frost Slippers’ fully adopt a fairytale voice with more generic characters identified as the princess, the old woman etc.  The former story lays bare its nature from the first line: 

“Once there was and there was not a Kingdom wrapped in silence.”  That sounds like a classic fairytale opening but then there’s that twist. Was and was not.  Fantasy and fairytale are generally self-contained. They work to internal rules that may not be our world.  Here Dean may have broken that, by telling us not to believe all we see.  The genre linkage are fractured and, I think, hesitant.  

Returning to the other stories here, Dean writes a clear, mundane detailed real world.  The descriptions are spare but precise.  As far as I can tell only two stories specify a geographical setting: the disturbing ‘Moth Light’ with its implied Manchester and feminist depiction of lost identity in a relationship; and the Blackpool seafront of the title story which liberates that lost identity.  Somehow many of the rest convey that universality of the run-down English resort without names. She utilises familiarity in the setting to ground the fantastic rather than contrast it.  This is clearly our world and clearly not our world.  “Once there was and there was not”   It is a world where things happen differently but not unexpectedly.  It is there and not-there. 

Claire Dean photograph by Kev McVeigh 

A baby is a wondrous thing, she is no more or less wondrous or loveable or anxiety-provoking for being a Raven at times. A date with a loved one is special regardless of her feathers.  A neglected memory is no more poignant for being a preserved living shadow in a museum.  

The fantastic element enhances the mimetic rather than the more usual reverse.  It is here that Claire Dean’s stories work best for me.  There are transformations in some stories but overall it is a change of viewpoint about something largely outwith the story.  Several stories imply a protagonist/narrator becoming what she initially was viewing and so looking out where she looked in. ‘Marionettes’ originally published as a Nightjar Press chapbook, is a particularly disturbing example. 

 There are anxieties and loss throughout the collection but there’s an acceptance of this too.  A sense of control and peace ultimately pervades the collection.  The stories are all short, (14 across 116 illustrated pages.) so whilst Wrongness isn’t always apparent even in the several stories of death, such as the drowned village of Chorden-under-water, there is Recognition which may not look like a happy ending Disney-style, but is often a Healing implicit beyond The End.  

Claire Dean’s stories are fairytales and fantasy and are not fairytales or fantasy. They balance on the cusp, reflecting or casting shadows.  Reflections are familiar but not quite right. So too are the northern coastal towns and people living in these stories. The stories are charming and poignant but disturbing too. They are short, rich in dark flavours, and memorable.  The Museum of Shadows and Reflections is a remarkable collection.  You cannot seek it out to buy it now, like the mysterious travel agency to another world, when you come back the next day, it is gone.*

Illustration by Laura Rae for ‘Feather Girls’

*The book was funded on advance orders and the publisher only printed enough for those who ordered.  So only 110 copies were made. Some of Claire’s work can be read here

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Albums of the year 2016 pt 2

Part 1 of the countdown of 2016 albums I liked also noted a few individual tracks and live albums.  Before I run down the top 15 there’s a couple of notable mentions that didn’t quite qualify by my arbitrary parameters.

Avital Raz reissued her settings of James Joyce to her indian inspired music now that the copyright issues expired.  In my mind it’s not a 2016 album but it is very much worth your attention . 

As always there are a few things I missed earlier in the year that I’m belatedly catching up on but don’t know well enough to rank here. Anohni’s new work seems richer than before and more to my liking but I’ve only properly heard a couple of tracks. The same applies to Iggy Pop, whilst the singles by Pixies sound good but not as immediate as they once did. Oliver Coates, Gaye Su Akyol, Modern Studies, NZCA Lines all intrigue me enough to investigate further.  And I very belatedly learned that Thalia Zedek  has a new band called E that sound fugazi-esque. Proof if it were needed that there’s plenty of amazing and diverse music around the world if we look for it.  

So that’s the near misses. Here’s the hits.

15. Minor Victories – s/t Shoegaze anyone?  Members of Slowdive, Mogwai and Editors combine to powerful effect.  Waves of guitars and Rachel Goswell ‘s vocals sometimes blend sometimes sit above each other but consistently excellent.

14. serpent with feet – blisters another EP but one with enough ideas for a dozen lesser albums.  Josiah Wise sings personal and fraught lyrics in a bold falsetto dripping with operatic and soulful melodrama whilst producer The Haxan Cloak experiments and explores soundscapes beneath.  The result is provocative and beautiful.

13. Meilyr Jones – 2013 a glib first impression has Jones pegged as a Welsh Jarvis but whilst there is a shared self-deprecating faux awkwardness to both of their personas Jones adds a rock classicism.  Personal lyrics incorporate allusions to other artists, blurring the boundaries of art and artist.  

12. David Bowie – Blackstar as with Leonard Cohen it’s impossible to separate this from Bowie’s death.  I wasn’t the biggest of Bowie fans but from first hearing the advance tracks it was obvious this was great.  Despite the carefully selected collaborators hindsight makes it an unusually personal Bowie album.

11. 65daysofstatic – No Man’s Sky a double album of songs (as much as 65dos do songs) and more abstract pieces from the video game No Man’s Sky .   Looped drums, prepared guitars, warmed electronics layer together. I’m beginning to realise that this is an album that gets more subtle with increased volume.  

10. Kojey Radical – 23 Winters This is art. Rap poetry visual art telling positive realistic revolutionary lessons. A 23 year old passing on his Ghanaian father’s wisdom with contemporary language, unusual rhythms and afro dub feel.  The sense of conversation here is what grabs me. 

9. Be – One It’s impossible to describe this Wolfgang Buttress without somehow diluting how remarkable it is. Guitars by Jason Pierce and others, Amiina’s strings & mellotron improvisation over the amplified live feed from beehives.  Droning but ever changing rhythms produce an intense meditative 4 part symphony unlike anything else you will hear.

8. Solange – A Seat At the Table her big sister maybe got more attention with Lemonade (which I liked) but this works better as an album.  In fact comparisons are a little unfair, the sisters are trying different things and both achieve their aims. Solange brings classic soul to 2016 and immediate relevant politics to the mix with great tunes and a great voice.

7. 75 Dollar Bill – Wood / Metal / Plastic / Pattern / Rhythm / Rock does what it says.  Complex percussion on minimal kit, African tuned Marquee Moon guitar freakouts lasting almost 15 minutes.  One to dance to or sit and soak up.  

6. The Comet Is Coming – Channel the Spirits serial collaborator Shabaka Hutchings brings lung busting tenor sax to a space funk party with drums that channel Tony Allen and motorik grooves in turn and wild electronics.  If Fela ever jammed with Kraftwerk and Can …maybe?

5. Beth Orton – Kidsticks more electronics (and guitars ) as Orton experiments more than her recent folkier work suggests.  There’s that gorgeous voice of course but she weaves it around tunes that echo her older work but take those echoes into strange new places. Dub and dance and pop and folk in one.  

4. Noura Mint Seymali – Arbina a Mauritanian vocal tour de force demanding better health care for women over psychedelic guitars opens this album.  Seymali updates griot traditional forms on the kora-like ardine whilst her husband’s guitar is modified to replicate Saharan sounds and swirling rock influences . 

3. Anna Meredith – Varmints OK any artist that gets people dancing to a tuba led piece deserves credit.  Meredith brings classical arrangements and dance energy together with bombast and subtleties.  The instrumental tracks continually throw in surprises like the electro hillbilly breakdown in ‘Vapours.’ The prog pop vocal pieces I was initially puzzled by grew on me.  

2. Ólafur Arnalds – Island Songs occasionally some piece of music has an impact such that you recall exactly where you heard it first.  I’d heard and enjoyed some of Arnalds pieces already but one Saturday morning lying in my tent at a festival listening to Mary Anne Hobbs’ show I heard ‘Öldurót’ and this album’s ranking was assured. A series of piano led and sometimes symphonic pieces inspired by islands around Iceland that are absolutely gorgeous and deeply evocative.

1. Shield Patterns – Mirror Breathing a well after midnight record if ever I heard one.  Pretty much straight in at number one from first listen. The most delicate, intricate yet ethereal, and crafted album of the year is paradoxically one of the most organic, free sounding too.  Warm electronics and deft fx seem to drift yet follow a rigorous pattern. That might be enough but then there’s Claire Brentnall’s deceptively guileless soaring vocals, like a less corporeal Kate Bush.  Richard Knox manages the neat trick too of filling these songs with sounds and leaving breathing space simultaneously.  Turn out the lights and lose yourself in this album.  

Here’s the official video for album closer ‘Glow’

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Albums of the Year 2016 pt1

Well what can I say about music in 2016.  A horrible year for losses from the legends to the lesser known and local musicians but a year for me of great gigs, amazing new discoveries and some excellent albums and individual tracks.

Floating Points whose excellent 2015 album Elaenia I heard too late for last year’s list not only played one of the live highlights of the year but released the magnificent epic single ‘Kuiper’.  Not quite enough to count as an album even at over 18 minutes but a definite high point.

Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie under his own name or as A Winged Victory For the Sullen seemed ubiquitous with new work and soundtracks but ‘The Few Of Us Left’ from the Salero soundtrack was the best.

Rozi Plain brought out an album of session tracks and remixes but led it with the deftly haunting ‘Marshes’.

I usually don’t consider live albums for these lists. They don’t often have new material even if they recast old songs in new forms.  It would be remiss of me however not to  acknowledge enjoyable and fascinating live albums from Kate Bush, Heart, Motörhead,  and Trembling Bells. Another great show this year was Public Service Broadcasting who also brought out a live album I’ve not yet heard.  A field of 5000 people cheering Jim Lovell’s voice from Apollo 8 is quite something . 

And so the countdown: all rankings approximate and fluctuating 

30. Heart – Beautiful Broken Yeah Heart.  Kicking off with the title track’s seriously chunky riffs and belting vocal into the gorgeous power ballad cover of Ne-Yo’s ‘Two’ and beyond.  

29. Case/lang /veirs – s/t that this is slightly less than the sum of its parts is purely down to the huge talents of these three incredible singers.

28. Let’s Eat Grandma – I, Gemini for a week or two this was on repeat.  A little over hyped because of their youth but strong enough to work.  Live their dark fairy-tale lyrics & creepy teen twin image is less effective.  

27. Voivod – Post-Society technically an EP but almost 30 minutes of heavy, innovative prog thrash including an interesting cover of ‘Silver Machine’.

26. Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids – We Be All Africans comeback (again) album from afro jazz veterans.  Soaring horns clash with funky drums.  

25. Dexys – Let The Record Show the cover album is usually derided as unimaginative but Kevin Rowland is no ordinary artist.  His previous album is one of the best this century, this isn’t quite that but the passion is undeniable.

24. Trembling Bells – The Wide Majestic Aire you know what you are getting with Trembling Bells. Glorious psych folk tunes.  Again just an EP or it might be higher up the list.

23. Jenny Hval – Blood Bitch the clue is in the title.  Hval’s theatrical art performance and exploration of blood metaphors will repay detailed study I’m sure, but if it wasn’t musically interesting too it wouldn’t be here.

22. Hidden Orchestra – Wingbeats  experimental classical strings & electronic music taking sampled bird flights and song for its base  (and bass) 

21. Glenn Hughes – Resonate the opening track is called ‘Heavy’ and that sums up the driving theme of this album. Hughes is heavy but soulful and his band do a convincing updated Deep Purple.

20. Aziza Brahim – Abbar el Hamada Sahrawi refugee Brahim is one of the strongest contemporary voices and an important West African figure. Her bluesy blend of traditional and modern backs political & human lyrics.

19. Salena Godden – Live Wire live performance poetry that is as passionate as it is crude as it is outspoken politically as it is jazzy as it is funny as it is moving. 

18. Cowtown – Paranormal Romance Leeds’ DIY jagged punk that says what it came to say clearly and refuses to outstay its welcome.  Where more hyped bands like Cabbage have a whiff of gimmick, Cowtown are witty and sharp.

17. William Bell – This Is Where I Live classic Stax in 2016 ? Yes please. The hugely underrated Mr Bell doesn’t sound 77 on this gorgeous soul record.

16. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker he knew it was coming and in his generosity he shared his wisdom and grace.  That voice got richer to match.  The title track especially is amongst his finest songs.  

(Part two the top 15 will follow soon)

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Leonard Cohen in 1988 at the RAH.

I remember it well, a cheap Bloomsbury hotel (and we’ll leave that line there…)

It was one of those nights, made of music, chance and love that come occasionally and rarely. It’s cold tonight and the world aches for many  reasons but I have a memory of hope that will have to do until true hope emerges again.

She was my first real girlfriend and we’d managed to get away for a couple of parentless nights in London.  I don’t recall that we had planned anything except the opportunity to share some private intimacy unrushed.  We found a cheap hotel and a copy of Time Out and that Leonard Cohen was in town.

She wasn’t the one to introduce me to Cohen but together our listening habits grew. ‘Winter Lady’ I suddenly remember was her favourite.  

We had to ask directions to the Royal Albert Hall but we got there, two young people more naive than we knew.  There were tickets available on the door.  “£9 for a restricted view or £12 for good seats.”  This, history tells me, was the start of a resurgence in Cohen’s popularity in the UK but we I think were a little surprised at a choice of tickets.  

We took the good seats.  The woman on the box office directed us. “Up the stairs to the left, door number 3.”  Only when we entered door 3 did we realise the obvious.  This was the Royal Albert Hall and we had a box.  There were four seats but nobody joined us.

Of course the view was great and the acoustics too.  The band entered and then the man in the suit.  “Dance Me To The End of Love” I remember as the opener. It remains one of my favourites but I don’t know what I remember of that performance. It was too soon in the set I was still stunned.  

We don’t always think enough on the musicians beside the great songwriters. A few songs in John Bilezikjian played an extended melodic introduction on the oud before “Who By Fire.”  The delicate picking offering space to the incantatory lyrics.

I remember asking my girlfriend what one song was, it was from an album I didn’t know so well back then.  “The Gypsy’s Wife” she whispered. 

And at one point a voice shouted a request.  Someone replied “Shut up!” 

Cohen paused “Are you speaking to me or to your friend?” Gently chiding with the gravitas of that voice and his distinctive wry self-deprecation.  

From our box we saw the band laid out beside the singer, participants in the waltz.  I may be projecting from 28 years later but it feels like there was when I began to understand how songs breathe.  “Bird On A Wire”, “Everybody Knows”, “Famous Blue Raincoat” that we now loved in Jennifer Warnes’ cover.  The backing singers Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen, beautiful and slinky in little black dresses alongside the handsome man in a suit, had a musical chemistry with Cohen. I remember glances between them.  And later I recall a Tanita Tikaram interview where she talked about this same concert and observed that she was sure he was sleeping with at least one of the singers.  

But then he spoke and you could hear his smile:

About a thousand years ago I was living in a hotel in New York City. A brief murmur of anticipation. Those were simple times. In the mornings and in the evenings I used to ride the elevators. It was about the only technology I could master in those days. Laughter. 

After a while I began to notice a young woman riding the same elevators and she seemed to take the same pleasure in pushing the buttons as I did.  After a few days I picked up the courage to ask her:

“Little lady, are you looking for somebody?”

And she replied: “Yes. I’m looking for Kris Kristofferson.”

A wave of laughter sympathetic to Cohen’s self-deprecating plight.  

“Little lady, ” I said, “you’re in luck. I’m Kris Kristofferson.”  Cheers now.

Well those were generous times, and she didn’t let on that she knew I wasn’t tall enough to be Kris Kristofferson.  

A few years later I was sitting in a bar in Miami, the sort of place with palm trees all down the street but they serve the drinks in plastic coconut shells. The sort of place I hope I never bump into you.  Thanks, I think.

That young woman’s presence came back to me strongly and I wrote this song for Janis Joplin in the Chelsea Hotel.

I don’t know if it was common knowledge that “Chelsea Hotel #2” is about Janis but it was new to me and to my girlfriend.  It remains a favourite from that night for that introduction. 

What else do I remember? It was the I’m Your  Man tour and Cohen seemed (from a distance to make eye contact with women in the front rows during the supllicatory title song.  His whispers built and filled the hall for “Tower of Song” then the band took over to swirl through “Take This Waltz.”

There was an interval after which Cohen performed a couple of songs solo. “The Partisan” and others.  More classics, “Suzanne” of course, and “Hallelujah” though that was just another great Leonard Cohen song. (“He changed the words” my girlfriend noticed.)

There were others, encores and applause and a prayer in song poetry “If It Be Your Will.”

I remember we barely spoke as we left the auditorium. Walking to the tube people seemed stilled by the experience. I remember that feeling. 

It was June 1988 and the relationship with that girlfriend barely made it into the following year. That’s all, I don’t think of her that often.

The night we saw Mr Cohen, I can’t forget.  Thank you sir.  Goodnight. 

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