Saturday 28 December 2019

Albums of the Year 2019

I don’t really feel qualified to compile any kind of authoritative or exhaustive list this year, as there is such a lot of new music I haven’t heard, and I’ve spent a good amount of my 2019 listening time listening to music that wasn’t released in 2019. But, in the nick of time, here goes. The order doesn’t really mean much, especially as you get nearer the bottom, and could easily change depending on how much more I listen to the works and live with them (or even which ones I’ve listened to most recently). So it’s all a bit arbitrary. Judging from other lists here, it looks like I have a lot of catching up to do. 

1)     The Delines – The Imperial 

2)     Bob Dylan – The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings

3)     Sunn O))) – Life Metal 

4)     black midi – Schlagenheim

5)     Various Artists – Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980 -1990

6)     Hildur Guðnadóttir – Chernobyl [Original TV Soundtrack]

7)     The Flaming Lips – King's Mouth: Music and Songs

8)     Angel Olsen – All Mirrors 

9)     Fontaines DC – Dogrel

10)  Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains

11)  Leonard Cohen – Thanks For The Dance

12)  Oh Sees – Face Stabber

13)  King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard – Infest The Rats’ Nest

14)  King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard – Fishing For Fishies 

15)  Swans – Leaving Meaning 

16)  The Quiet Temple – The Quiet Temple

17)  Nilüfer Yanya – Miss Universe

18)  Chromatics – Closer To Grey

19)  Ohtis – Curve of Earth

20)  Richard Hawley – Further

Bubbling Under:

Joan as Police Woman – Live at the BBC

Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow 

The Felice Brothers – Undress

Robert Forster – Inferno

Slowthai – Nothing Great About Britain

Films of the Year 2019

I’ve already posted my Albums of The Year (a list that could already do with substantial revising.) Here’s my Films of the Year, 2019.

1)         US

2)         Dolor Y Gloria

3)         The Border

4)         Marriage Story

5)         Amazing Grace 

6)         Knives Out

7)         Ash Is The Purest White

8)         Maradona

9)         Joker

10)       Burning

Bubbling under: The Souvenir, Woman At War, Hustlers.

I didn’t like Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir at all the first time I watched it, but I really liked it the second time. So why did I watch it a second time if I didn’t like it the first time? Well, there must have been something there that drew me back, even if it was only to find out why I didn’t like it, and a nagging thought that there was more to it than I was getting. Which, happily, there is. Not enough to put it in the Top Ten, mind. It’s slow and episodic, and demands commitment and concentration and attention to bring out its nuances. It can even seem self-indulgent at times. But even if it makes few concessions to the audience entertainment-wise, it is worth the effort. I kind of watched it is fragments the second time, which may be the ideal way to watch it. Like reading a novel, do it a chapter or two at a time. 

Many of the films which are featuring heavily on critics’ end of year lists I either thought were so-so, or downright crap. In the ‘it is what it is’ former category: The Irishman, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Birds of Passage, Monos, Holiday.

I didn’t think much of In Fabric – fairly vacuous. Long Day’s Journey Into Night was all style and no substance – a bit like the dreams it purports to represent, although in my opinion there is lot more to dreams than beautiful but insubstantial images (see Maggie Lee’s excellent review in Variety, the only one that nails it, even if it goes against the critical consensus). And Midsommar was a downright utter campy hoot fest – not its intention, I think. 

Her Smell was alright, Vox Lux not so much so – even if it had more of a story to it. I still have to see an indie film which deals successfully with the experience of the indie music scene, or contemporary commercial pop music. Both of these films suffer from the same problem that beset Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank: they come across (at least to me) as a straight’s idea of what it much be like being in an indie band. “They’re all fucking crazy.” Why do all film makers think all rock/pop stars are obnoxious, narcissistic egomaniacs? I’m not saying some aren’t, but the constant negative representation is irksome. Some of the nicest people I know are or have been in indie bands (myself included). The thing is, you don’t get to rise in that business if you have a bad reputation as being an asshole (unless you have an overnight mega hit which places you in a protective bubble). Most of the time you’ve got to make nice to get anywhere. 

My Best Gigs of the Year to follow shortly.

Tuesday 19 November 2019

Will by Will Self

I pause to record that a book review of mine appeared in the paper of record last Saturday. Here is a slightly fuller version.


By Will Self
(Penguin Viking)
In case it has escaped your notice, personal memoir is the preferred mode de nos jours, to the extent that one wonders why anyone would now be bothered going to the very great trouble of doing anything as trivially transparent and plain old-hat as making stories up. Fiction writer and sometime T.V. personality, Will Self, has clearly sensed the current mood, and decided it is high time he got in on the act too. But if Will is to deliver himself of his tuppence worth, what is his (fairly) Unique Selling Point in this sea of self (lower-case) -confession? Why, his years in the throes of addiction, with particular emphasis on his intravenous drug use. 
  Notable antecedents are signalled as enabling touchstones from the get-go. The epigraph is courtesy of Aleister Crowley’s Diary of a Drug Fiend, ‘Brother Bill’ (Burroughs) dutifully gets a namecheck as early as p.2, and there are allusions to Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
  The Crowley quotation runs along the lines of Rimbaud’s ‘This I is another’: ‘I’ve often thought that there isn’t any ‘I’ at all; that we are simply the means of expression of something else; that when we think we are ourselves, we are simply the victims of a delusion.’ This sentiment sanctions Self writing about himself in the third person throughout, e.g. ‘Will thinks…’, ‘Will goes…’, Will suspects…’, etc. When coupled with the frequent use of the past perfect tense, this device creates an oddly distancing effect, which can impair the immediacy of the prose. 
  Like most of us, Self had a less than idyllic childhood, verging on the miserable, marred in this case by the war of attrition between his feuding parents. His father, some sort of ill-defined academic, is characterised as a ‘pontificating Polonius’, while his mother, who worked as a publisher’s editor, is best remembered for her hoary old homilies, repeated like some tragic chorus at regular intervals during the narrative: ‘waste not, want not’; ‘don’t care was made to care’. Fortunately, domestic disharmony is not depicted, in some facile pop psychological join-the-dots Self-diagnosis, as directly responsible for Will’s unhappiness, and subsequent drug use – not even when instances of Self-harm, featuring Wilkinson’s Sword razor blades and cigarette burns, are recounted. (Sorry for all those upper-case S’s, but they virtually write themselves.)
  The book divides into five sections, spanning the years from May 1979 to August 1986, and taking in Will’s late adolescent schooldays and early adult university career at Oxford. The fourth segment, beginning in April 1984, is a diversionary travelogue detailing time spent in Australia (where his father, with new wife, is now lecturing) and India (where he is to rendezvous with Caius, one of his trust fund, junkie, university buddies), destinations Will decamps to in a spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to get off smack. Elsewhere, drug and alcohol escapades around London and Oxford are presented, along with the daily grind of scoring, and finding the money to score. However, possibly because Self has always been more interested in ideas than characterisation, other people are not imbued with much sense of reality, but are instead sketched in the broadest of strokes. On the other hand, this could be construed as a reflection of the addict’s inherent solipsism.  
  All of which inevitably leads to the time spent in rehab, financed by his careworn and unravelling mother, which predominates the final portion of the tome. Will is, of course, too clever to be taken in by what he describes as The Programme’s ‘bogus syncretism of evangelical Christianity and sub-Freudian psychotherapy’, and finds the group’s methods of ‘confronting’ and ‘giving strong feedback’ to be nothing more than simple ‘bullying’.  Thus, he is deemed to be merely ‘complying with’, rather than ‘believing in’ The Programme. Ultimately, what makes him ‘turn his life around’ is the same realisation all surviving addicts have: if he doesn’t stop, he will die. And so he exerts his Self Will, and goes on the wagon – at least for a while.
  But that’s the problem with this rambling and random, overlong yarn: as John Cooper Clarke has remarked, when deflecting questions about his own lost decade, “All junkies’ stories are the same.” At least Burroughs’ blatantly autobiographical debut (an anomaly in all his subsequent work) ended with an essay which attempted to recalibrate the psychosocial explanation of addiction away from the standard medical model of deep-seated trauma resulting in psychological distress, towards viewing it simply in terms of ease of availability and physiological dependence. Similarly, knocking satire out of treatment programmes and the recovery industry has been done previously many times and better, for example in A. L. Kennedy’s gruelling novel Paradise. Furthermore, in this context it is pertinent to ask: given the vagaries of human memory, to say nothing of intentional dishonesty, how true and reliable are memoirs anyway? Maybe imaginative literature gives a greater truth (and let’s not even get started on spurious terms like ‘creative non-fiction’, or ‘life writing’.)
  In a sense, given the bizarrely inventive nature of much of his fiction, Self is too smart to be writing this sort of book. What’s more, he knows it, and it shows. Even he seems, at times, rather bored by the endless round of copping, shooting, copping. Which prompts the question: why is he writing about it, without saying much that is new? Contractual obligations, perhaps? Let the reader decide.  

Saturday 27 July 2019

Marilyn and Me

By Ji-min Lee
The Korean War (1950-1953) is commonly referred to in the Anglophone world as ‘The Forgotten War’, which apart from the more obvious question ‘Why?’, also prompts the query ‘By whom?’ 
  The ‘Why?’ has several credible explanations, foremost among which is that, sandwiched between the euphoric rectitude of the ‘Just War’ victory over the forces of evil in World War II, and the nadir of the moral bankruptcy and humiliation of ‘The War That Wasn’t Won’ of Vietnam, the Korean hostilities have been consigned to a footnote in American history. This is to underestimate grossly its importance: not only as the first major conflict and carve-up along Cold War lines, which still resonates today in the Trump administration’s agitation over North Korea’s nuclear capability; but also because of the sheer devastation it caused the war-torn country. Between three and four million people lost their lives, as many as 70% of whom were civilians. Destruction was particularly acute in the North, which was subjected to over two years of sustained American bombing, including the first use of napalm. Roughly 25% of Korea’s prewar population was killed. Damage was also widespread in the South, where Seoul changed hands four times. Furthermore, technically, the war has never ended: the fighting stopped when North Korea, China and the U.S. reached an armistice in 1953, but South Korea did not agree to it, and no formal peace treaty was ever signed. Ironically, the Forgotten War is still going on.
  As for the ‘By whom?’, it would appear the answer is ‘Everyone, except the North Koreans.’ Largely elided from American historical discourse, and too painful to be passed on to younger generations of South Koreans by those who survived, in the popular consciousness the most significant fact about the Korean War is that for four days in 1954, Marilyn Monroe entertained American troops stationed there.
  All of which preamble is only important for our purposes here because this war and its aftermath is the world inhabited by the heroine and first-person narrator of this novel, Alice J. Kim – real name Kim Ae-sun. The novel opens in Seoul in February 1954, just over six months after the armistice, but with military tensions still high, American troops present in force, and the country itself completely devastated. Alice, now in her late twenties, who was an artist and something of an intellectual before life-altering events overtook her during the war, is working as a typist on the U.S. base, where she is the only Korean woman making a living off the American military without being a prostitute – although everyone assumes that she is. ‘Only whores or spies take on an easy to pronounce foreign name.’ 
  With Japan’s surrender to America at the end of WWII, America occupied the ex-Japanese colony of Korea, but for Alice, ‘Everything remained the same, except the flag flying in front of the former Japanese Government General of Korea building had changed from the Japanese flag to the American one.’ This observation should find resonance locally, where we are often told that the only change in post-Independence Ireland was that postboxes changed colour from red to green.
  When Marilyn Monroe takes time out from her Japanese honeymoon with Joe DiMaggio to tour Korea, Alice is selected as her translator, because of her trilingual skills. With her prematurely grey hair which she dyes with beer, her fraying lace gloves that hide (self-inflicted) burn marks on her hands, and the memories she fears will engulf her, Alice is – in contemporary parlance – suffering from PTSD, and so initially subdued in the presence of the famous Hollywood starlet. ‘War had killed the love and hope and warmth within me, but it had also spared me. I covered my face with my hands, sobbing out the last bit of love to shore up the life remaining inside.’ But as these two women form an unlikely, temporary friendship, the story of Alice’s traumatic experiences in the conflict emerges, and when she becomes embroiled in a sting operation involving the entrapment of a Communist spy she is forced to confront the past she has been trying so hard to repress. 
  The narrative alternates between 1954 and the years 1947-50, and much of Alice’s current suffering is related to her pre-war, personal love life. Her two ex-lovers, who reappear in her post-war present, are married writer Yo Min-Hwan, and Joseph Pines, an American spy posing as a missionary. They form a naïve ménage a trois, which ends abruptly when she betrays one with the other. But she is also haunted by her failure to protect two little girls in her charge during the strife, Yo’s daughter Song-ha, and Chong-nim, an orphan ‘who grabbed my hand trustingly as we escaped Hungnam amid ten thousand screaming refugees.’
  Alice is a suicide survivor who is planning another attempt, but who comes to realise before it is too late that she is not necessarily responsible for the survivor guilt which is crippling her. Obviously written with an eye to possible filmisation (Lee is a successful screenwriter in her native country), hardly a word is wasted in this beautifully written short novel, especially during the early scene-setting sections. However, the cathartic effects, delineated in the denouement, of Alice’s time with Marilyn, are at best tenuous and at worst contrived. It is telling that the only way to get a Western audience interested in a neglected international episode in which the West was involved, is to drag in one of its most legendary cultural icons, kicking and screaming, rather than focusing solely on the validity of an indigenous woman’s experiences. But maybe that was a calculated compromise, deemed judicious. The work is, nevertheless, a necessary and timely act of reclamation and remembrance for the so-called Forgotten War.

First published in The Irish Times, 27/07/2019

Monday 8 April 2019

From The Irish Times, 30/04/2019

Minor Monuments

By Ian Maleney
(Tramp Press, €15 p/b)
The writer of this loosely connected debut collection of essays, around the themes of home, memory and belonging, has been plying his trade as a freelance arts correspondent based in Dublin for several years, and is indeed a sometime contributor to this newspaper. However, his origins lie in the much maligned ‘fly over country’ of the midlands – Co. Offaly to be precise – and it is the thug and pull of metropolitan cultural life against the old ways of the small family farm on the edge of a bog which informs the mood of these meditations. 
  One can hardly mention the word ‘bog’ in the context of contemporary Irish letters without a nod to Seamus Heaney, and in ‘A Kind of Closing Cadence’ Maleney writes movingly of what Heaney has meant to him as an enabling influence: ‘For me, Heaney’s success was evidence that the kind of inconsequential rural place I know best could still be worth writing about, and that the touchstones of my parochial upbringing could be made relevant, even telling. It also showed me that my relationship to that place need not be straightforward.’ At first sight it seems strange that Patrick Kavanagh, another writer with a vexed rural/urban relationship, does not get a look in, but stony grey soil differs substantially from marshland, and it is the metaphor of the bog as a repository of familial and communal memory that inspires Maleney. From this muddy foundation emerge the other supporting structures of his book: the loss of memory and identity brought about by his grandfather John Joe’s slow succumbing to Alzheimer’s Disease, and the recording of sound (and, briefly, the taking of photographs) as modes of memory preservation. These deep excavations of ‘bog’ take its connotations far further than the one word signifier it frequently operates as for Dubliners born and bred, like myself, for ‘anywhere beyond the pale’.   
  Maleney studied sound engineering in college, ‘but the promise of that idea had faded by the time I’d finished.’ Growing increasingly dissatisfied with the conventional studio recording of ‘songs’, where the results are often overly predetermined at the expense of the aleatoric ‘happy accidents’ of the process itself, Maleany develops an interest in capturing found sounds, from the modulation of church bells ringing in the distance to the rustle of wind through trees. In this pursuit his guide is English musician and writer David Toop’s book Haunted Weather, which leads him in turn to Brian Eno’s foundational ambient album Discreet Music, which becomes another touchstone.   A more in-depth exploration of why he abandoned sound engineering might have proved fruitful: after all, many of the techniques he favours have now been absorbed into even mainstream recording. Likewise, some engagement with Jacques Attali’s seminal Noise: The Political Economy of Music, which shares many of his concerns, could also have been beneficial. 
  ‘Ambient’ and ‘environment’ are derived, of course, from the same etymological root, and the real breakthrough comes when Maleney hits on the idea of documenting his grandfather’s gradual disintegration, ‘…of trying to record John Joe in whatever ways I could. To track the situation in which he found himself, to follow it in a way that was not rigid, not predefined, but entirely sympathetic, alert to the contours and pressures of his particular atmosphere.’ Thus, the vaguely theoretical finds a practical, personal application, and something abstractly universal is given relevance in the local.
  John Joe’s memory proves tricky terrain for the memoirist, however, and not just because of encroaching Alzheimer’s. Like all of us, his recollections are embellished over time, so that the incidents he is struggling to hold on to may not be factually correct at all. For instance, his account of his sister Chrissy’s departure for America, aged fourteen, does not tally with that of Chrissy herself. ‘John Joe had recalled his sister’s leaving so many times, and over such a long period, that it became mostly fiction.’ Similarly, when Maleney is commissioned to write a feature about the Lough Boora Parklands, site of an old Bord na Móna bog, John Joe bonds with his grandson, recalling working at Boora for almost twenty summers. But it transpires that John Joe never worked in Boora, but ‘…in Blackwater, a bog near the banks of the Shannon, twelve or thirteen miles west of Boora.’ Is this another misremembrance, or the disease going about its baleful business?
  The book takes an interesting left turn in a section entitled ‘Machine Learning’, which discusses the work of scientists John Von Neumann and Alan Turing on artificial intelligence, the boons and vagaries of mechanistic memory storage, and the nature of consciousness itself. A deft invocation of Susan Sontag’s Illness As Metaphorintroduces the most insightful writing on Alzheimer’s and its significances: ‘The primary effect of Alzheimer’s is to make a person utterly useless to their networks…It is a disintegration of personhood. It is a type of death. The process of withdrawal in not something that happens overnight, and it is the drawn-put nature of Alzheimer’s which sparks some of the strongest fear. It is a fear of prolonged humiliation. The patient is, in some deeply abhorrent way, out of control. When the possibility of memory storage disappears, with it goes the ability to either interpret or communicate any information received. In the eyes of others, they may become irrational beings who can no longer follow the same logical steps as everyone else.’
  As the book ends, with John Joe’s funeral, Maleney realises that he would exchange all his knowledge and experience of the world beyond his home place for what John Joe had accumulated in his eighty-three years by the bog, and that he wants ‘…to be part of a community rather than a network.’ But he is also ominously aware that ‘If you try to go back, you will find that nothing is the same. The road vanishes as you walk it.” 
  Despite the acknowledged ‘performative self-narration’ of the youthful excesses of his foray into music journalism (reports of the Death of Rock Music – even if they concern Noel Gallagher – are always premature, if not greatly exaggerated) Maleney is, at least, an honest writer who has written a brave and thoughtful book, which makes him a worthy successor to his esteemed grandfather’s mantle.