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Mike Cormack (Aberdeen UK)

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The Beautiful Room Is Empty (Vintage International)
The Beautiful Room Is Empty (Vintage International)
by Edmund White
Edition: Paperback

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Literary Magic, 9 Jan 2007
This is a remarkable book. The second in Edmund White's autobiographical trilogy (following "A Boy's Own Story", a growing-up-gay novel, and succeeded by "The Farewell Symphony", about the onset of the AIDS crisis), this follows the un-named narrator through his days at a prep school, through college and into New York, up until the Stonewall Riots.

What I find particularly enjoyable about White is the lushness of his prose; it's so sensually enjoyable, comparable to Nabokov. It really brings alive the physical sensations of the narrator, whilst there is an intellectual ballast to the novel which is equally prominent but never overwhelming. White is as comfortable dealing with ideas as he is with physical descriptions, a rare combination. There is a trajectory of increasing warmth throughout, starting from the "deep freeze" of the prep school, which only ever seems to be in Winter, and the art students nearby are wonderfully described as working alone in the cold, with mittens to warm their hands, an apt metaphor for the isolation of intellectuals and artists in the Eisenhower 50s.

As he progresses through college, things heat up, literally and metaphorically; he meets people that help him to develop, and he starts to at on his sexual compulsions, although still in a solitary and loveless fashion. College life, the fraternities and faculty life are skillfully evoked, characters always vibrant - "Mick" is particularly memorable, as is William Everett Hunton.

But the most important character is Lou, an addict and writer, an introduction to bohemia. Like Allen Ginsberg, although from a completely different tradition, White is remarkably unselfconscious about describing sexual activity, with an unflinching eye. Their relationship, with its various tumults, provides the backbone of the novel, as only Lou can fulfill him both intellectually and physically. The ending, during the Stonewall riots, marks the passing of the era of "gay shame", though it does seem a little pat and neat.

This is a wonderful novel, full of life, ideas, memorable characters, unflinching self-analysis, evocative passages, sensual desrciption, and a vitality that keeps you returning to it. It's not "a gay novel" but a brilliant bildungsroman about a man who is gay - and a brilliant read.

Decade Of Aggression
Decade Of Aggression
Offered by MUSIC4SURE
Price: £14.52

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Live evil!, 7 Jan 2007
This review is from: Decade Of Aggression (Audio CD)
Released after "Seasons In The Abyss", this was a stop-gap before "Divine Intervention", but also seems to mark the end of the forwards progression in Slayer's music - the albums afterwards seem to recycle things they'd done already. This may be understandable (Iron Maiden have only ever really done two kinds of album, for example) but it does, to me at least, make "Decade Of Aggression" more a tombstone than a bookmark.

However, the first disk is really outstanding. It's rare for a live album to really capture the atmosphere, but hearing the "Slayer! Slayer!" chant fade in, and then the slow build-up of "Hell Awaits", really does give that feeling of sadistic malevolence they excel at. The numbers are quick-fire and one classic follows another - "The Anti-Christ", "War Ensemble", "South Of Heaven" and so on. The dual-soloing of Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman are as reliably incisive and telepathic as ever, whilst Tom Araya has tough work with the falsetto screams of the "Show No Mercy" songs, but he makes up for it with a butcher approach.

The first disk ends on the high note of the classic "Angel Of Death". However, the second disk is really only for hardcore fans, as it's the less well-known tracks - i.e. the less good ones, and they tend to get a little repetitive. Slayer still riff with maximum power and aggression, there just aren't the dynamics or melodic invention to make the songs as good. I guess they decided to do a "Greatest Hits Live" disk then one for die-hard fans, because the gap in quality is so pronounced.

However, this album is easily worth the money for the first disk alone, which has the raw power and brute force of Slayer live, and acts as a best-of for the classic Slayer albums, from "Show No Mercy" to "Seasons In The Abyss".

The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion
The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion

4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Southern Fried Blues Rock!, 6 Jan 2007
The Black Crowes were one of those bands who really only had one great album (like Tricky and the Fun Lovin' Criminals), and this was the one for the Black Crowes. Less immediately commercial than their previous album, the breakthrough "Shake Your Money Maker", this album distills their musical taste to a far purer degree and comes out a far superior effort.

It starts with the kicking, rollicking blasters "Sting Me", which acts as a mission statement - "If you feel like a riot then don't you deny it", and "Remedy". But they artfully change tack and follow this with the gentlest tune, "Thorn In My Pride" and a similar "Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye" which has a quietly vicious lyric. The songs thereafter increase in tempo and intensity, with the guitar solo on "Bad Moon" memorable for it's feeling of frustration that can't work its way clear. The album peaks with "My Morning Song", a soaring, uplifting song with wonderful slide guitar by Rich Robinson. There's a denouement of "Time Will Tell", a spare accoustic number, hardly a song but a singalong, but which closes the album effectively after the peak of "My Morning Song".

The feel and style of the album is a 1970s, Southern Rock album. It doesn't open new avenues or break new ground, but it's a great listen, for all that - one of the album's of the year in the 1992 rock press. Well worth getting!
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 11, 2010 12:16 PM GMT

Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers: From Structuralism to Postmodernity
Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers: From Structuralism to Postmodernity
by John Lechte
Edition: Paperback

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dazzling Erudition, 4 Jan 2007
This is a remarkable book. John Lechte takes the reader through the key thinkers, not just in philosophy but also in linguistics, literature, and semiotics, and is catholic enough in his selection to allow influential thinkers that are not necessarily "modern", such as Nietzsche and Saussure. The thinkers are divided not chronologically - although there is a degree of that - but by school, such as early structuralism, post-structuralism, semiotics and post-modernism, while emphasising the individual flavour of each thinker.

Most importantly, Lechte does not merely give a bald resume of the thinkers most important points, but critically engages with some aspect of his/her work. This gives the reader the sense that the critical engagement with the writers is an ongoing matter and that the debates are still to be settled, and also a way into debates concering writers that may seem opaque or difficult to come to grips with.

If you are interested in the ideas of the modern age, especially from a social sciences perspective, then this is an ideal introduction to key "names" and the ideas and debates centred around them. This book is wonderfully erudite, concise, and engaging.

Misery (King Classics)
Misery (King Classics)
by Stephen King
Edition: Paperback

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Literary King, 3 Jan 2007
This review is from: Misery (King Classics) (Paperback)
In the introduction to the "Bachman Books" where King 'fesses up to his pseudonym, he says that if Bachman had not been found out, he would have published "Misery" under that name. I find this almost incredible - a novel of this literary quality would have been sidelined into the small niche that was Richard Bachman books (although, I have to say, my local library used to have a copy of "Thinner" that was published before King was outed). Then again, it may have been an attempt to gain Bachman a highbrow appreciation that was always eluding King. This seems quite possible given the theme of this novel.

Paul Sheldon is a novelist who craves highbrow success but is best known for romances about a woman called "Misery". After completing a

non-Misery novel, and after consuming a celebratory bottle of champagne, he drink-drives and crashes in the Rocky Moutains, only to be saved by a psychotic fan, Annie Wilkes, and nursed whilst captive in her home. When she discovers that Paul had killed off Misery, she forces him to write a sequel that brings her back to life. "And so begins the thousand and one nights of Paul Sheldon", he thinks.

This premise allows for some excellent thinking about the nature of literary celebrity and the dividing line between "fiction" and "literature" (which King has written about, rather tetchily, before - note that he is always presented as a yarn-spinner rather than a Writer). As well as that, this novel is metafictional - it's fiction about fiction, a postmodern idea if there ever was one, and so King describes the nature of story-telling and how reality, so diffuse and so untidy, always differs from the neat possibilities of fiction. King always grounds his fictions in the utmost reality so that the larger implausibilities (haunted cars, pets rising from the dead, etc) do not seem ridiculous, so this is also a craftsman reflecting on the nature of writing.

The two characters of Paul Sheldon and Annie Wilkes dominate the novel more than any other pair, and are drawn with remarkable psychological insight. Annie is rather like Lolita's mother, with similarly excruciating taste, which King seems to rather enjoy mocking; while I suspect Paul Sheldon is a rather gleeful partial self-portrait, as King might have ended up if he hadn't married his wife Tabitha.

Overall, I think this is one of King's finest hours - more deft than usual, though he still uses sympbolism rather heavy-handedly, relatively spare, with a superb ear for voices and, of course, an unerring ability to describe violence and physical pain. It certainly ranks with his finest novels - The Shining, It, Christine.

Hate Songs in E
Hate Songs in E

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Classic Noisecore, 3 Jan 2007
This review is from: Hate Songs in E (Audio CD)
Fudge Tunnel, from Nottingham, certainly have a clear vision of what they want to sound like. Vocals are shouted with massive echo, guitars are extremely prominent, it's massively minor-key and downbeat, whilst still having the energy of metal. The album is called "Hate Songs In E-Minor" for very good reason - the songs are extremely aggressive and effectively vent some toxic spleen, whilst they all share that minor-key greyness and sombreness.

To vary things a little, there is a cover of "Sunshine Of Your Love" which is really quite good, bringing out the bitterness of it, and an ambient version of the title track. This might actually be said to invent a new sub-genre, "death-ambient". It's atmospheric, like passing through the final states of consciousness just before you die, and has a maurauding, malevolent rhythm that gives the impression of some evil force taking your life away from you.

It's a pity that they don't break things up more often or more effectively, because the title track and the ambient version of it are hidden gems of rock music as a whole, and British metal in particular. But you sense that Fudge Tunnel were content to mine their specialized seam rather than reaching out to a broader audience.

The Boy with the Arab Strap
The Boy with the Arab Strap
Offered by The Music Warehouse
Price: £9.54

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Musical Poetry, 2 Jan 2007
Some albums change your life; "Nevermind The Bollocks", "Appetite For Destruction" and "Maxinequaye" are some of those that have touched me deeply and made me a different person. "The Boy With The Arab Strap" did it for me, in a quite remarkable and totally unique way. I'd actually bought it by mistake (like I imagine quite a lot of people did, meaning to buy an album by Arab Strap), but listened to it and was impressed by the lush literacy of the lyrics, and of the delicate orchestration and musicianship. Although my favourite band was the Beatles, I'd generally considered myself a rocker (from punk through to prog), so this was a major turnaround, but that's what a great band can do you to.

It'd seemed like B&S had come out of nowhere, but this was by now their third album, and the one where they reached critical mass, both in terms of popularity (incredibly winning the "Best Newcomer" in the 1997 Brits) and in quality (this is a far richer album musically than "If You're Feeling Sinister", and probably their best).

Their territory is poetic short-stories, about losers coming good, or about people out of their depth, with beautifully-written, waspish vingnettes. Although the vocals sound very delicate, the lyrics can sting. The contrast between soaring, uplifting music and biting words can be highly effective, and undercuts the emptional effect.

The first song, "It Could Have Been A Brillian Career" sets the tone. It opens, the sound down very low, with fey vocals, with guitar and electric piano joining in. A song about losers of various types ("He had a stroke at the age of 24 / It could have been a brilliant career"), it's enriched by fanastic harmonies and further instrumentation, ending musically upbeat even as it laments another life ending sadly ("And you can tell by the way she looks / he is sorry and resigned / As he wets himself for the final time").

This is quickly followed by one of their greatest moments, "Sleep The Clock Around", a song about losers and nobodies who could, just maybe could, be somebodies. Opening slowly, the vocals low and murmuring, it gradually builds in colour, charge, potency and musical richness, to a bridge, saying "Then you go to the place where you've finally found /

You can look at yourself sleep the clock around". It ends of an incedible feeling of hope, defiance, yearning, wishing and desire, articulated (and what's incredible is that it's not embarrassing) by a bagpipe's wail. Incredible, a song of the most highest order, articulate to the highest degree, worthy of The Beatles or the Velvet Underground.

Asides from the songs by Stuart Murdoch (most of them) and Steve Jackson (the rest), there are a few sung by Isobel Campbell, as is the third song, "Is IT Wicked Not To Care?". It's gorgeously delicate, shimmering like the lightest cobwebs in a winter sun.

Other highlighs of the album include "Dirty Dream #2", where the waspish lyrics are again undercut by the remarkable music, which ends on an extended coda, the soaring strings shimmering in beautiful tremelo, evoking delight and purest joy. Incredible. Then there's a few wonderful little vignettes, such as "Seymour Stein", a no-thank-you to the record exec, with lines as brilliantly parochial as "Has he ever seen Dundee?" Then there's a failure-with-women ode, "Chickfactor", with rejection written off as well as "Met the cigarette girl- took a note of her charms / But no cigar" and "Met the Indie-Cool Queen / Took me out of the bar and showed me the scene".

Belle and Sebastian have some of the greatest gifts of any band I've ever heard - finer lyricists than Morrissey, greater musically than Nick Drake, as poetic as Larkin (both transform the everday into something numinous), as acute an eye as Roger Waters, as imaginative as John Lennon. This is to me the finest album of the 1990s and will echo down the generations, a shimmering, exhalted gift to the poets and dreamers.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 31, 2011 8:33 PM BST

The White Album
The White Album
Offered by best_value_entertainment
Price: £19.99

5 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Infinite Variety, 31 Dec 2006
This review is from: The White Album (Audio CD)
Written mostly in India in early 1968, whilst enjoying the dubious hospitality of the Mahareshi, "The Beatles" displays a slightly jaded Beatles songwriting feel, yet the music within is as fresh, eclectic and rich as any put down in popular music. If "Revolver", "Sgt Pepper" and (to a lesser extent) "Magical Mystery Tour" were the psychdelic rejoicing, "The White Album" is the return to earth, with less overdubbing and effects and more guitar-based pieces (the Beatles only took their accoustic guitars with them; and Donovan taught them to finger-pick, which explains the style of several songs - Dear Prudence, Mother Nature's Son especially).

But far from being a return to "basic" rock-and-roll, The Beatles as always continued to push the boundaries. Always remarkably eclectic in their taste, the range now goes as broad as stream-of-consciousness sound-collage (Revolution #9), where John probes the very limits of perception; music hall (Honey Pie), Paul with another amazingly fluent pastiche; ska (Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da); heavy metal (Helter Skelter); gentle nursey-rhyme dreaminess (Dear Prudence); accoustic soul-bearing (Julia), where John says "Half of what I say is meaningless/ But I say it just to reach you"; country pastoral (Mother Nature's Son); effervescent pop (Martha My Dear); campfire singalong (Bungalow Bill); bluesgrass hoedown (Don't Pass Me By); devastaing, shadowy reaching out to God (Long, Long, Long)... the list goes on and on.

What's remarkable about this album is firstly that, after the previous albums being increasingly more complex with their instrumentation, this album is almost spare, yet George Martin as always delivers some incredibly deft touches to what where, after all, originally accoustic tunes (there's a "Black Album" demo, where The Beatles recorded their song-ideas upon return from India that's fascinating to listen to). The brass on Savoy Truffel has that deliberately overloading that makes it very aggressive, whilst the treacly version of Good Night is exactly right, and the soaring strings on Martha suggest the delight of the love McCartney is singing about.

Secondly, there's no backing vocals from the "other" Beatles - Paul singing on John's tracks or vice-versa. Given how well they could harmonise (think "Two Of Us" on Let It Be), it shows a sad deterioration in their relationship, and foreshadows the strife on the Get Back sessions in January 1969. The tracks hence lack that "Beatley" feeling that made Revolver and Sgt. Pepper such cohesive albums, and feel very much done by their singer.

But given the strength of the songwriting, the range of styles, the cunning links, and overall trajectory of the album, this is one of the greatest acheivements of The Beatles - which of course means of music as a whole. There's 33 songs on the album and there are individual songs that are worth buying the album for - Happiness Is A Warm Gun, Julia, Dear Prudence, I'm So Tired. That's how good they are.

Use Your Illusion II
Use Your Illusion II
Offered by The Music Warehouse
Price: £5.64

20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Rose For The Gun, 30 Dec 2006
This review is from: Use Your Illusion II (Audio CD)
This is a very different beast from "Appetite", or even UYI Vol 1. Whilst Guns always could rip it up and tear it out with the best of them (and they do so brilliantly on Vol 1's "Perfect Crime", "Right Next Door To Hell", "Bad Obsession" and so on), on this album there's a concerted effort to display musical and emotional growth. Axl was always a broader musican than Slash - a fact evident from the fact that on this moderately-paced album, Slash only has 3 or 4 writing credits. This is very much Axl's baby, although the quibbling over credits (unlike "Appetite", which is band-credited) already suggests the loss of band solidarity. This album is less of a stomping hard-rock album and more of a classic rock album, where the act is established and they can now stretch their wings. Slash has already said that the UYI albums are their equivalent of the White Album.

The songwriting is I think consistently stunning. There's more, and more varied, emotion too. God only knows why "Estranged" isn't more recognised - it's one of the pinnacles of their acheivement, a cold, disconsolate beginning, shifting (via one of Slash's finest ever lines) to a sneering, callow hauteur, then a sad, yearning instrumental, to a open and warming ending, closing on an almost desperate note. "So Fine", sung wonderfully by Duff, has shivers and sighs of pure emotion, a rock ballad of unusual exquisiteness. "Locomotion", like "Estranged", considers the end of relationships and the realisation of emotional emptiness, Axl's nasal, almost-sneering delivery suggestive of the immaturity he's singing about. "Breakdown", another song that's oddly underappreciated, again suggests a man on the edge of his tether, yearning for the innocence and certainties of younger, simpler days (note the country-style intro - similar to Axl's piece of straw in the "Welcome To The Jungle video - he was an Indiana boy after all!) - which "Yesterdays" does explicitly but with far less style. "Pretty Tied Up", a classic piece of Izzy, is typically Stones-y and also features some outstanding sitar. And so on - the album is filled with classic moments ("Civil War", "You Could Be Mine").

Some have suggested that you could make one killer album from the two volume of Use Your Illusion. I think that would miss the point. Firstly, the two albums gave them the space to stretch their wings musically, which "Appetite" being far more condensed and focused didn't. Who would have expected sitar, spanish guitar, bizarre electronica, and so on? Secondly, the two albums very much have their own character. Volume One is far more aggressive and vitriolic, Volume Two is much more reflective and sensitive. GN'R always had both sides to them - hence their name, typically Yin/Yang.

This album is almost a return to a more 60s/70s rock album and succeeds on every possible level. Treat yourself.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 4, 2014 9:38 AM GMT

Weird Science [DVD]
Weird Science [DVD]
Dvd ~ Kelly LeBrock
Price: £2.99

12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Classic 80s Bubblegum Teenflick!, 22 Dec 2006
This review is from: Weird Science [DVD] (DVD)
What a roll John Hughes was on in the mid 80s! He'd already made "The Breakfat Club", made "Weird Science" then completed the holy trinity of 80s teen films with "Ferris Bueller's Day Off". (Shame that he slid to making such dross afterwards, but these things are never sustainable, unless you're Kubrick making 2 films a decade). Whereas "The Breakfast Club" was primarily talk and was realisic, if rather optimistic and feel-good, "Weird Science" goes for all-out zany humour, having a far more energetic and kientic style. Things just... happen, and it's wonderfully ebullient and exciting to watch.

Gary and Wyatt are two high-school nerds, bullied by the "cool" guys and disdained by the girls. But with the power of Wyatt's computer, some rather unlikely hacking and some vodoo (not to mentionbras on their heads), they create the superwoman of their dreams, Lisa, who is sexy, funloving, smart and has incredible powers (naturally). They undergo a rollercoaster-ride of a weekend, featuring the world's wildest teen party. At the party they try to impress the guys who bully them, Max and Ian, by showing them how they made Lisa. But forgetting to "hook up the doll" they unleahsh havoc - a kitchen turns blue (clothes and all), party-goers are trapped in the TV and paintings, and a nuclear missle emerges from the cellar to the roof. Nice.

At the end Gary and Wyatt realise that it's not about impressing people with what they seem but with what they are. They get the girls, prove themselves (against a mad gang of bikers straight out of "The Hills Have Eyes"), and make good. Aaaah.

It's supremely entertaining, a lot of laughs, and has many unforgettable lines and incidents - Chet (play with wonderful bullying malevolence by Bill Paxton) turned into some kind of swamp-creature and eating a fly, Wyatt sitting down on a toilet with someone in it ("Well, goddamn!"), Wyatt's grandparents frozen in a kitchen cupboard, and so on. A great film. I probably know it backwards.

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