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Is (Tokyo)

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Riot on an Empty Street
Riot on an Empty Street
Price: £8.27

8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Rebels Wear Cardigans, 8 Jun. 2005
This review is from: Riot on an Empty Street (Audio CD)
Oh my soft Scandinavian boys - peering distractedly up from their guitars or goofing around on the dance floor, all Elvis-legs and Pulp-Fiction fingers. Here's a toast to you, you geeky-chic groovsters.
People from more southern latitudes will probably talk about Nordic melancholia when they listen to this latest offer from the mellow Norwegians in Kings of Convenience, but I just hear the soundtrack of tea-drinking afternoons after school back in the early nineties. Everybody loved Britpop, but in a polite non-Oasis-like way, and wore doc marten's and Alice bands.
But it seems that the Kings were looking to America instead, with a benign Simon & Garfunkel spirit floating all over these tracks. At times, the lyrics even poke fun at this obvious influence - "two voices blended in perfect harmony on this record that I found", they hum post-modernly on the opening track "Homesick". Aha! A great way of disarming your critics, isn't it? They're clever lads, the Kings, and they go on to prove it with a number of rather lovely low-key songs.
The guitar is the number one instrument here, but sometimes there's a bit of trumpet or some velvet-handed drumming going on as well. Perhaps they lack those super-glue tunes that Paul Simon could churn out for breakfast, but the gentle charm of their mumblings more than makes up for it. The lyrics single out small, everyday moments we all recognise. "Know-How" nails that feeling of returning to a place you have left behind - isn't a line like "the scene of my old life meets the cast of my new" class? And the singer in "I'd Rather Dance With You", I've met him, he's that guy you get a fleeting connection with by the stereo at a party: "'l'll make you laugh by pretending to be the guy who sings, you'll make me smile by really getting into the swing"...
I have to admit that something cloying creeps into this music if you overdose on it. Can't we get at least ONE rock'n'roll growl to break up the ongoing placid humming? Oh no, we can't - and maybe the boys are right to deny us any quick relief. "Quiet is the New Loud," they proclaimed confidently with their first album, and they're still sticking to the manifesto. It reminds me of those French boys in Air, who are sneering at the conformity of conveyor belt rock rebels who dutifully trash hotel rooms and drive limos into pools. "Rebels wear cardigans", is their slogan, one that I'm sure The Kings of Convenience would be happy to adhere to.
Further investigations into Scandinavian daydreaming: "Veneer" by Jose Gonzales, "When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog" by Jens Lekman. Both fine musicians, it's not their fault that they look so gorgeous.

Offered by DVD Overstocks
Price: £4.42

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Oh So Björk, 6 Jun. 2005
This review is from: Post (Audio CD)
Back in the early '90s, when ex-Sugarcube Björk released her debut solo album "Human Behaviour", she was still the relatively mainstream pixie pin-up of the indie scene. It wasn't until Post, her second outing, that the glorious goofiness she is now known for really started to show.
As a girl in Iceland, she used to skip across the tree-less moors and make up nonsensical rhymes and music - what she is doing here is basically the same thing, but in a studio and with the help of Tricky (one of the engineers behind Massive Attack's darkly urban sound). The result is music that sounds like a cross between a Manga cartoon and an Icelandic saga. If you are scared off by her flaky persona - don't be. These tracks are more accessible than you would expect from a girl who went to the Oscar's with a stuffed swan draped around her neck. They're different, true, but not indulgently so.
On the opening track, Army of Me, Björk launches an attack against clingy lovers: "And if you complain once more, you'll meet an army of me," she promises, and goes on to plead "self-sufficiency, please!" It's a welcome contrast to all those love-struck Katie Melua-types out there. "Modern Things", with its quirky lyrics about machines taking over the world, sees Björk in full Manga mood, and standout track "Oh So Quiet" is big-band jazz gone bonkers.
The thing that intrigues me about Björk is how someone who seems so human can be so into machine-made music. Maybe it's inevitable that this oddball would want to look to the future instead of the past: if you want retro, you won't find it here. Still, Post sticks out like a sore thumb in the normally quite ethereal and outer-spacey world of dub/rhythm and bass/ dance. Where acts like Portishead are cool like polished silver, Björk sounds like an exuberant firework display of emotions. In the end, this album is all about her voice: big, riotous, squealing, groaning, whispering, giggling and weirdly sexy.
PS. Björk is Icelandic for those Scandinavian trees that look like vegetarian versions of a Dalmatian. Or at least I THINK it is.

by Kitty Aldridge
Edition: Paperback

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Ballad of the 70s, 2 Jun. 2005
This review is from: Pop (Paperback)
There is something hugely likeable about Kitty Aldridge's account of Maggie, a quietly perceptive 13-year old who ends up living with her grandfather, Pop, in Northern England after the loss of her mother.
Already after the first page you get the gist of things to come - metaphor after metaphor after metaphor, which I'm sure breaks every rule of writing there is. But simply by persisting in this extravagance, Aldridge creates a style of her own. The colours, smells, the music and atmosphere of 1970s Northern England all come to intense life in her prose. Sometimes, though, I wish she had got rid of the occasional passage. That would actually have put her lyric and quirky turn of phrase into sharper focus. Some real gems are now almost drowned out by a relentless flow of images.
However, the main problem with this book is that it just hasn't got a hook. Even though Aldridge hint at some horrible way that Maggie's mother has died, and though the novel builds up to a pub-quiz duel between Pop and his arch rival, the storylines aren't the backbone of the book. Often, they seem more like excuses for Aldridge to launch into her long descriptive sections. Evocative though these are, a book needs something more than that to be a really great read.

The Electric Michelangelo
The Electric Michelangelo
by Sarah Hall
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

24 of 28 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Much ado about nothing, 31 May 2005
Sarah Hall's second novel is a dance of burlesque characters. The main one is Cy Parks, a tattooist who learns his trade in Morecambe Bay of the 20s under the tutelage of a larger-than-life drunk called Eliot Riley. Later, Cy leaves that seafront resort for its brasher US equivalent, Coney Island.
Both the setting and Cy's profession give Hall an opportunity to linger at the frailty of our bodies and our souls, something she does with a great deal of compassion. Even so, she seems to relish the decline of bodies and of places: it's all dying consumptives, alcoholics, the glamour of the sea-side slipping away. At times, she includes bursts of violence that shock by the extent of their viciousness. The subterranean art of tattoos stands for some deeper struggle, the book suggests; it's part of how we face the world and ourselves.
The first pages of The Electric Michelangelo blew me away. It's written in an astonishing restless, easy flow that reminds me of Zadie Smith at her best, though with less humour and more poetry.
A couple of chapters later, I was falling out of love with the book. Perhaps it was the dearth of dialogue or storytelling drive that was starting to take its toll. A lot is going on - there are illegal abortions, near-death in the quick sands of Morecambe Bay, electrocuted elephants - but somehow these dramatic events are so embedded in descriptions that they seem more of an afterthought than the backbone of the novel. And be honest, when you skip something as you read along, is it dialogue or is it descriptions?
That is not to say that these passages lack originality or beauty. There are many unexpected metaphors to savour, but their impact is lessened by the sheer wordiness of it all. Every single thing is the subject of so much symbolism that the style grows too laboured, in spite of all its bawdy irreverence. Shouldn't good writers work like magicians and conceal their tricks from the world? And shouldn't good writing be easy to read, not make you feel as though you're swimming through jelly?
Suddenly I was reminded of Stella Gibbon's parody "Cold Comfort Farm", where she takes the mickey out of over-literary writers, and once I had seen the book through those goggles, I just couldn't shake it off. After all, sometimes a tattoo is just a tattoo.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 30, 2010 8:52 PM BST

When I Said I Wanted To Be Your Dog
When I Said I Wanted To Be Your Dog
Price: £11.59

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Leftfield singer/songwriter, 27 May 2005
Jens Lekman peers quizzically out from the CD cover. He looks like he's five going on twenty-five, dressed in a fifties-style bobbly jumper and with tousled fifties hair. Yikes, is this the face of that deep, knowing voice? Who'd have believed it? Suddenly I think Jens is not so artless as he looks. He probably messed up his own hair before the photo-shoot to get the right vulnerable Jeff Buckley-look. (I was going to say Stig Dagerman, but nobody outside Sweden would know what on Earth I'm talking about.)

But let's leave the subject of hair, and move on to music. And very lovely music it is! Offbeat lyrics are set to sweeping, melodious arrangements, where all sorts of different instruments pop up: "You Are The Light Through Which I Travel" starts off with a Dallas-like fanfare, "Do You Remember The Riots?" is set against a hesitant violin.

There's something very cinematic about these songs, if you listen to the lyrics. He sings of a TV helicopter filming him and his girlfriend during the EU summit riots in Gothenburg - there he is on the screen, "red in the face like a lobster". Or else he croons about getting arrested for love and using his one phone call to dedicate a song to his girlfriend on the radio. Genius ideas! And who can blame him if he seems a bit infatuated with his own whimsy? Maybe Jens' trick is to be dead serious while singing OTT lines like "all the psycho-girls, why do they fall for me?" It's funny, it's sad, it's driving me nuts, I have to go and stalk Jens a little bit.

Try it if you like Jonathan Richman, Bright Eyes, Rupert Wainwright, Serge Gainsbourg.

Offered by Direct Entertainment UK
Price: £5.50

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hypnotic flights of fancy, 13 May 2005
This review is from: Veneer (Audio CD)
Jose Gonzalez picks at his classical guitar & mumbles obscure lyrics in a hardly audible but beautifully flawed voice. The first listen will leave you perplexed, but at the second the pared-down elegance of these tracks starts to do its job. Suddenly even song titles like "Deadweight on velveteen" begin to make sense. After all, it's never what you say that matters; it's how you say it - something this album goes on to prove with its hypnotic, acoustic gorgeousness.

A Swede with Argentinean parentage, Jose Gonzalez has got a bit of Nordic melancholia, a bit of Latin melodrama and a lot of plain human emotion. Try him if you like other midnight children like Stina Nordenstam or Damien Rice.

The Orchard on Fire
The Orchard on Fire
by Shena Mackay
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars a photo album of the 50s, 8 April 2005
This review is from: The Orchard on Fire (Paperback)
Nostalgia has the effect of painting the past in vivid colours that make the present seem pallid in comparison. Shena Mackay uses this contrast to lend poignancy to her account of rural England in the 50s, "The Orchard On Fire". A frame story takes place in an anonymous, suburban present, where the narrator - April - leads a strangely unfulfilling life. The heart of the book, however, deals with a much more intensely experienced time in her life: when as a ten-year old she moved to a small village in Kent where her parents opened a pub.

"The Orchard On Fire" centres around the friendship between April and local red-head Ruby. The lightness of childhood friendship is shaded by the theme of child abuse, however, which at first made me slightly wary. Isn't it possible to write a book about childhood that doesn't include abuse? It can so easily seem like a shortcut for the author to prove that she has something important to say. However, Mackay's handling of the issue doesn't feel that way. A scene where April plays self-consciously in the garden of her abuser is touching without being manipulative.

As in many stories of childhood, the narrative meanders rather than following a clear-cut plot. Mackay's recollections of the details of nature and everyday life are shot through with that special sort of intensity that you only have as a child. Her language made me think in colours: Ruby's ginger hair, lime green plimsolls, autumn leaves.

In spite of its sometimes heavy subject matter, the style is never melodramatic. Mackay keeps matters both tender and straightforward, in the way that children deal with life. Is April's emotionally detached middle-age linked to the abuse she suffered as a child? Mackay leaves the question open. However, she does tie up some lose ends of the story at the end in a way that felt out of tune with the rest of this subtle book: overly sentimental, perhaps. It doesn't really change the overall impression left by this book, which opens up as a faded photo album; intimate, loving and with the gentle sorrow that time passes by.

by Penelope Fitzgerald
Edition: Paperback

11 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Innocent as charged, 15 Mar. 2005
This review is from: Innocence (Paperback)
Your honour, here follows a bit of a winding argument, but bear with me, because I do have a point.
What I wanted to say is: Isn't it annoying when you don't like a book or film, and are then met with the superior comment "it's just that you didn't get it"? As though not understanding something is the only reason for not liking it. That happened to me with the film "Closer", for example, or the play "Miss Julie." It makes me want to shout: "No, I do get it, I'm not an idiot, but I still thought that they were bad."
And then we've got the book "Innocence" by Penelope Fitzgerald. No, I didn't particularly like it. And this time, oddly enough, I'm sure that's because I didn't get it. This is definitely not a bad book, it's probably even very good. Fitzgerald has got an effortless, pared-down style and captures emotions and people in a sentence or two. Her humour is wry and understated, her observations somewhere between razor-sharp and compassionate. There's something of Muriel Sparks over her, but then again, she's completely different...
And still I didn't get it. There are long passages discussing art and thingamejigs that I for the life of me couldn't see the point in including. There are scenes which seem totally disconnected with the rest of the text, but that I'm sure are comic little masterpieces - but the only way I would laugh while I read them would be to tickle myself with a swan feather. Or something. Only when the very lovely Barney were around did I chuckle contentedly.
Really, this is a baffling and original book - I haven't felt this weirded out since I was a kid and tried to read James Joyce (yeah I was a bit strange). Maybe I should come back to it in ten years time, when I'm older an wiser.
Bet this makes you curious to read it and see for yourself... please do, ya clever people out there, and come back and tell me what it was all about. Though I suspect all you'll do is shake your heads regretfully and say "you just don't get it".

The Greatest Hits
The Greatest Hits
Price: £2.99

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Welcome to Cowboy Country, 3 Mar. 2005
This review is from: The Greatest Hits (Audio CD)
In spite of Sharleen Spiteri's gamine sex appeal and an impressive back catalogue of instantly recognisable tunes, true pop greatness eludes Texas. Maybe it's because every track sounds vaguely like you've heard it before, but sung by somebody else. TLC echoes in In Our Lifetime, and isn't that the chorus from a Grease song sneaking into When We Are Together?
Opening with the bluesy I Don't Want A Lover, this best-of CD underlines the fact that Texas never really did deliver the down-and-dirty stuff they promised on their first two albums. In later years, they have left the dingy Glasgow cellar bars behind in favour of a distinctly radio-friendly sound. Still, Spiteri's voice is tangy and sweet like brown sugar, and works a treat on lush tracks like Summer's Son and Inner Smile. Most of the album offers the sort of sunshiney music you want to play in a car on your way to the coast, punctuated by a couple of slower and altogether drowsier tracks. If you're looking for a musical pick-me-up, these Scottish cowboys could be just what you need.

Let It Go
Let It Go
by Marilyn Halvorson
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Welcome to Cowboy Country, 9 Nov. 2004
This review is from: Let It Go (Hardcover)
Set against a backdrop of contemporary Canadian cowboy country, "Let It Go" centres around the friendship between teenagers Red, the local sheriff's son, and Lance, a Native American living with his ranch-hand dad. Red's family has just moved to town, trying to recover from the shock of older brother Greg falling into a drug-induced coma. Red's dad is a strict sort of guy who believes in tough love - a bit too tough for Red's liking, perhaps. Lance's relationship with his quiet but loving dad is more straightforward. He seems to be dealing just fine with the fact that his mum left the family when he was a kid to become a country & western singer, until she returns, that is.
There is something of S.E. Hinton and "The Outsiders" about this book - but in a more grown-up and down-to-earth fashion. I remember having a crush on Lance (dark, a bit wild, a great friend - what's not to like?), and Halvorson manages to write about teenagers without being either patronising or - yikes! - trying to hang with the kids. It's a simple story, but written with a lot of heart and a great sense of place. Small-town Canada was appealingly exotic (horses! stetsons! wilderness!), and at the same time just like home.

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