Tuesday, February 28, 2017

This Fluid Thrill’s (belated) 2016 Music Awards

Okay, here goes. My nine favourite albums that were released in 2016 and three other awards. And, of course, a playlist!

For reference, here are my lists from 2015, 2014, 2013 & 2012.

Favourite Albums

St Lenox – Ten Hymns from my American Gothic

Nerdy on so many counts (musically, lyrically, thematically), St Lenox is Andrew Choi, a lawyer-turned (home) recording artist. His backstory and this album (and 2014’s 10 Songs about Memory and Hope) seems to sum up the possibilities of artistic life now. So it’s production and existence is a positive message – no doubt.

But it’s subject matter is difficult to read without a pessimistic slant given events after the album’s release in October – the life of immigrant communities in the US (‘I’m going to New York City to chase the American superdream’), Politics (see: Nixon, track 4)…, Racial and socioeconomic (dis)harmony the Public School System (the title of Track 3!).

There’s a certain amount of prescience in the lyrics. ‘Thurgood Marshall’ could just as easily be talking about the Supreme Court’s ruling on Trumps Muslim Ban (and Trump v the Courts generally): 
I'll need a sermon on the mount, need to be born againTurn a new leaf, a second spring, a new and visceral reminderThat good can triumph over evil, and the lawCan be a terrifying blunt force to strike theLove of country into brave young hearts
Sonically, Choi’s I suspect this is my annual ‘fall completely for the whole schtick/sound but the love won’t last’ entry.

The Peep Tempel – Joy

I discovered these Australians early in 2016 via their song ‘Carol’, which led on to their second album, Tales (2014). I loved the dirty, driving rock sound, but most striking is the work of singer Blake Scott. He inhabits a cast of layabouts, good-for-nuthins and scary buggers in his songs, and his voice takes on a real range, sounding in one song like The Sleaford Mods, and another like Mark Lanegan.

Anyway, I was so in love with Tales I started thinking up ways I could bend the rules and put it into my top albums of the year. Then in October, they dropped Joy. Same Scott roleplaying/voice-hopping. And songs like ‘Brains’ and ‘Rayguns’ hurtle down the track. But there are slower, more bifuricated songs on Joy, too. This approach goes down a treat on songs like ‘Kalgoorlie’ (she lost her sight in a bar fight) and ‘Constable’ (‘I got ghosts in my walls and in my pockets but at least I own my house’), where the scary buggers and misery can take centre stage.

This is a band I’d love to see live. If you’re reading this guys: it’s not far! C’mon.

Big Thief – Masterpiece
It takes some cajones to name an album Masterpiece.

The title track (released as a single in 2015) was my gateway into Big Thief. It remains the standout track on the album – somehow straight-forward and lush all at once, eminently earwormable – but there are other fantastic songs here too, like ‘Paul’  - a love song turned break-up song thanks to a killer chorus rewrite, ‘ Interstate’, ‘Humans’, ‘Parallels’.

Big Thief makes to most of Adrienne Lenker’s voice and her articulate lyrics – but the secret lies in the band’s use of noise. This isn’t as a simple as a Pixies quiet-loud-quiet progression, or more recently Mitski’s chorus-goes-to-11 tic. Some songs (like ‘Randy’) stay in whispers and string tinkling the whole time. But when the noise comes, och!

Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

2016’s ‘conflicted, possibly over-hyped but I honestly enjoyed this album’ entry.

Will Toledo doesn’t really add anything new to the indie toolkit. CSH is less discordant Parquet Courts. A heavier Pavement. Whatever. And the fact this is Toldeo’s 13th album and he’s only 24? Well I haven’t listened to 11 of those (I feel like it’d be like someone going back and reading the short stories I wrote before I turned 23).

But the fact this is pretty much all from one dude? This feels like proper band music, not one dude in front of a computer (cf St Lenox). A proper band with a proper appreciation for its forebears and its audience. And it’s funny.

PWR BTTM – Ugly Cherries

This is one that snuck onto the list thanks to my own tardiness. I love the song ‘1994’, but for some reason never listened to the whole album until January this year (if we’re being picky, the album was released in the US in 2015, but came out elsewhere in 2016 and I live elsewhere, so it’s fine, stand down).

And I only really ‘got’ PWR BTTM when I started watching music videos and live performances.

I don’t have that much knowledge of the queer punk scene to draw on, and I don’t want to be too reductive, but the fact that Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins can rock out in dresses and ugly makeup in front of crowds of affectionately ugly cis and LGBTIQA kids and this boring white thirty-something in NZ can listen along to the album and dig it (and sound so old talking about it), is another ‘life in 2016 and beyond can’t be that bad’ indicator.

I tend to enjoy the songs that Ben sings more than Liv’s – perhaps because his deeper voice supports heavier musical backing, but together their output makes for a well-balanced album.

Drive-By Truckers - American Band

Okay, so if the theme of this list isn’t already apparent, it’s albums that make you feel that the world isn’t ending and the present is an okay place to be.

Drive-By Truckers had always seemed a strange mix to me. Southern and kinda big-C conservative sounding, but darlings of the elite tastemakers. On American Band the truckers swerve into the oncoming lane and address the present moment. Album opener ‘Ramon Casiano’ is about immigration (He became a border agent / And supplemented what he made / With creative deportation’). The next track is called ‘Darkened Flags at the Cusp of Dawn’, nuff said. ‘Surrender under protest’. ‘Kinky hypocrite’. ‘Once they banned imagine’. You get the picture.

It’s not all one way traffic, though. ‘Baggage’ is a powerful song about hearing of Robin Williams suicide (celebs died in 2015, too, remember) and Patterson Hood’s own experiences of depression. It might just be the song that best stands the test of time.

But for now American Band will be remembered as the album where Drive-By Truckers got political and stuck the landing.

Comparative Interlude

Compare this to Sunlit Youth by Local Natives. The Natives are one of my favourite bands with a limited back catalogue. I loved 2013’s Hummingbird. It killed me. And seeing them like in New Orleans that year is still one of the best two or three gigs I’ve ever been to.

Sonically, they added some keyboards and some studious glitchiness that sounds so ‘now’ it’s a bit cringeworthy, but the harmonies are still there and the more I listened the more it sounded like the kind of The Local Natives I might ask for.

But lyrically, they pushed too far and exposed some serious naiveté. ‘Fountains of Youth’ is a transparent youth anthem that hitched its wagon to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign (‘We have waited so long, Mrs President). Listening to it now (like listening to the 30 for 30 compilation album) just makes me shake my head. ‘Fountain of Youth’ is a fake anthem – a song to rouse the already woke. It’s answers are readymade and, it turns out, insufficient. Optimism on record was not a good look in 2016.

But the Bush years ushered forth albums like The National’s Boxer, and maybe this reality check will help other bands remember the shittier side of things. Guitar music always works best when it’s the underdog behind the mic.

Lucy Dacus – No Burden
Speaking of underdogs and guitar music, 2016 was another strong year for female singer-songwriters and female-fronted bands. Lots of strong women taking the tropes of the swinging dicks who’ve ruled the roost long enough and subverting them while also, just fucking rocking in their own right. (Spotify’s Badass Womyn playlist is a pretty good entrée into this world).

Lucy Dacus’ debut album was one of my faves. It rocks. It’s honest. ‘I don’t be funny anymore’. ‘Troublemaker Doppelganger’. The album starts with such a head of steam and keeps you the rest of the way.

Momentum seems to be very important to how these songs are constructed. Album stand-out, ‘Strange Torpedo’, is just one long enjambment, it’s lines rolling over the end of one bar and into the next. Fantastic.  

Camp Cope – Camp Cope
Another late entry, another Australian group, another lot of kickass females making guitar music.

From the first line (‘This is the hardest ground I ever walked on’) it’s clear this is an Australian singing. I’m not sure what the accent is that Aussie singers slip into, but it’s so distinct. Georgia Maq sounds like a rock-reversion of Missy Higgins (or Sarah Blasko or Kate Miller-Heidke). A less precious Courtney Barnett. This isn't meant to be dismissive – I’m genuinely curious about what happens to their vowel sounds when they sing.

Anyway, back to Camp Cope. There’s some great lyrics.

‘They say the only thing that stops / a bad man with a gun / is a good man with a gun / the lies they use to control you’ (‘Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams’)

‘I’ve been desensitized to the human body / That I could look at you naked / And all I’d see would be anatomy / You’re just bones and insecurity / Flesh and electricity to me’ (‘Flesh and electricity’)

Camp Cope: a good place to go for a bit of angst.

Marching Church – Telling it like it is
Rounding out my top 9 is another dose of angst. But this is not singalong pub music. I’m not sure what a Marching Church gig would be like.

Marching Church started as a side project of Iceage’s Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, and it’s his abrasive, detuned singing that’s the most immediate marker of this band too. I quite liked Iceage’s 2014 album Ploughing into the field of love, but Rønnenfelt’s very audible inhalations can get a bit much. There’s more of a beat to Marching Church’s music – something a little Boomtown Rats or The Cure – and Rønnenfelt breathes in more quietly (god, I sound like such a pedant – but listen to both albums and you’ll understand).

But just when a song sounds like it’s just about acceptable to put onto your summer barbeque playlist, the beat drops and Rønnenfelt moans:

Like a spotlight in some bizarre theatre of loneliness
Fist-fucked by destiny, I'm positioned like a beggar
At the heart of life, sugar

It’s moments like this that make Telling it like it is great and remind you not everything needs to be shared.

Song of the year

‘Ya Ya Ya’ by You Won’t

This category might be better named ‘A song release this past year that didn’t come from one of the best albums but was crazy catchy thanks to liberal use of nonsense syllables’. See also ‘Class Historian’ by BRONCHO. Bonus points this year for those nonsense syllables evolving into a kind of yodel. Genius.

Amid the Ya Ya Ya's, there's a sweet love song from one misfit to another:
So your daddy was a poltergeist
Sent your little sister screaming down the hallway
Well I don’t know about the afterlife
But I can help you to forget about the old days
Guys! You had me at the yodelling.

Best concert

Low at Bodega, Wellington

I was curious how Low’s slow, melodic drone would feel live. Well, it felt amazing. It sounded recording studio quality, without feeling canned or pat. Those harmonies. The long, noisy interludes. Tremendous.

Earworm of the year

‘Jet’ by Paul McCartney and Wings

I blame the Netflix series ‘Love’, where Paul Rust joins a bunch of people jamming at a party (including Mark E Everett from Eels) and they play this song. As far as songs to continually slide back into, there’s a lot worse. And the fact it’s total nonsense means there’s always something new to chew on.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Consumption diary – January/February 2017 (part 2)

For music, see my Burns Fortnight #2 post.


The Bone Clocks - David Mitchell (novel, audiobook)

Hard to mention this without it sounding like a massive humblebrag, but I remember talking to David Mitchell about this book (he was nearly finished with it) when we were both at the Sydney Writers Festival in 2011. Reading it now, there's a lot in the Crispin Hershey section that borrows strongly from Mitchell's experience at Australian writers festivals (mostly those that pre-date 2011). And there's a New Zealander in the novel BUT he's a dude from the Chatham Islands who is granted the secret to immortality in the 1st half of the twentieth century, so safe to say NOT modelled on me!!

Mitchell is a go-to writer for readers who want chunkiness and can live with the unevenness that is part of the bargain. I enjoyed it, but all the references back to other Mitchell novels felt too much like a self-congratulatory version of the Shanghai Knights effect (oh, so they're in Victorian England, so they have to meet Arthur Conan Doyle etc). It's worse in that the big conceit of The Bone Clocks (there are these two warring factions of immortals and lots of other people have psychic abilities) has now retrospectively infiltrated Mitchell's back catalogue. Most significantly affected/diminished are Black Swan Green and The 1000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Yes, so a book about which it is easy to feel conflicted.

The Ask and the Answer - Patrick Ness (novel, audiobook) - Book 2 in the Chaos Walking trilogy, read a couple of years after I really enjoyed Book 1. This one felt more static, and as a result, longer, than the first. But still a pretty great exercise in -building (world-, character-, patois-).

Ready Player One - Ernest Cline (novel, audiobook)

The first two hours (audiobook, remember) felt like 90% exposition, but I enjoyed it anyway for its unabashed geekiness. Take a step back and it's a bit uncomfortable to think about how Halliday, the deceased game designer who kicks off the hunt for the key to his fortune, is essentially vehicle for Cline's wish fulfilment. Gee, if only everyone in the world loved the same stuff I love? What if there were hordes of Gen Y, Z, AA and BB kids who devoted 12 hours a day, as Wade Watts does in Ready Player One, to absorbing 80's sitcoms and mastering arcade games? What if everything I know and all my useless skills actually became valuable?

Some problems with pacing, characterisation, and the ending, but I enjoyed this book more than anything I've read in the past year, so there.

10th of December - George Saunders (short stories)

Re-read this to help me think about short stories and oblique angles. Also, gearing up for reading Lincoln in the Bardo next month.

Hicksville - Dylan Horrocks (graphic novel)

Another re-read, another effort to re-centre myself as I geared up for a new/renewed writing endeavour.

The Man Who Could Fly - Rudolpho Anaya (short stories)

Short stories from 'the godfather and guru of Chicano Literature', chosen because of the title story. Interesting without being uplifting or massively transportative.

More Than This - Patrick Ness (novel, audiobook)

Chose this instead of finishing the Chaos Walking trilogy because a) I didn't feel like more sci-fi just yet (though it's not that sci-fi) and b) I was curious what Ness's other YA stuff is like. I'd describe More Than This as emo.

Visual media

This will be an incomplete list as I haven't been keeping record of what I watch, but I think it's a worthwhile exercise this year.

* Films

The Last Valley, Platoon, Sneakerheadz, A Few Good Men, Goodfellas, Trouble with the Curve, Silence.

Silence was the only one I saw in a theatre. I went to a 2pm session on a Friday - one of the affordances of fellowship life - but it was research for my novel. No, honestly. Maybe I'll explain one day.

But Silence. Um. Cinematically, it's essentially a series of torture scenes connected together by shots of greyscale people huddling in one place or another and the crickets and air conditioner hum soundtrack. It's been described as a Scorsese passion project because it was in the works for 28 years (and because it was never going to be The Wolf of Wall Street), but maybe it took so long to come to fruition because of a lack of sustained passion?

It's a one-note film that goes for more than two and a half hours. If I had a passion project, it would be some massive overreach - a symphonic shambles of ideas. But that's just me, I guess.

(And isn't any novel written by 99.9% of writers a passion project, in that it's something the establishment doesn't really want from you. That's how I see my work, anyway.)

* TV (a misnomer - I wonder if we'll ever get around to calling it something different?)

The OA, Fargo (Season 1), Abstract, Luther, selected episodes of The West Wing, and so much Paw Patrol (I wish there were more girl dogs but when I asked my daughter, whose favourite is Sky, she wasn't fazed).

  • Roughly ranked in order of appreciation.
  • Entire series run to present day, unless otherwise noted.

Simmering tensions - Burns Fortnight #2

1. Consumption diary – January/February 2017 (part 1)

1.1 Music

Tomorrow (!) I'll post my 2016 music awards - only 2 months late. It's not as if they mean anything. And every day I'm discovering more great music that came out in 2016, so it's just one big exercise in arbitrary memory capture... But, tomorrow!

As for what I've been listening to these past two months, here's a link to my January Playlist (10 songs; 3 of which feature artists in tomorrow's awards).

And here's a bumper February playlist (33 songs) - see what happens when I write full-time?

1.2 - I'll cover books, film and TV is a separate post...

2. Them's a-countin' words

Total words this past fortnight: 8,101 words (short stories: 3k, novel: a sprinkling, others: 4k+)

This fortnight wasn’t as productive as I'd like because of its second week. I got sucked back into some Wellington nonsense. Hopefully it's settled now.

At the start of the fortnight I felt as if I might get the 1st draft of 3 stories completed by the end of Feb, but I'll end with one 1st draft, one half (and that probably needs a hatchet taken to it) and another fractional effort. I also wrote a poem!

3. The news (drip)feed

Maybe you know, but most likely you don’t: THE MANNEQUIN MAKERS will be published in the US. It’s coming out in September from Milkweed Editions, a full four years after the NZ and Australian versions. (Aside: I have no idea how the Romanian version has done, so don’t ask). The TMM page on Milkweed’s website went live recently here.

I really like the US cover. The blurb is a placeholder as certain authors read the book in the hopes of getting someone with US cachet to provide a blurb. There’s one writer in particular that I love (or at least, I love his work!) who is reading it, but the whole blurb economy isn’t something I want to get too tied up in thinking about.

As for the pages in between the covers, it’s so long since I was done with the edited manuscript I feel about it the same way I feel about my life before parenthood (my daughter is also 4). I would do many, many things differently – but that’s only natural. I am perhaps most pleased with the sweep of it. I may not have done everything the right way, or done justice to the chances I gave myself, but I wanted something chunky – both in terms of size (100,000+ words) and being composed of largish, relatively distinct sections. So chunky: check!

Just as THE MANNEQUIN MAKERS (historical, more intricate/plotted) was a reaction to A MAN MELTING (contemporary, off-the-cuff), I’m volleying my next book back across the net. THE LOCATION SCOUT (working title only) takes place in the contemporary world (though it has its historical preoccupations/anchors). It won’t, I don’t think, be “chunky”. It will still bear the traits of my thematic maximalism (of which my ten-year-old story ‘Copies’ is perhaps the most emblematic example), but it will be more focussed.

4. O-tago

Last week was Orientation Week here at Otago. Before then, I felt as if I was below Dunedin's median age. Now, I'm well above it.

I really liked the 'summer' Dunedin and I think I like the term-time Dunedin as well. They are both very different, but at heart they're the same. Like the original and acoustic versions of 'Layla'. (Not that any of the recent arrivals to town would get that simile. God, I feel so old.)

The weather the last two weeks has actually been summery and I've been riding my bike as much as I can and playing around with the panorama setting on my phone.

From near the Soldier's Monument, Highcliff Rd, Otago Peninsula

Spot my bike

St Kilda Beach
We went up to Christchurch for the weekend as my wife's extend family had an impromptu get together. It was easy to jump in the car and drive 4.5 hours up and back (it's easy when the kids sleep at least!) and it's always interesting driving up that way and passing places from THE MANNEQUIN MAKERS, or that inspired the fictional places.

So, one month in - how am I feeling about Dunedin and the Burns? Great. The only thing holding me back is myself.

Time to throw myself into THE LOCATION SCOUT. Got my Sharpies, got my index cards, got my Blu Tac. Time to plot this mother out!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Through the embers: Fortnight 1 of the Burns


I wrote 4,266 words over 7 writing days (week one started on a Wednesday; week two started on a Tuesday due to family being down for Waitangi weekend). All of my efforts were spent on two short stories: the bio story I mentioned in my previous post and another story, which I selected from the master list of things to write that I compiled. Let's call this story 'Robinson'.

Both stories are progressing, but I wonder if they aren’t too similar. I might have to write a third story (less arch, less ‘laugh at him, now comfort him’) this month to bring a bit more balance to my output and exorcise one more set of ghosts before I dive back into THE LOCATION SCOUT.



I will tire of fire-related puns soon enough.

3. This is where it all happens

Parting shot from last year's fellow
(possibly how I contracted this punning disorder)

My desk, my Mac, my mess

The gravity-forced attrition method of choosing which story to write next.
Helps when you have off-brand Post-its.
My magnolia

At first I thought it was a bible, but it's The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns.
Thanks Victor!
My morning ride

It's always like this...
Except when it's like this (hail from yesterday's weather bomb)

It's official. Come & visit!


One consequence of all this newfound writing time is I need to spend more time finding new (or remembered) music to add to my ‘Working’ playlist. Which is not a chore at all. 

If given the option of not being able to read any more, and not being able to listen to music, I'd choose not reading. Not happily, or lightly, but I would.

5. Further exploits in procrastination

I found myself searching online for a coffee mug. I considered personalising one to commemorate my year in Otago. Like, a picture of Mr Burns from the Simpsons with the caption: ‘Burns Fellow’... something so lame and obvious that I managed to snap myself out of it. 

So I’m still using the dinky little Arcoroc cup I found in the dinky little kitchenette and having to make too many trips to make tea during my day and maybe I will end up ordering something in another moment of weakness.

6. You can never step on the same wildlife cruise twice.

Over the long weekend, I took my wife, kids and in-laws on the Monarch Wildlife Cruise, which goes out round Harrington Point at the end of the Otago Peninsula. 

We saw fur seals,a seal lion eating a squid, nesting shags endemic to Otago, Bullers albatross, Southern Royals, a couple other mollymawk species, nellies, terns. No spoonbills or Hectors dolphins like my first trip five years ago. Still a good haul, but nowhere near as much fun as the first time for all manner of reasons.

Giant petrel taking off

Sea lion with black-backed gull

White capped albatross
Compare and contrast with our trip to Tunnel Beach at the end of Jan. No bird or marine mammal sightings of note. When we got down to the beach it was high tide so there was no sand to stand on. My son decided he didn’t like being carried on the way back up, nor did he feel like walking. For the last 500 metres (which is at a 15 degree gradient) I carried him like an inconsolable lamb.

And that trip was fricken great. The kind of day one should be careful not to sully by rushing back again too quickly.

Everyone enjoyed it, honest

7. Research highlight

An article by Catrien Santing on Pope Benedict XIV, who is often held up as a supporter of the enlightenment, but also canonised a bunch of folks who did some science-defying stuff, including my boy San Giuseppe da Copertino.

The article was titled ‘Tirami su’.

I never really thought about whether the name of the dish meant anything (maybe it was a place, or a person), but when I translated it (Pick me up / Lift me up / Raise me up) the phrase made sense for a coffee-soaked dessert and an article about a levitating friar.

Pity I can’t stand coffee, and gag at the sight, smell, mention of tiramisu.


8.1 - I went to an open lecture on Brexit, Trump and the rise of populism. It was interesting. I'm still trying to figure out how contemporary I make THE LOCATION SCOUT. Like, is it Feb 2017 and two non-Italians are driving around Italy talking about the Muslim ban and the precariousness of the Euro? 

Open lecture

8.2 - I was on a panel with two other writers about the writing process here at the university. It was mostly about how we find the time to write. I've tried a lot of different things, working around different work and family situations.

My current situation, I have to say, is pretty sweet.