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Song of the Day – Kate Bush: “Wild Man”

After 12 years between The Red Shoes and Aerial, and five-and-a-half between Aerial and Director’s Cut, Kate Bush is acting like it’s 1978 all over again and releasing two albums in one year. Next month sees the release of 50 Words for Snow, Bush’s first album of all-new material in six years (this spring’s Director’s Cut was an album of reworkings of previous songs.) The lead single, “Wild Man,” premiered yesterday and marries the lush layered style and synth hooks of her ’80s peak with the low-key, mellow harmonies and instrumentation of her 2000s work. The result is a serious grower: where Bush’s spoken verses initially seem underwhelming, repeated listening reveals it to be another rich, alluring release from a true original.

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PJ Harvey on the Andrew Marr Show… with David Cameron

This morning, two-time Mercury Prize winner PJ Harvey appeared on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show for the second time. On her debut, in April 2010, she performed “Let England Shake” (when it was still using the Constantinople sample) in front of then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Today, in October 2011, she performed “The Last Living Rose” in front of current Prime Minister David Cameron, who informed us that his wife, Samantha, had “bought the album off iTunes” after Harvey’s Mercury win last month.

Here’s the video

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PJ Harvey’s deserving Mercury triumph

PJ Harvey has garnered an extraordinary amount of press attention and critical acclaim for her eighth LP, Let England Shake – most recently she has been awarded the Barclaycard Mercury Prize for a second time. Such has been the scale of Harvey’s achievement that the widespread coverage is bound to attract some new curious fans to the fold. So what makes Let England Shake so good, and is it representative of Harvey’s work as a whole?

The answer to the latter question is both yes and no. Each new LP Harvey delivers is different in some way, a progression from the work before – in other words, taking what she’s learned from one project and refashioning it into something new on the next. The raw, lo-fi blues rock of her 1992 debut Dry was succeeded by 1993’s even more raw, blistering punk-blues Rid of Me. Two years later, Harvey heightened the blues elements but in a much more sonically sophisticated, diverse framework on 1995’s To Bring You My Love before taking the hint of burbling electronics and uneasy effects to a new level on 1998’s Is This Desire?.

Keen to move away from such a dark sound, Harvey moved into a more straightforward rock territory on the Mercury Music Prize-winning Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000), which shared the power of her earlier records but married them to more refined melodies. Faced with how to follow such a commercial and critical high, Harvey deconstructed and turned in a self-produced, largely self-played “scrapbook” type of record on the scratchy lo-fi rock of Uh Huh Her (2004), which also introduced a more folk-inspired element to her work.

As strong as it may have been, Uh Huh Her signalled something of a creative dead-end for Harvey; her next move was inspired. Abandoning her trusty guitar, she composed on piano for the first time – some 15 years into her career – and the result was the spectral, spooky White Chalk, her most intimate record. Ever since, Harvey has been riding a creative wave and seems to be in the midst of a real purple patch. Her recent collaboration album with John Parish, A Woman A Man Walked By, brought back a scratchy blues-folk quality and Let England Shake seems to take some cues from there.

The biggest change is in the lyrical style; before, Harvey often used intriguing imagery, often visceral and sometimes Biblical, but since White Chalk there has definitely been a sense of the words having paramount importance. This is lyrically one of her strongest albums, cohesive and full of imagery of war and conflict. Rather than being a straightforward political album, Harvey imagines herself as a “war song correspondent,” delivering news from the front lines. Thus, there’s no political bias, more observations of war’s effects on humankind in general. Harvey has said that she read widely, from the poetry of Harold Pinter and TS Eliot to contemporary eyewitness accounts from people in Afghanistan and Iraq, and while the lyrics rarely go into specifics, there’s definitely the sense that Harvey has done her research and approaches such thorny topics with confidence and without a preachy tone.

The main reason the evocative lyrics have such resonance is in the way Harvey marries them to some of her most upbeat melodies and shimmering production. Largely eschewing the piano of White Chalk in favour of walls of guitars and, significantly, the autoharp, the instrumentation gives the album a unique, vaguely folk-tinged feel that feels both timeless and extremely fresh all at once. The music is full of vitality and energy and movement, and Harvey is backed by a sterling band that includes long-time collaborators John Parish and Mick Harvey on a variety of instruments and drummer Jean-Marc Butty, recording the album together over a five-week period in a Dorset church in the spring of 2010. The percussion is one of the most impressive parts of the album; it’s very rarely straightforward drum beats – Butty is incredibly inventive in how he provides the underpinning for these songs, which often feel very light and floaty thanks to the effects on the guitars (in prior work, Harvey’s guitar playing has mostly been very raw, very bluesy, very powerful; here it’s almost weightless, reminiscent of Cocteau Twins, and it’s a unique new flavour.)

Vocally too, she’s developing new phrasing techniques. The characterless voice she employed on White Chalk, pitched higher, is retained but has a much throatier quality; it’s still recognisably PJ Harvey singing, but a fresh new approach (and listen to the piercingly high soprano notes she reaches on “On Battleship Hill.”) Melodically, many songs have a very simple, sing-song quality that communicates the lyrics effectively and, especially when Harvey is singing some quite horrific lyrics, only adds to the impact. Thus, the devastating “Hanging in the Wire” is musically one of the softest and most beautiful songs in her catalogue, while “Let England Shake” has an almost jangly, hypnotic, skeletal Tom Waits-style autoharp/xylophone arrangement. “England” features a Kurdish folk song sample but the exoticism is in the melody alone, for the song is largely delivered solo on acoustic guitar, while “Written on the Forehead” is the album’s most shimmering number and features a surprising but wonderfully effective reggae sample.

Other highlights include the galloping urgency of “The Glorious Land,” which features dissonant bugle calls, the haunting, solemn “All and Everyone,” which features an inspired dirge-like coda that features some mournful saxophone, and the fast-rocking “Bitter Branches.” Lead single “The Words That Maketh Murder” features one of the album’s catchiest melodies and autoharp parts, also making use of handclaps and male vocals, while the immediately accessible “The Last Living Rose” ranks among Harvey’s most beautiful, simple songs. “The Colour of the Earth” ends the album on a communal, sing-song, anthemic tone.

Let England Shake is a landmark work. It’s not far and away Harvey’s best; she’s incredibly consistent and each of her records brings something exciting to the table, but Let England Shake has a cohesion and assurance – and originality – that really marks it out as something special. On first listen, some of the more unusual songs (such as “England” and the dissonant bugle calls in “The Glorious Land”) may be slightly off-putting, but repeated listening reveals this to be one of Harvey’s strongest and most unusual but beautiful albums. It slots nicely within her catalogue yet simultaneously feels like a real bold new step, and it is exciting to ponder quite where she will go next.

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Vintage TV: “We’ll Meet Again” and “Edward the Seventh”

Filmed in 1981 and broadcast early the following year, “We’ll Meet Again” follows the lives of the people of Market Wetherby, a (fictional) small town in Suffolk, in 1943 as the war rages and the Americans arrive on British soil. The main driving plot of the series is the love story between the married Dr. Helen Dereham (played superbly by the late Susannah York) and Major Jim Kiley (Michael J. Shannon). It’s not your usual “illicit affair” kind of storyline, and there are some surprising twists and turns along the way. Dr. Helen is torn between her love for Jim and her duties as a wife to her injured husband Ronnie, mother to Cambridge University student Pat, and general pillar of the community.

Within this main story there are some great subplots – the lovely romance between the unassuming war widow Sally and American Mac, and the ensuing troubles with Sally’s cantankerous mother-in-law Ruby; shop owner Albert Mundy having to deal with his prejudices against the Americans as his son and daughter navigate their way in the world; shy Vi’s blossoming as she falls for Chuck; and the humorous bickering and jostling between the American boys for the affections of landlord’s daughter Rosie. Footage of the planes are interwoven too, so amid the drama and romance you get a sense of the realities of the war too. It’s certainly not all plain sailing in this series, and there are some shocking surprises along the way.

Initially I thought the series was going to be quite slow-moving and unengaging, but a couple of episodes in I was hooked and these characters really get inside your heart. The writing and acting are all of impressive quality, and the pacing really picks up; the thirteen episodes, around an hour in length, fly by and at the end you get the feeling that it could certainly have continued for another series. But for what it is, “We’ll Meet Again” is lovely – funny and sad all at once, and it has aged well.

I’d never seen “Edward the Seventh” until just now; at this time of writing, it was originally screened more than 36 years ago and while certain elements of the series are understandably dated by today’s standards – filming style, shot types – it appears to have lost none of its power to really engage the viewer. It tells the story of Edward the Seventh, or Bertie, from birth to death, through his tricky schooldays to his frustrated philandering as an underused heir apparent, to his eventual role as king. Timothy West is astonishingly good as the adult Bertie, and he is not alone. Alongside the wonderful costumes and plot twists (all based on real history, of course), the main draw of “Edward the Seventh” is the raft of incredible performances. Helen Ryan is superb as the exceptionally tolerant and thoughtful Alix, Robert Hardy is fantastic in the early episodes as Prince Albert, and if all you know of Felicity Kendal is “The Good Life” then she is bound to surprise you with an impressive turn here. But perhaps my favourite performance is Annette Crosbie’s as Queen Victoria; Crosbie, who was in her early forties when the series was produced, plays Victoria from early adulthood to death (it’s a remarkable feat of ingenious make-up and costuming!) with breathtaking aplomb and deservedly won a BAFTA for the performance. I was actually quite taken aback by the nuance and strength of her performance, as I was with the entire cast.

The writing is uniformly strong, it looks great, and at 50 minutes each, the thirteen episodes move along at a brisk pace. I was captivated, having not much knowledge of this period in history and having never seen the series before. Proof that great shows really are built to last and can find new audiences decades after their original production.

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The hit that should have been: Rickie Lee Jones’ “Woody and Dutch”

Rickie Lee Jones followed her eponymous 1979 debut a little over two years later with Pirates, an altogether darker and more ambitious affair that, three decades on, still sounds utterly glorious. It’s not a single-heavy kind of record but “Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking” was as good a choice as any, a sort of good-time bebop/R&B/jazz hybrid complete with invented percussion, handclaps, horns, and male backing vocals (alongside a suitably kittenish vocal from Jones) that’s almost like a logical step forward from the first album’s saucy “Danny’s All-Star Joint.”

The b-side, “Skeletons,” pares things back significantly to shine the spotlight on Jones’ spare, plaintive vocal/piano delivery (with some subtle, well-placed support from a string section.) Jones gives one of her most emotive vocal performances on this sad lullaby of love, life, and loss; it’s a complete mood change from the A-side but only serves to highlight Jones’ versatility and ability within various styles. Naturally, both these songs fit best on their parent album, which really is a stone cold classic, but as singles go it’s up there with Jones’ best.

Unfortunately it didn’t catch on in the same way that “Chuck E.’s in Love” did, and Jones would never again scale the commercial heights of the first record. But, as joyous and naughty and vibrant three decades later, “Woody and Dutch” still stands as one of Jones’ neglected classics.

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Song of the Day – Nerina Pallot: “Seventeen”

Nerina Pallot’s excellent new Bernard Butler-produced album Year of the Wolf was released last week, and finds Pallot’s expertly-crafted pop songs given a sophisticated, elegant, sumptuous vintage singer-songwriter pop sheen by the Suede guitarist. Imagine a more ’70s-minded update of his work on Duffy’s Rockferry LP and you’d be close.

But one of the surprises is that one of the best, and most inventive, of the songs can only be found on a deluxe edition offered on iTunes. “Seventeen” finds Pallot, ever the pop fanatic, channelling late ’70s slow disco with a gloriously languid groove and appropriately glossy production job that resembles ABBA’s Voulez-Vous, Steely Dan’s Gaucho, and songs like “Live It Up” and “Do the Dark” from Blondie’s Autoamerican, which all emerged on the cusp of the move from the ’70s into the ’80s.

It’s a very good, and very clever, pop song and here it is:

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Lisa Kudrow shines in “The Comeback”

Upon seeing the DVD, I was blown away by The Comeback, Lisa Kudrow’s short-lived series for HBO. In short, it’s hilarious but more than that, it’s clever. Kudrow plays Valerie Cherish, a faded comedic actress from the late ’80s and early ’90s who has slipped from the limelight and is now trying to claw her way back to fame and popularity.

The show we see comprises ‘raw footage’ taken from the fictional reality show The Comeback, which follows Valerie around on her day-to-day life as she takes a role on a new sitcom, Room and Bored. So really, it’s a show-within-a-show-(within-a-show) format; sounds quite complicated, but it makes sense when you see it. Since it is ‘raw footage,’ it is never as simple as a glossy look at the end product of a reality TV show – there are plenty of camera and “off-camera” asides, with Cherish regularly telling her producer Jane to not use parts of the footage in the final edit.

As such, it is a rather biting satire on reality TV – and an extraordinarily well-judged and perfectly-crafted one. Kudrow knows her stuff from having starred on Friends for a decade, and brings all that insider knowledge to the table in The Comeback. So, we see Valerie desperately trying to garner more lines for herself in the new sitcom Room and Bored, trying to win the popularity of the cast and crew, trying to win magazine covers and shine on the red carpet etc. But the writing and Kudrow’s performance is so strong and multi-layered that Valerie is never one-dimensional, the storylines are not predictable, and there is real heart to the show which is perhaps surprising in a satire like this.

The supporting cast is fantastic, and the entire show is pleasingly realistic and always thoroughly entertaining. It’s not a straightforward comedy by any means – certainly do not expect anything like Friends – but it would be a real shame if you missed something as clever and intricate and finely-detailed as The Comeback (not to mention a truly superb performance from Kudrow throughout.) It’s also a real shame that the show did not really take off on its original run in 2005, perhaps because the reality TV Kudrow was satirising was still so popular at that stage. Six years on, its reputation seems to be growing, rightfully so, and it’s the sort of show that rewards repeated viewing and stands up to that repeated viewing too (for all its cringiness too!)

I would heartily recommend The Comeback for both comedy and TV fans in general; it’s eye-opening on one hand, true, but thoroughly entertaining and engaging with it too. It goes without saying that it’s by far the best project taken on by any of the lead Friends actors since the show, but really it stands far apart from Friends in tone and style – and the fact that Kudrow pulled it off so marvellously is one of the many commendable things about it. Not to be missed.

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Song of the Day – Blondie: “Fan Mail”

Blondie are, to my mind, one of the more underrated of the internationally successful groups of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Certainly, everyone knows “Heart of Glass” or “Call Me” or “Atomic” or “The Tide is High,” but I have often felt that the full extent of their experimentation, innovation, and originality has never been truly appreciated on a wider scale. A listen to any of their earlier records yields often surprising rewards. A favourite of mine is “Fan Mail,” the opener of 1977’s Plastic Letters, a spiky pop song with strange synth flourishes, stop-start rhythms, and of course Clem Burke’s crazy drumming.

For your pleasure, here’s a live version recorded for German TV

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Song of the Day – Nerina Pallot: “Put Your Hands Up”

The lead single from Nerina Pallot’s upcoming fourth LP Year of the Wolf is a classy pop confection produced by former Suede band member and current producer du jour Bernard Butler. The original, debuted live in concert last year, was faster paced and suggested more of a camp Eurodisco anthem but this studio version is pleasingly classy and elegant. In an ideal world, a sophisticated pop song like this would become a deserving hit. We’ll have to wait until its official release later this month to find out.

In the meantime, here is the video

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Tove Jansson’s “Travelling Light”

Originally published in Swedish in 1987, Travelling Light has finally been published in English and is another fine addition to the Tove Jansson bibliography. It is a collection of twelve short stories that bear all the Jansson hallmarks: finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, commenting on human psychology, juxtaposing witty asides and harsh dialogue with moments of deep sadness, and with a strange humour lurking beneath it all. Most of the stories are around ten to fifteen pages in length, with central story “The Garden of Eden” by some distance the longest at around forty pages, and all are thoroughly engrossing.

Jansson never gets bogged down in description or crafted similes; her prose is extremely clean and precise – not a word is out of place, nothing is extraneous. As such, it can both be read as quite devoid of familiar literary devices but also as a wonderfully refrshing change of scenery. To use “clean” and “precise” is not to mean boring or lacking in personality; these stories are resolutely not boring – I often came away from the stories with the feeling that I had never read anything quite like it. Jansson’s talent for writing about the surprising psychological aspects of the everyday and the ordinary is quite breathtaking, and she finds the most imaginative yet believable situations to write about. For example, an apparently simple story about a teacher and his partner leaving the city for a short break (“The Gulls”) becomes a comment on existential despair and the power play in relationships. A woman visiting a relative in a foreign country (“The Garden of Eden”) explores the interference of friends and the unspoken social rules and hierarchies inherent in small communities. A dinner party between friends (“The P.E. Teacher’s Death”) is interrupted by brutal dialogue and musings on the nature of life and suicide.

None of the stories ever feel mechanical, or like Jansson is trying to weave something together to give a clever moral message at the end. Nothing is spelled out. Instead, the reader is left with a series of vignettes, of situations, of ideas, and is left to make up their own mind. For me, this makes these stories all the more powerful and effective. If one got the sense that Jansson was trying to be “clever,” the stories would devolve into little more than quirky set pieces. As it is, she lets the stories breathe and gives them space to be what they are, and sometimes what they are initially may appear to be something quite simple. But there’s a depth and richness there, and it’s easy to be deceived by her lack of florid language, but there’s so much going on. She varies her narrative voice from story to story: sometimes first-person, sometimes third-person, sometimes male, sometimes female, and it makes for a diverse and consistently interesting collection. Her dialogue is simply wonderful, and the characters she writes about are often not scared of being rather forthright and rude, often humorously so.

Jansson of course deserves the credit for crafting such unique, beautiful, sad, funny stories, but kudos must also go to translator Silvester Mazzarella for his great work, to Ali Smith for an insightful introduction, and to Sort Of Books for bringing this work to English and to a new audience. It seems that there are a few more Jansson works yet to be translated into English, and I look forward to them eagerly.

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