Archive for May 2018

Gig review – Cigarettes After Sex, 24 May 2018

With a name like Cigarettes After Sex you’d expect to see a bunch of greasy-haired and long-in-the-tooth rockers.  This couldn’t be further from reality.  CAS, which formed in Texas in 2008 and are now Brooklyn-based, describe their music as ‘ambient pop’, though it’s probably closer to ‘ambient rock’ were I to be so picky.  The group came to prominence, as much as an ambient band can, in 2015 on the release of their Affection EP, which included their cover of REO Speedwagon’s Keep on Loving You.  Their tune, Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby, which featured in the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale, and has a classic feel to it that makes you think it’s been around since the 60’s, couldn’t have done any harm either in raising their profile.

The band were holding court in London’s Brixton (or ‘O2’) Academy, which holds just under 5,000 people.  The gig was sold out so I guess there were around that many at the gig.  The vast majority of the set was made up by those tunes from their eponymous 2017 debut album, their only album to date.  In fact, I think they played all of the tunes on that album, alongside others including Affection, Nothing’s Gonna…, Keep on Loving You, and a new tune.  The band stuck closely to the recorded versions of each tune, which was a bit of a shame given the potential to do something a bit different with each, though perhaps my slight disappointment is due to the jazzer inside of me!

The band revolves around Greg Gonzalez, the band’s founder, and singer/guitarist.  It’s his quiet, ethereal vocals and chiming guitar chords that give the band its dreamy, somnambulant sound; a sound, which is perhaps better suited to a more intimate venue that Brixton Academy, even once the sounds guys got the mix right (the vocals were too low in the mix and the bass was too boomy).  Nevertheless, it was great to hear live one of my favourite albums of 2017.  The highlight of the evening was the encore, Apocalypse (‘your lips, my lips, apocalypse’), the standout track off their album and a clear fan favourite.  Here’s a brief video that I shot…

Cigarettes After Sex (click on the icon once you’re on the next page)

CAS are definitely worth checking out if you’ve not seen or heard them before.  You won’t be disappointed.

Book review – Empire Falls

I thought it was time that I delved again into the list of Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction.  I’ve mentioned the list before.  It’s a great source of literary recommendations.  Sometimes the titles fail to deliver the goods but, more often than not, they do.  This time round it’s the 2002 winner, Empire Falls by New Yorker Richard Russo.

Empire Falls is a fictional town in the US state of Maine.  It’s seen better, more prosperous days following the closure of the timber and textile mills.  Still, the population holds out hope that these days will return.  At the centre of the novel is Miles Roby, unassuming and loving father of Tick (Christina); ex-husband of Janine; son of the errant and irrepressible Max; brother of the previously wayward David; and manager of the local Empire Grill.  Miles has been flipping burgers at the grill for 20 years, at the expense of his college education and dreams.  Nevertheless, he’s built a life for himself in the small town.  However, like the river that runs through the town, there’s an undercurrent of ambition not being achieved, of being held back, especially by the fearsome Francine Whiting, who owns the thumb under which most of Empire Falls is under, including the Empire Grill.

What we’re served up, over the 500-plus pages of the novel, is a slice of small town America.  The plot unfolds in an innocuous manner, as if nothing of significance is ever going to happen.  It does.  But if it didn’t that would’ve been fine also.  In Empire Falls, Russo has created some wonderful characters, at the heart of which sit the Roby family.  The relationship between the family members is complex and Russo does a nice job in fleshing out the characters so there’s more to each of them than meets the eye.  But the extended family of regular diners of the Empire Grill, and the local parish priests are equally wonderful, including Walt Comeau, Janine’s fiance and regular thorn in Miles’s side, and Father Tom, an elderly priest reminiscent of Father Jack from the TV series Father Ted.

The book reminded me of Elizabeth Strout’s, Olive Kitteridge.  Both are set in Maine, portray small-town life and life in general, with all of its trials and tribulations (Kitteridge is also a Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction).  Also, like Oliver Kitteridge, Empire Falls has been made into a TV mini-series, starring the likes of Ed Harris and Paul Newman, which I guess is a testament to the strength of the book.  And if you hadn’t guessed already, I’d highly recommend Empire Falls.

Songs from the Vault

The last edition of Songs from the Vault was a little bleak, so I promised something a little more upbeat.  As I type, the sun is shining and it’s the day of the Royal Wedding and the FA Cup, so I guess upbeat is the right way to go…

First up is Yo La Tengo with their 2015 version of the Goffin-Titelman tune My Heart’s Not In It, which was originally recorded back in 1964 by Darlene McRea.  It doesn’t sound like it’s an appropriate song for today but listen to the lyrics!  Regrettably, I wasn’t able to find the album version of the track (do check it out) but this live version captures the spirit of the tune…

The Pixies’ Doolittle album is hard to beat but their 1990 album Bossanova is good by any standards and includes one of my favourite tunes of theirs, Ana.  How can this be only two minutes long?  They must have worked out how to manipulate time…

Next up is another wonderfully crafted tune, When Love Breaks Down from Prefab Sprout’s 1985 album Steve McQueen.  Admittedly this is a song about a break-up, so perhaps it’s not the most appropriate tune to post on the day of a royal wedding.  However, the B-side to the tune was Diana.  I’ll leave that one with you…

I’ve a soft spot for this next tune, and it’s perhaps a little more suitable for a royal wedding day than the previous tune.  Leave a Light on for Me is a cracking pop song (with a great chorus) from 1989 by Belinda Carlisle, featuring George Harrison on slide guitar.  The video is a classic 80’s one: those deserts/outbacks must have been pretty busy places for all the pop singers littering them…

Last up is, I think, an overlooked track from 2000 and seems a good track to finish one.  Mint Royale (see what I did there!) teamed up with Lauren Laverne to produce this upbeat pop gem, Don’t Falter (see what I did again!)…

I hope you enjoyed this edition of SFTV.  I’ve got plenty more ideas and great tunes in mind, so keep tuned!

Book review – The Pale Criminal

I recently read the first of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, March Violets.  I enjoyed it enough (see my review) to jump into the second of the so-called Berlin Trilogy, The Pale Criminal (1990).

March Violets saw us in the 1936 Berlin.  This installment finds us in the same territory but in 1938.  Things have moved on.  The persecution of Jews has become far more commonplace, the annexation of parts of the former Czechoslovakia is in the offing under the Munich Agreement (or ‘Munich Betrayal’), and Bernie Gunther has a new partner and another crime to solve.

A spate of murders of young German girls, and the Berlin police’s inability to find the perpetrator, results in Bernie Gunther being press-ganged into rejoining the constabulary by none other than Reinhard Heydrich.  Heydrich is concerned about a general panic and any perception that he may not be able to keep order.  He therefore wants Germany’s finest detective on the case.  Gunther has to firstly finish off a current case involving the blackmail of a publishing magnate, who’s received letters which reveal her son is homosexual – something that will find you in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany.  Having cleared his desk, Gunther can get on with his new role as Kriminalkommissar.

The murders of young fair-haired and blue-eyed girls have a ritualistic element and, to make matters worse, a sensationalist newspaper has tried to link this ritual to Jews.  Gunther isn’t so sure and suspects foul play, not least as the prime (Jewish) suspect was incarcerated while another murder was committed.

While The Pale Criminal has its fair share of twists and turns, it doesn’t quite have the wonderfully noirish feel of March Violets.  The plot is fairly comprehensible for one!  Pale Criminal feels more like a traditional thriller albeit set against the backdrop of 1930’s Berlin.  Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the book and raced through it in no time at all: it’s well written, has great characters, and the link between the main plot and the nefarious machinations of Nazi party officials is deftly served up, setting this apart from your standard thriller.  I’m hoping however that the third book in the trilogy, A German Requiem, sees the return of the noirish streak.  I’ll let you know.