Monthly Archives: April 2010

Phosphorescent – Here’s to Taking it Easy Album Review

Those familiar with the music of Matthew Houck, aka Phosphorescent, won’t be surprised by the title of his first batch of original songs since 2007’s exemplary Pride. They may, however, be thrown slightly off guard by the opening track; a rollicking, horn-led ode to Alabama. But Houck hasn’t completely forsaken the lazy, introspective Americana that earned him comparisons to Will Oldham and Neil Young. It’s more like he’s got half a cheek slouched on the couch, the other attempting a drunken waltz on his porch – case in point: penultimate track, Heaven Sitting Down.

Here’s To Taking It Easy is more buoyant than almost anything Houck’s released before, but the highlights occur when he reverts to type, like on the meditative Hej, Me I’m Light and album highlight and closer, Los Angeles. Ultimately, Here’s to Taking it Easy struggles for an identity: unsure whether it should embrace the light or slump down into the melodious murk once again.


Written for The Skinny

National Anthems

From their formative days in Cincinnati to the dizzy heights of Bloodbuzz Ohio, here’s a chronological guide to The National‘s catalogue to date.

The National (2001)

Their self-titled debut rippled the consciousness of few, but for those who heard it, boded well for the Cincinnati outfit. It showcases an Americana influence not revisited substantially on any of the band’s successive releases. It’s comparably inconsistent and the lyrics don’t visit the same depths of Berninger’s more recent work, though it boasts promise amongst a few notable tracks.

Choice Cut: Theory of the Crows

Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers (2003)

This excellent second album was the beginning of their fruitful relationship with producer Peter Katis and the first to rubber-stamp The National’s trademark sound. All at once funny, paranoid and self-deprecating, Sad Songs… is perhaps the most immediate album the band have released to date.

Choice Cut: Fashion Coat

Alligator (2005)

The album that brought The National to our attention, Alligator stands up as one of the most intricate, beautiful and compelling indie releases of our time. Matt Berninger’s abstract yet poetic snippets, sometimes screamed, sometimes crooned, are like daggers through the layered, almost symphonic arrangements of his band.

Choice Cut: Daughters of the Soho Riots

Boxer (2007)

We were worried about how they would follow up Alligator, but there really was no need; more restrained, but arguably more musically sophisticated, Boxer is a lavish, self-contained masterpiece. As with most of their work, this one requires patience, but the rewards are bountiful. Boxer’s critical praise was reflected in its commercial success. Having played Nice ‘n’ Sleazy when they were last in town, suddenly they were selling out the ABC.

Choice Cut: Fake Empire

High Violet (2010)

It seems criminal to attempt an appraisal of High Violet so early, but even after a month in its company, it’s abundantly clear that this is every bit as brilliant as any of its predecessors. The hooks are stronger, arrangements denser and lyrics as elegantly opaque as ever. Once again, The National have seen our expectations and raised them.

Choice Cut: Bloodbuzz Ohio

My Most Listened to Albums of This Year Are…

1. The National – High Violet
2. Deer Tick – War Elephant
3. Clogs – The Creatures in the Garden Of Lady Walton
4. Galaxie 500 – On Fire
5. Band of Horses – Infinite Arms
6. Phosphorescent – Here’s To Taking It Easy
7. Midlake – The Trials of Van Occupanther
8. Townes Van Zandt – Anthology
9. Horse Feathers – Words Are Dead
10. Real Estate – Real Estate

Okay, this is a pretty strange list. I admit, it’s also pretty inaccurate. It’s aggregated using Last FM and is based on the tracks scrobbled from each album. Thing is, this year I’ve been listening to a hell of a lot of music on Spotify, not to mention on my mp3 player. Honestly though, The National’s new album is undoubtedly the one I’ve listened to the most. If it were to include everything else, I think you’d find some Jo Newsom, Kath Bloom and David Thomas Broughton.

It would be interesting to hear what other people have been listening to the most?

jj – jj n° 3 Album Review

Last year, Swedish dream-pop outfit jj scored a critical hit with the imaginatively titled n° 2. n° 3 follows quickly on its heels and unsurprisingly treads similar territory. There are breathy, soulful vocals (My Life), sun-kissed rhythms (lead single and album highlight Let Go) and recurring chill-out mantras in abundance; the stoned mood even seeps into the song titles, (see Golden Virginia). jj do what they do very well, meaning you will emerge on the other side feeling relaxed and tranquil. There are hooks aplenty and an infectious number will be ingrained in your psyche for days. But it’s difficult to stay excited about an album this laid back. Occasionally, as on Voi Paralte, Lo Giocco, n° 3 is let down by a lack of vitality and it cries out for direction. The odd injection of adrenaline could easily have elevated this from merely a good record to something far greater.


Written for The Skinny

The Peryls – I Have Not Slept One Wink EP Review

Average English folksy type fail to capitalise on potential.

I Have Not Slept One Wink
is as quintessentially English as pork pies, cricket and red post boxes. It’s quaint, cutesy and whimsical, taking influence from Revolver era Beatles and Bowie circa Hunky Dory. There’s a Dickensian quality to it that Oregonian Anglophiles The Decemberists spent a few years perfecting. The trouble is, The Peryls don’t do it half as well. Of the seven tracks here, four are disposable. It’s a frustrating statistic, as when they get it right, like on the melodious She Cried All Night Long, they reveal bags of potential. Too often, though, they are as tame and forgettable as afternoon tea.


Written for The Skinny

Clogs – The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton Album Review

Not only would it be unfair to call Clogs a National side project, it’d be inaccurate too, since they predate them and are arguably a larger influence on The National’s music than the other way around. The fifth album by Bryce Dessner and Padma Newsome (he behind their orchestral arrangements), is a wonderful, beautiful brew of neo-classical, chamber pop, Mediaeval folk and post-rock. It’s tempting to sit back and hurl adjectives at it, but few would do it justice. Sure, it’s lavish, but it’s tasteful too. Okay, it’s ornate and opulent, but it certainly isn’t alienating. Woven amongst the guest vocalists (Shara Morden of My Brightest Diamond appears on half the tracks, and Matt Berninger) are subtle touches of woodwind, brushes of percussion and lilting string plucks that continue to reveal themselves, spin after spin. Clogs have produced a veritable masterpiece, an album to immerse yourself and hope to get lost inside.

Three Blind Wolves – Sound of the Storm Album Review

Ross Clark’s first album You Brought Evil (2009) was one of significant promise: a spacious, nebulous record, built around the Glaswegian singer’s distinctive voice. On Sound of the Storm – from Clark’s new band Three Blind Wolves – his voice is again to the fore, but this time it’s the centrepiece of a multi-pronged, country rock outpouring. The promise of his debut is realised in full; the tracks which have been recycled from it are more rounded and polished, revitalised by a fuller sound. From the gorgeous, tender Emily Rose, to the spring-stepped Hotel and the epic eponymous track, his full song writing canon is on display here, and it sounds mightily impressive. That Ross Clark is doing a better Jim James turn than the My Morning Jacket frontman can muster these days should be cause for the Kentucky native’s concern, but one for just about everyone else to celebrate.


Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing

I’ve read quite a few writing guides, for both fiction and non-fiction. Most of them have raised some interesting points and ideas, but few have been as comprehensive and as accurate as I’d like. This one from Elmore Leonard pretty much hits the nail on the head. It’s due to be published as a short book quite soon, although I’m not sure why anyone would buy it given that it’s readily available online. It is definitely worth a read though.

Most of it can be used homogenously, across genres. Some points I’m particularly keen on are:

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.


10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

I realised recently how much of a novel I scan over. They say every word has to earn its place on the page and this is true. Getting bogged down in meandering narratives and descriptions is really off-putting. I am going to try and take these pointers on board in future.

Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing

Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle

from the New York Times, Writers on Writing Series.


These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

1. Never open a book with weather.

If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues.

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s ”Sweet Thursday,” but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: ”I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ”she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ”full of rape and adverbs.”

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”

This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories ”Close Range.”

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s ”Hills Like White Elephants” what do the ”American and the girl with him” look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character — the one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

What Steinbeck did in ”Sweet Thursday” was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. ”Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, ”Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled ”Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter ”Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: ”Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”

”Sweet Thursday” came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.

Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.

Music Quiz #4

I haven’t posted one of these in a while, then again, I haven’t posted anything in a while. I’ve been pretty busy traveling cross-country and sorting stuff out for my move. This one is a movie-themed music quiz… if you reckon you’re good enough – email the answers to

Good luck!

  1. Who produced the soundtrack to the movie Natural Born Killers?

  2. Brian Eno and eighties rockers Toto produced the soundtrack to which David Lynch movie?

  3. Hakuna Matata, a song from the Lion King soundtrack, is a Swahili phrase that means what in English?

  4. Which 2003 movie soundtrack features songs from My Bloody Valentine, Squarepusher, The Jesus and Mary Chain and Bill Murray?

  5. Which French duo scored the film soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides?

  6. Which former member of Pop Will Eat Itself scored the soundtrack to Requiem For A Dream and The Hole?

  7. Which film features appearances from both Jools Holland and Meatloaf?

  8. Starsky and Hutch, The Basketball Diaries and Kalifornia are all part of which female front woman’s filmography?

  9. Which of the following did not appear on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack:

Kool and the Gang


KC and the Sunshine Band?

  1. Portuguese singer Seu Jorge covered the songs of whom for a large part of the movie The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou?

  2. Which hip hop star was one of the producers of the soundtrack to Kill Bill: Volume One?

  3. Which movie currently holds the Academy Award for Best Original Score?

  4. And which song is the current holder of the Best Original Song Oscar?

  5. Which Tyneside musician has appeared in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and, um, Ally McBeal?

  6. Dracula, Mystery Men and Wristcutters: A Love Story all feature appearances from which veteran music man?

  7. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, It Was A Very Good Year and Mr Tambourine Man were all covered by which much maligned actor cum singer on his 1968 album The Transformed Man?

  8. Which Italian American composer has collaborated with David Lynch on Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Mullholland Drive?

  9. Which American actor appeared in the video to Fatboy Slim’s 2001 hit Weapon Of Choice?

  10. Hollywood legends James Dean, Martin Sheen and Steve McQueen are name checked in which REM song, from the New Adventures In Hi-Fi album?

  11. Which fictional band, taken from a Roddy Doyle novel, featured Deco Cuffe as lead vocalist, Outspan Foster on guitar and were managed by Jimmy Rabbitte?