Category Archives: music

Book soundtrack: Carus & Mitch

I listen to music while I write. It’s usually drone, industrial or minimal techno. I could wax lyrical about the state of mind induced by Biokinetics by Porter Ricks, Grapes from the Estate by Oren Ambarchi or Water Park by Dirty Beaches. Each story I write is usually accompanied by a particular few albums on rotation.

But that’s by the by. That’s not the kind of soundtrack I want to write about here.

I’ve started creating playlists for each of the longer pieces of fiction I’ve written. You could think of them as soundtracks to imaginary film adaptations, I suppose. But who says that books shouldn’t have soundtracks in their own right? In fact, creating a soundtrack playlist has helped me pin down the tone of stories while I’m still editing them.

I like to make the process convoluted. I’ve come up with a fairly strict set of rules:

  1. The first and last tracks ought to work as an accompaniment to the story’s ‘opening and closing credits’.
  2. The playlist should include diagetic (i.e. in-world) and non-diagetic (i.e. conventional overlaid soundtrack) music. Generally, that means not much vocal content.
  3. Broadly, the tracks should reflect the mindset of the central character. My stories are mostly 1st-person or close 3rd-person POV, so by the editing stage I should have a pretty good idea what makes them tick.
  4. The ordering of the tracks should reflect the changing mood or plot events.
  5. Despite rule 4, the playlist should remain listenable in its own right, without sounding jarring. Unless jarring sounds good.

Carus & Mitch

My novella, Carus & Mitch, is published by Omnium Gatherum on Monday (23rd Feb 2015). It’s about two girls who live entirely alone in a remote house, afraid of the dangers outside. It’s kind of creepy.

Here’s a Spotify soundtrack to accompany Carus & Mitch. Hopefully, it ought to work either as a teaser to reading the story, or a kind of epilogue if you’ve already read it.

It’d probably be counterproductive to explain the reasoning behind each of the track choices. But perhaps it’s worth noting that the 1940s tracks and the ‘Autumn’ educational record are the diagetic (in-world) ones. I like the image of Carus and Mitch investigating a vinyl record collection they’ve discovered in the house.

Mild spoilers: The playlist reflects the book in that it transitions from cosy to queasy to a little bit terrifying. Enjoy.

Favourite tracks of 2014

Firstly, it’s been more a year for albums rather than individual songs. Even though my longlist is 41 tracks and 4.5 hours, I’m being strict with myself for this list by not including tracks to represent albums I love, if the track doesn’t stand alone. So nothing from Oren Ambarchi’s Quixotism (Part 3 came close, but is far more glorious in the context of the album). I’m also disallowing tracks from compilations and rereleased albums, therefore it’s a no-show for the Soul Jazz Gipsy Rumba or Strut Haiti Direct compilations, Finders Keepers’ Lewis album, or the rerelease of Aby Ngana Diop’s Liital.

So it’s a pretty pared-down list. Only eight tracks remain, though two of them are well over the 10-minute mark:

  • I Have Walked This Body by Jenny Hval & Susanna
  • Advice to Young Girls by Copeland ft. Actress
  • CIRCLONT6A[141.98][syrobonkus mix] by Aphex Twin
  • Hidden Thieves by Eyes & No Eyes
  • Nothing Important by Richard Dawson
  • Body Sound by Holly Herndon
  • Pretending by Mice Parade
  • Speech Spirits by FIS (The Nagger remix by Oren Ambarchi)

Here’s a Spotify playlist:

The numbers

OK, so I keep a log of all the new stuff I listen to. Doesn’t everyone do that? Up until today I’ve listened to 589 unique albums, 98 EPs and 41 singles this year – that’s 728 releases in total.

354 of these titles were released in 2014. This chart shows the release years, ordered by listening date:

Listening years
254 releases were by artists from the USA, 204 from the UK. Germany’s next in the list with 37 releases, then Australia with 23, then Sweden with 18. I listened to artists from 55 different countries in total.

But that’s just the releases that were new to me. I don’t log everything I listen to. That would be crazy.

Most of my listening was via Spotify. The site’s ‘Year in Music’ tells me that my most-listened genres were experimental, drone, glitch, warm drone, post-rock. Sounds about right.
Apparently I’ve listened to 38,739 minutes of music on Spotify this year, which certainly justifies the £10/month payment.
That’s 645 hours. That’s 27 whole days.

Finally, Last.fm tells me my most-listened artists this year. Given that many Oren Ambarchi tracks are longer than 10 minutes, he’s even more of a clear winner:Last.fm 2014 listening

Favourite albums of 2014

meshes_of_voice-27626501-frntl_1408276585Meshes of Voice by Jenny Hval & Susanna
Plotting a course between pretension and striking beauty, this album features more exquisite moments than any other this year. Jenny Hval’s impossibly high falsetto weaves in and out of Susanna’s warmer tones. Contrasting hummable melodies, the most unexpected elements are the unsettling drones, reaching a pinnacle in ‘I Have Walked This Body.’

 Richard-Dawson-Nothing-Important-300dpi

Nothing Important by Richard Dawson
The title track is the single most exciting song I’ve heard all year. It’s folk music for this century. It’s punk music without the posturing. It’s the short story I wish I’d written.

 Quixotism

Quixotism by Oren Ambarchi
Every so often I revisit a location important to me during my childhood. Each time, when I arrive, I worry that the magic won’t remain. Each time, I’m surprised all over again. Quixotism works in just the same way. Its simplicity seems mundane at first, until you begin to notice all of the irregular elements. Then it becomes hypnotic, even when the thump segues into jerky techno. It’s my favourite 2014 album for driving in the dark, occupying a similar place to Carter Tutti Void’s 2012 album Transverse.

 Other albums fan

Everybody Down by Kate Tempest, for its genre-busting storytelling. Pipes by Katie Gately, an artist who’ll no doubt produce something even more astounding in the near future. La Isla Bonita by Deerhoof – an unexpectedly direct and fun return to form. Wilderness of Mirrors by Lawrence English, for soundtracking my writing in 2014. And possibly, although it’s a bit soon to tell, Shadow of the Monolith by Lawrence English and Werner Dafeldecker.

Compilations

Compilations

My absolute favourite is Gipsy Rhumba: The Original Rhythm of Gipsy Rhumba in Spain 1965-1974 from Soul Jazz, strange and diverse and loved by my son. Marshall Allen presents Sun Ra And His Arkestra: In The Orbit Of Ra on Strut is outstanding. The French Avant-Garde in the 20th Century on LTM is terrific, too.

2014 reissues

ReissuesAnthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 1 by Craig Leon – astounding proto-techno from early-80s Takoma label. Money by Nath & Martin Brothers, the funkiest ride of the year. Furia by The Fates, a weird folk/post-rock diversion from 1985.

Favourite record labels

Thrill Jockey (new releases by Skull Defekts, Man Forever, OOIOO), Hospital Productions (Vatican Shadow), Exotic Pylon (Time Attendant, Isobel Ccircle), Editions Mego (Oren Ambarchi).

Favourite albums overall, new to me, from any year

Even before the release of Quixotism, 2014 was, for me, the year of Oren Ambarchi. I heard 14 of his albums for the first time, five of which I adore (Connected, Grapes from the Estate, Intermission 2000-2008, In the Pendulum’s Embrace, Quixotism). The combination of The Glass Trunk and Nothing Important puts Richard Dawson in close second place. Free jazz was another predominant theme – I love Karma by Pharoah Sanders and World Galaxy by Alice Coltrane. Hillbilly Tape Music by Henry Flynt is an eye-opener. What?? by Folke Rabe was on constant rotation for a while, during writing stints. Material by Emptyset is terrifying and exhilarating. Inspiration Information by Shuggie Otis features killer tunes. I felt embarrassed I’d never before heard Slates by The Fall. And Go Bo Diddley by Bo Diddley is another of my son’s favourites and therefore mine too.

Favourite tracks of 2013

Hungry Face by Mogwai – the most perfect theme imaginable to my favourite TV show of the last few years. / Casino Lisboa by Dirty Beaches – my most-listened new track of the year. I love the moment about a minute in, when the drums kick in and knock the bass riff upside-down. / New York / It’s All About… by Marina Rosenfeld – NY performance artist Rosenfeld is joined by Warrior Queen for a sparse, echoing shoutout. / Fall Back by Factory Floor – endless and hypnotic. Can’t shake the disappointment that the eventual album didn’t contain more like this. / Ludwig’s Children by Roj – a bedtime treat from the former Broadcast member’s early tape work EP, The Amateur’s Attic. / The Weighing of the Heart by Colleen – the aural equivalent of finding yourself dozing off beneath a tree on a sunny autumn day. / Major Tom by The Space Lady – recorded in 1990 and reissued on her Greatest Hits album, predates Julia Holter and Grouper with only a Casio and a winged hat. I’ve had this track on constant rotation since its release. / Low Light Buddy of Mine by Iron & Wine – Sam Beam moves even closer to a MOR sound, but this track’s an absolute earworm. / Water Park Theme – Take 2 by Dirty Beaches – the other side of Alex Zhang Hungtai’s 2013 output, as serene as ‘Casino Lisboa’ is frantic. / Brennisteinn by Sigur Ros – spluttering amps, synths and guitars, this is a tweaked sound for Sigur Ros, but the sense of bewildered glory is still present and correct. / LDWGWTT by SHXCXCHCXSH – unrelenting techno from the unpronounceable Swedish duo. / Full of Fire by The Knife – the rotten heart of Shaking the Habitual. / Breaking up the Earth by Colleen – frankly, I could include most of The Weighing of the Heart here, but I’m limiting myself to two tracks. This one’s more Arthur Russell than Grouper. / Willow by Rosy Parlane – one of a number of great Touch ambient tracks I might have included, and difficult to pinpoint what’s special about it. It just is. / Where Are We Now? by David Bowie – as wonderful as it was to have Bowie reappear out of nowhere, this track has only improved with each listen. / So Far So Clean by  Inga Copeland – a nice match with Marina Rosenfeld’s EP, the female half of Hype Williams finally strikes out on her own, hinting at excellence to come. / Waayey: The Butcher by Sidi TouréAlafia is an excellent, uplifting album. This track in particular does it for my three-month-old son. / Iyongwe by John Wizards – avoiding the Vampire Weekend-isms of the rest of the album, this track straddles genres perfectly. / Universe in Crisis by Wareika Hill Sounds – former Skatalite Calvin ‘Bubbles’ Cameron plays trombone in a fudgy, late-night haze. / Not Your Ordinary Blanket (live) by Groupshow – a track that I can only grasp onto for a few minutes before it merges into whatever daydream I’m in. / Hello Stranger by Julia Holter – a match made in heaven as Holter performs a stunning cover of Barbara Lewis’s song, one of my favourite ever pop tunes. / 10.17.2009 (for CCG) by M. Geddes Gengras – formless, pulsating, overwhelming.

Here’s a Spotify playlist containing all the tracks, just shy of 2 hours:

Favourite albums of 2013

colleen-weighing-cover

The Weighing of the Heart by Colleen

From the first hummed note of ‘Push the Boat Onto the Sand’ to the final echoing cello plucks of the title track, Cécile Schott’s latest is an exercise in swooning beauty. Lullaby-like rhymes and melodies appear and overlap, choral vocals become lost under layers of delicate rhythms. The sampling trickery is subtle and disarming, ‘Ursa Major Find’ and the single-phrase ‘Break Away’ feel at times like sweeter takes on Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’. But the outstanding moments are instrumental: ‘Geometría del Universo’ and particularly ‘Breaking Up the Earth’ channel Arthur Russell’s World of Echo. Colleen succeeds at fusing the sweet and genuinely, unnervingly progressive. Each time I listen to The Weighing of the Heart I fall in love with it all over again.

 

Drifters & water park

Drifters / Love is the Devil and Water Park OST by Dirty Beaches

There’s an obscene generosity to the amount of music that Alex Zhang Hungtai has provided in 2013. The Water Park soundtrack is beguiling at first, little more than a hum heard from another room. But I’ve listened to this 28-minute EP countless times and now playing it is like hearing the sound of something remembered from childhood. It’s simple and beautiful.

The double album Drifters / Love is the Devil is another beast, at least at first. The first half represents more familiar Dirty Beaches territory – Suicide casio thumps and rockabilly-from-hell vocals swamped in reverb. This reaches a peak with the compellingly riffy Casino Lisboa, my personal song of 2013.  The second half of the CD revisits the same aural soundscapes as Water Park. Less essential, certainly, but packaging Drifters and Love is the Devil together is a throwaway gesture that most artists wouldn’t dare contemplate.

 

Dozzy

Plays Bee Mask by Donato Dozzy

Bee Mask’s Vaporware EP is pretty great. But this album, in which Italian techno producer Donato Dozzy, remixes the title track again and again over seven tracks, is outstanding. I’ve listened to a lot of ambient music this year, but there are few albums that manage to be both moodily evocative and also lodge themselves in your mind. I get the feeling that the circumstances of this piece couldn’t be replicated.

 

UR055_COVER_F

Collected Works Vol. 1 – The Moog Years by M. Geddes Gengras

More ambient perfection. Sun Araw, Akron/Family and LA Vampires collaborator Gengras fiddles about with Moog Rogue and MG-1 synths and creates something divine. The track ‘10.17.2009 (for CCG)’ is an aural swoon.

 

Other albums in the mix

Albums 2013 rack

Shaking the Habitual by The Knife, for its bloodymindedness, magnificent bloat and a handful of thumping pop hits. The entire Mallet Guitars series by Ex-Easter Island Head, culminating in this year’s Mallet Guitars Three, all EPs together forming an essential album. Exit! By Fire! Orchestra, some of the most terrific free jazz, despite being tricky to schedule into a working day. And finally, The Space Lady’s Greatest Hits, long-awaited and wonderful.

 

EPs

EPs

Live at Skymall by Groupshow –  like many of my favourite albums this year, a listen that merges with whatever activity you’re doing. P.A./Hard Love by Marina Rosenfeld, a surprising favourite given its abrasive unpredictability, but totally compelling. No More War by Wareika Hill Sounds for chilled, alien trombone tunes.

 

Favourite record labels

Thrill Jockey (new releases from Matmos, People of the North, Mouse on Mars’ Jan St. Werner, Sidi Touré). Room 40 (Bee Mask, Marina Rosenfeld), Touch (Chris Watson, Rosy Parlane, Mika Vainio, Bruce Gilbert & BAW) Hospital Productions (Vatican Shadow, Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement, Alberich).

 

Favourite albums overall, new to me, from any year

Suicide (Suicide, 1977), an album that made me furious that nobody had introduced the band to me before. Womblife (John Fahey, 1997), produced by Jim O’Rourke and featuring some of the wonkiest sounds imaginable. Moondog & His Friends (Moondog, 1953) , an eye-opening account of the Viking of Sixth Avenue. I Am Sitting in a Room (Alvin Lucier, 1981), a simple sonic experiment that morphs into something intangible and ethereal. Illuminations (Buffy Sainte-Marie, 1969), apparently abandoned by the artist but superb and alien. Strumming Music (Charlemagne Palestine, 1974), another experiment with warmth and humour. We’re Only In It For the Money (Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention, 1968) – batshit insane. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (Neil Young & Crazy Horse, 1969)  – everybody else loves this album already, evidently, and it was mostly familiar to me, but hearing the tracks together was a revelation. And, already mentioned above, The Weighing of the Heart (Colleen, 2013) and Drifters / Love is the Devil (Dirty Beaches, 2013) are the two albums that stand out this year.

The things I most enjoyed in 2012

End-of-year lists are always self-indulgent, but this is more self-indulgent still. I wanted to capture all the things that were new to me this year that summed up what I most enjoyed in 2012. I realise that this is only really of interest to me.

Albums

Feelies

Transverse (Carter Tutti Void, 2012) was the single album of 2012 that stands alongside my favourites from other years. I missed New History Warfare Vol 2: Judges (Colin Stetson, 2011) and An Empty Bliss Beyond this World (The Caretaker, 2011) in 2011 but they became firm favourites this year – Colin Stetson for Tube journeys and The Caretaker as a background to writing. Biokinetics (Porter Ricks, 1996) became my soundtrack on countless rainy train journeys, a heartbeat layered on top of the hum of travel. World of Echo (Arthur Russell, 2001) gradually became less an album heard than an album felt. My go-to album for relaxation this year was the reissued UFO (Jim Sullivan, 1969). And Crazy Rhythms (The Feelies, 1980) and Midnight Cleaners (The Cleaners From Venus, 1982) were the two albums that made me upset at time wasted before having heard about them – my favourite pop albums of 2012.

Live music

Boredoms

The American Contemporary Music Ensemble’s performance of Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (Gavin Bryars) at All Tomorrow’s Parties was one of the most perfect things I’ve ever experienced. Boredoms at the same ATP festival was one of the bravest and maddest, featuring five drummers and a tree of guitar necks hit with a stick.

Films

Shout

I loved working through Les Vampires (Louis Feuillade, 1915), influential in technical respects but with its own weirdly dreamy qualities. The imagery has stayed in my mind longer than any other film. The Shout (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1978) was my hidden treasure of 2012, perfectly tailored to everything I like about films, and a great companion piece to Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2012). The latter was perhaps not the best-crafted film released in 2012 (surely The Master), but the one I responded to the most enthusiastically. I thought my high expectations for F for Fake (Orson Welles, 1973) would make it a disappointment, but it was totally surprising despite the fact I expected surprises. The same applies to That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Bunuel, 1977), especially the first 15 minutes or so, with a remarkable story structure. The Silence (Ingmar Bergman, 1963) was an epiphany, the first Bergman film that I’ve had an emotional reaction towards and predating David Lynch by 20 years. The Bespoke Overcoat (Jack Clayton, 1956) and Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990) featured the most sympathetic performances, within beautifully humanist films. And Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932), performed with a live soundtrack by Steven Severin, was the trippiest film experience, with Rose and I half-awake with woozy colds.

 

Books

LovedOne

I’m pickier with books than films, perhaps due to time investment. I’ve liked and/or appreciated lots of books this year. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Collins’s The Moonstone and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther come close, but the only book that made me bubble over with enthusiasm was The Loved One (Evelyn Waugh, 1948), a perfect and perfectly concise novel.

TV

Carlos

Carlos (Olivier Assayas, 2010) was the most compelling thing I saw on TV this year, making a case for longer treatments of complex events than films can offer. It also had the best soundtrack. The Olympics opening ceremony (Danny Boyle, 2012) was the broadcast that made me happiest, possibly due to watching it with a hangover and letting the spectacle wash over me. Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia (2012) felt like the best kind of ‘event’ TV fiction, and among the best scripts that Steven Moffat has yet produced. Black Mirror: The Entire History of You (2012) was the TV episode most tailored to my interests – fingers crossed for more Twilight Zone for the C21st. Breaking Bad Season 4-5a (2011-2012) was the most moreish TV experience once the show broadened out in scale, having earned our sympathy for the characters. The Thick of It Season 4 Episode 7 (2012) was the most surprising TV episode, using comedy characters to hint at something huge and dreadful just off-screen.

 

Theatre

SergeyBoris

The puppet show Boris and Sergey’s Vaudevillian Adventure (Flabbergast Theatre) at the Edinburgh Fringe made me feel like a child and made my face hurt from smiling and laughing.

Art

Saville

It’s rare for visual arts to get me in the guts. The Jenny Saville retrospective at Modern Art Oxford did just that. And the Speed of Light night-hiking/neon joggers/sound art performance at the Edinburgh International Festival was an event that was at once hilarious and baffling.

Favourite tracks of 2012

Sometimes I Forget You’ve Gone by Dirty Three (my favourite track of the year and more beautiful every time) / 5 by Dean Blunt & Inga Copeland (piped direct from my childhood, filtered through all the tape decks I ever owned) / Only in My Dreams by Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti (hauntology without irony) / Ghost Hamlet by Daphne Oram, Daz Quayle and Andrea Parker (quietly invasive) / Too Tough to Die by Neneh Cherry & The Thing (accumulating towards superb frenzy) / Wisteria of Albion by Time Attendant (1980s CBBC nostalgia with undertones of Zarch on the Acorn A3000) / Ungirthed by Purity Ring (silences overwhelming melodies) / V2 by Carter Tutti Void (thuk thuk thuk thuk thuk thuk thuk thuk) / Epic by Au & Colin Stetson (Steve Reich-style minimalism, maximised) / Stupid Things (EYE remix) by Yo La Tengo (YLT eclipsed by EYE, like Paul Simon’s ‘The Obvious Child’ played on a ZX Spectrum) / Radar (Michael Mayer remix) by Hauschka (fragile, tiny techno) / Genesis by Grimes (how modern, commercial  synthpop should sound, IMHO) / Brats by Liars (dirty dancefloor) / Christian Rocks by Fenn O’Berg (Fennesz, O’Rourke and Rehberg transform Boston’s ‘More Than a Feeling’ into disorienting, doom-laden drone)

Click below for the Spotify playlist.