Monday, April 24, 2017

Nth Degree: Fortnight #6 of the Burns

Milford Sound with rainbow
Wordcountz

I was going to do some graphs and trends-after-12-weeks stuff this time around, but I've got a bunch of other things to cover and post. So I'll leave the maths for another fortnight when I find myself less interesting.

As for fortnight #6, here it is, by the numbers:
  • Total words for the fortnight: 7,395 words (cf 12k last fortnight)
  • 1st week: 3,955 / 2nd week: 3,440
  • 89.6% of these words were on the novel

Going to Fiordland for Easter took a chunk of time of out the end of week 1 and the start of week 2. 

The plateau that I mentioned last fortnight persisted longer than I'd hoped (not so much in terms of total words, but how far into the story I managed to proceed). I resorted to alternative means of generating content (see cut-up chapter below), and managed to get something or somewhere.

With recent opportunities (see below), I'm still trying to figure out how much I try and get my location scout moving through time, or if I need to pull back and get things planned out better...


Travels (with Tomtit)

Misty ol' day in the Sound


Waterfall with seals, Milford Sound
Tomtit

Lake Mistletoe
Lake Manapouri

Mug

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.
And so it came to pass.


It depicts scenes from Monty Python's Holy Grail in a Saturday morning cartoon mode, which is kinda sorta exactly what my novel will turn out like if I'm not careful.


Outings


Octagon Poetry Collective

Last week I went to a reading at Dog With Two Tails. The feature poets were Sue Wootton (above) and Victor Billot. There was also an open mic for the collective members - it was an incredibly well oiled machine, each poet getting briskly to the mic, reading a single poem (some with patter, some without, but never more than necessary) and blending back into the crowd.

After an intermission, the chair came to me and lightly twisted my arm, so I read a poem ('Transition', with a rambling preamble that did not do justice to the preceding efficiency). While I've published quite a few poems, sporadically, I think the last time I read one of my poems in public was in 2006 at the Museum of City and Sea in Wellington.

It was a fun night and Sue and Victor were great too.

Town Belt Traverse

After going 11 years between public poetry readings, the next gap was five days. And instead of reading one poem, I had two and a half hours to fill!

The event was the annual Town Belt Traverse, organised by the Dunedin Amenities Society. As the Burns Fellow, I was positioned at the 5th and final station in Prospect Park and asked to "recite some verse" (people who talk about reciting and/or verse tend to think of poetry as they might dinosaurs or unicycling).

These first arrivals were the hardout walkers who hadn't really mucked around at any of the other stops and weren't going to lower their heartrate for a spot of poetry. Fair enough.

After about half an hour the stream of people became a bit more steady and in less of a rush, and I found my groove. People we much more comfortable stopping to listen if I was already reading, so it helped to have some longer pieces. (I learnt quickly that starting a poem as someone past made them feel as if they'd triggered a security light). In addition to about 20 poems of my own, I read some others' (Emma Neale, Geoff COchrane, Alice Oswald), and two short stories that are bitsy and poetic ('30 Ways of Looking at Marumaru South' and 'Parents in Decline').

I was joined in the middle span by one of the PhD candidates from the English Department who read Owen Marshall's 'The Divided World' (great choice) and two of my own poems (a weird experience). Thanks Damien!

Despite some awkward moments, I really enjoyed it at times, and had some good chats with people in between pieces.


The long and blinding road

A selection of 40 or so fake quotes from my fake famous director
 in the process of being ordered and rationalised before
being incorporated into the novel
TBH there are times when working on a story or a novel when it can get scary. 

Scary because suddenly what you are working on becomes clear and there’s a bigger meaning to it, or a bigger question underlying the work, that you didn't quite know was there when you started and are confronted with the task of being the one to see this through. 

Am I really fit to be asking this question? 

Can I really write a novel that dramatizes this particularly big thing that I didn’t know I was even grappling with until ninety seconds ago?

In time the feeling fades. You mock yourself for your self-importance. That's the only way you can proceed, or at least that I can.

One does not sit down each day and produce work of genius. One might come upon it, in the course of one's work, and if one is careful not to look directly into its eyes, might encircle it, once, twice, thrice, each revolution claiming a little more of its power for your own...

Or not. Probably not.


Internet Explorer

I mentioned last fortnight that I was spending a lot of time looking at places in Italy on Google Street View. At the risk of turning this place into selfie-central, I bought this t-shirt to embrace the desk-bound nature of my research/creativity.


HOWEVER...

Things move quickly in these here parts. 

Next month, I'm off to Italy and, after fulfilling some non-novelistic duties, I'll have the chance to 'scout' locations in person.

This is good news. Great news, even. Except, it does mean a lot of this next month is gonna be spent playing my own travel agent, trying to squeeze as much into my time on the ground, and preparing for the primary reason for my visit (education business). 

A welcome spanner in the works. 

Perhaps I need a new t-shirt?

Is it wrong that I really, really like Gore?
-->

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

We goin’ Sizzler: Fortnight #5 of the Burns

-----

There is pleasure in the work
-----

Words this fortnight: 12,320 (cf 8,702 the previous fortnight)
(Week 1 - 7,956; Week 2 - 4,364)

Still a case of the first week of the fortnight being the more productive (65 percent of the fortnightly tally this time) but not as pronounced as some previous fortnights.

Some blogging in week one distorts the figure, slightly. When looking just at what I added to THE LOCATION SCOUT, it's 5.4k vs 4k, figures I'll happily take for the next forty weeks, please and thank you.

I had two days of 2,000+ words twice this fortnight, one in each week (both Tuesdays). These were my first days over 2,000 (on just the novel) for the year.

I did strike a plateau with the manuscript around 18,000 words. It's the transition from the first act to the second, from what was known to what's much less fixed in my mind. So: a few days of casting around the internet, staring at Google Maps, watching YouTube videos, and then a bright idea in the shower and voila, someone has turned the word tap back on (just in time for another 2k Tuesday).

-----
If there is no pleasure in the work
what chance have others of finding it?
-----

Birds!

-----

There is pleasure in the work (x2)
-----

The Dunedin Writers Festival programme is out and I'm appearing in two events:
It looks like it'll be a great few days in May, which is rapidly approaching.

In thinking about what I might do for the Found Poetry session, I've become VERY interested in Recurrent Neural Networks and their potential to generate text. I met with someone from the university's Computer Science faculty, who put me in touch with some of his colleagues. I'm working slowly towards a collaboration, though I'm not quite sure what the final product might be.

-----
If there is no pleasure in the work, down tools
------



My location scout in THE LOCATION SCOUT has landed in Italy and is scouting locations I've never been to. It's an interesting experience, wedding imagination and Google Street View images. There's a chance I might be able to get to Italy before the book is finished, but I'm treating that as a nice bonus rather than a necessity. Believe it or not, the book's not really about location scouting!

So for now, the internet and I will suffice.

-----
There is pleasure in the work (x2)
-----

Me and my motley crew are off to Milford Sound and Te Anau for Easter. So expect next fortnight's update to be photo-rich and wordcount-poor.

----- 
There is pleasure in the work (fade out)
-----

Saturday, April 1, 2017

March Consumption Diary

Music

Playlist


Concert

Nadia Reid at Port Chalmers Town Hall, 31 March

The second of two sold out shows in Reid's home town (don't get me started on how Dunedin's city boundary is insanely large, swallowing up towns like Port C and Mosgiel).

Wooden halls are notoriously difficult acoustically, especially with a full band,  but the sound was pretty good. There were moments in almost every song where it was clear Reid - her talent - has this trajectory that few artists have.

One thing I noticed live that I hadn't noticed after hours listening to both her albums at home: every second song seems feature lyrics about direction, in particular forward movement. Overall, her lyrical palette is restrained, which is probably a good thing. And most lyricists have tics that become apparent after two-dozen or so songs. Will be interesting to see how, and where, her lyrics evolve in the future.

I won't go over the comparisons that I've seen in other places, but seeing her leading the rockier numbers I was put in mind of Niko Case when she fronts for the New Pornographers. Which is most certainly a good thing.

My favourite song at the moment is 'Richard', which has a very Kurt Vile groove, but there was something about Reid's voice that reminded me of something older. Last night I thought it might be Shawn Colvin's 'Sonny Came Home'. Listening to that song now, I'm not sure if that's the one.

Anyway!

Just a phenomenal talent and a bloody good night.

Books

Bandits by Elmore Leonard (novel, audiobook)

I find listening to a Leonard novel a useful reminder about the power of dialogue and the cancer that is disconnected exposition.

This one had some links to my work in progress (an ex-nun who kinda fell for St Francis of Asissi), but everything is connected, somehow. See Fortnight #4’s discussion of first draft solipsism.


The Man Who Could Fly: St Joseph of Copertino and the Mystery of Levitation by Michael Grosso (non-fiction)

This book is clearly connected, no neurotism required. And it only came out last year, so after I did my initial deep dive of research. But I can imagine what writing my book would be like without reading this one.

That’s not to say it’s a good book. It’s really not. It’s often turgid, disjointed and uses logic selectively. And it took an age (2 months) to get through, despite being massively het up about the subject matter.

But it did give me something to argue against. And that, my friends, is a precious gift.


The Dreamer’s Dictionary – Stearn Robinson and Tom Corbett (non-fiction)

I was looking for a catalogue of common types of dreams (falling dreams, flying dreams, teeth falling out dreams) but this turned out to be a tool for those hoping to divine meaning from their dreams, as if they were tea leaves.

For example:
Halo. To see someone wearing a halo in your dreams indicates sad news; if you were wearing the halo, it predicts travel; if you dreamed of taking off a halo you can expect some kind of improvement in business or financial matters.
Bah!

But I did like this, from the Introduction:
…as dreams allow one to go safely and quietly insane for a time each day, it is not, as heretofore believed, the sleep that is necessary for our well-being, but the dreams.

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle (novel, audiobook)

So, I loved Wolf in White Van, and I loved the first half of Universal Harvester. I mean, that title seems at once the most bad-ass Sabbath-era metal album title (Darnielle has also written a 33 1/3 book on Sabbath’s Master of Reality) and totally prosaic and farmy (the book is set in rural Iowa).

I normally listen to audiobooks on 1.25x or 1.5x, but early on in Universal Harvester I wanted to savour the experience. At a little over six hours normal speed, I felt the book (read by the author) was slipping away too fast.

The way horror (think: horror movies) and grief (think: lost parents) intersect, it’s really powerful. The novel has this genre-fied hot rod engine that is ready to take the reader anywhere, but then Darnielle chooses to keep it idling. Actually, he parks the hot rod out back and completely forgets about it for a while, and then, on the last page, when we’re all a bit tired and strung out and only a handful of us have any hope left, he runs to the hot rod, jumps in and goes for a very brief blat. But by then, it’s too little too late for most of us.


The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (novel, audiobook)

I wanted something light and commercial and I got it here.

I’m totally not comfortable with the way this and many entertainments before it derive so much of the content from the comedy of the main character’s non-standard brain wiring (Don Tillman is somewhere on the ASD spectrum, but so are we all). At times it felt cheap, easy and/or untrue. Whenever Don’s wiring or the demands of the chick-lit genre come into conflict, the genre wins.

But still, I listened. Still, I lapped it up. Says something about my brain’s wiring I guess. Though I’m going to try hard to resist any urges to add any Helen Fielding to my Audible wishlist.


In My Father’s Den by Maurice Gee (novel, NZ, audiobook)

This was like the anti-Universal Harvester. I started listening to this novel on a day I worked from home (lawns to mow, washing to hang out, meals to cook) at 1.25x, but after a couple minutes felt comfortable cranking up to 1.5x. After an hour of biological time, I pumped it up to 1.75x and managed to finish the entire book in a day.

It’s been a number of years since I read Plumb, but I only read Rachel Barrowman’s biography of Gee last year. In My Father’s Den was like a mash-up of both of these (the autobiographical stuff about Henderson/Wellsford, the contrasting religiousness of Paul Prior’s parents) extruded through a classic crime novel (seventeen year old girl found dead in the scrub, half-scalped). But rather than conform to the crime genre, we get the story in a very NZ literary novel way: nothing procedural or quote-unquote pacy about this. The solution to the mystery is stumbled upon, rather quickly in the scheme of things, and resolved predictably enough (the climax does feature a tomahawk). While it might fail as a piece of genre fiction, it success as literature thanks in part to the momentum it borrows from genre. It doesn’t, unlike Darnielle’s book, park the crime story behind the shed and forget about it. It’s there, always, but Gee is able to buy enough time to give us the narrator’s entire life story, which, cunningly, allows the murderer’s motive to be neatly foregrounded without rousing the reader’s suspicion.


A Perfect Spy by John Le Carre (novel, audiobook)

Another genre piece, this time from the master of the spy novel. I found this the hardest to manage as an audiobook. The genre demands the accumulation of significant detail, frequent reversals and assumed personas, and I found it hard to keep it all straight in my head. It wasn’t that it was all moving too fast for me (I found some parts went on too long), but that I couldn’t flip back a chapter or two to check things, such is the inexorable progress of an audiobook when you’re cycling, or hanging out the washing, or doing the groceries.

Film & TV

(some of these I may have missed off my Jan/Feb list)

  • Do The Right Thing
  • Sex, Lies and Videotape
  • The Legend of Bagger Vance
  • Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage (My wife asked me why I liked watching documentaries about bands, as if this was something weird. My dad used to tape music docos from the TV. The Beatles. Pink Floyd. Beach Boys. So I grew up around not just this music, but people talking about the music, the making of the music. I'm interested in how any art is made, but music will always be the thing that is most immediate for me as an audience member, and the thing most distant from me in terms of talent. And I don't even like Rush, much. Like * sacrilege alert*: Neal Peart is not a good lyricist. Gimme 'Working Man' over anything Peart ever penned. But then, I didn't listen to Rush when I was going through puberty, so...)
  • Grillo vs Grillo
  • Dave Chappelle Netlix specials (x2)
  • I Don’t Feel At Home in this World Anymore
  • Green Room
  • Demolition Man
  • 2 Guns
  • Entourage: The movie
  • Tootsie
  • The Dead Lands
  • Jackie Browne
  • Love (Season 2)

Monday, March 27, 2017

Scorched Earth - Fortnight #4 of the Burns

Waves, The Catlins
One: Status report (textual/confessional)

How do I feel about my novel after four weeks of solid work (and a good 18 months of sitting on the first 7,000 words and all the research that went into getting that far)?

Well, I'm not glad you asked, but I'll try and answer anyway. I feel pleased to be where I am (actually working on it! Go the Burns!), but the novel itself, the 30-odd pages it comprises right now, it feels flabby. That's okay, I guess. I can put it on the treadmill once the first draft is done and I know what's really important. But I have to get to the end (the first end of many).

One problem is I think this flabbiness might be part of what I'm going for, in this first section at least. The risk of doing a book about people who make art (in this case: film) that you expect the reader to take seriously, and also bringing in historical and religious aspects, is that it gets very po-faced, very quickly. So my protagonist is actually a bit of a fuck-up, and we meet him in the midst of this moment in his life that feels more like a Judd Apatow movie than something slicker and smarter. And Apatow's stuff is all pretty flabby. It must be part of the formula. The way recipes require a certain amount of fat for flavour. But I'm still figuring out how this works on the page within my particular concoction.

Forest walk back from Curio Bay
The other problem is I feel as if everything I read or watch is somehow talking to me, talking to the novel, and needs, needs, to find its way onto the page. (Look out for my March Consumption Diary toward the end of the week if you want to read between the lines a little further).

It’s not a new experience. Call it extreme narcissim or first draft solipsism. It's happened before and it'll happen again. I know it passes. I

The task is to:
a) resist the urges in the first instance
b) expunge the extraneous material that makes it through the first line of defense in my daily read-throughs
c) expunge the persistent extraneous elements in intensive edit of 1st draft 
d) repeat c) for 2nd draft, rinse and repeat until deadline has passed and you throw up your hands and say, I’m done.

Knowing this, I’m able to keep perspective. 

I’m able to be genuinely happy with making my manuscript grow by 1,000 words a day for a string of days, even if I know the net remnants of that week may be far far smaller when the book is finished. 

Or, shock horror, that this thing about a bit of Apatovian flab being necessary is a massive error of judgement and the first 30 pages wind up on the cutting room floor.

Oh well. It’s part of the process.

Truth is, I love editing the most. It’s easy to see the book getting better, hour by hour. But you gotta have something to edit. And gosh, weeks like the one before the Catlins will get you there (see part 3 below).

And the Catlins trip was work related, too...

Two: Catlins teaser

Hector's dolphin inside a wave at Porpoise Bay

Three: Status Report (numerical)

Total words: 8,702 (novel 7,450; blog 1,092; poetry 141)

* Week 1: 6992 (with an average of 1,180 on the novel Monday to Friday)
* Week 2: 1,710 total.

Why the massive drop-off?

On Saturday of Week 1 we headed down to a house in Waikawa in the Catlins, and got back in Dunedin late on Tuesday, by which time me and my son were starting to feel sick. Wednesday we both were write-offs. I improved, but stayed home Thursday and Friday as Caio was still not up to going back to daycare (double ear infection, fever, general clinginess, a touch of conjuctivitis... y'know how it is).

Four: But the Catlins!

The view of Porpoise Bay from the Curio Bay campground

Looking at Curio Bay and it's petrified forest (partially submerged) from the campground

My son learnt to photo-bomb at Cathedral Caves, bless him

Five: Birds and Boatmen

Apart from seeing the Hector's dolphins cosying up to swimmers at Porpoise Bay, the other notable wildlife sighting was my first Tomtit (actually, multiple) on the 30 minute walk (perfect for with the kids at Waipohatu. I didn't take photos as I had Caio on my shoulders and my camera was in my backpack both times, but I'm sure there'll be other encounters with the South Island's version of the robin over the next 10 months, so you'll live.

Also of note, the Waikawa Museum, with it's trove of family photos and trinkets. All its signs and captions are handwritten - which is both charming and somehow depressing, as if this history is less permanent, less valued, will have a shorter shelf life. I dunno. There was a sign saying don't take photos (not sure I understand the motivation), but I had to take a snap of this father and son (Captain Wybrow and his son David) and the wooden grave marker for Wybrow's wife Temuka (Temuc according to the engraving).


There's lots I could write about these things, and one day I might.


Six: Interlude

Sitting and writing means I eat a lot. I must have some kind of oral fixation. Maybe it’s like ACHOO syndrome, where sudden increase in brightness makes me sneeze. Maybe making shit up makes me hungry?

Maybe I should try gum.


Seven: But was it research for the current novel?

Yes! My trip to the Catlins was fruitful. I'd been casting around, trying to come up with an idea for a low budget NZ film my main character could have made that kinda kickstarted his career, got him on the festival circuit, before it all goes pear-shaped.

I'd had this image of a Western set in the Kaimanawa Ranges, a kind of adaptation of Nigel Cox's Cowboy Dog, but there was a film that was actually made like this (Good for Nothing, filmed in NZ though purporting to be the US) a couple of years ago, so I felt I needed to come up with something else.

So I did. Hoorah.

What's the idea? I can't tell you. But the (imaginary) film is called Curio Bay, at least for now.

Eight: Dunedin institutions


I went to Forsyth Barr stadium for the first time Friday before last. It was for a Warriors game, rather than the Highlanders, because I'm dumb enough to actually support the Warriors. What a bunch of schmucks. But an interesting stadium and an interesting crowd.

This Friday, I'm off to see Nadia Reid at the Port Chalmers Town Hall, which should be cool on many levels.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Fire at will - Burns Fortnight #3

Detail, Otago Muslim Association, Clyde Street

1. Fellows Welcome

This fortnight started hospitably, with an event at the Hocken Library to welcome the University of Otago's five Arts Fellows (visual arts, dance, music, children's writing and, uh, just writing).


As you can see from the pic attached to that write-up, it was a gloriously sunny late afternoon (last fortnight's good weather stuck around for another week). It was nice that my wife and kids got to come along for the first bit (before bedtime beckoned).

When the Pro Vice Chancellor was reading out the bios of the Fellows, my daughter, Lia (4), turned to me and said, excitedly, "That's you!". But I was quickly forgotten when the bio of the dance fellow was read out. "Ballet! Daddy, he said ballet!"

When it came time for the Fellows to say a few words in response, my wife had to disappear with my son for what turned out to be a toilet false alarm, so I ended up going on stage with Lia. She casually held my hand the whole time and declined the opportunity to say anything, so I thanked the people of Dunedin and the university on behalf of the both of us.


2. Productivity (& spectatorship)

Total words this fortnight: 9,121 (4,896 on THE LOCATION SCOUT, the rest on this blog)

It was a fortnight of two halves again. The first week was solid. I felt comfortable with where I'd gotten my short stories, and was itching to start my novel before February was over, so I started (techincally restarted, after last working on it in earnest in 2015) a day early.

The next four days I made good progress, averaging an additional 933 words to the manuscript per day. That's passable for any point in the novel, but pretty darn good for the first ten or so pages. This reflects the fact I had a fairly decent (7,000 words) false start behind me, and 18+ months to mull over what wasn't quite right. Oh, and in the last week of Feb I had story-boarded out the first three scenes/chapters. So, really, why shouldn't I be productive?

Then came the weekend, and my brother came down from Wellington, so I had to show him around and generally have a great time. See part 3.

Later in the week, I tried in vain to resist the combination of sunshine and test cricket occurring a 5-minute bike ride from my office. So productivity suffered. But, as I told my wife, watching test cricket by yourself is great thinking time. I think it set me up pretty well for fortnight #4 (at least the first week... I sure hope this won't be a pattern!).

I'm off to the Warriors vs the Bulldogs at the stadium this Friday. Probably won't be as much deep thinking going on there!


3. Tourism

The Mole at Aramoana (the black line across the path is a fur seal)

Looking back from the end of The Mole, with terns and gulls

White dots = albatross (including parent with chick if you zoom into the 'dot' that's just right of centre),
Harrington Point viewed from the end of The Mole at Aramoana
Fur seal and Harrington Pt Lighthouse

The view from Signal Hill

Snack at St Kilda Beach


4. M.O.R.

Something that happened in Fortnight #3, but I only properly reflected on afterwards:

People talk about two Dunedins. The students and the locals. Or maybe it's Dunedin during term time and Dunedin during the holidays.

Before Orientation started, I felt young. As in: below the median age in town.

After Orientation: way old.

That influx of 20,000 18 year olds (okay, they aren't all that young, but...) sure is noticeable. Of course, working (I'm trying hard to leave off the inverted commas) at the university means I'm at Ground Zero for the change.

What influence will being around so many people born when the Y2K bug was a thing to fear have on my writing / me? These young people fall into my generational blindspot - too young to be siblings or cousins (or direct reports, just yet), too old to be kids of mine or my peers. What interaction will I really have with them, beyond reading Critic and trying not to run over them on my bicycle?

Time will tell.


5. Open to the universe

One good thing about having had some halfway decent productivity to start my fellowship is that I feel I can start to say YES to things that pop up.

Event formation seems to be quite organic down here. At the Fellows Welcome I was asked if I want to take part in three separate things (a theatre thing, a library thing, a creative writing thing). No firm dates. No firm anything, really, but I said Yes, because that's part of why I'm down here.

(I also found out one of the University's leadership team is reading my blog - though maybe he was just cyber stalking me in the lead up to the Welcome and will stop now - and got invited up the clock tower in the iconic admin building. I said something about that being a great setting for a murder mystery. Who killed the Vice Chancellor? Quick, barricade the stairwell. Now I'm not sure if that invite still stands.)

Doing a stonking job with a novel manuscript is my primary objective, but doing things that make me feel like a writer again (or, heaven forbid, a thinker) should help with the novel and life beyond it. Because, hard as it is to conceive of right now, there will come a time when I need to move on to other projects. If I keep adding to the reservoir this year, I should be spoiled for choice in 2018 or 2019 or whenever I finally put THE LOCATION SCOUT to bed.

Since the Fellows Welcome, I've said yes to two events for the Dunedin Writers Festival in May, and another thing for the Dunedin Amenities Society. (Next fortnight I might share with you my theory about why it's better to live in a town that's seen better days than one that's still growing, but suffice to say one reason is things like Town Belts and Amenities Societies exist)

I still feel like I have capacity for more. In fact, I have an idea for something that I'll probably need to drive if it's to become a reality.

And I like surprises. So hit me up, universe.

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 is 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.