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Firstly, let me apologise. I've been absent for quite some time and I return and have nothing to offer you but a rant. A mega rant.
Let me get this out of the way: I'm a huge fan of the Italian Baroque artist Caravaggio. His genre paintings are full of humour and ambiguity, his portraits have a real intimacy to them, and his religious paintings are breath-taking, daring, vicious and beautiful. He used grubby beggars and prostitutes and cast them as martyrs. He gave hope to the hopeless. He introduced darkness into painting. He was darkness. For Caravaggio has quite the reputation; not only as the master painter who changed the face of art forever, but also as a scoundrel, a murderer who came to a sticky end. After years of being sneered at and eventually rubbed out of existence, in recent years he has enjoyed new found popularity. Programmes and films are being made about him, and books are being written about his art. In my quest to find out as much about the man and his art as possible, I've been devouring any book on Caravaggio I can find. I came to M with the knowledge that it had caused quite a stir when it was published in 2000.
M by Peter Robb is a controversial biography of the Baroque bad boy. I've already reviewed a Caravaggio biography on here so it may seem a little tedious to review a book on the same subject. But holy cow these biographies are very different. Allow me to explain in my own nerdy way.
I like watching TV. Sometimes I get really into a TV show. I get so into a TV show I read fanfiction. Fanfiction is essentially what people write to enhance their enjoyment of a certain TV show. Most of the time, they blithely ignore 'canon' and write what they really wanted to happen on the show. M by Peter Robb is the art history version of fanfiction. It's bollocks, basically.
Now I'm by no means an expert, but I can tell when someone takes hearsay and presents it as fact. Alarm bells start ringing when on one page Robb tells us we don't know the outcome of a trial, and then a few pages later states Caravaggio was found guilty. He also accuses him of being a paedophile which isn't new but Robb takes rumours and runs with them. This is just the tip of the iceberg though. In no particular order, here are some of the things that annoyed me about M.
Yes. M. Peter Robb decided to call his biography of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio 'M'. That's pretty annoying in and of itself; but he calls him 'M' throughout, going so far as to alter quotes so people who would have referred to the painter by his name, now refer to him as 'M'. On a similar note, Robb uses modern slang when translating quotes from Caravaggio's contemporaries. Sometimes this was irritating and sometimes it was fun. Mostly it was irritating.
Robb is also annoying when he doesn't translate. I don't know Italian. Clearly Robb does. That's wonderful. It's always useful to know another language. Would you mind translating those phrases for those of us who don't read Italian, Robb? That would be most helpful.
One of the weirdest things Robb does is rename all the paintings. This is infuriating for two reasons. 1. I often struggle to figure out which painting he's actually discussing. They may not have been given a title by Caravaggio himself, but they all have 'accepted' titles. Why he chose to do this I will never understand. 2. He gives them really rubbish names. 'The Death of the Virgin' becomes 'Mary Dead', while 'The Calling of Saint Matthew' becomes 'Matthew Called'. Yeah, Robb? Matthew called. He wants you to STOP GIVING THE PAINTINGS STUPID NAMES.
Yes. The paintings. There are hardly any plates of the paintings. No matter how fascinating Caravaggio was as a person, the reason people are drawn to him are his paintings. The reason (presumably) Robb wrote the book in the first place was because he was drawn to Caravaggio's paintings. There's plenty of black and white details of various model's faces, but very few of Caravaggio's paintings are seen in full here.
Now, one of the most wonderful things about art is that you can have your own interpretations, but Robb sees things that just aren't there. At one point he calls a figure a 'lout'. This figure has his back to us. I think he has a loutish back, or something. What makes this so frustrating is that Robb makes some genuinely interesting and incisive observations, but the next sentence he says something daft and you forget about the clever stuff he occasionally comes out with.
I mean, this quote: "...in a state of total frontal nudity -...though he was twisting round from sideways on" That's not frontal nudity, Robb. Frontal nudity is nudity...from the front.
I think the reason I'm so angry with Robb is that he's clearly a very intelligent bloke and did a lot of research, but added 2 and 2 and came up with well... God alone knows. I learned far more about Peter Robb than I did about Caravaggio.
I wanted to read about the painter whose art shocked the world and still shocks today. I wanted to read about the painter who got in brawls and scaled prison walls and managed to knock out masterpieces in his spare time. I wanted to read about the painter who influenced Rembrandt and Scorcese. I wanted to read about the rise and fall of one of the most important painters in history. Instead I ended up reading a book that was an ode to Robb's ego.
And yet... I read the damn thing all the way to the end. To quote film critic Mark Kermode; "I was often cross, but never bored."
Price and Availability:
Really easy to get hold of in bookshops. The Paperback is on Amazon for £12 (new).
Kill the Moonlight is Indie rock band Spoon's Fourth studio album, released in 2002, after Girls Can Tell and before Gimme Fiction. It's a far more stripped down affair from the following album and more in the vein of their earlier records. Although this was released before Spoon hit it big, The Way We Get By was used in The O.C. and Stranger than fiction, amongst other films and television shows, which helped the band to be heard by a wider audience.
The album opens with Small Stakes, which a lot of people really, really love but while I can enjoy its frenetic energy, I can't enjoy the melody. It's a pretty good opener however, in that it lets you know what sort of album to expect. There are still some surprises on the way, though.
Stay Don't Go shouldn't work as much as It does; lead singer Britt Daniels becomes a human beat box and it's a little bit funny but surprisingly not silly. It just works. It's a pretty cool track and a lot of fun to listen to. It's also fun to picture the lanky, slightly gawky Daniels beat-boxing.
I defy anyone to listen to The Way We Get By and not find themselves tapping their feet. It's been used in several films and TV shows for a very good reason. Insanely catchy, it has some of Britt's most playful lyrics; 'We go out in stormy weather/we rarely practice discern/we make love to some weird sin/we seek out the taciturn'. It's a song that feels like summer, and just screams to be played loudly in the car.
Someone Something is rather throwaway but enjoyable nonetheless. The pounding piano takes centre stage, and while I doubt it will ever be anyone's favourite Spoon track, it's a fun, charming little ditty.
The album's crowning jewel is the astonishing Paper Tiger. The Ghost Of You Lingers from Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga feels like the offspring to this even more stripped down track. It's probably the sparsest song on the album, and its power lies in the simplicity of the lyrics, teamed with the other worldly, almost unnerving melody it's an incredible track and for me stands out above all others. It's certainly one of the oddest love songs I've heard, but also one of my favourites. The narrator of the song is liberating himself with love, what can be more beautiful? Peculiar and permeated with a sense of danger; 'The new war will get you/ it will not protect you/ But I will be there with you when you turn out the light', it is romance that prevails. 'I'm not dumb; just want to hold your hand'. He doesn't offer false promises to his reticent beau, he merely offers himself. I can listen to it on a loop and find something new to love each time.
Jonathon Fisk is the most rock track on the album; it's quite a violent song, which is fitting considering Fisk is based on a bully who went to school with Britt. Amusingly, 'Fisk' is a fan of the band and has been to several of their gigs. Like Paper Tiger it doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the album, but that's part of its appeal. It's a fan favourite and one of the most accessible tracks on the album.
I know a lot of people cite Kill the Moonlight as one of Spoon's best albums but for me there are far too many unremarkable songs for it to ever be a favourite. Tracks such as You Gotta Feel It and Back To The Life tend to get the skip button treatment, and I couldn't even tell you how Vittorio E goes. I do however love that Spoon clearly revel in experimentation, and long may that continue. I kinda like that some of these experiments don't always work. But when they do, boy do they ever.
I think it's certainly worth buying if you're already a fan of Spoon, but if you aren't this isn't going to win you over, and if you're unfamiliar with them it's probably better to try out the more accessible albums first. It's not going to be available on the high street, so to the internet you must go. It's available on Amazon from £7.61 new or £6.99 used. Please note that doesn't include P&P.
The Way We Get By
Something To Look Forward To
Stay Don't Go
Don't Let It Get You Down
All The Pretty Girls Go To The City
You Gotta Feel It
Back To The Life
*** Please note the Greatest Hits album I review is a different version to the one shown, (mine is the 2009 version) if you intend to buy, read the track-listing (though you can't go far wrong in any version) ***
Leonard Cohen's career has spanned decades, his fan base enormous and yet he is not a household name. Every man and his dog have heard one of his songs, though. Hallelujah is impossible to escape, it's been covered countless times, appeared on several soundtracks and was the winning song for an X factor participant. Yet many people wouldn't even know the gravelly toned Canadian wrote the damn thing. With a new album out, and the 77 year old about to tour again, I thought I would attempt to review one of his greatest hits albums.
Famous Blue Raincoat is one of my favourite songs of his. While it centres on an oft used theme; (the song is about a love triangle), Cohen chooses to focus on the aftermath of one. The song takes the form of a letter, from Cohen to a friend who had an affair with his wife. Blame is there, but Cohen suggests all three are at fault; Famous blue raincoat himself betrayed their friendship, Jane strayed from Cohen, and Cohen's crime was neglect.'Thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes; I thought it was there for good, so I never tried'. The lyrics are poignant, the melody simple and Cohen's voice at his most affecting. Cohen at his best.
Chelsea Hotel No. 2 is a tribute to the 'fallen robin' Janis Joplin. Funny, touching, hopeful and desolate all at once, the last verse is crushing in its sorrow.
A lot of people have written far more intelligently and eloquently than I ever will on perhaps Cohen's most well-known song, Hallelujah. All I shall say is this, while Cohen's original sounds a little dated and isn't generally considered to be the best version, it is the most uplifting version. Cohen's dry, bitter voice is perfectly suited to his interpretation (although it seems silly to call the original an interpretation). From Cale onwards, the last verse is omitted. It is this last verse that makes the biggest difference between covers and original. Because it is this verse that Cohen triumphs over the broken Hallelujah. For someone who has a reputation of being miserable, I find it amusing that his version of the song is the most hopeful.
Who By Fire is another religion inspired track, which is loosely based on a Jewish poem that has been recited for centuries on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. It's a simple list based song that asks how we will all die. Its power lies in its simplicity. For my money, Cohen did it best in this dramatic, Spanish sounding live version:
Everybody Knows has a pulsing melody that gives you the sense it's heading to a dramatic end. Written during the 80's about the AIDS epidemic, Cohen sings in an almost scornful way, as though the narrator saw this coming and watches without sympathy. The sweet backing vocals are a sharp contrast to Cohen's dispassionate vocals.
As tempting as it is to do a track by track review, I've only highlighted a handful of songs as it's incredibly easy to sit and gush about what a lyrical genius Cohen is. (And he really, really is). Other highlights include 'Dance me to the end of love', 'So long, Marianne', 'A thousand kisses deep', 'First we take Manhattan' and 'Suzanne'.
This is a great place to start if you're looking to get into Leonard Cohen; it's a varied introduction to his music that includes his more well-known works.
I found my copy in HMV on one of their 2 for £10 deals, on its own I believe it was around £7.99. You can pick it up from Amazon for a mere £4.93 with free P&P.
So Long Marianne
Sisters Of Mercy
Famous Blue Raincoat
Waiting For The Miracle
Who By Fire
Chelsea Hotel No 2
Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye
Bird On The Wire
A Thousand Kisses Deep
Dance Me To The End Of Love
First We Take Manhattan
I'm Your Man
'The Lonesome Crowded West' is the second album from Modest Mouse, released in 1997. The lyrics are credited to Isaac Brock, and the music to the band as a whole. This album was before the band struck it big and it does have a more raw sound than later releases. Although they didn't hit the big time until 'Good News For People Who Love Bad News', this album gained a cult following and was praised heavily by critics.
The album kicks off with the loud, brash 'Teeth like God's Shoeshine', an enjoyably bizarre-titled track. It's a bold track to open with. Brock shouts his way through most of the song, and I used to listen to about a minute of that before skipping to the next track. Knowing that an awful lot of Modest Mouse songs are growers, I eventually returned to it and although it'll never be my favourite, I am growing to like it more and more with each listen. The lyrics are still incomprehensible to me, Brock's initial shouting too loud, too frantic for the early morning drive to work, but there's something about the track that keeps me returning. Perhaps it's the moment of quiet reflection two minutes in where I vaguely understand what Brock's getting at. While initially it seems an odd choice to start an album off with, it combines the anger, frustration and crushing sadness that permeates the album.
'Lounge (Closing Time)' - While I love the Modest Mouse sound today, where they chuck everything but the kitchen sink at the songs, here the guitar and drums have enough room to breathe to take centre stage. It seems to me to parallel the feeling of taking drugs. It starts of loud, fast and fun, and then dwindles down to a slower, more sedate pace, perhaps the downer after the high.
'Doin' the Cockroach' is one of the album's more instantly likeable tracks. It also happens to be one of the easier to understand lyrically. 'Doin' the cockroach' is familiar territory for Modest Mouse, and the themes within it appear throughout the album and bleed over into later albums. The song deals with our place within the world and the ultimate futility of everything we do. Bleak, isn't it? Yet somehow amidst the darkness Brock finds humour and it's hard not to raise a smile at; 'Oh, my mind is all made up/ So I'll have to sleep in it'
'Doin' the Cockroach' is swiftly followed by an absolute gem of a song. 'Cowboy Dan' sounds, on the surface rather angry but it's another really sad track, disguised by Brock's distinctive shout/singing. The protagonist Cowboy Dan is a pitiable figure, and the lyrics are amongst some of my favourite, Brock painting vivid pictures with words. 'He drove to the desert, fired his rifle in the sky and says "god if I have to die you will have to die"'. Although Cowboy Dan 'drinks and gets mean' there's desperation to the character that is truly relatable. The line, 'I want out desperately' is crushingly poignant. This has some of their best imagery and it's easy to see why it's such a huge fan favourite. There are also hints of where Modest Mouse progress musically; it wouldn't be out of place on their next album, The Moon and Antarctica.
From one angry but heart wrenching song to another, 'Trailer Trash' is musically softer than 'Cowboy Dan' but lyrically it's just as brutal. Brock is at his most sarcastic and biting here, simultaneously pulling on your heartstrings. Brock has a talent for saying a lot by not saying much, 'Short love with a long divorce/ and a couple of kids of course/ they don't mean anything'. It's one of my favourites and I don't think it's overstating it by calling 'Trailer Trash' a stone cold classic.
'Bankrupt on selling' is the album's only acoustic track. Stripped away, the focus is on Brock's affecting lyrics and tortured voice. Brock delivers the line, 'All the people you knew were the actors' in such a defeated, anguished way you can't help but think it can't get any more distressing than that, but the last line is a real killer, beautiful in its despair. For me it would have been better placed at the end of the album but perhaps it might have been a bit too downbeat. It's an absolute gem of a song and one of their best.
While it has some of their best songs, there is a lot of filler here, too. 'Shit Luck' is just plain dreadful, a loud number that shouts but says nothing, 'Long Distance Drunk' and 'Polar Opposites' forgettable and tracks like 'Heart Cooks Brain' and 'Out of Gas' are enjoyable but nothing particularly special.
Teeth Like God's Shoeshine
Heart Cooks Brain
Lounge (Closing Time)
Jesus Christ Was an Only Child
Doin' the Cockroach
Out of Gas
Long Distance Drunk
Bankrupt on Selling
Styrofoam Boots/It's All Nice on Ice, Alright
Price and Availability:-
You won't find it on the high-street, so you'll have to take to the internet for this one. Amazon has copies of it new starting at £14.95 and used £4.85. I imagine it'll be somewhat more difficult getting hold of it on Vinyl, as it is 'currently unavailable' on Amazon. Overall the CD is well worth shelling out for, some of their greatest songs are here.
***Please note this review contains some spoilers***
Northanger Abbey was Jane Austen's first completed novel, but it wasn't published until 1817, after the author's death, along with Persuasion. Northanger Abbey is vastly different from her more well-known works, but not to its detriment. Although it contains many of the themes prevalent in Austen's oeuvre; marriages, misunderstandings, love, deceit, it feels like a very different work. Northanger Abbey is a novel about novels and reading, specifically gothic fiction. Northanger Abbey cleverly pokes fun at the excess and high camp of such novels, while at times knowingly invoking their themes, and at other times, gleefully subverting them. Ann Radcliffe's celebrated The Mysteries of Udolpho gets mocked the most which pleased me no end because I could never get more than half way through it. Its gothic heroine spends most of the time unconscious. Honestly, is she fainting or just really, really tired? As it gets mentioned a lot throughout Northanger, I felt like I should give it another chance but have yet to pick it up again, so it's unlikely I will. You don't need to be familiar with Udolpho, The Monk (which I did enjoy, I suppose that says quite a lot about my taste) and the rest, but it helps to have some knowledge of gothic literature in order to fully grasp the extent of Austen's mocking and sarcasm.
Catherine Morland is only seventeen when she's invited by Mr and Mrs Allen to join them at Bath, where she is befriended by the beautiful and deceitful Isabella Thorpe, her vulgar brother John and the flirty and charismatic Henry Tilney. Catherine fills her head with gothic novels and when she is invited by Henry's sister to their home Northanger Abbey, she can't help thinking up dreadful murders and scandalous plots and begins to suspect Henry's father, General Tilney of murdering his wife...
Catherine Morland is Austen's most innocent, sweet heroine. Far too trusting and it has to be said, a little dim at times, this young ingénue is possibly Austen's most charming heroine. She may not have the wit of Lizzie or the independence of Emma, but you can't help but love a girl who has no concept of how she is perceived by others. She immediately takes a liking to the fun and flirty Henry Tilney, and can't conceal her feelings. She has no clue how to respond to Henry's teasing, doesn't see that Isabella isn't genuine, and doesn't pull her head out of a book long enough to see that villains aren't always murderers in the alps, but often obnoxious money grabbing toe rags you can meet in Bath. Ultimately it's her ignorance and sweetness that grants her happiness where previously it had only caused her trouble, but she does learn a little about life along the way.
'Now I must give one smirk, and then we may be rational again'. Henry Tilney is the obligatory Austen hero, but he is rather unlike the typical Austen male lead. That isn't to say they are all much of a muchness, but that Tilney is so different from the others. When I first read Northanger I was a bit miffed after first meeting Tilney, because I assumed he was going to be a scoundrel, as all the flirtatious Austen men are, and I immediately liked him and worried I would have to try to hate him. My fears were unfounded as shock of all shocks; Henry Tilney was the good guy! Henry is the most fun, flirtatious and obviously sexy of Austen's heroes. His first meeting with Catherine is full of saucy smiles and teasing words and it's easy to see why Catherine falls hopelessly in love with him. I'm pretty much in love with him myself.
Isabella and John Thorpe care only of money. They believe that Catherine is an heiress and they both try to get their clutches on her and her brother James. Isabella is conniving and immediately latches onto Catherine and her unsuspecting brother, while the vulgar John tries to win Catherine's hand by bluster, lies and generally being an odious git.
General Tilney is the main villain; in that he is the most 'Gothic' - or has the appearances of being gothic, that is. A widower, he is an intimidating man and Henry's father. A stern, cold man, his children are subdued when around him, though he is all smiles and kindness to Catherine. Although she doesn't fully understand why he shows her kindness he doesn't show his children, she is perceptive enough to know he isn't a nice guy.
Northanger Abbey is Austen's most spirited novel, with a heroine innocent and sweet, and a hero fun and charming. The two are naturally very suited to each other and are amongst Austen's most likeable characters. It doesn't have characters as funny as Mrs Bennet or Mr Collins, but Catherine's innocence, Tilney's flirtatiousness and the narrator's snide remarks are all chucklesome. Mrs Allen is quite funny with her obsession with gowns but she lacks the complete extremity of Mrs Bennet to be a classic character. The narrator plays a very prominent role, often speaking directly to the reader. It's here that Austen is at her most biting and sarcastic. A character is introduced in the last couple of pages in order to tie up loose ends and the narrator remarks on it being an annoying, lazy technique that unsurprisingly features a lot in gothic fiction.
There's a lot to like in Northanger Abbey. Catherine and Henry's relationship is sweet, funny and utterly enchanting. I love how different Catherine is to other Austen heroines. She unknowingly charms Henry by being innocently open in her feelings for him, and she lacks the maturity and knowing of other heroines. Henry is sexy and instantly likeable, it's easy to see why Catherine goes a bit teenage girl around him (mind you, she *is* a teenage girl). Isabella and John are great villains. Scheming but funny with it, and John's blustering, boasts and outright lies as well as his swearing (Oh, really!) makes him to my mind one of the funniest villains in fiction. General Tilney, although not as bad as Catherine perhaps once thought, is still very much a money grabbing, scheming git of a man and in that sense is gothic.
It's not Austen's best novel by a long shot, though. As funny and charming and clever as Northanger Abbey is, it doesn't have the brilliant pacing Pride and Prejudice has, or the great plotting of Emma. The main problem is the ending. All of Austen's novels have fairly abrupt endings, but it never feels as unsatisfying as it does here. Austen is knowingly invoking Gothic novel endings where everything is swiftly, neatly, wrapped up, all loose ends tied up in order to secure a happy ending after many, many pages of unrelenting misery. It's still irritating; no matter how clever you want to be. I just wanted it to be a little longer, which as criticisms go, isn't the most damning.
I would recommend this to any fan of Jane Austen's, lovers and haters of Gothic novels, and anyone wanting to read a genuinely funny book. It's has brilliant characters, a light but fun plot and it doesn't deserve to be as overlooked as it has.
Price and Availability:-
The version I own is an Oxford World Classic that includes other short stories by Austen and cost £4.99. It's wildly available in paperback, hardback and kindle and on Amazon you can get the paperback for as little as a penny! You'll find it easily on the high-street in all good book shops; it really deserves some more love.
As a new convert to the art of Caravaggio, I spent a lot of time looking at his 3 paintings in the National Gallery in London when I visited recently. Although they aren't my favourite works of his, there's something so raw and immediate about his art and being able to see his art in the flesh was a wonderful experience. After spending many an hour in the gallery (which I heartily recommend if you're in London and want to see many, many great works of art for free) I made my way to the gift shop to buy some books. One of those was 'Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane' by Andrew Graham-Dixon. Intrigued by the art and the man behind the paintings, I already knew the basics; Caravaggio was famous for his use of shadow and colour, his unconventional style, originality and his realism using lower class, ordinary people with craggy faces and dirty nails to portray biblical characters as well as his violent behaviour culminating in him killing a man in a duel. Most of what we know of Caravaggio is of course from his art but also the compiling of arrest records and court hearings, giving us a tawdry, incomplete look at the man who could paint so beautifully and brutally.
Caravaggio's art is memorable to say the least. He was in many ways an auteur - if you can call a painter an auteur - you always know you're looking at a Caravaggio. His art is eye catching, often stark, his use of colour and shadow made him notorious in his day and his influence is far reaching. It comes as no surprise that acclaimed director Martin Scorcese is a big fan. Graham-Dixon helps to unravel the mysteries that surround the painter's life, as well as critiquing and discussing his paintings in depth. There are photos of most of Caravaggio's paintings printed on glossy paper, but as the book is only small in size, the pictures are rather small and in some cases, when his work was at its darkest, it's hard to make out the finer details. The photos included are the ones that we know for sure are Caravaggio's, as well as photos of sketches, other paintings and sculptures that influenced/ were influenced by Caravaggio.
The first few chapters of background information into the world Caravaggio was born into are a little dry until it becomes clear how this relates to the artist. Graham-Dixon appreciates the importance of context and so while the information on the changing views of the Church is rather tedious; it is needed to help you to understand why Caravaggio struggled at various points in his career. It is well worth sticking with, though. The book then takes off, and reads more like a novel than a biography. This is no criticism; Graham-Dixon is a stickler for the facts, and refuses to make assumptions but rather educated guesses. This is no ordinary biography. Brawls, Court rooms, prostitutes, deadly duels and even a prison break all feature here in Caravaggio's remarkable and turbulent life. Graham-Dixon has a flare for storytelling and brings the man to life even though there's very little to piece together. What Graham-Dixon doesn't know for sure, he's reluctant to say either way. For example, he discusses the artist's sexuality, but doesn't like to say for definite that he was gay (though he certainly thinks he slept with men). He's keen to get the facts as so many previous biographies on the man are filled with fabrications and wild assumptions.
In this biography, Caravaggio is portrayed as being a brilliant, but violent young man, and yet Graham-Dixon shows us his vulnerability, his intelligence, his humour and his badassitude. Which is definitely a word. One of his accounts in court was very funny. On trial for libel; a very serious crime with severe punishment if found guilty; Caravaggio's accomplices buckled under pressure and tied themselves in knots. The painter on the other hand, was cool as a cucumber and at one point asked how much longer it would go on for. Considering the seriousness of the crime and the pretty terrifying possible punishment, he was still arrogant and dare I say, funny.
Graham-Dixon clearly loves the man's work but he is never effusive and although he talks of Caravaggio's many failings as a person, it is always with context. He doesn't excuse his behaviour but tries to understand it, and in doing so helps the reader to understand why he was the way he was. Similarly he looks objectively at the paintings as a critic and not as a fan, although inevitably his enthusiasm for the works comes through and he does slightly turn into a fanboy on a few occasions. It's impossible not to be completely on Caravaggio's side either. As you follow his rise and fall, you can't help but want him to succeed even though he was a tad psychopathic and well, you already have a fair idea of how it all ends.
There's a lot to enjoy here, Graham-Dixon's account of the artist's life is meticulously researched, piecing together the meagre facts to create a more complete picture of the man. There are obviously a lot of biblical references, but Graham-Dixon neither patronises nor assumes you know a lot about Christianity, giving you enough information without overwhelming you with it, and has made me want to learn more about Catholicism in particular. As easy as I'm sure it is to indulge in the salacious side of the artist's life, Graham-Dixon handles Caravaggio's mysterious end with sympathy. He has been successful in bringing the enigmatic Caravaggio to life, as he has in his evaluation and criticism of the man's art. I do have a few minor problems with the biography, however. The criticism doesn't include 'Narcissus', as Graham-Dixon doesn't believe Caravaggio painted it. Fair enough, but reasons why he doesn't think it is Caravaggio's would have been helpful, since everywhere I've seen it, it's been attributed to him. This is one of many that Graham-Dixon doesn't believe is a Caravaggio, despite it being generally assumed to be his. It must have been attributed to him for some reason, but he doesn't elaborate. Oddly he mentions 'Salome with the head of John the Baptist' very briefly, which suggests he isn't sure it's a Caravaggio. Why? It is mentioned in a little more detail in the notes but curiously he seems a little timid to talk about the painting. Yet it hangs next to Caravaggio's 'Boy bitten by a lizard' and 'Supper at Emmaus'. While most of the paintings are there for you to see in the book, for some reason 'Beheading of St John the Baptist' also isn't included in the pictures, but is talked about. It includes a close up of his one and only signature, but not the whole thing. Goes into great detail and describes it well, but a visual aid would help. These minor quibbles don't impact on my enjoyment of the book, however.
Once I've read biographies, I don't feel the need to read them again. 'Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane' however reads like a thrilling novel, the rise and fall of a talented but proud artist. It's almost unreal to read the romantic tale of a talented artist who regularly got thrown into prison, was rumoured to have slept with his servant, and consorted with prostitutes and people with low morals and bad reputations. He was arrogant and volatile but there's also something desperately sad in Caravaggio that Graham-Dixon expertly portrays. He pieces together a portrait of the artist using titbits, rumours, arrest records, court proceedings and eyewitness accounts, yet much like his later paintings, so much of Caravaggio is shrouded in darkness. Going on very little and yet finding so much, we are given an insight into the painter and his art, yet he still remains enigmatically in the shadows.
I would recommend this to anyone interested in Caravaggio's art, or indeed the man himself. His influence is vast and it's clear to see just how important he was. It's an easy, enjoyable read and I will happily read it again and again.
Price and Availability:- I bought the paperback for £12.99 in the National Gallery but it's available from Amazon for £8.39 and will be easy to find on the high street. It's also available in hardback and on the kindle. The hardback is obviously more expensive (you're looking at £20 at least, but on the kindle it's £7.99.
'Good News For People Who Love Bad News' is Modest Mouse's fourth studio album from 2004. Nominated for a Grammy, this is their bestselling album thanks to the single, 'Float on'. It just managed to scrape into the UK top 40 and gained them a lot of new fans.
The album kicks off in a rather strange way; the 'Horn Intro' is about 10 seconds long. It's loud, bombastic and segues rather awkwardly into the first song. It doesn't work, and it seems to wrong foot you immediately. Thankfully, the song that follows, 'The World At Large' is really rather good, referencing both 'Float On' and 'Bukowski'. Much like the latter track, and in some ways the former, it's a song about a drifter. Isaac Brock's voice is surprisingly gentle and soft, coupled with the lovely backing vocals and melody, it's easy to get swept away and think of it as a pretty tune. But the lyrics are very melancholy. Beauty goes hand in hand with death; 'moths beat themselves to death against the lights/ adding their breeze to the summer nights'. At first this life sounds quite freeing, but the narrator is clearly not happy wherever he is and so moves on in the hope of finding whatever he's searching for. By the end of the song he still hasn't found it. It's a bold track to open the album with (not including the horn intro). It's catchy and instantly accessible while simultaneously being bleak in tone. Not your usual Modest Mouse track, then. Despite the desolate message, the melody is gorgeous and has some of Brock's most expressive lyrics; 'I know that starting over is not what life is about' Personally there's a mountain of stuff I did do or didn't do that I wish I could start all over again. Thankfully the segue into the next track is much smoother.
'Float On' is unashamedly hopeful, the melody toe-tapping and the lyrics disarming in their positivity. 'A fake Jamaican took every last dime with that scam/ it was worth it just to learn some sleight of hand'. The song was a big hit for the band, much to their fans chagrin. People will moan about a band being underrated and the second they get a taste of success those same fans moan they've sold out. I will never understand how selling out is equal to selling records, but there you go. It is certainly a lot cheerier than some of their previous output, and lyrically it is one of their most simple. That doesn't mean it isn't any good. Sure, they've written better songs, but there's nothing shameful in enjoying a well written pop song. Yeah, I said it. It's a pop song. Lord knows Brock is a tortured artist, I think it's uplifting he can write such a simple, optimistic song, albeit one tinged with his ever-present cynicism. That optimism is welcome on an album stained with death.
'Ocean Breathes Salty' is another softly crooned track. Again it's got some pessimistic lyrics; 'maybe we'll get lucky and we'll both live again/ Well I don't know, I don't know, I don't know, don't think so' I used to believe in life after death, and I still would like to believe in it, to cling onto that comfort it could bring, but I just can't. This line is followed later on in the song with the more optimistic, and realistic; 'maybe we'll get lucky and both grow old/ well I don't know, [...] I hope so'. The use of cymbals on this track sound like crashing waves, transporting you to the ocean. It's the most obvious allusion to water on the album, too. This theme is dealt with in greater detail in the following album, 'We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank'.
Half way through the album, we get 'Bukowski'. I've only read one Charles Bukowski novel; 'Post Office', but it gave me quite an insight into the author's mind. His main character, author avatar 'Chinaski' is a lazy, drunken, thoroughly unlikable misogynist, and yet very, very funny. It's an incredibly sleazy novel and although I liked reading it, I'm not in any rush to read any more. The song dedicated to him also has a very shady feel, the guitars twanging in a way that almost makes your skin crawl. Then there's the most sinister banjo playing this side of deliverance. The song finds Brock railing against God; a theme recurrent in his songs. Bitterness is certainly evident, but there's a real sense of sadness, too. A feeling of being deceived in some way, let down; 'Nine times out of ten, our hearts just get dissolved/ Well I want a better place, or just a better way to fall' Certainly Brock's voice becomes as close to a serenade as it can in those lines. The croon gives way to more sinister vocals as he sings, 'evil me, yeah I know' and Brock seems to be channelling Satan himself as he sings; 'Well all that icing and all that cake/ I can't make it to your wedding, but I'm sure I'll be at your wake' Throughout the song, Brock's vocals are echoed back to him. It adds to the eerie atmosphere. It's my favourite track on the album and an absolute stonker.
In 'This Devil's Workday', there's no question about it, Brock is definitely channelling Satan. You know that bit in Dumbo when Dumbo gets drunk and he sees pink Elephants? 'This Devil's Workday' could be the soundtrack to that scene. It's *that* mental. The horns don't help, but it's the feeling this song conjures up. It's menacing. I kinda love it. It's very Tom Waits-y. Yes it's creepy, odd and thoroughly disturbing. But, it is a lot of fun. It most certainly won't be to everyone's tastes though. Lord knows I hated it the first few times I heard it.
'The View', much like 'The World At Large' has a bouncy melody, with not so bouncy lyrics. Yet again despite the bleak tone, there is hope present, too. It's oddly reassuring; 'As life gets longer, awful feels softer/ and it feels pretty soft to me'. This line really stands out though; 'If life's not beautiful without the pain/ well I'd just rather never ever even see beauty again'. I love the overuse of 'never ever'; it's almost childlike in its obstinacy. Perhaps the narrator is just trying to convince himself of that, and in fact would love to see beauty even with the pain. I guess it's all down to interpretation. Mine changes depending on my mood. And that's the sign for me of a truly well written tune. A minor complaint, though. One couplet sounds like its being shouted through a megaphone and I have absolutely no clue what is being said.
The Banjo is back again for 'Satin in a Coffin'. It's musically enthralling. It goes in places you don't expect it to. I'd say it was another grower though. It's by no means the best song on the album and although enjoyable to listen to, it's easily forgotten. The lyrics aren't their strongest, but I do love the way Brock sings them. I do think however the ideas in this song are dealt with better elsewhere by Modest Mouse.
The album closes with 'The Good Times Are Killing Me', this version being mixed by The Flaming Lips. Brock has over indulged in the past with drugs and booze; 'have one have twenty more "one mores" and oh it does not relent'. Unlike most Modest Mouse songs, the lyrics are pretty on the nose. Although it's got some gloomy lines, there is an injection of humour, too; 'enough hair of the dog to make myself an entire rug'. Modest Mouse don't seem to end their albums well. It's by no means a bad track and perhaps it wouldn't fit anywhere else on the album but it seems to just fade away with a bit of a whimper.
Considering the album has 16 tracks, you're bound to find a few stinkers. 'Dance Hall' has shouty, angry vocals that give me a bit of a headache. It's frustrating because there's a great melody underneath it that's going to waste. Brock's aggressive vocals are usually an asset, but here I can barely make out the lyrics besides the repeated 'dance hall'. A huge shame, because there's some superb lyrics there. The best part of the song is when Brock shuts up, and the guitar comes to the foreground. 'Blame It On The Tetons' is perfectly nice to listen to. It's very chilled, but it's one that gets the skip button despite, again, some nice lines. In 'Bury Me With It' Brock sings that he's 'lost the plot'. I'm inclined to agree with him. As for the instrumentals... oh dear. They're all weird, and not in a good way. Thankfully brief, but they're either monotonous or loud and invasive.
For an album that's main theme is death, it's by no means an easy listen but it's not a depressing dirge either. Songs reference each other throughout, giving the album a complete feel. Brock seems fascinated by death, but by life and the human condition too. Fans weren't too impressed with this release, but honestly it is difficult to see why. It's by no means as strong as 'The Moon and Antarctica', but it's not as mainstream as 'We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank' either. Sure, there's a poppy tune or two, but I don't think that means Modest Mouse were 'selling out'. They're just adapting their sound and each album from any artist gives an insight into what they were thinking and feeling at that time. It's a musical photograph and each one should be judged on its own merits. There's a hell of a lot to like about this album, and if its success got Modest Mouse more fans, then that's a huge positive. They're a fascinating, intelligent, massively talented band and they deserve every success.
The World At Large
Ocean Breathes Salty
Dig Your Grave
Bury Me With It
This Devil's Workday
Satin In A Coffin
Blame It On The Tetons
The Good Times Are Killing Me
Price And Availability:- I bought this from HMV for £4.50 which is an absolute steal. You can pick it up from Amazon for the same price, and it's easy to find on the high street too.
I bought these sandals last year, in the hope of good weather. I was rather optimistic but luckily I went away to sunny Italy last month and therefore dusted them off and packed them. They came in different colours, there's a black pair with different coloured hearts and a white one which is similar. I see this season Schuh have added some new designs with cute little flowers instead of hearts, too.
The shoe itself has four straps; one across the toes, one over the lower part of the foot, one across the instep and one across the foot diagonally. I was a little concerned my foot would slide out of them as there's no strap at the back, but they stayed on with no problems. The straps themselves are black patent, so they're pretty sturdy. The red hearts are made from a shiny plastic and you can slide them along the straps to arrange them to your pleasing. You can't remove them from the shoe. Well you could, but it would involve either snapping the heart or the strap. This would be foolish, obviously. The foot-bed is cork leather and underneath the rubber has a good bit of grip.
The important part. How comfy are they? Well, I wore these straight away without bedding them in and they were obscenely comfortable. I then took them on a jaunt to Rome. That day there were demonstrations on, so the metro wasn't running and neither were the buses. This meant I had to. By the end of a very long day, I had a blister on my little piggy. Considering my dad also had blisters and was wearing well lived in tatty trainers, it's difficult to say whether it was the shoe's fault or not. I've worn them since and haven't exerted so much stress on them, and they and my piggies have been fine. Nevertheless, they do lose a star for putting my poor piggy in pain.
Price and Availability:-
It looks like the red and black ones I own aren't for sale anymore on the Schuh website, but they often turn up on ebay (new). The other colours are available, however and priced at £28.
They are quite expensive for sandals considering you're not going to get much wear out of them, but they are good quality, comfortable and look nice.
The Moon and Antarctica is Modest Mouse's 3rd full length album. It was released in 2000, and was acclaimed by fans and critics alike. It's not an album I loved instantly. In fact, after only liking one song at first, I shelved it for a few weeks before dusting it off and giving it another listen. Thank god I did. Most of the songs are not instantly catchy or indeed likeable, and the whole thing initially seems so austere, so grim, so bloody depressing. But delving deeper, it's incredibly cynical, yes but it's also life affirming and comforting in ways some of my jollier albums aren't.
3rd planet is the album's opener, and immediately lets you know what you're in for, 'Everything that keeps us together is falling apart'. It's a pretty bleak opening gambit but the song is anything but bleak. The ideas in 3rd planet recur throughout the album, 'The universe is shaped exactly like the earth/ if you go straight long enough you'll end up where you were'. The sense that it doesn't really matter what any of us does, because we're all insignificant and life goes on, is a theme that crops up a lot on The Moon and Antarctica. That sounds pretty depressing, and it is, but it's also very freeing and comforting. And that's something Isaac Brock conveys brilliantly throughout. 'Gravity Rides Everything' follows on and the opening bars sound otherworldly. That happens a lot on this album too. Odd, discordant sounds give a sense of cold, isolation and otherworldliness, but in the case of this song, they give way to a rather lovely melody, immediately warming you from the cold opening. It follows thematically from the album opener; 'In the motions/ and the things that you say/It all will fall, fall right into place/As fruit drops, flesh it sags/Everything will fall right into place'- Brock's voice is almost a croon, as though he's comforting you while giving you the harsh truth of life.
Without wanting to do a track by track review, it's impossible to ignore the first 3 songs and the way they flow into each other thematically. The whole album is strong on that front, no song is out of place, but the 3 opening tracks are so perfect together they all need taking a look at. 'Dark Centre Of The Universe' has more of those weird sounds throughout. It sounds strange but it almost sounds like whales! This track is jam-packed with blinding lyrics. It's a struggle not to quote the whole song but it has gems like; 'Well, an endless ocean landing on an endless desert/Well, it's funny as hell, but no one laughs when they get there' and 'Well, I said something but I didn't mean it/Everyone's life ends but no one ever completes it/Dry or wet ice, they both melt and you're equally cheated' Brock has cut right to the core of a fear everyone has; 'Everyone's life ends but no one ever completes it', how many of us have a 'bucket list' - a list of things to do before we die? Chances are we'll never get to go to all the places we want to visit, meet the people we want to meet, achieve the things we want to achieve. We'll all be cheated in some way. It's a wonderfully succinct lyric that really connects with me.
'A Different City' is one of the more upbeat songs. (Musically, anyway). The narrator claims he wants to 'live in a city with no friends or family/I'm going to look out the window of my colour TV'. The idea of looking at life through the window of your television and not communicating with people in real life is something I think anyone who has been depressed can relate to. The notion of cutting yourself off from people reminds me of a Divine Comedy lyric, oddly enough, 'And if your life depresses you/ just live it through/ your favourite movie star' - your life is so empty and dull you'd rather sit and watch someone else's glamorous life on TV than attempt to live your own. Again, Brock's lyrics cut through you in a concise way, he's pithy with his words; 'I want to remember to remember to forget you forgot me' is a bit of a tongue twister but it's beautiful in its anguish. As well as being rather desolate, Brock can conjure up some nightmarish images, 'My eyes rolled around, all around on the carpet' - That line can be taken a couple of ways. The eyes rolling around could still be in his head, or they could be detached, it depends how you want to look at it! Brock's been very open about his past drug and drink addictions and while I'm loath to say certain lyrics are about drug taking (as this always seems to be a go to for abstract lyrics) personally I do think they invoke experiences of drug abuse.
'Alone Down There' is again, chilling and tragic. It's an odd combination, but it works. Brock is clearly a fan of creepy laughter as it features here. Whether the narrator is talking to himself or not is up to the listener. The idea of not wanting someone to be 'alone down there' and so joining them in their despair, their hell is heart wrenching. The shout singing is here but it's more tragic than defiant. 'Well the devil's apprentice/ he gave me some credit/ he fed me a line/ and I'll probably regret it'; here I definitely think drugs are the main motif; 'You ask me what size it is/ not what I sell'. The other worldly sounds here are used by Brock's voice, rather than instruments. The laughter and the humming are, in turn sinister and poignant. When I first listened to the album this was the song that really stood out to me. It's still my favourite.
'The Stars Are Projectors' is an epic in every sense of the word. Clocking up at nearly nine minutes long, it's an astonishing piece of work, combining all of the album's themes. The melody keeps surprising you, but it's been carefully crafted. It's a beautiful, haunting, triumphant song and rightfully a fan favourite. Towards the end of the song, the drum rolls in, joined by the strings and then the whole thing just goes mental. It's breath-taking.
'Paper Thin Walls' took me a while to like. That's the thing about this album, a lot of the songs aren't immediate, you have to let them bed in. It's pretty much an album of growers. No bad thing, its all the more satisfying when it all finally clicks into place and you find yourself tapping your feet, or singing random lines or humming along. Paper Thin Walls is one of the livelier tracks. I've read interpretations that this song is about the claims Isaac Brock date raped a girl. Those allegations came out before the album and the paranoia evident in the song certainly makes sense in that context. The claims were dropped completely, but those allegations cast a shadow over the album. 'They're shaking hands, they're shaking in their shoes/Oh Lord, don't shake me down' - Brock's paranoia is evident throughout, and so is his bitterness, 'Laugh hard, it's a long way to the bank/I can't be blamed for nothing anymore'. Yet, there are light, comedic moments in an otherwise dark song, 'It's been agreed, the whole world stinks/So no one's taking showers anymore'.
'I Came As A Rat' is really, really weird. The opening lines, 'Well, I ain't sure, but I been told/He's baking cakes inside our souls' are enough to let you know the lyrics aren't going to be easy to decipher. I have to steal other people's interpretations to get a handle on the song. A few readings see it as reincarnation; certainly the lines 'I came as ice, I came as a whore/I came as advice that came too short/I came as gold, I came as crap/I came clean and I came as a rat' works for this theory but in all honesty I think Brock rather enjoys his lyrics being impenetrable and misleading and indecipherable. It's the devastating venom in the following lines though that really make the song, 'It takes a long time, but God dies too/But not before he'll stick it to you' Life is hard is something that features a lot in MM's songs, but Brock presents that simple notion in a complex, often abstract, always beautiful way.
'Lives' is another grower. Again, the melody takes you in a place you don't expect and goes from being rather desolate to almost joyful. 'It's hard to remember/We're alive for the first time/It's hard to remember we're alive for the last time'. Although it suggests, 'what's the point in anything?' it also has the rather lovely concept of 'live life to the fullest'. At least, that's what I take from the song. At first glance, the opening lines, 'Everyone's afraid of their own life/If you could be anything you want/I bet you'd be disappointed, am I right?' seems to suggest that you'd be disappointed in life no matter what, but looking at the song as a whole, it's almost as though people look at themselves and merely think that they'd always be disappointed in life. The repeated question 'am I right?' suggests that actually, no, you're not right.
Having a rather generous 15 tracks, I am unfortunately leaving out several songs from my review. The funky 'Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes' still confuses me to the point that I don't even know if I like it or not. That said, the line 'we're drinking drinking drinking drinking coca coca cola' is wonderfully odd and impossible not to sing along to. I wouldn't even know where to begin writing about that one. I always press the skip button for 'Perfect Disguise'. I just find it tedious and dull. 'The Cold Part' is so dark I tend to skip that for fear of desolation overload, yet oddly in isolation I rather enjoy it.
The Moon and Antarctica is so complete, it feels almost like a concept album. It's fitting that while it begins fairly calm and low key, it ends on such a screaming, high. The lyrics may be just as bleak, but Brock is determined to go out on a high, and we all go with him.
Gravity Rides Everything
Dark Centre Of The Universe
Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes
A Different City
The Cold Part
Alone Down There
The Stars Are Projectors
Wild Packs Of Family Dogs
Paper Thin Walls
I Came As A Rat
Life Like Weeds
What People Are Made Of
Price and availability:-
By the looks of things, it's only available on the internet but it's easy enough to find in the usual places. HMV has it at £6.99. It's been re-released a couple of times with different album covers, so you might find some large differences in prices depending on what release you're looking at.
Gambit is one of Marvel's X men. I grew up with the 90's animated series and even as a youngster, I adored Gambit. The Ragin' Cajun is a popular, if divisive character. A highly skilled thief, he was often not trusted by his teammates, but eventually gained their trust. His mutant powers include being able to manipulate kinetic energy and creating explosions. A fond gambler, he usually charges playing cards to throw at opponents. It was his personality that made me such a huge fan though; Remy LeBeau AKA Gambit is charming, cheeky, narcissistic, loyal, loving and extremely badass.
The front is clear so you can see the figure. In a corner on the cardboard there are charged cards, Gambit's trademark weapon. On the side of the box, there's a picture of Gambit. The back has a photo of the figure stood in the 'Danger Room' set you get with it, illustrating what it looks like. There's a brief history of Gambit before he joined the x-men and smaller pictures, including pictures of the figures of Deadpool and Cyclops; the latter having the same base as Gambit. I imagine Cyclops' base fits with Gambit's in some way, should you want to collect them. There's also a little pic of the variant Gambit you can also buy - the only difference is the variant has longer locks. Seriously, that's it; a different hair do. Tempting as it is, I'm not that much of a nerd. Opening it up, (for I could contain myself no longer) there are pictures of Gambit from the comics, all in the same pink colour that surrounds anything he charges. I was reluctant to ruin the pretty packaging, but I wanted to play with him! Underneath the packaging there is a bright white explosion surrounded by the pictures. The level of detail just gone into the packaging is impressive, and I was a little sad to ruin it.
The danger room base for Gambit to stand in is a cute idea, but it was quite difficult to clip it together initially. It's composed of 3 parts - two walls creating a corner, and the floor. As for Gambit himself, he has 16 points of articulation, which makes him even more fun to play with. My Barbie's were never this flexible. Just ask Ken. Gambit clearly likes to accessorise; he has his bo staff, two spare hands, two identical sets of charged cards, and one singular charged card. The detail in these items is pretty impressive. The staff is basically just a silver stick but the cards look incredible. They're surrounded by the pink charge with flames coming off the ends. Male fans probably wouldn't agree, but the charged cards look so pretty! The spare hands are both for his right hand. One is slightly more closed than the one already on the figure, and the other is open completely, to be able to hold the 3 charged cards. All of the hands have Gambit's trademark fingerless gloves.
Now, onto the important part - Gambit! Gambit's had a few costume changes over the years. Blissfully, the costume is the original outfit and probably his most iconic. He's wearing tight trousers over rippling thighs, black with pink stripes. He's also got his silver boots and pink top (real men wear pink). Not the most inconspicuous outfit for a thief, perhaps Gambit likes the challenge. Or pink. His face is framed by his black cowl and he has his ever present trench coat. Let me talk about that trench coat. Like Gambit's muscles, it's rippling. Gambit's trench coat is the one thing that has stuck with his many costume changes; it's instantly recognisable and quintessentially Gambit. So it's a real joy that the sculptor has taken such great care with it. It's the tiny details that really make it. The wee silver buttons on the cuffs, the rippling leather look, the fact that it actually looks worn in - it's a joy. You can't take the coat off, but it ripples nicely when you touch it. Much like its wearer, the coat is damn cool.
Gambit has a lovely face, there's no argument about that. Like his coat, his hair looks windswept; I really don't think Lego hair would suit him anyway. His distinctive eyes are done well here, with the red on black being particularly striking, and with his face in that frown, he looks rather menacing. Yes indeed - he has been given creases in his forehead to show him frown. This is clearly Gambit mid-fight. Topped off with his ever present stubble, the detail is marvellous.
I am so impressed with this, as I'm sure my gushing has made obvious. It's just so beautifully put together. It's not perfect however. Getting Gambit to stand up without falling can prove rather annoying. It's easier to stand him on a wooden surface than it is to stand on the base, which is a bit shiny. The biggest problem with the figure is that it isn't six feet tall and real. If you're not as childish as me but a Gambit fan, I say get it. You might not play with it and make it speak bad French in a terrible Cajun accent, but it looks really, really cool and close inspection holds up very well indeed.
Price and Availability:-
Nice and easy to get hold of on the net, I got mine from ebay but it's available from Play.com for £16.99 with free P&P. It would make a great gift for a nerdy loved one, trust me.
Virtue is Emmy the Great's second full length album, released June 2011. The album was partially written when Emma Lee Moss (Emmy's real name) was engaged, and partly after her atheist fiancé left her for the church. Her decision to play gigs in churches is either her laughing at the situation, or it's rather masochistic. Perhaps it's both. I was fortunate enough to see her play live in a chapel in Salford earlier this month. The themes of the album coupled with Emmy's celestial singing really suited the spiritual surroundings. The biblical and fairy-tale themes are a way of detaching herself almost from her experiences, careful not to make it too personal, although Emmy's vulnerability comes through often.
Biblical themes mix with fairy tales throughout the album. These themes coupled with Emmy's lyrics paint vivid pictures, her song writing is incredibly imaginative and descriptive and she has a talent for making something perceived as ugly seem beautiful. In Emmy's version of these fairy tales however, the good and virtuous don't always succeed, there isn't always a happily ever after. The theme of being lost and searching for something greater runs through Virtue too. It's a very cohesive album, more so than her debut, First Love. Emmy seems more confident in her approach, and where she wants to take her music, and it's more personal feeling lets you connect to her and the album more. Emmy also seems to be keen to take herself in different directions musically, she experiments more with Virtue. It doesn't always succeed, but it's always interesting.
Dinosaur Sex - The title is certainly attention grabbing for the opening song! But while the title suggests the song is silly and flippant, it's actually a very pertinent song about the end of the world as we know it. The song opens with discordant sounds, immediately sounding unsettling, before the echoes remind you of a vast, open space. While I'm not too keen on this song musically, lyrically it's oddly beautiful; 'Power stations shiver then it weeps/ bleeds into the fields then kills the wheat', despite Emmy singing of things that are ugly. 'Dinosaur sex led to nothing', suggests that the human race could easily go the way of the Dodo. Lyrically, Emmy's at her best here, creating such vivid images with a few choice words; 'Skin is peeling off us in sheets' and anthropomorphising ugly objects, turning them into something tragic. Bit of advice, though - I wouldn't recommend saying 'Dinosaur sex is brilliant' because it will give you a few odd looks.
A Woman, A Woman, A Century Of Sleep - The narrator in this song is feeling trapped in a relationship, and just watching life pass her by; 'And all my days are/ fading into leaves/ walls you made are us/ but I don't want to be/ the queen/ in a century of sleep'. The imagery that Emmy's lyrics conjure up is exquisite; 'they have aerials they feed from me/ and they grow and grow and grow now I am/ shifting into greenery now the pipes are running bone and you might/ think I was a house but I am a woman, a woman'. With Emmy's lyrics, the insistent pounding of the melody and the otherworldly choir, A Century of Sleep is easily one of Emmy's best songs and one of my favourites of hers, not just of the album. Emmy can make plants sound sinister, and a house oppressive, and with the choir reaching an eerie crescendo, you don't know whether to tap your feet or be a bit frightened.
Iris - One of the more upbeat songs on the album, Iris is the first single from Virtue. Again, it continues with one of the main themes of the album; feeling unsatisfied with your lot. It's one of the most accessible songs on the album, so it's easy to see why it's chosen for the first single. It's as cheerful as the album gets, and oddly it's one of my least favourites. There's nothing wrong with it musically or lyrically; it's a fine song indeed but there's something very familiar about it, I have the feeling I've heard it before and one of the appeals of Emmy's music is its distinctiveness.
Paper Forest (In the Afterglow of Rapture) - Here the narrator has everything she thinks she could want, and is still feeling unhappy, lost. The repeat of 'But you're blessed' is almost as though the narrator is convincing herself that she should be happy. Emmy's breathy delivery suggests the narrator is running, away from something, or toward something is up to your interpretation. I know I'm banging on about the lyrics but it would be remiss of me not to mention just how blooming brilliant they are on this track; 'You write so much, you look up and you wrote yourself behind,/ And you're standing in a labyrinth of paper and the map has been erased', and how utterly heart-breaking they are too; 'standing in the afterglow of rapture, but there is no rapture left' Emmy's voice sends shivers down the spine and here it's displayed at its best.
Cassandra - Emmy's searching for meaning in life, something that crops up a lot. 'What use is love if/ it always passes?' is a rather gloomy notion in a sweet song. After some Wiki-ing, I discovered Cassandra comes from Greek mythology. Cassandra was a woman who could predict the future, but was cursed so that no one would believe her warnings.
Creation - Yet again Emmy toys with the idea of life and if it ever has a point; 'He wants to know if there is a narrative' and there's a sense that people are doing things such as marriage because that's what they think they should do; 'and when the woman comes, he marries her'. The music invokes a feeling of wandering aimlessly through life, searching for meaning. The narrator is writing - creating someone's life and they have no power over their own future, over what will happen to them. But the creator also has no clue what to do with the character's they've created.
Sylvia - Another fast-paced song, it's probably my least favourite on the album. 'If this is life/ why does it feel like I am far away' This is one of the more abstract songs on the album, dealing with dreams, which as anyone who has had to listen to someone describe their dream knows, other people's dreams are boring. Sadly, so is this song.
Exit Night / Juliet's Theme - Again Emmy manages to make something perceived as ugly become beautiful. A song of two parts, it seems to end and then start again. It's a bit disjointed to me and doesn't quite work. The first part of the song is lovely, though.
North - This narrator wants to escape somewhere north. Judging from Emmy's comments about the 'North' being a paradise, I'm guessing it isn't Hull. The feeling of isolation is still present; 'I knock three times and beg them/ but they will not let me in'.
Trellick Tower - Emmy leaves the most personal song for last with Trellick Tower. It's the song that's the most obviously about her breakup, most noticeably personal. The biblical references still abound, but the lyrics are less abstract, easier to decipher, as though really delving into her heartbreak is too intense to dress it up in lyrics of fairy-tales; 'You've propelled yourself into the arms of God' It's certainly the most fragile song on the album. Musically it's also the most simplistic; it's just Emmy's singing and a lone piano. It's a beautifully powerful track, and an excellent way to end the album.
Best Tracks: A Woman, A Woman, A Century Of Sleep, Paper Forest (In the Afterglow of Rapture), Trellick Tower
A Woman, A Woman, A Century Of Sleep
Paper Forest (In the Afterglow of Rapture)
Exit Night/ Juliet's Theme
Price and Availability:- Some online retailers are currently waiting on stock, but it's for sale from Rough Trade, Banquet Records, Amazon, Play.com and HMV. Amazon are selling it for £8.52, and the mp3 download is £6.99. 7 Digital is selling the album for £5 which is an absolute bargain!
The version I have from Rough Trade has an extra disc of demos. I paid £10.99 to own the extra disc as well as the album. I would say this is more for completists and hardcore fans rather than new listeners.
Artemis Fowl is the first in a series of books written by Eoin Colfer that tell the tale of the title's Artemis Fowl; criminal mastermind and heir to the Fowl fortune. Artemis has a fiendishly clever plot to do what no ever human has successfully done; steal fairy gold. He's twelve years old...
You're probably thinking, 'that sounds like a kid's book'. You'd be thinking correctly. The Artemis Fowl books are clearly aimed at teens or 'young adults'. When I started reading the Fowl books, I was the right age. Now I'm rather old and decrepit, and yet I still love reading the books. As with Harry Potter, these are books that adults can enjoy too. Personally I'd take Artemis over Harry any day of the week.
Artemis Fowl the Second is a child prodigy. He's also incredibly cold and ruthless. Artemis has discovered that fairies really do exist, and realising he can get his hands on a stack load of cash, hatches a plan to kidnap one, with the help of his faithful bodyguard and butler, Butler. Get used to daft names and brilliantly bad puns. The fairy he kidnaps happens to be a LEPrecon officer (told you!) Holly Short. As well as being short in stature, she's short on magic (it's catching, I swear), making her incredibly vulnerable to Artemis' nefarious plans. She's taken back to Fowl Manor and held to ransom. Artemis knows of all the fairies rules and rituals and therefore has a lot of fun exploiting him. Holly's fellow officers plan to free her without relinquishing the gold, but they have no idea just how smart Artemis is. If they want to succeed, they have to play dirty and break the rules, something Artemis did not plan for...
Artemis Fowl - The protagonist is not an all-round good guy. In fact he's quite the opposite. Artemis Fowl the Second is a 12 year old genius, and his criminal leanings seem to be inherited from a long line of greedy criminal masterminds. Artemis himself is first portrayed as being cold and manipulative, and his only companion is his bodyguard, Butler. His father disappeared during some criminal activity, causing his mother, Angeline to become unhinged. She spends much of the book confined to the attic, in her own world and fantasies. Butler is therefore the closest thing Artemis has to a father figure/authority figure and yet Butler takes orders from his young charge, so the dynamic is intriguing, funny and occasionally rather sweet. Despite being rather despicable, Artemis is a very charismatic character, and you find yourself rooting for him, even though you feel wrong for doing so. As the novel progresses, there is the occasional moment where you realise Artemis is just a child, and his home life paints a rather sad picture (though Master Fowl would find it distasteful to show any kind of weakness). Witty, scathing, ruthless and calculating, Artemis is an unlikely protagonist for a kid's book, but I found it refreshing.
Butler - As Artemis comes from a long lines of criminals, so Butler comes from a long line of bodyguards. They are assigned a member of the Fowl family and stick with them until their death. Butler cuts a rather terrifying figure; he is referred to as a man mountain, and despite his size is incredibly graceful in delivering rather nasty blows. He's by no means an idiot, but he's well aware that young Artemis is a good deal smarter than him, and he trusts him implicitly. Loyal to his master, he will follow any order Artemis dishes out, even if he suspects it will kill him. He's not a meathead either; although he would kill anyone who ever suggested it, he has a cuddly side to him. The relationship Butler has with Artemis is one of the most touching throughout the series.
Captain Holly Short - Holly is the first female member of elite force LEPrecon, and as such is closely watched by her fellow officers and superiors. This is unfortunate as she swiftly manages to make herself vulnerable to attack from the 'mud people'. Holly is feisty, brave, determined and a little bit mouthy. She's a mouthpiece that allows Colfer to have a good old moan about the way us mud people have ruined the beauty of the landscape, as well as our penchant for violence. Luckily it never goes into preachy territory, and Holly is a very likeable character. Despite what I said about rooting for Artemis, you do also want the fairy to escape, so you find your loyalties split.
The novel is full of colourful and funny characters. Commander Root is wonderfully gruff and grumpy, but he shows genuine concern for Holly. His terse exchanges with paranoid computer whiz Fouly causes some genuine LOLs as the kids say. Fouly; a centaur who never takes his foil hat off, enjoys winding up Root with his sarcastic comments, but he quickly shuts up when Root hints at a pay cut. Then there's Mulch, a kleptomaniac dwarf who's recruited to tunnel into Fowl Manor when the fairies are forbidden from entering. He has a rather novel and disgusting way of getting rid the earth he tunnels and although he's not in it for long, he leaves a lasting impression.
I know this is sounding pretty daft, and in a world where Harry Potter exists, it might seem like a cheap rip off in an attempt to have a piggyback on the Potter success. But the Fowl series is its own beast and while it shares the fantastical elements with Potter, it's lighter, funnier and to me the characters are far more interesting. To have a misanthrope as the 'hero' is a bold move in a kid's book; Colfer isn't afraid to make Artemis unlikeable at times. He doesn't patronise his audience either, there are some books I read as a teen that I can't stand now but Artemis Fowl is as enjoyable now that I'm 24 as when I was 15. There's also a little bit of swearing in there to make it more 'grown up'. Well, the swearing is in Gnommish; 'D'Arvit!' is the fairy equivalent of dropping the F bomb. The book is exciting, fast-paced and never drags. Personally I think the book that follows this (The Arctic Incident) is even better, so expect a gushing review of that soon.
The book I reviewed is a hardback. The cover is made to look like 'The Book of the People' - the book Artemis acquires in the opening chapter. It has some symbols on the front that is the language of the people and these symbols run across the bottom of each page. If you're like me and have a lot of time on your hands, you can decipher it. I thought that was rather fun (I don't think it needs pointing out I'm a complete nerd).
Price and Availability
Easy enough to get hold of, you can find it on the high street and internet and a good price. It's available in hardback, paperback and audiobook with various different covers. On Amazon, you can get it in paperback new from £4.46 and used from £0.01.
'We were dead before the ship even sank' is Modest Mouse's fifth album, released in 2007. It has a nautical theme that runs throughout the album (it was originally intended to be a concept album) and also features the talents of Johnny Marr (The Smiths) and James Mercer (The Shins). It followed their successful 2004 album 'Good News For People Who Like Bad News'. What is it with this band and ludicrously long album titles?
The album opens with the rather creepy 'March into the Sea' It begins sounding like a sinister sea shanty, with an accordion accompanying some strange crackling sounds, before the guitar and drums kick in. Singer Isaac Brock sounds pretty insane throughout, especially his manic 'HA HA HA!' laughing. It's an interesting track to open with; it immediately gives you a clue as to what you're in for. There's a hint of Pixies here, certainly at times Brock's voice sounds alarmingly similar to Frank Black's. It's the type of voice you either love or hate. Brock's slight lisp is often notable and (to me, in any case) strangely appealing.
This strange opener is swiftly followed by 'Dashboard' - the first single. Poppy, much like 'Float On' from 'Good News' it's instantly likeable and thematically it is very similar too. If you want to try to get into Modest Mouse, this would probably be a good track to start. It has the weird vocals, superb lyrics and the weirdness without being too alienating.
'Parting of the Sensory' has a really rich and melancholic sound before going completely mental, sounding like the most insane hoedown there ever was. As with much of the album it deals with mortality, which sounds pretty morbid - and is - but it's got some brilliant lyrics 'someday you will die and somehow something's going to steal your carbon'. What follows is the sublime 'Missed the Boat'. From the previous songs on the album you'd be forgiven for being surprised at just how lovely Modest Mouse can be. It boasts some beautifully heart wrenching and clever lyrics:
'We were certainly uncertain/ at least I'm pretty sure I am'. As it's Modest Mouse, the song wouldn't be complete without a little weirdness. They certainly deliver with the last verse. Vocally and lyrically it's just plain odd, but in the best way imaginable.
Other highlights include the sweet, chilled 'Little Motel' and the toe tapping 'People as Places as People' but it's the 8 and a half minute behemoth 'Spitting Venom' that really steals the show. Easily the best track on the album, it deals with the breakdown of a relationship - which brings in mind the album's title - the ship this time referring to the relationship and how it had deteriorated long before it actually ended. It's in 3 parts, the first being the frustration of the narrator, before becoming a full blown argument, and then finally, consoling. Its lyrics are superb, Brock doesn't put a foot wrong:
'My ears were pressing firmly right against your mouth to hear/ when you finally spit the venom out your words were not so clear'.
The repeated refrain of 'Cheer up, baby/ It wasn't always quite so bad/ for every bit of venom that came out/ the antidote was had' is sung in such a gentle way it really tugs on the heartstrings. The word epic is thrown around a lot, but it really applies here. Yes, it's long enough to make even Leonard Cohen wince, but it's so beautifully crafted you find yourself wishing it would never end.
The album isn't perfect; there are several songs that I find skipping more often than not, whether I find them irritating or just plain impenetrable. But then looking around these are often other people's favourite songs. 'Fly Trapped in a Jar' frankly gets on my nerves, and I can quite happily live without hearing 'Florida' again. Nevertheless, it's a superb album, and one I often find popping on in the car, turning the volume up to eleven and drowning out the knowledge that I'm driving to work.
March Into the Sea
Fire It Up
Parting of the Sensory
Missed the Boat
We've Got Everything
Fly Trapped in a Jar
People as Places as People
Price and Availability:
It's easy enough to get a hold of, you can find it on the high street, but Amazon are selling it for the cheapest at £3.99.
I can never resist a sale. I will admit that I have a problem. But this is one 'OOOOOH SALE!!!111!!!' purchase I've made that I don't regret. I was after some boots a while ago, you know, when they were popular, but could never get my hands on any. Schuh were having a sale and while I was browsing I stumbled upon the Henry Fleece Boots. Originally a rather steep £79.99, they were reduced to £29.95 so naturally I snapped them up.
The boots themselves are dark brown leather. The sole is not like my usual heels, there's actually some grip, which is pretty helpful when you're walking on cobbles (or are a bit tiddled and the floor keeps moving). The heel is 8cm, wooden and makes a rather pleasing sound on the kitchen floor. I know that's neither here nor there, but I just wanted to point that out.
The boots themselves have a tab on the back to help you pull them on if you're having trouble. The inside is lined with lovely soft fleece and although it's no longer winter my feet don't get hot in them, although I haven't worn them for very long periods of time. At the top of the boot are hooks for the laces, although the laces themselves aren't really long enough to use the top hook, so I loop them round the second hook. It still doesn't leave much of the laces left for tying, but it's a minor quibble.
The great thing about these boots is that they are very versatile. You can dress them up or down, they look fab with jeans or girly flowery dresses so whatever your style, they'll suit just about anyone. They can be worn all year round too, so you'll definitely get the wear out of them. The fact that they're dark means you can even get away with wearing them with black and on Schuh's website the model is wearing black tights with hers.
Perhaps most importantly, these are seriously comfortable boots. I normally live in pumps and very rarely wear any kind of heel but these were very easy to walk in (even over tricky cobbles!) and very comfortable. I usually wear new shoes around the house first to break them in to avoid blisters but I didn't bother with these and my feet were in mint condition when I took them off after first wearing them out!
The website only has sizes 3 and 6 left of this style, so if you want them get them quick! Although the laces are a bit too short, these are a great quality boot and extremely versatile; it's not a pair that will gather dust in your wardrobe. At £29.95 I do think these are a real bargain.
In my previous Spoon review I mentioned that I was advised to go for 'Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga' to introduce myself to the band, that album being their most accessible. But I was hearing a lot of love for 'Gimme Fiction' so decided to give it a listen too. Certainly 'Gimme Fiction' isn't as easy to get into as 'Ga', some songs requiring many a listen before they grow on you. But when they do, they become firm favourites.
Little Red Riding Hood on the album cover ties in with the fiction theme of the album, and how nothing is as it seems. This is certainly the case with 'The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine', one of the album's highlights. 'You think things are straight/ but they're not what they seem' is a sly clue to the song's true meaning. The Bass and Piano take centre stage, but it's when the strings soar in that the song becomes truly sumptious. A stone cold classic.
'The Beast and Dragon, Adored' kicks off Gimme Fiction, peppered with references of other songs on the album. It's a great opener - it sounds vaguely creepy and unsettling, and Daniel sings of a loss of inspiration, which certainly doesn't seem apparent. The album title Gimme Fiction is apt, this song and others are about fiction, or perhaps songwriting in this case. It's a great song to open with, it takes surprising twists and turns musically and sets the (wonderfully odd) tone for the rest of the album.
'I Turn My Camera On' has Daniel sounding like a more laidback, sane Prince. This track is impossible not to tap your feet to. Incredibly catchy, it's the most obviously accessible song on the album. Likewise, 'Sister Jack' is another addictive song and they both almost seem to sit oddly on the album - Gimme Fiction is distinctly dark in tone, and (certainly musically) these two tracks are downright poppy. Not that that's in any way a bad thing - they seem to come along to inject some bounce into proceedings.
For me the album's best track is the heartfelt 'I Summon You'. It's the closest the album has to a ballad. It's the simplicity of the song, both musically and lyrically that makes this. With Daniel's vulnerable vocals, this is one of Spoon's most heartfelt songs. 'You got the weight of the world coming down like a mother's eye/And all that you can/All that you can give is a cold goodbye' (Incidentally, fans of Scrubs and/or Veronica Mars will probably already be familiar with this one as it featured in both shows)
There are no duff tracks, just some that aren't as amazing as others. Which frankly, isn't bad going. Sure 'Ga' is an easier album to crack, but 'Gimme Fiction' is far more satisfying.
The Beast and Dragon, Adored
The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine
I Turn My Camera On
My Mathematical Mind
The Delicate Place
I Summon You
The Infinite Pet
Was It You?
They Never Got You
The Merchants of Soul
It's pretty easy to get your hands on both online and on the high street. Play.com and Amazon seem to be the cheapest, selling it at £6.19 and £6.47 respectively.
* There is a version available with a bonus disc, with tracks 'Carryout Kids', Was It You? and including demo versions of 'I Summon You' and 'Sister Jack'. Well worth picking up. The bonus tracks can be found on iTunes.