Sunday, July 26, 2009

Pastels / Tenniscoats – ‘Two Sunsets’

It’s been quite a while since there was a Pastels album. I remember the week Illumination came out, standing in Ashton Lane, Glasgow, being informed by one of my sister’s friends that the The Verve were the best band in the world, and knowing that this could not possibly be. In nearby Byres Road green vinyl copies sat proudly in Fopp, but I probably bought it in John Smith’s, where Stephen had his proto-Monorail record section (a whole floor! In the middle of a book shop! How did that ever come about?) At the time Illumination seemed a continuation, rather than a culmination, of the incredible records which preceded it. The joy and abandon of Truckload of Trouble fed into Mobile Safari, on which Stephen’s ‘feeling of excitement when I plug in my guitar’ (thanks Brogues!) built into such an unstoppable run of wonderful songs. Illumination was more ambitious, more concerned with assembling a coherent texture which reflected the band’s mindset. So it was beautiful, gentle, wide-eyed. It was modest and muted in the way it didn’t set out to grab your attention, but epic in the collaborative instrumentation it used to get to being modest and muted. Just as Chekhov gradually dispensed with the melodramatic gunshot in the final act over the course of his plays (it went completely with The Cherry Orchard), so The Pastels grew out of that ’80s indie pop production technique of playing a single clanging chord to emphasise each first beat of the bar over already compressed drums. It was still present (just about) on Mobile Safari, but by Illumination they were sure enough of themselves to leave it behind and go stratospheric.

Having said that, I’m not comfortable with the way Domino refer to Illumination as a masterpiece at every opportunity. More than most bands, The Pastels are about momentum, process, collaboration. Their song ‘Yoga’ starts: ‘It might not last, so we’re gonna record everything’, but recording is a double edged sword: it captures, but it also freezes. Maybe this has something to do with the long silence. But whatever. It doesn’t matter now.

And Two Sunsets? I think I’m going to struggle. It is, as it had to be, so tall I can’t get over it, so wide I can’t get around it, so deep I can’t get under it. It washes over every border, drowns every boundary. It is alive in ways a record from twelve years ago just can’t be, masterpiece or not. Opener ‘Tokyo Glasgow’ is a development of the music they did for the play Do I Mean Anthing To You Or Are You Just Passing By?, with added ‘ah’s sung by Katrina and Saya, and what appears to be a panpipe (perhaps it is actually something more Japanese, signifying the ‘Tokyo’ part?), which had me worried for a while because how can a panpipe be acceptable after muzak appropriated the instrument? Alison’s trumpet and the slow tempo make it sound like something from The Blue Nile’s Hats, but flecked with details ‘moulded by human hands’, as Jon Dale puts it. It is also the closest the record gets to the Last Great Wilderness soundtrack sound, and it sets up the flow of songs which constitute the first half of the record.

‘Two Sunsets’ itself is the most Pastels-like Tenniscoats song here: slow and tender, lit up by Saya’s fresh melody and that incredible confidence in the delivery it was such a revelation to see at their recent show in Glasgow. She can knock you to pieces and put you back reinforced with that voice. She leads with the singing on ‘Song for a Friend’, too, but one verse in Stephen takes over: ‘In the places we would be / Thoughts of you come back to me’, which is the kind of simple, affectionate song it is. Later on, back with Saya, comes the song’s most arresting image: ‘Your guitar still where you left it over by the willow tree / Sometimes when the wind is blowing, it plays your song for me’. Makes me think of Nagisa Ni te, for some reason. This song is where Saya’s, Katrina’s and Stephen’s voices come together to best effect, and the collaboration is at its strongest.

‘Vivid Youth’ is the second in an occasional series of Pastels songs about The Vandalism We Used To Do When We Were Young, following on from the as-yet-unreleased ‘Don’t Wait Too Long’, which is about graffiti-ing gravestones. With this one they turn their attention to burning trees, or at least that’s what I picked up from the line ‘We’ve tortured a tree and the smoke swirls back to me’. And then: ‘Paper mill, there’s a firework on its way / Epicurean arson its heart’s in flames again’. ‘Epicurean’? Wikipedia reckons:

In the Epicurean view, the highest pleasure (tranquillity and freedom from fear) was obtained by knowledge, friendship and living a virtuous and temperate life.

Virtuous and temperate arson?* What do you mean, Katrina? Gorgeous song, though. Her voice smoky and relaxed, backed by a minimal, tripping Gerard Love riff. Not a song by someone trying to out-masterpiece her masterpiece, and all the better for it.

There is much else to love: Stephen’s reading of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s ‘About You’ (frustratingly, the only song on which he sings lead, apart from a verse and a chorus in ‘Song for a Friend’), his voice caressing the words in a way which seems new, singing ‘the raindrops beat out of time’ deliberately out of time. There is the Tenniscoats’ old (great, noble, beautiful) song ‘Mou Mou Rainbow’ reborn, with less of a freakout ending, hypnotic like ‘Dark Side of Your World’. ‘Boats’ revisits Illumination territory with its Aggi-imitation bass (slightly too many notes!) and ‘G12 Nights’ ending. Saya’s songs on side two help to vary the pace, her ‘Sodane’ is the most goofily fun thing here (it’s been a while since The Pastels did goofy fun, they used to be so good at it), and is that Ueno on backing vocals? Closer ‘Start Slowly so we Sound Like a Loch’ is the refracted Scotland of my childhood holidays, my grandmother’s paintings. It is sea anemones in rock pools, barnacles on boats. Before I heard it I wondered whether Two Sunsets could possibly live up to expectations, but it doesn’t try to, and therefore it does. A new Tenniscoats record is always a cause for celebration, but more than that, this time, it is so great to have The Pastels back.


* My dictionary gives a different definition for ‘epicurean’ with a lower case ‘e’: ‘devoted to sensual pleasures’, which makes more sense.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Marina Lewycka – ‘Two Caravans’

And here’s the problem: they all want more – the twenty-pound-note man, Vulk, Vitaly, and all their seedy cohort of clients – they all want what you want. To wash themselves in the sweet pool of her youth. This decent young girl, as fresh as the month of May. And she senses it. No wonder she trembles like a hunted rabbit. No wonder she jumps about all over the place. Leave her alone, Andriy. Be a man. (p. 233)

Andriy gets Irina’s signals typically wrong, in a common enough reversal of Groucho Marx’s most famous saying, amounting to: ‘I can’t believe that any club I want to join would want me as a member’. That passage made me think of Pierre’s attitude to Natasha at the end of volume two of War and Peace, when he recognises that his feelings for her are getting out of hand, and leaves Moscow on a pretext to allow them to simmer down. So I was surprised to turn the page and read:

It was so beautiful, like that bit in War and Peace when Natasha and Pierre finally realise that they’re meant to be together. Except I think he doesn’t realise it yet. (p. 234)

There is a jump in narrator between these two quotations: the first is free indirect speech, from Andriy’s perspective; the second is Irina’s first person narration. Most of the novel is told in this way, flitting between the two Ukrainians who have come to England with high and romantic expectations, only to find themselves picking strawberries with other exploited immigrants, and falling for another Ukrainian. They are the leads – the romantic leads, even – but there are enough other things going on to prevent that story from seeming trite. Other narrators are Emanuel and Dog. Emanuel, from Malawi, writes letters to his sister in King James Bible English:

I am striving with all my might to improve my English but this English tongue is like a coilsome and slippery serpent and I am always trying to remember the lessons of Sister Benedicta and her harsh staff of chastisement. (p. 15)

Dog is a dog, an energetic mongrel (‘Labrador collie, I’d say, with a bit of German shepherd in there too’ (p. 186) is Mr McKenzie’s guess), says – or thinks – things like this:


Dog has names for people, based mostly on their smell, but the best is ‘MORE-STUPID-THAN-SHEEP-FEMALE’, the name Irina aquires after Dog helps her to escape from Vulk (arch villain and people-trafficker) by barking, blocking her way and forcing her to take the right path.

All of the narrators share a simplicity of style. Their language is clear and concise, situations are conjured with broad strokes which put the reader at ease, complicit in the underlying assumptions. The less information you are given, the more pleased you are that the novel gives you credit for knowing what it leaves out. You are pleased because (it sounds odd to say it) you want the novel to like you. This is how a lot of children’s fiction works, but it is rare in adult fiction. Alexander McCall Smith does it, so does The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. S. pointed out that the point of view of an immigrant has similarities to that of a child: situations are unfamiliar, there is less cultural background to fall back on. This and the characters’ imperfect grasp of English are enough to justify the simple language in the novel’s own terms (although Emanuel not writing to his sister in their own language, Chichewa, is a bit of a stretch). What is remarkable is that it uses these fun, ramshackle characters and their disorganised travels to criticise the state of the nation. What kind of country is this, that is so under the thumb of its own supermarkets that it will illegally employ immigrants for pitiful wages (minus deductions for pitiful food and pitiful accommodation) in order to produce strawberries at the impossibly low prices they set in time for Wimbledon? That’s not civilisation.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Leo Tolstoy – ‘War and Peace’ (Vols 3, 4 & Epilogue)

A few years ago a shortened version of War and Peace was published, which amongst other things left out ‘the philosophical elements of the published version’. I had this in mind reading the first half of my edition (Anthony Briggs’ 2005 translation), and kept wondering whether I had got the wrong one by mistake. It was all action, there was no philosophy to be found anywhere. I needn’t have worried, though: the second half is full of it. In ‘the game of war,’

there is no question of one man’s will directing events through his control of soulless machinery, because everything develops from the interplay of infinitely varied and arbitrary twists and turns! (p. 787)

This is the point at the centre of all the ‘philosophical elements’: that one person cannot directly cause any event, and that leaders don’t cause the actions of the people who follow them. Specifically that, contrary to appearances, Napoleon was not the cause of the French advance into Russia in 1812.

The soldiers of the French army set out to slay Russian soldiers at Borodino not because of Napoleon’s orders, but because they wanted to. The whole army, Frenchmen, Italians, Germans and Poles, hungry men dressed in rags and weary from the long campaign, took one look at the army that barred the way to Moscow and came to the conclusion: if the wine was uncorked it had to be drunk. (p. 871)

You can sense the delight Tolstoy takes both in praising the Russians (see the quote on abandoning Moscow, below), and in finding fault with the French. He is proudly nationalistic. Sometimes it almost amounts to taunting:

The Napoleon that comes down to us as the motive behind this movement (just as primitive people saw the figurehead on the prow of a ship as the motive force driving the ship), the Napoleon who was active at this time was like a child in a carriage who pulls on the straps inside and thinks he is doing the driving. (p. 1120)

Discursive, metaphor-happy passages like these pepper the third and fourth volumes, and take up most of the epilogue. Beginning with war and the respective approaches of Napoleon and Russian commander-in-chief Kutusov (Napoleon convinced that he is in total control; Kutusov knowing that he isn’t, and couldn’t be), the argument broadens out into a discussion of human nature and free will, which Tolstoy sees as essential to an individual’s identity, but nonetheless illusory:

Reason gives expression to the laws of necessity. Consciousness gives expression to the essence of free will. (p. 1353)

It is necessity which causes events, not free will. This, he argues, is why people are constantly repeating the same mistakes, and why they are constantly surprised to find themselves doing it. The self-deception is necessary because, as Pierre says:

Once you allow that human life is subject to reason you extinguish any possibility of life. (p. 1261)

Pierre is such a sweetie. After the existential angst of the first half of the book, exercised from within the confines of his exalted social position, he spends much of the second half under the radar, needing to be somehow involved in his country’s struggle. Despite having no military position, he wanders blithely on to the battlefield at Borodino, the final clash with the French before Moscow is taken. He spends it in the heart of the battle, mooching around, trying not to get in the way. Tolstoy’s rhetoric on this battle is insistent, mostly persuasive, but also contradictory. Only once does he say that the Russians lost (p. 1147). The rest of the time he argues that they won, despite the subsequent loss of Moscow. In the book’s most potent metaphor, he describes one billiard ball (the French army) colliding with another (the Russians): the first ball carries on for a short distance after the impact, but its energy is spent. Kutusov’s whole strategy is passive: his energy goes into preventing engagements with the enemy, because he understands how little good they will do. The Muscovites’ abandonment of their city shows the same spirit:

Moscow was not like Berlin, Vienna and other cities that escaped unscathed from the enemy occupation. The difference was that her inhabitants, instead of welcoming the French with the keys of the city and the traditional bread and salt, preferred to walk away. (p. 997)
Let Napoleon wear himself out, we’ll come back when his tantrum is over, is their attitude. This stoicism is not without its risks, though, and Kutusov’s emotion when he finally has proof that Napoleon no longer has any idea what to do, and that Russia is therefore saved, is very moving.

After Borodino Pierre returns to Moscow. Already estranged from Hélène (safe in Petersburg), he slips out from his house at the moment her emissary arrives carrying a request for a divorce, which is also when everyone else who has the means to do it is abandoning Moscow in advance of the French army’s arrival. He stays behind, in hiding, and hatches a plot to assassinate Napoleon. Natasha spots him from her place in the Rostovs’ convoy as they leave, and somehow guesses that this is his purpose. Regardless, he gets sidetracked, saves a child from a burning building, gets arrested by the Russian military then transferred to the French after they have occupied Moscow. Whilst in custody he witnesses an execution at which he believes he too is to die:

Who was it, then, when all was said and done, who was punishing him, killing him, taking his life, Pierre’s life, with all his memories, yearnings, hopes and ideas? Who was doing this? And Pierre felt he knew the answer: no one was.

It was the way of things. A pattern of circumstances. (p. 1070)

The same point, again and again. The action fuels the argument, and the argument lends a purpose to the action. It gets quite circular, in fact, because the purpose the action is given is to demonstrate how purposeless the action is, and how futile it is to attempt to plot the course of history as a historian would do it, with maps of battlefields, biographies of generals, etc. The only way an account of a war can hope to make sense is by taking into account as many ‘arbitrary twists and turns’ as possible: not just the generals but the foot soldiers, not just war but peace. It must also acknowledge how limited its own scope is, that there is much which can’t be explained, which happens with no apparent cause, seeming inevitable only in retrospect. This is War and Peace’s justification of itself. This, and:

The connection between cause and effect has no beginning, and can have no end. (p. 1353)

I think this is why, after a fairly neat finish to volume 4, Tolstoy interjects some more narrative amongst the philosophising of the epilogue: he wants to fray the ending. The sketches of his characters in the decade or so after the main action are wonderful: they carry on as necessity dictates, becoming more domesticated with children and age. Because the reader knows so much of the necessity that has brought them to this point, it is impossible not to be happy for them.

Monday, July 06, 2009

The Vaselines, The Pastels, Teenage Fanclub & Malcolm Middleton. Mono, Glasgow, 5th July

This was a nice surprise. A low key show in Mono featuring The Pastels, Malcolm Middleton, Teenage Fanclub and The Vaselines. To promote the launch of a new charity, the David Williamson Rwanda Foundation, and also to have some of the favourite bands of a man who died too young play some of his favourite songs. What a great way to be commemorated. In a venue which, according to Stephen’s preamble to ‘About You’, exists partly thanks to his encouragement and business acumen. He said that most of the list of favourite Pastels songs ‘are not songs The Pastels... can play at the moment, but he really loved The Jesus and Mary Chain’. Drifting into a digression to say that ‘About You’ also features on the new! imminent! Pastels! Tenniscoats! record! (my exclamation marks), he sounded a bit embarrassed by such unabashed self-promotion and tailed off. ‘Are you ready?’ asked Katrina, like a park keeper calling in a rowing boat. ‘Your collar’s a bit out,’ she added helpfully. Stephen defended the collar misalignment as punk rock, and away they went, Norman Blake standing in for Saya on the high backing vocal. The high point of their short set was the last song, ‘Basement Scam’, which was full, rich, glorious. I got lost in the sound, and lost in time, this and ‘The Viaduct’ tracking a course back through the years (Mono is constructed around something you could describe as a viaduct – I wonder how much of a coincidence this is?) Brogues thought this was the best he’d heard them do ‘Basement Scam’, and I’d say the same.

Malcolm Middleton had played first, apologising in advance for the gloominess of his songs compared with the other bands on the bill. I haven’t followed his career at all, the only songs of his I know are the improvised ones from Arab Strap’s first LP. His voice has dropped several octaves since then, and he was right about the songs being gloomy – but not unpleasantly so, and one was gloomy about pizza.

The Vaselines sounded great. S. said the following morning that she preferred them live, and my rock classicist hackles rose, wanting to say something pompous about their records (I love my Vaselines picture disc, all the songs crammed in taking up half a centimetre each, the Bad Seeds-style mug shots glaring out at you as it spins). But they managed to pull off that trick of adding tons of grit to their sound without losing any clarity. The guitarist charged with unleashing the peals that punctuate Vaselines songs had his amp set to fuck up the balance bone in your ear, the drummer did his best to make you jump up and down, it is a wonder more people didn’t fall over. Any snide thoughts about the exhuming of songs from another era were gone five seconds into ‘Son of a Gun’, fresh as sunshine in the bedroom. Eugene’s look of concentration during ‘Rory Ride Me Raw’ was hilarious – you’d think he was playing ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ – but it convinced, too. They did ‘You Think You’re a Man’ with real drums replicating the metronomic underground beat (that’s just showing off!) and invited Stephen Pastel onstage to honk the bicycle horn for ‘Molly’s Lips’. Then it was time for our taxi to the bus station and we had to go. Chris fills in the rest of the set:

  • ‘Teenage Jesus Superstar’. Cripes.
  • ‘Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam’. With Noise where lesser men might have cellos.

It’s fine, it’s really fine. What we saw was brilliant enough.

As it turned out, the taxi was late, we missed the last bus home and went back to Mono in time for the end of Teenage Fanclub’s set – a bit of ‘Don’t Look Back’ and, of course, ‘Everything Flows’. The perfect complement to ‘Basement Scam’: aching, epic, wild, home.

Update: horsemeatpie’s photos, videos by geomck of Teenage Fanclub, The Vaselines and Malcolm Middleton.

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