Ben Aaronovitch – The Hanging Tree

Man, isn’t the Peter Grant series great? The Hanging Tree is the sixth book in the series (meaning that you have to get through five other books before you can read it) and potentially the best one. Featuring several books’ worth of pay-off, if you’re a fan of Peter Grant then you should definitely give it a read.

The book focuses on the investigation of a young girl’s death, who is believed to have taken some questionable pills at a party. As the case picks up in becomes clear that there are some magical elements involved it… causing Peter Grant to get involved. He soon discovers that this seemingly small incident is tied to an even bigger case, relating to a practitioner/criminal he’s been chasing for a long time: The Faceless Man.

The story picks up pretty much where the fourth book Broken Homes left off (the fifth one, Foxglove Summer, having taken a bit of a breather from the series’ overall story) with Grant slowly closing in on London’s most dangerous practitioner. I can’t talk too much about where the story picks up (in case there are any readers who haven’t read any of the books in the series yet), but trust me when I say that it does a great job of building on the world that Ben Aaronovitch has built. A lot of old characters return, being drawn back into the story, and a few great new ones are introduced.

Probably the main reason why The Hanging Tree works so well is that it acts as a major turning point for the novel. Like I said, it features several books’ worth of pay-off – feeling like a reward for reading some of the series’ lesser books (mainly Broken Homes). As the sort of person who normally reads standalone novels, I have to admit that there’s nothing quite like a series book like this one that really delivers on everything you hoped it would.

And luckily The Hanging Tree also features Aaronovitch’s usual great writing. It’s not the sort of writing that’s beautiful – there aren’t many great bits of imagery or flowery writing – but the kind that inhibits its protagonist’s voice incredibly well. Heck, all of the characters’ voices. By this stage in the series all of the characters feel well-rounded enough that it’s just fun to watch them bounce off each other (Sahra Guuleed the ‘Muslim ninja’ is a particular highlight). Basically, the writing style is consistent with the books that came before it and that’s a very good thing!

If you love the other books in the series, then you’re guaranteed to love this one. Aaronovitch doesn’t skimp out on giving fans what they want, making for a really rewarding read. And if you haven’t read any Peter Grant books a read before, then, well, give Rivers of London a go! Even if urban fantasy isn’t your sort of thing, you’re sure to find something to enjoy in it.

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Sundara Karma – Youth is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect

Sundara Karma’s debut album is packed with solid indie rock songs. From the roaring opening track ‘Young Understanding’ to the melancholy closer ‘The Night’, all the songs here are good. Even the more filler-y tracks on the album have things going for them.

But… (You were all waiting for this ‘but’, weren’t you?) But I guess the problem I have with Youth is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect is that it doesn’t have anything incredibly distinctive about it. Let’s be honest, there are a hell of a lot of ‘indie rock’ bands out there. While Sundara Karma are very far from being as bland as some of them – like Catfish & The Bottlemen – I still don’t think this album feels quite original enough to be considered great.

As a result, I’d say the best songs on this album are the ones that feel distinctive. ‘Happy Family’ is probably my favourite track, slowly building as it goes, being carried along by a beat that almost sounds like a chugging train. ‘Lose the Feeling’ stands out to me just due to the weird imagery on its chorus: ‘I’ve found the door and I’m kinda hoping / To use my head and crack it open.’ It’s not an incredible bit of writing, but it’s odd… which gives it personality.

Though as I said, even the less unique songs are solid. ‘She Said’ is a fantastically catchy song that’s just bursting with energy. ‘Olympia’ is powered by Oscar Pollock’s vocals, with the hesitant way he delivers the opening lyrics setting the tone for the song: ‘Oh no / Olympia says she loves me’. ‘A Young Understanding’ and ‘Loveblood’ act as a fantastic one-two punch at the beginning of the album, the energy from the first song carrying effortlessly over to the second one. Like I said before, none of the songs here are really that weak. Even the lesser ones, like ‘Watching from Great Heights’, are easy to enjoy.

Sundara Karma have done a great job of pulling together a cohesive and interesting debut album… Though it doesn’t have the same spark as some of my favourite debut albums from the past few years. I dunno, maybe I’m being a little bit overly critical. Sundara Karma, I think, just need to find their voice a little bit more – which they’ll hopefully do by their next album. Youth is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect is only a good album rather than a fantastic one – but there are definitely glimmers of greatness in it.

I guess we’ll just have to see what they come out with next.

Essential Songs: ‘Happy Family’, ‘She Said’, ‘Loveblood’.

The xx – I See You

I’ll admit it: I’ve never been the biggest fan of The xx. While I thought their debut had a few great tracks (‘Intro’, ‘VCR’, ‘Crystallised’) a lot of it just kind of faded together. None of the songs were particularly bad, but some were definitely forgettable. I had a similar reaction to Coexist, which was stronger in many ways, but also weaker in some too… Like the first album though, it definitely had some really great tracks (mainly ‘Angels’).

So here we are… I See You. The album’s lead single ‘On Hold’ peaked my interest due to being, well, a lot livelier than what we’ve come to expect from The xx. The track didn’t really cover any new topics for the band – heartbreak once again – but it seemed like they were having a bit more fun than usual, trying to be adventurous. Though I think it’s almost entirely down to the production work of Jamie xx, the song is just a lot more memorable than most of the tracks off the band’s first two albums, with the instrumentation being less sparse and muted.

Luckily this sense of fun is present in a lot of the songs on I See You. Opener ‘Dangerous’ is perhaps the most upbeat song the band have ever churned out, being stuffed to the brim with catchy hooks. Like ‘On Hold’, the instrumentation is more adventurous than that found on the band’s past two albums – featuring horns (horns!) and siren sounds among many other things.

On most tracks, it is the instrumentation that really brings things to life. Croft and Sim’s vocals are as strong as ever, don’t get me wrong, but they don’t really do anything they didn’t do on The xx’s other albums. The backing vocals on ‘Lips’ elevate the track incredibly, and paired with the almost tropical instrumentation, it sounds unlike anything else The xx have put out. The stuttering instruments on ‘Say Something Loving’ add some strength to what is a pretty standard xx affair, and on ‘Test Me’, the track is almost entirely handed over to Jamie xx, with the vocals playing second fiddle to the many layers of synths.

I’m happy to say that the band even succeeds in making the album’s quieter, more standard xx songs stand out. ‘Performance’ and ‘Replica’ come to mind, them being great showcases for Croft and Sim’s vocals respectively. They also feature some of the strongest lyrics on the album (though I wouldn’t go as far to say that the writing is ‘great’.)

While I wouldn’t call any of the songs on I See You bad – each of them stands out in some way – there are a couple that get lost in the mix a bit. ‘Say Something Loving’ is a track that’s difficult to get excited about, and similarly ‘A Violent Noise’ and ‘Brave For You’ are a bit on the bland side. Like on the band’s last album, Coexist, the songs on this one suffer from having lyrics that are a bit on the broad side. The band avoids concrete descriptions, instead keeping the characters they play in each song vague and without any real sense of personality.

Ultimately, I think this is an album that’ll please existing xx fans and those who might not have enjoyed their previous albums very much. It’s a big leap forward for the band instrumentally, even if not much has changed when it comes to vocals and lyrics.

Essential Songs: ‘Dangerous’, ‘Lips’, ‘On Hold’.

Thee Oh Sees – A Weird Exits

I went into A Weird Exits not knowing what to expect, having listened to none of Thee Oh Sees’ previous albums (there are eleven in my defence) and having only skimmed one or two reviews. I would also say that the style of music on the album is a little bit outside my comfort zone as well… So it’s weird that I ended up loving this album as much as do.

A Weird Exits only features eight tracks, but this is a strength rather than a weakness. With so few songs, each of them feels well-rounded and unique… Though it’s obvious that they all belong to the same band/album, no two sound the same. ‘Gelatinous Cube’ is high-energy and off-the-wall, ‘Craw out from the Fall Out’ is a spaced-out eight-minute slow jam and on ‘Jammed Entrance’ it sounds like the band have handed the vocals over to a robot… (You have to hear it to get what I mean.) At only 40 minutes, the album understands that less is more (unlike some other albums… *cough* Starboy *cough*) and tries to make each of those minutes count.

Thee Oh Sees’ music has a grimy garage rock feel to it – like I said, out of my comfort zone – and the cover pretty accurately represents the messiness and weirdness the album exudes. It’s when the band indulges most in this griminess that the album is at its best – like on the opening track, ‘Dead Man’s Gun’, which features a beautifully messy guitar riff. It’s definitely one of my favourite tracks on the album, contrasting messy and clean incredibly well. The dream beat remains steady and grounded throughout the song while many of the other instruments go completely off the wall.

Other favourites include ‘Jammed Entrance’ – a funky robotic jam – and ‘The Axis’, which can only be described as anti-love song, with its break-up lyrics contrasting with its waltzing almost romantic pace: ‘Don’t you know, how much I don’t love you?’ ‘Gelatinous Cube’ is another incredible track – and easily the one that most deserves the title of ‘messy’. The opening guitar work reflects the title of the song well, pulling to mind the image of oozing gelatine/slime. After this the song bursts into a fast pace, passing through several different phases in its short three minutes. Like I said, Thee Oh Sees don’t waste any time on this album.

If I’m honest, all of the songs on this album are great and they flow incredibly well together. Despite its messy feel, this is a really well-rounded piece of music that’s definitely worth giving a listen.

Essential Songs: ‘Dead Man’s Gun’, ‘Jammed Entrance’, ‘Gelantinous Cube’.

Parquet Courts – Human Performance

I mainly seem to moan about albums I don’t like on this blog, so it’s a nice change when I get to talk about one I really like.

Parquet Courts’ third album has really grown on me as the year has progressed. I first listened to it a few months ago, not thinking too much of it, but now it’s easily one of my favourite albums of the year. At first only a few songs really stuck out to me (like ‘Dust’, which is a song that’s literally about, well, dust) though now I can appreciate that Human Performance is really stuffed to the brim with great songs. Maybe I’m just impressed that the band have managed to make seemingly mundane topics into pretty powerful songs – from the aforementioned ‘Dust’ to ‘I Was Just Here’, which is about a Chinese takeaway closing down.

Let’s start with the title track – my favourite on the album. It’s a break up song that almost entirely avoids being cheesy and cliché. It’s got a down to earth feel to it, and Andrew Savage’s usually abrasive vocals have a vulnerable feel to them. The delivery on the verses is very low-key and almost conversational, contrasting with the dark and depressing tone of the lyrics: ‘It never leaves me, just visits less often / It isn’t gone and I won’t feel its grip soften without a coffin’. The chorus gets a bit more dramatic, with an echoing effect being placed on Savage’s vocals and the instruments getting distorted. Heartbreak is a topic that’s been covered to death in music, but ‘Human Performance’ somehow manages to make it feel fresh.

‘I Was Just Here’ is another highlight, addressing how quickly things change in today’s society (a theme explored by most of the album’s songs). It has an off-kilter feel to it, with the lyrics being delivered in an almost robotic tone: ‘I’ll brush my teeth / That’s good for me’. The song explodes towards the end after the narrator realises that his favourite Chinese takeaway has closed down. It’s odd, but it works. ‘Berlin Got Blurry’ is also a favourite, being built around a jangly guitar riff that’s hard not to love. It’s got a lot of energy to it, and is probably one of the most accessible songs on the album.

Human Performance is one of those albums I love for the reasons other people probably hate it for. It’s weird. On first listen, some of the songs feel like they’re challenging the listener to turn it off. ‘Paraphrased’, for example, features some of the most over-the-top and ‘ugly’ vocals on the album. It sounds less like Savage is singing, and more like he’s just shouting at the listener. Opener ‘Dust’ similarly sounds like a bit of a challenge at first. I mean, it’s about dust, and as a result the lyrics are straight up ridiculous: ‘Dust is everywhere, sweep!’ But in the grand scheme of the album, it does a great job of setting up the themes that the rest of the tracks explore – such as the claustrophobic feel of modern city life.

One of the things I really love about this album is how rough it feels. Coming off the very clean and digital Starboy, Human Performance is refreshingly messy. The band don’t care much about making sure the listener has a ‘pleasant’ time listening to all of the songs on the album. Like I said before, ‘Paraphrased’ and its vocals are the best example of this, though you can also see it on tracks like ‘Two Dead Cops’ and ‘One Man No City’ (which is certain to annoy some people with its repetitiveness). However, there are a few moments of audio bliss, such as the digital only track ‘Already Dead’, which features an incredibly dreamy interlude.

Parquet Courts really knocked it out of the park with this album, and I’m excited to dive into their back catalogue and give their other two albums ago. The band try to do a lot of different things on this album, and most of them really work. If you’re looking for an album that’s going to challenge you a bit, I highly recommend this one.

Essential Songs: ‘Dust’, ‘Human Performance’, ‘Berlin Got Blurry’.

Christopher Priest – The Gradual

The Gradual is a book with some good ideas that doesn’t really live up to its potential. It also has one of the best hooks I’ve read this year – with the first chapter teasing a time travel element to the story that doesn’t really surface until halfway through the book.

I’m a sucker for fantasy/science fiction, and so the anticipation of the time travel twist – and exactly how it would work in Christopher Priest’s world –  is part of what fuelled me through the first half of the book. So it kinda surprised me when the time travel element of the book ended up being dull and unsatisfying. It slowed the pace of the novel down to a crawl (ironic?), and hindered the second half of the book from resolving the events of the first half very well.

In fact, the lacklustre second half just made me realise how strong the first half of the novel really was. For me, this was the first time that the introduction of a fantastical element has been a novel’s turning point for the worse rather than the better.

The Gradual focuses on the life of Alesandro Sussken, a famed musician who lives in the fictional country of Glaund. Throughout his musical career he finds himself repeatedly drawn to a set of islands that reside off the coast of Glaund that are forbidden to residents of his country. However, one day, a life changing opportunity comes along and Sussken is given the chance to take part in a musical tour of the islands.

There’s a lot more to the novel than that though – tons of different story threads and an impressive number of characters. This description only skims the surface of the novel’s first half, but trust me when I say it’s engaging. Things move at a slow pace in the first half (not quite as slow as the second), but Priest manages to keep things interesting. He builds up a series of mysteries that keep the reader engaged – craving to find out where they’ll lead to. By jumping between the different mysteries regularly, Priest keeps the book engaging while not actually having to move along any of the storylines too much. It’s a style that works for the most part.

But again, the second half… It isn’t as awful as I might be making it out to be (and the final twenty or so pages are pretty moving), but Priest just seems to squander all the anticipation he builds up. More storylines are introduced, making the book feel overstuffed, and none of them really seem to go anywhere. Mysteries are stacked on top of mysteries, and in the end only a few of them are really resolved.

I’ve got nothing against ambiguity, but the way Priest uses it in The Gradual just rubs me up the wrong way. It seems like he leaves many of his storylines’ endings ambiguous because he knows that the solutions to his mysteries have no way of being half as interesting as the mysteries themselves.

There’s definitely a fantastic book in here, and it’s worth reading just for the parts where it really shines.

The Weeknd – Starboy

I hadn’t really listened to much of The Weeknd before this album – well, only ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ really. R&B music has never been my sort of thing (not that I have anything against it) and so apart from the aforementioned very poppy single, he hasn’t really been on my radar.

Though he really did grab me with the lead single from this album, ‘Starboy’. With the popping Daft Punk synths and undeniably badass lyrics (you can’t hate ‘I’m a motherfucking Starboy’), it really got stuck in my head. The next single, ‘False Alarm’, while not as solid was still pretty good (though I seem to be alone in this opinion) and the last one, ‘I Feel It Coming’, pretty much sealed the deal on my interest.

So where to start with this one? How about, ‘No pop album needs to be 18 songs long?’ Though Starboy has many problems, perhaps the biggest is its length. Like the Bastille album I reviewed earlier this year, this album has no reason to be as long as it is. In fact, I can only think of a few albums that need to be over an hour long (This is Happening by LCD Soundsystem for example), and Starboy is not one of them… Especially because it talks about the same subjects over and over. Every song is pretty much about the same thing (Abel moans about his fame, has sex with some woman, rinse and repeat) and the quality with which the songs explore this idea varies.

So, the highlights… ‘Reminder’ is a solid chilled-out number with some great lyrics (especially Abel talking about winning the Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice Award with a song about cocaine. ‘A Lonely Night’ has some mega-cheesy lyrics, but the undeniable grooviness of the track makes it forgivable. ‘True Colors’ stands out through being one of the quietest songs on the album – and also one of the few ones that can be described as ‘kinda romantic’. Other highlights include ‘Secrets’, ‘Party Monster’ and the ‘Stargirl – Interlude’, which acts as a nice change up from Abel’s vocals.

The two Daft Punk collabs that bookend the album are far and away the best tracks. I’ve said what I like about ‘Starboy’ already, and ‘I Feel It Coming’ won me over by being one of the most dancey (and dare I say sexy?) tracks on the album, also managing to weave in some pretty good lyrics. It’s one of those songs that just makes you want to dance, even if you’re horrible at dancing like me.

So now the bad. And this is where the album’s length comes in again – if Starboy was only 11 tracks long, it would be much easier to put up with the weaker tracks. But it isn’t. As a result, it’s easy to get fatigued by all the sub-par songs before you even reach the halfway point of the album.

The first downright bad song on Starboy is ‘Rockin’’ which has some of the cringiest lyrics on the album. Take the chorus for example: ‘I just want your body next to me / Because it brings me so much ecstasy / We can just be rockin’’. Jeez. The instrumentation on the song is pretty fun, if uninspiring, but it doesn’t save the song from coming across as a flimsy attempt at The Weeknd trying to recreate the success of ‘Can’t Feel My Face’.

‘Love to Lay’ suffers from similar problems, ‘Nothing Without You’ is a bland and unconvincing love song and ‘All I Know’ feels unnecessarily long and dragged out. Another one of the album’s weakest tracks is ‘Ordinary Life’, where Abel, once again, moans about his fame. In addition to this, the cringy and unnecessary opening just seem to make the album’s more romantic songs (like ‘Die For You’) incredibly unconvincing: ‘Heaven in a mouth, got a hell of a tongue / I can feel her teeth when I drive on a bump.’ Despite this album having plenty of good songs, it has more bad ones.

If you want an easy going, mostly fun, album to listen to in the car or to stick on for a party, Starboy is a pretty solid choice. Its bright spots save it from being completely terrible, though you might be better off listening to the highlights rather than the whole thing.

Essential Songs: ‘Starboy’, ‘Reminder’, ‘I Feel It Coming’.