Sarah Perry – The Essex Serpent

The Essex Serpent is one of those novels that’s hard to ignore. It’s picked up dozens of awards and been sat in the window of every book shop, much like Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist from a few years ago – which I really wasn’t a fan of. Because of my disappointment of that novel, I was fairly hesitant when it came to this one. When you get a little excited for a book, it almost always ends up letting you down, right?

I’ll stop dancing around my opinion on The Essex Serpent and say that I did enjoy it. Sarah Perry’s latest novel, while a little overstuffed, is a good read. The central storyline is compelling, and while It does have a few too many characters, most of them are interesting. At its heart, the novel is about a married woman trying to discover who she really is after the death of her husband, whom she was forced to marry at a young age. Cora, along with her son Francis and her servant Martha, moves to the Essex countryside from London in search a mythical creature that’s rumoured to have been terrorising a nearby town. While hunting for the monster, Cora falls into company with the local’s church’s rector, William Ransome. As they try to prove and disprove the existence of the serpent, the two of them develop a close friendship.

Like I said, the central storyline is solid and Perry handles the central romance in an interesting way. Still, despite this, Cora’s struggles didn’t really feel like anything new to me. They felt very similar to those featured in the Victorian novels the author is clearly taking inspiration from… Though Cora doesn’t end up being half as interesting as the heroines in those books. In fairness, novels like Wuthering Heights and Ruth are an incredible high bar for The Essex Serpent to meet, but it just felt like Cora – as well as William – was missing a certain spark. Despite how well constructed the novel is, and how the heroine’s journey works well on paper, she just wasn’t someone I could get enthusiastic about.

The novel’s more interesting characters, in my opinion, hang around the fringes of the novel. Though I felt The Essex Serpent strayed too far from its central storyline at times – with there being a fairly long-winded B-plot about Cora’s servant trying to help those affected by London’s poverty – these side plots had some pretty fantastic character moments in them. Cora’s friend, London surgeon Luke Garrett, stole the show in many ways for me. The emotional journey that he and his friend George Spencer go through in the novel seemed much more original than Cora’s romance, focusing how powerful friendship can be in pulling people through tough times. Stella, William’s wife, was another stand-out character for me. Perry shows us her decline into illness in a gradual way, offering us her point of view along the way, and the way she does this is both original and moving.

Overall, The Essex Serpent is, in many ways, the book I expected it to be. It’s undoubtable good, but at times feels too structured and formulaic. Around its edges is where the novel’s best moments lie, where it appears less keen on being something that’ll be universally loved – basically book awards bait – and something a bit more weird and interesting. It’s a great novel that just feels a little bit lacking.

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Future Islands – The Far Field

With their last album, it felt like Future Islands had perfected their synth-pop formula, delivering some of their most emotional ballads yet. From break-out single ‘Seasons (Waiting On You)’ to the moody and growling ‘Fall From Grace’, Singles was filled with fantastic songs. As the album’s title suggests, pretty much all of them were up to ‘single’ standard.

So where next? On their fifth album, The Far Field, Future Islands don’t try to mess with their signature sound too much, which is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Though far from being Singles 2, the album does feature a number of songs that could have fit snuggly onto the band’s past releases. Like I said, this is a weakness and a strength. On one hand, some might find the The Far Field to be a little bit on the samey side, but on the other hand, if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it – right?

The first half of the album in particular shows the band staying squarely in their comfort zone. Songs like ‘Time On Her Side’ and ‘Ran’ are instant classic Future Islands tracks, featuring powerful vocal performances from Samuel T. Herring as well as some pretty moving lyrics: ‘What’s a song without you / When every song I write’s about you?’ ‘Cave’ is another stand-out on the album’s first half, with Herring unleashing the fiercer side of voice, which is always great. It’s not the first time that Future Islands have put out a song about heartbreak, but the passion they put into it makes it feel incredibly fresh.

On the album’s second half, we do get to see the band try out some new styles. ‘Candles’ stands out through its slow pace and groovy bassline, being perhaps the most intimate song the band have released; ‘Shadows’ is an emotional duet, featuring guest vocals from Debbie Harry of Blondie; ‘North Star’ has a jumpy charm to it, with Herring reeling off lyrics with more upbeat enthusiasm than usual: ‘But if the sun don’t shine / Well, then the birds won’t sing.’ These songs are still very obviously ‘Future Islands’ songs, but these experiments with style help keep the album from feeling too samey.

One thing that sets The Far Field apart from its predecessor is that definitely feels more like a complete set of songs. At the risk of sounding incredibly cheesy, it sounds more like a journey. While Singles felt like, well, single after single, this album builds up momentum slowly. Opener ‘Aladdin’ takes its time to get going, fading in slowly, with the next couple of tracks slowly raising the intensity.

There is also more thematic unity among the songs. As shown by some tracks’ titles – ‘Beauty of the Road’, ‘Cave’, ‘Through the Roses’ – as well as the album’s title, The Far Field, it is focused on the natural world. On ‘Aladdin’, Herring sings about the ‘the dew of the field’ and on ‘Ancient Water’ he dreams of being ‘patient like the forest’. On the album, the outside world is shown as something that promotes love – on many tracks Herring sings of exploring the world with his loved one – and something that hinders it, with other songs like ‘North Star’ being about the large distance between the protagonist and his love.

Whether you’ll love The Far Field or not will depend largely on how you feel about the band’s previous albums. This isn’t the album that’s going to convert you to loving Future Islands, but if you like what they’ve been doing up this point then I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. It may be a bit cheesy at times, but there’s no denying that a lot of heart has gone into every track.

Essential Songs: ‘Ran’, ‘Cave’, ‘Candles’.

The Shins – Heartworms

I have no experience of The Shins beyond this album, I thought I should confess that. Normally, I’m in the opinion that you need to be aware of a band’s previous releases for context-reasons when writing a review… But at the same, a good album is a good album, right? And I think there’s something valuable in approaching some releases without having to trail through a sizeable discography before-hand. That’s what I’m doing with Heartworms.

So, onto the album itself; The Shins’ fifth release is a fun one, with tons of bouncy-sounding synths and distorted back-up vocals. The most popular tone on Heartworms is unabashedly goofy, as shown by tracks like ‘Name For You’ and ‘Cherry Hearts’. There’s a cartoonish vibe to the instrumentation and vocal delivery and at points it seeps into the lyrics as well: ‘You kissed me once / When we were drunk / It left me spinning on my heels’. With that last line in particular and it’s easy to imagine James Mercer as a cartoon character.

This style dominates most of the album and most of the tracks that adopt it work. ‘Name For You’ is probably my favourite track, featuring a catchy hook and some off-beat but fun instrumentation. Though I will admit that the song feels overstuffed at certain points, with its chirping bird sound effects and ‘wah wah’ backing vocals. And this overstuffed feel is common throughout the album. By the time Heartworms reaches its halfway point, the album’s eccentric weirdness begins to drag – especially on the songs ‘Rubber Ballz’ and ‘Half a Million’. At times it feels like the band are just filling their songs up with strange sounds – like high-pitch backing vocals – for the sake of it. And it gets annoying.

There are some more low-key songs here – ‘Fantasy Island’ and ‘Mildenhall’ in particular. On these songs, James Mercer turns the focus onto himself and the sparse instrumentation reflects this. ‘Mildenhall’, a song where Mercer sings about when he first got into music, there are hardly any instruments present other than an acoustic guitar. Its basicity makes for a nice break from the cluttered songs that fill out most of the album. The lyrics are a bit corny – as is Mercer’s delivery of them – but I can sort of forgive that.

There are a few other solid tracks towards the album’s end, such as ‘Dead Alive’, but to be honest, there’s nothing truly fantastic on Heartworms. If anything, I’d call it just fine. It delivers a few good songs but none that truly wowed me. I think I might dip into some of the band’s other work out of curiosity, but this album doesn’t paint them as much more than a middling indie band. This isn’t a bad album, but it isn’t a great one either; it just kind of is.

Essential Songs: ‘Name For You’, ‘Cherry Hearts’, ‘Mildenhall’.

Lutz Seiler and Tess Lewis – Kruso

Lutz Seiler’s award winning novel focuses on Ed, a German university student, who decides to run away from his life and live on the remote island of Hiddensee after a tragic family incident. In the 1980s – when the novel is set – the island was home to a number of artists, writers, musicians and forward-thinkers. After getting a job working on the island, Ed discovers that he isn’t the only one who has gone there to get away from his problems – making friends with the brilliant yet troubled restaurant owner Kruso. And as their relationship develops things slowly begin to spiral out of control.

Kruso is my first encounter with Seiler’s work and I found it to be a pretty enjoyable read. Tess Lewis seems to do a solid job of translating Seiler’s writing, keeping the author’s quirky personality intact. The novel definitely has a specific style to it – almost dream-like. Though the world of novel is definitely not fantasy-based, Seiler constructs Hiddensee to feel like it exists separately from the real world. From the free-loving hippie islanders to the strange rituals of Hiddensee, there’s an otherworldliness that represents the island as a place that plays by its own rules. Things happen and people act in ways that you wouldn’t expect them to in normal society – everything’s a bit more melodramatic and odd.

It’s a level of quirkiness that works better than it should. The novel feels melodramatic in a way that reminds me of a lot of nineteenth century novels; Ed spends his spare time speaking to an elderly fox, Kruso writes deep and emotional poetry, an ice cream man tries to commit murder… It functions on a more dramatic plane of reality than most novels these days do. And to be honest, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword at times. It definitely helps the novel stand out in comparison to other books I’ve read recently, but Seiler’s writing does border on irritating at times. Kruso in particular becomes a bit unbearable through his melodramatic behaviour.

The story of the novel progresses slowly, following the increasing intensity of the relationship between Ed and Kruso. They bond over the tragic events that led them to where they are and isolate themselves from everyone else in the process. While I enjoyed the narrative of novel, I found myself more interested in the island of Hiddensee itself. The author explores the various cultural aspects of Hiddensee in the 1980s extensively and it acts as an incredibly interesting backdrop for the story. Like many good modern novels (such as The Stolen Child which I recently reviewed) it uses an interesting setting to boost up what is fairly archetypal story.

Overall I’d say that Kruso is good, just not great. It’s not the sort of novel that’s going to blow your socks off, but it does have a handful of fantastic moments. More than anything, it kind of just made me want to just pick up a few non-fiction books on Hiddensee.

Foxygen – Hang

After releasing two fantastic albums (Take The Kids Off Broadway and We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors…) and one of questionable quality (…And Star Power) in the span of three years, Foxygen took a well-earned break. In fact, for a while it seemed like the band was done for good, with there being a lot of on-stage conflict between its two members (Sam France and Jonathan Rado) and even a ‘farewell tour’ taking place. And yet here we are with album number – Hang.

The album sees the band return to their roots somewhat, re-embracing the showtunes-y and theatrical vibe of their debut. However, where that album had hardly no budget at all (Foxygen weren’t even signed when it was recorded), Hang has an incredibly lush and grandiose production. It shows the band exploring their interest in grand theatrical music in a way that they couldn’t really on Take The Kids Off Broadway, featuring a wide array of orchestral instruments. We’re talking horns, saxophones, violins, cellos, flutes, oboes… It sounds absolutely gorgeous and grand.

But what’s great production without good songs? Hang is only a mere eight tracks long, but each of those tracks bursts with personality. They’re also all arranged incredibly well, making good use of the orchestra the band have at their disposal. Just look at the album’s lead single, ‘America’; it’s a track that’s overblown and dramatic in a way that can only be achieved with an orchestra. It showcases pretty much every instrument, with the best part being the particularly crazy instrumental section that sits in the middle of the song.

Despite the overall theatrical style of the album, Foxygen manage to dabble with a couple of genres across the album. ‘On Lankershim’ has a definite country music vibe to it, ‘America’ features a notably jazzy interlude and ‘Avalon’ is a jaunty piano-led tune with an opening that feels like it belongs in an old Western movie saloon. Sam France’s vocals are also great, with him adopting a bombastic tone that reflects on grandiose style of the album. There’s less variety with his vocals than on past Foxygen albums, but it didn’t bother me too much – mainly because he sounded like he was having a lot of fun.

If there’s one area that the album falters slightly it’s lyrics. Foxygen mainly play it safe, straying pretty deep into cliché territory at times, demonstrated most clearly on the album closer, ‘Rise Up’: ‘And believe in yourself / And follow your heart, if nothing else’. Though it seems like Foxygen are very much aware of how cheesy their writing can get. Just like the album’s big bombastic instrumentation, the lyrics are grand and broad. On tracks like ‘America’ it’s obvious that the band are just fooling around a bit with their use of clichés. The song opens with them rolling off a string of tired, wholesome American phrases – ‘Merry Christmas from the pines / Hallelujah, amen’ – making it obvious that the band are critiquing and making fun of their country rather than praising it. It’s pretty difficult not to read the song’s lyrics in a political way.

Despite the writing’s general cleverness through its simplicity, I can’t help but miss the personal and surreal lyrics that dominated the band’s first two albums. Hang is an eccentric album, sure, but there’s nothing on here than exudes the weirdness that made me love Foxygen in the first place. It’s not the band’s best album, but it’s also not their worst one… And with all the orchestral ear candy on offer it’s hard to complain too much. It’s obvious that the band had a lot of fun putting this album together and as a result it’s a lot of fun to listen to.

Essential Songs: ‘Follow the Leader’, ‘America’, ‘On Lankershim’.

Dutch Uncles (09/03/17), Diamond Family Archive (09/03/17) and Glass Animals (15/03/17)

I’ve been to a few gigs recently and thought it might be worth rounding up my thoughts on them briefly. Writing up individual blog posts for each of them would’ve been a lot of faff, so I thought I’d stick to one post and keep things short and sweet.

Dutch Uncles (09/03/2017, The Fleece in Bristol)
I’ve wanted to see Dutch Uncles live for a while – having missed them on their last tour – and this show at The Fleece (a really beautiful venue) didn’t disappoint.

Big Balloon is one of those albums that feels like its songs have been designed to be played live (basically it has a very live feel to it) and as a result, all of them sounded pretty great. ‘Baskin’’ and ‘Same Plane Dream’ made for a fantastically energetic one-two opener, while lead single ‘Big Balloon’ closed the main set out in a fun way. Despite the album only being out for a month, the band played the new songs with a level of precision that suggested they’d been playing them for years. In the sense that the performances were all pretty seamless (perhaps with the exception of ‘Streetlight’, which lead singer Duncan Wallace abruptly restarted after messing up the lyrics.)

The old songs were solid too, with particularly highlights being the xylophone fuelled ‘Threads’, first album classic ‘Face In’ and ‘Flexxin’, which was accompanied by some of the finest dad-dancing I’ve seen in a while. ‘Dressage’ also made for an incredible closer, with it cumulating in the band making as much noise as they could.

Fantastic gig overall, really impressed.

Diamond Family Archive (13/03/2017, Bread & Roses in Plymouth)
A friend of mine has been pushing me to check out this band for a while, so I decided to go along to one of their gigs. It’s hard to really describe the sound of Diamond Family Archive properly, so I’m just going to drop a link to some of their music at the bottom of this page. They’re a fantastic two-man act, playing a dozen instruments between them, using looping techniques to make the band feel a lot bigger than it is.

The performance was split into two sets, both great. The first set started out subtly with some gentle guitar playing and drumming before things eventually built up and got louder. However, throughout the band retained a chilled-out almost ambient vibe that captured the whole audience’s attention. It was hard at times to tell when one song ended and another began, but that was part of the beauty of the performance; everything flowed naturally. I will definitely make an effort seek out one of the band’s albums now… If you’re looking for something a bit different – they really don’t sound like any other band I can think of – then definitely check these guys out.

Glass Animals (15/03/2017, O2 Academy in Bristol)
I was a pretty big fan of Glass Animals’ last album, How To Be A Human Being, and was glad to finally get to see the songs off it performed live (even if they missed off one of my favourites from the album, ‘Mama’s Gun’).

Frontman Dave Bayley has a wild energy to him that just made the whole performance a total joy. From opener ‘Life Itself’ all the way to the last song of the encore, he never seemed to stand still for a moment. You can really tell when an artist is enthusiastic about their music, and Bayley definitely is. You’ll never see anyone else sing ‘pineapples are in my head’ with such conviction…

It was great to see Glass Animals perform some of the songs from their first album Zaba (‘Gooey’ in particular was great) but it was really the band’s newer songs that stole the show. And with the first album having a very different feel from their second one – having a strong jungle theme to it – the songs from it didn’t fit into the set too smoothly. Pretty much every song from the new album sounded great, though some of the main stand outs were ‘Season 2 Episode 3’ (maybe the best song the band have put out), the crazed ‘Other Side of Paradise’ and main-set closer ‘Agnes’, one of the band’s more downbeat, emotional songs.

Basically, Glass Animals were a lot of fun live. If you like the energy on their albums, rest assured that their live performances are just as crazy, if not more.

 

Laura Marling – Semper Femina

Laura Marling is six albums deep into her career and has yet to put out anything less than fantastic. From the light-hearted and fun Alas, I Cannot Swim to 2015’s electric Short Movie, she’s proven herself to be one of the most consistent singer-songwriters around today.

Unsurprisingly, Semper Femina is another great release, and potentially one of Marling’s all-time bests. In many ways it goes back on the evolution seen on her last album, where she embraced the electric guitar pretty heavily, instead going down a quieter route. In fact, it might just be the most low-key album Marling’s ever put out. Take lead single ‘Soothing’, for example: unlike the main singles for her last two albums – ‘Master Hunter’ and ‘False Hope’, both great songs – the track has a quiet, intimate sound to it. Instrumentally, it doesn’t feature much more than a guitar, a quiet drum kit, some jangling bells and a couple of soaring violins on the chorus. And it’s fitting, given that the lyrics Marling delivers feel like they belong to an intimate conversation with a lover: ‘I need soothing / My lips aren’t moving’.

And ‘Soothing’ pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the album. The theme here is womanhood (semper femina translates to ‘always woman’) and each track addresses it in a quiet and subtle mode. ‘The Valley’ has an intimate sound, similarly to ‘Soothing’, being a beautiful and delicate track about a woman’s loss. ‘Wild Fire’ sees Marling return to the more American influenced tones of Short Movie, and it succeeds through her dry lyrics, addressing a close female friend: ‘You always say you love me most when I don’t know I’m being seen / Well, maybe someday when God takes me away, I’ll understand what the fuck that means’. ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ and ‘Always This Way’ are similarly strong, making for a pair of melancholy songs about lost friendship.

‘Wild Once’ is perhaps Semper Femina’s only weak link. It’s not a bad song per-say, but is the only one on the album that feels like its filling time. Luckily it’s followed up by a fantastic closing trilogy of tracks.

‘Next Time’ is another introspective/melancholy song – Marling does seem to beat herself up a little bit on this album – and features some lovely guitar work as well as some lovely violin work. Marling’s vocals, as she tries to prove that she can change, are incredibly gorgeous. Basically just an incredibly pretty and moving song. ‘Nouel’ is similarly wonderful – being possibly the most personal song on an album full of personal songs. The closer, ‘Nothing, Not Nearly’ features Marling finally busting out her electric guitar again and to great effect. The majority of the song roars along and Laura’s lyrical delivery is once again fantastic: ‘Nothing, no, not nothing, no not nearly’. But fittingly to the album, the song closes with a gentle and impressive acoustic guitar solo.

Semper Femina reinforces Marling’s identity as an incredibly talented and an incredibly consistent musician. While I was hoping for Marling to follow the direction that Short Movie hinted at, I’m glad that she took this route with the album instead. It’s one of her bests and easily my favourite album of the year so far.

Essential Songs: ‘Soothing’, ‘Next Time’, ‘Nothing, Not Nearly’.

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