Mancunian band James’s fifteenth album, “Living in Extraordinary Times,” came out a while ago and I ordinarily would not go back so far, but the city of Melbourne was recently graced with their presence. Their show was one of the most stunning in my recent memory and I’m compelled to bring your attention to this release, exploding with every emotion from rage to lust/love to compassion. James straddle anthemic rock, gorgeous pop melodies, chugging distortion, and strident choruses. Singer Tim Booth is a brilliant lyricist and here he is at his sublime best. Every track is a winner but let me single out the closer from their concert, which had the entire audience swooning and swaying to a lovely paean to human diversity, singing along to “There’s only one human race / Many faces / Everybody belongs here.” You only live once: experience James here at their best.
Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett [9/10]
Fantasy is a genre oft corrupted by its successes, any bestseller being invoked again and again by ardent writers. Foundryside has restored my broken faith in the genre, a faith shattered by too many remakes. I’ve not read any of Robert Jackson Bennett before but his stellar reputation is deserved, for Foundryside fills an imaginative, vividly drawn world with an expanding cast of vibrant characters fighting to survive. In a world bursting with scrivings – manufactured inscriptions of magic that turn objects into sentient beings – Sancia, an escaped slave, lowest of the lowest, possesses a scriving-like talent that makes her a super thief. A dream burglary assignment goes wrong and the plot spirals in complexity and significance as it becomes clear her booty is waking up magical forces far beyond the reckonings of her hellish surroundings. Bennett writes deceptively simply, his artistry only making itself known after a few chapters – stick with it, as I did, and you fall under its immersive spell. Sancia is a wonderful, determined protagonist, and a gradually introduced cast of allies and villains splendidly portrayed. The richness of description of the city of Tevanne reminds me of Dune and Bennett’s dialogue, both spoken and telepathized, is captivating. As is evident, I’m now a fan and will both go back through the catalogue and wait, tongue lolling, for the sequel, Hierophant, in the second half of next year.
Dean Wareham vs. Cheval Sombre by Dean Wareham [6/10]
Dean Wareham is cult to the extreme. Those who came to his most cult band, Luna, have followed him since, as eccentric singer-songwriter, as half of a male-female pop crooner duo . . . and now here he is, pairing with Ralph Porpora (dressed up as Cheval Sombre) to evoke ten prairie western remakes. It’s twangy and echoing and high-voiced and . . . well, it’s weird as all heck. Saving the day is the pair’s intrinsic melodic sense and the loping musicality of the arrangements. Too much of a curio to end up on anyone’s 2018 Best Of list, I nonetheless enjoyed the gorgeous sound, familiar yet transgressive. Check out the weird, stately opener, a version of Marty Robbins’ “The Bend in the River,” then the sepulchral piano-and-acoustic-guitar pleas of The Magnetic Fields’ “Grand Canyon,” and then, if that hasn’t put you off, head for the strangest, part-whistled arrangement of “Wand’rin’ Star” (I still remember seeing Lee Marvin singing it!) you’ve ever heard. Somehow slightly more than the sum of its odd parts, this album is worth examining.
Natural Causes by Kelley Stoltz [5/10]
Kelley Stoltz is one of those hardworking studio-bound singer-songwriters in the field of DIY melodic pop rock who operate in obscurity, occasionally experiencing rays of light when discovered afresh. Listening to “Natural Causes,” one can almost imagine him noodling in the studio, constructing in all manner of polished but low-key styles, from the soft jangling chug a la Real Estate (the title track) to the Buggles-reminiscent “Static Electricity.” Stoltz’s previous release, “Antique Glow,” hit the mark, but this release, though listenable enough, contains too many tracks with poor melodies and patchwork lyrics. One for the completist only.
Lean on Pete directed by Andrew Haigh [8/10]
How wonderful the world of movies! Released last year, Lean on Pete only made it to Australian cinemas now. I’ve been hanging out for it. I don’t know author Willy Vlautin well, having only read one of his novels (and not Lean on Pete), nor was I a rabid fan of his prolific band, Richmond Fontaine, but his stature has grown and this American adaptation to the screen had a solid reputation. The wait has been more than worthwhile: this is a pitch-perfect low-key stunner. Charlie Plummer transcends the role of Charley Thompson, a slender, likeable fifteen-year-old living with his struggling dad in Portland, Oregon. Charley picks up a stable roustabout job working for an irascible trainer (a great role for Steve Buscemi) and falls under the spell of Lean on Pete, a fifteen-year-old quarterhorse racer in decline. Nothing is over dramatized and it takes the viewer some minutes to appreciate how dire young Charley’s situation is, and then, of course, the bottom falls out. Simple, raw scenes of the rural and city fringes of the United States, carefully centered around the plucky figure of Charley, are filmed with crystalline intensity. Vlautin is famed as a chronicler of the American down-and-out, and the relentless assault, in growing crescendos, on Charley’s humanity and pride are almost unbearable to watch. I found the final third a ratification of film’s grandeur and I’m sure you will too. Watch Lean on Pete, would you?
Maniac directed by Cary Fukunaga – Episodes 6 to 10 [9/10]
I rated the first episode of this stellar TV series as 9/10, then watched the first half of the season to accord 8/10. Well, the final five episodes of “Maniac” ratchet up the weirdness and atmosphere even more. Jonah Hill in particular amps up the theatrics as he plays characters inside Owen Milgrim’s head and Emma Stone, as Annie Landsberg, remains flawless. The pharmaceutical trial spirals out of control as strange and wonderful fantasies seem to draw Owen and Annie together even inside their heads, while Dr. Fujita, Dr. Mantleray, and the latter’s mother play out another drama altogether. Sumptuously filmed and precisely choreographed, the series finishes on a high. Oh, and I roared with laughter during one scene with Owen as a high-pitched Icelandic spy.
Kin Soundtrack by Mogwai [6/10]
Mogwai are by now almost elder statesmen of dramatized, soft-and-loud, elegiac-and-distortion-heavy instrumental rock. They have increasingly focused on soundtracks and now we have “Kin,” backgrounding the recently released science fiction movie. A soundtrack is by definition music of muted impact but Mogwai’s modus operandi is highly congruent with such works, and Kin is a fine, atmospheric album that walks no new ground but soothes and bathes. Guitar squalls follow light piano motifs follow spooky synths follow thundering bass follow drifting feedback. The longer the track, the better according to me, so the highlights include the stately, ratcheting-up title track, the piano-led “Guns Down,” and the superb synthy rave-up “Donuts.” One for the study or late-night headphones.
The Last Everything by Frank Kennedy [8/10]
How long since I read a grand civilization-spanning novel? Echoes, perhaps muted, of Asimov in Frank Kennedy’s latest, “The Latest Everything.” No plot spoilers beyond what’s in the blurb: Jamie Sheridan, fleeing his backwoods town, finds himself being hunted by people he’s known all his life. The plot escalates, thickens, then spirals into a sprawling tale involving galactic forces timetabling his inevitable death. Jamie is an innocent beautifully portrayed, as are his two young fellow battlers. Kennedy is a sure-handed stylist and the book never misses a beat. Be swept up!
Murder in Mud by Roland Strong [7/10]
After every serial killer thriller, shouldn’t one read a cozy mystery? Gentle and intricate, the clues being the point, a la Agatha C, they’re a wonderful antidote. Murder in Mud, the second in a series featuring author and home husband Oliver Atkinson, is a lovely example of the sub-genre. In the first series book, his mind was inhabited by a female “hitchhiker,” a ghostly presence, in this book the hitchhiker is a grumpy Scotsman who prompts Oliver to investigate a murder involving the ghost’s great, great grandson. Oliver insinuates himself into the investigation and the plot unfurls like clockwork. Author Strong writes in a breezy, atmospheric style, the dialogue is sharp, and the other characters are well fleshed out. A breezy read that tickles the mind. Most enjoyable.
Boy Erased directed by Joel Edgerton [9/10]
What an unanticipated gem! Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir, Boy Erased, has been brought to the screen with consummate artistry and intelligence by Joel Edgerton, fresh from his triumph with a very different film, Loving. I approached “Boy Erased” with trepidation, not wanting to witness close up the moral perfidy of conversion therapy. I thought I knew all about conversion therapy: using tactics akin to military psychological torture, with physical violence often thrown in, religious zealots set out to “convert” LGBT Christians into “normality,” a process intrinsically doomed to fail. In Boy Erased, Jared, a sweet, earnest, gay eighteen-year-old agrees with his minister father and his mother to be sent to a short day-stay conversion camp. Lucas Hedges is unbelievably powerful in his portrayal of Jared, Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman don’t miss as beat as dad and mum, and Edgerton himself makes the flesh cringe as the camp’s overpowering, sociopathic head. As we witness with unfurling horror the diabolical process used to break down the camp’s young men and women, and as we see Jared struggling mightily to reconcile what he is seeing and experiencing, with his love for his parents,and his faith, the tension cooks and cooks. The climax is thrilling and then an extended aftermath rounds out the story with style. Eduard Grau’s cinematography, centered around close-ups of Jarrod’s questing face, is artful, and for once in a movie of this type, the discreet soundtrack blends perfectly. Stunning, not a moment awry.