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This feels like the first year during which I’ve found myself buying less new music and, instead, rediscovering albums from my past. Part of it, maybe, is being somewhat financially challenged and I’m investing more and more in reading. Part of it, maybe, is to do with changing – or evolving? – tastes: more and more I’m enjoying post-classical music (Ólafur Arnalds, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Dustin O’Halloran, among others) and that kind of music does warrant deep immersion. And, rather regrettably, this may be due to rapidly advancing years – I’m after beauty and contemplation these days. Still, I have bought some new records this year. The following are the highlights.

Everything Now by Arcade Fire – quite honestly, Arcade Fire are an interesting proposition: they are arguably the English-speaking world’s biggest alternative rock band (for want of a better term), but their work can be patchy; further, there can be a rather condescending tone in their songs, as though only they know exactly what’s wrong with the world and, apparently, it all comes down to consumerism and the internet. Some fans have dismissed ‘Everything Now’ due to the record straying too far from Arcade Fire’s core sound, but it’s silly to chastise a band for experimenting. The titular song is basically ‘Reflektor’ mashed with ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’, which, frankly, is no bad thing. However, the only other truly memorable track is ‘Put Your Money on Me’, which offers a delicious chord progression and lush shifts of gear. In between those two songs are a number of tunes that are throwaway , with only ‘Electric Blue’ offering any kind of reprieve. But I’m being harsh: overall the set is eminently listenable and it does expand the band’s impressive oeuvre. If only Everything Now didn’t come across as rather slight.

American Dream by LCD Soundsystem – this, for me, is the record of the year. In a word, it’s stunning. But it’s also dark, angry even (despite the latter half of the album sounding a little like a braver, less self-obsessed version of The Killers, which, no doubt, is a reference James Murphy would detest). It’s true that LCD Soundsystem having been mining their form of minimal riffing for years, and some of the songs don’t quite have the emotional pay-off they deserve, but for mine American Dream well and truly rises above all else I’ve heard this year. As opposed to Everything Now, there is not a single throw-away track here, and once again LCD Soundsystem appear to be inspired by Remain in Light by Talking Heads, one of the truly adventurous and astonishing records from the mid-1980s. But unmistakably American Dream comes out of Trump’s fucked-up version of America, hence the darkness and anger. If there’s one song that makes for an intriguing – though menacing – introduction to the album it would be ‘How Do You Sleep?

Three Worlds: Music for Woolf Works by Max Richter – this is a collaboration between prominent new-classical composer Max Richter and the Royal Ballet, and it explores the works of Virginia Woolf. There are three sections, each corresponding to three of Woolf’s novels: Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. Overall Three Worlds is melodious, minimal, and accessible, even if the Orlando section does contain pieces that are more meanderingly atmospheric than musical. For sheer visceral power, the final piece, ‘The Waves’, almost rivals Arvo Pärt’s ‘Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten’. For a work that is essentially the soundtrack to a ballet, Three Worlds is a rich and rewarding listening experience. A good place to start might be ‘In the Garden’. Beyond Pärt, other influences are Michael Nyman and even The Knife.

Slowdive by Slowdive – it’s a tough ask for a once-revered band to disappear for twenty years and then return with a record that retains the core elements of their distinctive sound while being vital and relevant. Remarkably, that’s exactly what Slowdive have done with their self-titled album. Let’s be honest: being a band that was labelled ‘shoegaze’, that infamously introverted if not vacuous movement (if that’s the right term for it), Slowdive was always about mood; they never really had anything much to say, except, perhaps, that beauty can be found in walls of noise. Little has changed, although in this collection there is evidence of stronger song-writing – ‘Sugar for the Pill’ is a gorgeous pop song – and there’s an appealing diversity of sound and structure throughout; with its repeated but building piano motif, ‘Facing Ashes’ is almost epic. Slowdive have an avid (if not ageing) fan-base, and if you would like to know why, this latest record is a terrific place to start.

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Okay, stand well back, because I’m about to do something I’ve never done before, and, dare I say it, you’ve probably never seen done before.  Am I about to turn myself inside out?  Levitate while cross-legged?  Speak in two languages at once?  No.  What I’m about to do is quote Australian literary legend David Malouf in what’s essentially a review of three pop-music records.  In his article titled ‘Music, the most abstract of the arts, is mathematics on the move’, published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 15 May 2010, Malouf asks, So what is music for?  What does it do to us or for us?  What happens when we give ourselves over to actually listening to it?  Music vibrates in the air around us and involves us; it touches and moves us.  Its rhythms take us back to primitive foot-tapping and finger-clicking or clapping; the regularity of its beat excites our heartbeats and pleases us with its natural order; it invites the body, even when the body remains still, to sway and dance.  All music takes us back to the body; all instruments discover what they do in what the body does.

Three records that are currently doing exactly what Malouf is talking about, taking me back to my body, and getting me pretty bloody excited in the process, are ‘High Violet’ by The National, ‘Crystal Castles’ by Crystal Castles, and ‘This Is Happening’ by LCD Soundsystem, the latter band surely being the most genuinely enthralling bunch of contemporary musicians working today.

First up, The National’s ‘High Violet’.  Frankly, these guys are so god-damn frustrating.  They could be great, they could be huge.  They could take REM’s indy-music crown, and part of me wants this to happen, because on ‘High Violet’ they get mighty, mighty close to making something truly significant.  This is a big record, one that’s best played up loud so the richness and the rawness makes your rib-bones rattle.  Melancholic, intimate, but still rocking, it’s an intriguing beast of a thing.  In parts, especially on album-opener ‘Terrible Love’, it owes a little to Sigur Ros, in terms of the buzz-saw atmospherics, and Arcade Fire in terms of the naked ambition.  ‘Afraid of Everyone’ (I put my hand up to say, yes, that’s me), ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, and ‘Lemonworld’ is a stunning trifecta of songs and worth the price-tag alone.  The frustration comes from Matt Berninger’s voice, which while deeply attractive and listenable does tend to mangle the lyrics into an unintelligible slop so that a song’s never given the opportunity to properly blossom into a classic.  But this album grows and grows on you until you just can’t live without it, and perhaps that’s where The National’s true genius lies.

Crystal Castles has now given us their second album and it’s…um…totally friggin’…beautiful.  Yes, beautiful.  Though I should caution that at times it’s an ugly kind of beauty.  As with the duo’s first – and also self-titled – album, there’s the mix of scratchy, screechy snippets of dancey noise (a bit like a jacked-up Sonic Youth trapped in a computer-game shop) and then great big slathers of almost-but-not-quite trance.  This time around, however, it all comes together in a more cohesive whole.  ‘Celestica’, ‘Year of Silence’ (which samples ‘Inni Mer Syngur Vitleysingur’ by Sigur Ros, revealing the dark soul of those Icelandic noise-niks, which, to my mind, is missing from Jonsi’s solo effort ‘Go’, though the darkness is all over his and his partner Alex Somers’ extraordinary Riceboy Sleeps album) and ‘Vietnam’ make for fantastic listening.  For those of an age there’s a fair bit of inspiration from the 90s-era, Rickenbacker-strumming English band Lush in many of these beguiling songs, and that’s no bad thing.  As long as the world has artists like Crystal Castles in it, dance music and electronica is in very…dangerous hands indeed.  Bugger it, I might just pour myself a glass of champagne, turn out the lights, crank this album up very loud, and dance around the lounge-room like a dervish until the Old Lady of the House and Cat the Ripper give me the evil eye before darting under the bed.

And so we come to LCD Soundsystem, which is the first band in years that have spun my nipples so hard that I’m amazed that I still have a chest.  Mixing brilliant, thoughtful beats and the wittiest of lyrics, a gorgeous though not unchallenging pop sensibility, and perfect production, ‘This Is Happening’ is already in my Top Ten Albums of 2010.  Like the band’s previous record, ‘Sound of Silver’, the influences are many, though in almost every song I’m reminded of Talking Heads’ ‘Remain in Light’, which just so happens to be in my Top Ten Albums of All Time.  Having said that, the stunning, feedback-drenched ‘All I Want’ sounds suspiciously like a mash-up of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ and any Strokes song you care to mention, just infinitely better.  While it’s true that there aren’t as many highs as on ‘Sound of Silver’, this is a more minimal record, and it’s one that deserves – and rewards – close listening, because there’s more than one devil in the detail here.  And it’s all so very, very New York that I almost feel like going out to graffiti something just for the heck of it.  Apparently James Murphy, LCD Soundsystem’s key protagonist, has said that this is the last outing for this particular musical incarnation.  If this is true, good on him for bowing out while completely on top of his game.

David Malouf in his Sydney Morning Herald article goes on to say the following: One of the opportunities art offers us is simply to stand still for a moment and look, or to sit still and listen; the pleasure of being firmly present while the ego goes absent and our consciousness is fired with something other than ourselves.  For some reason, losing ourselves in this way is a form of self-discovery.  Going passive and absent energises us, gives us a renewed sense of presence. Whether you want to sit still and be swept away or dance like a complete idiot without a care in the world (I can flit between the two with remarkable ease, I should admit), being fully present in the company of these three albums could make you very happy to be living on this planet in the year 2010.

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If you’re interested in reading the full Malouf article, it can be found here.

PART 1: THE iPad

Not a bookshelf but a machine

So Steve Jobs from the Apple corporation has launched the iPad.  Good for him, is all I can say, though I can say something else, which is this: what a load of complete bollocks.  In covering this ridiculously hyped event my city’s local TV news bulletin took the angle that the iPad is the first great e-reader (no doubt they took this angle because per capita Canberra apparently reads more books than anywhere else in Australia).  And based on what can be found on Apple’s iPad website the angle is justified: beneath a picture of the gadget with an image of a bookshelf is this claim: ‘The iBooks app is a great new way to read and buy books.  Download the free app from the App store and buy everything from classics to best-sellers from the built-in iBookstore.  Once you’ve bought a book, it’s displayed on your Bookshelf.  Just tap it to start reading.’ A couple of things with this quote: one, Apple’s habit of referring to ‘app’ is damn annoying; two, the capitalised ‘B’ in iBookstore and Bookshelf, as if they now own the word ‘book’.

Being someone who loves to read, in fact a day doesn’t end well without some fiction in my head, I took an interest in this claim.  Well, a kind of interest; actually I got pretty angry pretty fast.  This is just another ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ toy that does a million things that we could always do.  At the risk of sounding like the greatest Luddite still walking the earth, the book – and by that I mean the thing with paper pages between cardboard covers – is a perfect invention: it does exactly what’s required of it.  The cover tells you what’s inside (to a certain degree anyway), and the pages take you on a journey.

Writing, especially fiction, is magic and this to me is the appeal of the book: how can this thing, which essentially is nothing more than ink on bits of flattened tree, take me on such a journey?  How is it that I end up caring about the characters when it’s all just tricks and lies on paper?  How is it that sometimes I’m so moved I have to go for a long, long walk to recover?  And then there’s the actual physical action of reading: the stillness.  You sit up in bed or lie on a couch or sun-lounge and you’re motionless (and absorbed) as this thing in your hands transports you to a completely different place and often a completely different time.  It really is magic.  But stories are complex, and story-making is complex (I reckon it’s the hardest thing), and there’s something wonderful when this complexity is presented in the simplest way imaginable.

Books don’t need extra buttons, they don’t need batteries.  In the scheme of things books aren’t burdensome to carry.  And if you’re going very far it’s rarely a hassle to pack a number of story companions.

Some Kindle thing

Despite what Apple and the other corporations in this e-reader racket want us to believe, there’s simply no way to improve on the design of the book.

Many compare what’s happening to reading books to what has been happening to listening to music over the last decade or so, but these contexts are totally different.  Personally, the ultimate way to listen to a great album – say, Remain in Light by Talking Heads, or The Queen is Dead by The Smiths, or Silent Shout by The Knife – is on vinyl, in my loungeroom, and most likely with a cheeky vodka somewhere very close by.  (And before you think I’m some crusty old audiophile I only bought my record player a couple of years ago.)  On vinyl, music is big, dynamic, multidimensional, warm, and, dare I say it, human.  But, as much as I love listening to music in this way, it’s a bit hard to strap onto my back the record player, the amp, the pre-amp and four speakers when I go for a walk with the dog.  So I have a nifty little mp3 player, not an iPod mind you, just your humble, no-brand-worth-mentioning mp3 player.  It’s tiny, much smaller than the Walkman, and it doesn’t skip like my old Discman used to do.  Plus I can load up a number of albums, so if I’m not in the mood for one band I can easily swap over to another, or even switch to a homemade best-of, like the personal Portishead mix  I’ve been listening to for the last few months (all songs burnt, might I add, off the CDs I own).  So in this context technology has made music transportable as well as, to a certain extent, self-managed.

But reading is a different kettle of fish.  You have to commit to a book, particularly a novel.  I choose a novel based on where I’m going and for how long I’ll be there; often I choose a novel to reflect what’s happening in my life – being a slow reader I know that I’ll be investing days if not weeks in a book.  For example, in November last year the partner and I went to Vanuatu (for a wedding, of all things) and I specifically chose Geraldine Brook’s People of the Book because it would be a big read, a complex read, and I needed this space and time to lose myself in the work (and lose myself I did – it’s a terrific story and an extraordinary piece of imagination).  What’s more, I read this novel in airport lounges, in planes, beside lagoons, beside the resort pool, in the resort gardens, in our room.  And this invention, the book, performed perfectly – it did exactly what I asked of it, no more, no less.  And the book will continue to perform perfectly; it will continue to do exactly what’s asked of it, no more or less.

What irks me the most about the iPad is that it is so obviously consumer manipulation – in terms of the e-reader function at least, it is saying this will be better for you, more convenient, when it so clearly won’t be either of these things.  If anyone can tell me what I’m missing, do share, but until then I – along with quite a few others, I’m relieved to report – say this: Gutenberg got the book right, let’s leave reading there.

PART 2: JD SALINGER

Interesting that in the same week the Apple corporation launched it’s iPad thing, one of the twentieth-century’s greatest writers JD Salinger died, on 27 January.  And he was one of the twentieth-century’s greatest writers because of just one book, The Catcher in the Rye. I’d not read the book until last year (rather embarrassing I know, especially when I, like the book’s protagonist Holden Caulfield, was private-school educated and didn’t do that well in that particular environment).  But it did have an impact on me: one mighty, memorable character, someone with attitude as well as flaws, someone who wanted to buck up against the context in which he’d been placed, which is a trait we never fail to admire.  Combined with this, the narration is aimed squarely at the reader; it’s a surprisingly intimate reading experience.

But what I’ve always found fascinating about Salinger as a writer is that he wrote nothing else of significance and spent much of his life a recluse, refusing to correspond with journalists or even fans.  Such mystery.  Was Salinger a flash in the pan, did he just have an amazing stroke of luck?  Was he not brave enough to start or finish another book?  Did he fear failure (reports suggest he certainly was very sensitive to criticism, but then again most artists are)?  Did he write other manuscripts and were they just as good if not better but simply refused for the manuscripts to be made public?  How tantalising if this is the case.  Or did he just lose himself in his own legend?  Was the mystique manufactured to keep himself in the front of the public’s mind because he had no new stories to do this for him?

Harper Lee of To Kill A Mockingbird fame is similar in that she too only ever wrote one great book.  Perhaps once a writer has created something as perfect as Catcher or Mockingbird there’s no chance of topping it so you might as well quit while you’re ahead.  Or it could be because the writer has put every fibre of their being into their creation that there’s nothing left to create something else.  We’ll never know – Salinger has taken his motivations not to publish again to his grave, and it’s highly likely that Harper Lee will do the same.  But there’s something appealing in the way these great writers have approached their careers – it could be said they just gave up after creating one great thing.  This ability to give up, of course, is assisted by stratospheric sales of their works – Catcher was still selling 200,000 copies per year and publishers claim that to date Mockingbird has sold 30,000,000 copies worldwide – but the fact that these writers ended up resting for the remainder of their lives seems to make us revere them even more.

Perhaps these books were miracles?  I’m just so glad I have both in my library, on the bookshelf invisibly marked In The Event Of An Emergency Do All You Can To Rescue These Puppies.

With all confidence I can report to you that I’ll never have The Catcher in the Rye (or To Kill a Mockingbird) stored on the hard-disk of some bogus iPad contraption.  It will always have a physical presence in my house.

Because books reinforce my soul.

Computers might make my life easier – including being able to post these words on this blog – but they can never reinforce my soul.

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