Mercury Prize: Florence and the Machine – Lungs

Video: ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’

I’m aiming to go through the Mercury shortlist in something approaching alphabetical order; and it’s interesting to be covering the album of Londoner Florence Welch straight after Bat for Lashes, because the two are in some ways the flipside of each other. Both have a kind of fairytale vibe running through their music; but if Natasha Khan’s work is ethereal and delicate, Florence and the Machine‘s is quite the opposite.

Lungs is a pretty appropriate album title, because Florence has a very powerful voice; unfortunately, she hasn’t yet figured out how to use it to best effect. Her songs build and build – but sometimes build too much, and it’s a fine line to tread. When she gets it right, the results are fabulous, as on ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’, which captures the epic atmosphere I think Florence is aiming for most of the time. Or ‘Between Two Lungs’, which is about as close as the album gets to a ballad, and has a similar widescreen feel, but more held in.

The problem, though, is that Florence has a tendency to overdo it. So we get songs like the swing-style ‘Girl With One Eye’, which is oversung to the extent that it’s quite a trial to listen to; or ‘Kiss With a Fist’, which cranks up the noise in an attempt at straightforward punk-pop but ends up sounding pretty drab compared to the rest of the album. In sum, Lungs is promising, but it could have done with more subtlelty.

Video: ‘Dog Days Are Over’ (live)

Read my other Mercury Prize 2009 posts here.

Difficult Questions: Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan (2008)

(WARNING: This review contains discussion of adult concepts. Judge for yourself whether you wish to continue reading.)

There has been something of a stir about Tender Morsels in the British press recently (in the Observer and the Daily Express and the Daily Mail), mainly over the sexual content of what has been perceived to be a children’s book. First of all, let’s clear up some misconceptions: Tender Morsels is not a book for children — it is addressed to adults (be they old or young), and expects its readers to reflect on uncomfortable issues. Furthermore, though the book does include many harrowing events, it treats them far less frivolously than these write-ups suggest . But, in a way, it’s apposite that these issues should be raised; because one of the central themes of Tender Morsels is how far we should shield children from ‘difficult’ issues.

Margo Lanagan’s latest novel is an interpretation of the tale of Snow White and Rose Red, and unflinching from the very start. As a teenage girl, Liga gives birth to two daughters, one the result of sexual abuse by her father (who is  subsequently killed), the other of a gang-rape committed by boys from the village (these are depicted obliquely — the latter taking place entirely ‘off stage’ — yet not in a way that skirts around them; later harrowing scenes may be less oblique, but are still not treated lightly). Unable to face life in a world that has done all this to her, Liga prepares to throw herself from a cliff; but is rescued by some magical agency that transports her to the world of her heart’s desire — a world much like her own, but idyllic. There she raises her daughters: Branza, fair and calm; and Urdda, wild and dark.

However, others eventually find their way into this dream-world: first a dwarf, who finds that he can turn things there into precious gems and metals; then a young man, dressed in a bear costume for a festival in his village, who turns into a real bear in Liga’s world. And the traffic is not all one-way. Urdda, having known only Liga’s heaven, stumbles into the real world and finds it much more to her liking. Ten years pass in the dream-world, and one in the real, before Urdda finds a way to bring her mother and Branza through; how will they cope in reality, with all its complicated, messy realness?

Before I get into the issues, let me say that Tender Morsels is a beautifully written book. For example, this, narrated by the boy-turned-bear:

From [Liga] and around her were all the smells of warmth, of home, of women. Fire and food, cloth and cleanliness. In my own house — my father’s house, but only me and Aran in it — no matter how I swept and scrubbed, all it smelled of was grief yet. I did not know what to do with it to make it a home again.

Lanagan is skilled evoking joy, mystery, and profound horror, all within the same narrative voice. And it’s a voice that feels right for telling fairytales (her first-person narrators ring similarly true) — because Tender Morsels is still a fairytale in many ways: magic causes trouble; wishes have drawbacks; those who do wrong are punished; there is a happy ending (though it’s not a neat one), and a strong moral heart.

What is the message of this story? It’s about facing reality head-on: Liga comes to realise that. by raising her daughters in her heaven-world — by trying to conceal the real world from them — she has deprived them of the opportunity to truly live. Life in the real world may be uncertain and dangerous, but it’s where people belong. (Lanagan labours this idea a little too much, but not so much that it disrupts her story.)

Does this mean, then, that the author is saying that sexual violence is everywhere, that it’s just a fact of life? I don’t think Lanagan’s message is that bleak, though it is honest and complex, and not necessarily comforting. I’ll explain my reasoning.

First, Lanagan stylises even the ‘real’ world of her novel: no hints of political structures, for example — no sense that this world would function as an actual place; therefore, I think she’s not saying that this is how reality is, but using sexual danger as a metaphor for danger in general. (Why sex? Perhaps because it’s an aspect of pre-industrial European societies that was there, but which we don’t often include when we think of them. I should also add, in case I’ve given the wrong impression, that Lanagan does include some positive portrayals of sex — it’s not always violent and brutal in the world of Tender Morsels.)

Even if we’re talking in generalities, then, does that mean the book is saying that children should just face up to the bad things in the world? Not necessarily — finding out the truth doesn’t automatically make life much easier for Lanagan’s characters; and Tender Morsels acknowledges the argument in favour of Liga’s raising her daughters in the dream-world: she was protecting them — what’s wrong with a mother wanting to do that? So I don’t think Lanagan is saying we should race to discover the many distressing aspects of life — just that we shouldn’t try to pretend they don’t exist.

It seems to me that a key issue behind the three articles I linked to above (and this related one from the Guardian books blog yesterday) is about trying to have some control over the manner in which children learn about ‘difficult’ issues. I don’t think it’s unreasonable per se to want to do that; I do think it’s unreasonable to expect books automatically to be a space conducive to that aim.

As for Tender Morsels, it’s a wonderful piece of writing that leaves one thinking deeply about the issues it raises. But it’s not for children.

Mercury Prize: Bat for Lashes – Two Suns

Video: ‘Pearl’s Dream’

Bat for Lashes is Brighton’s Natasha Khan, whose first album was nominated for the Mercury Prize back in 2007 (but didn’t win). I’ve often meant to give her music a proper listen; this marks the first time I have heard one of her albums in full. And… Khan has a beautiful voice that suits her style of music perfectly; Two Suns is epic, diverse, mysterious, full of texture – all these are things that I like in music. Yet the maddening question that kept niggling me as I listened to the album was: why am I not enjoying this more?

Well, the song on Two Suns that I keep returning to is the lead single, ’Daniel’. It’s an absolutely fantastic song that sounds as though it came from the playlist of a high-school disco in the Land of Faerie – and knowing that it’s about the Karate Kid reduces its power not one bit. But it also sticks out like a sore thumb for me, because even after several listens to the album, it’s the only song on there that really stays in my mind properly.

Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t mean to say that the rest of Two Suns is forgettable, or leaves no impression – on the contrary, the album as a whole leaves a very strong (and favourable) impression. But the music I love best gets into my mind and stays there, comes back to the surface every now and then to be hummed or sung along  to. Two Suns is great while I’m listening to it, but most of it doesn’t stick afterwards.

I am impressed with the diversity of the album; it covers a lot more bases than I expected it would. There are many great moments: the way that ‘Glass’ builds from a simple a cappella vocal to a thudding crescendo; and the soulful call-and-response of ‘Peace of Mind’, to name just two… I like Two Suns very much, but I don’t love it. And I very nearly loved it, which is what frustrates me all the more.

Video: ‘Sleep Alone’ – live

Read my other Mercury Prize 2009 posts here.

Mercury Prize 2009 shortlist

The Mercury Prize is upon us once again and, since I had such fun blogging the shortlist last year, I’m going to do it all again this year. The shortlist has been announced today; so, without further ado, here it is:

Bat for Lashes – Two Suns
Florence and the Machine – Lungs
Friendly Fires – Friendly Fires
Glasvegas – Glasvegas
The Horrors – Primary Colours
The Invisble – The Invisible
Kasabian – West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum
La Roux – La Roux
Led Bib – Sensible Shoes
Lisa Hannigan – Sea Sew
Speech Debelle – Speech Therapy
Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Twice Born Men

Now, that is an interesting list, not least because I don’t even know what half of it sounds like; actually, I’ve listened to precisely none of these albums all the way through.

Still, some initial observations:

There’s a distinct lack of any really big names, certainly more so than last year.

Historically, the Mercury shortlists (and winners) have been dominated by male acts; this year  the shortlist is almost  a fifty-fifty split between male and female, and the favourites to win are all female.

As for the nominees themselves: there have been quite a few hotly-tipped female acts to emerge this year; they’re represented here by La Roux and Florence and the Machine. I’ve yet to hear anything by either of them which is as good as Little Boots, but time will tell.

Of all the established ‘indie’ bands who released albums in the past year, I would not have anticipated that Kasabian would be the one to make it on to the shortlist, but that’s all part of the fun of the Mercury.

Friendly Fires and Glasvegas are both new ‘indie’ bands: I’ve heard a couple of songs by the former, which I quite liked; I know I’ve listened to the latter, but can’t remember what they’re like.

Bat for Lashes is the only one of this year’s shortlist to have been nominated previously. I’ve meant to listen to her album properly, and now I will get around to it — likewise Lisa Hannigan’s album.

The Horrors are on their second album; I’ve heard of them, but don’t know what they sound like.

The rest, I’d never even heard of until today. I gather that Speech Debelle is a female rapper, and Led Bib are a jazz act. I’m going to let the sound of The Invisible and Sweet Billy Pilgrim be a surprise.

Normally, I would not get into the game of ‘X should have nominated instead of Y’, because I don’t know the nominated albums and am in no position to judge things like that (yet). But there is one album I’ve heard this year that I thought could match up to The Seldom Seem Kid, and that’s Doves’ Kingdom of Rust (I meant to blog about it before now, and still plan to at some point). It’s a shame not to see that album in contention for the Mercury; but maybe there’s an album on the shortlist which is as good. I’m looking forward to finding out.

Moon

It’s a fine day to see a film called Moon, what with it being the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11. This is the début movie of dirctor Duncan Jones; was made on a relatively low budget ($2,500,000); is more intelligent than many a film of its type; and, in the end, falls frustratingly short of being great.

In the future, clean energy is abundant, thanks to the mining of lunar rocks. Sam Bell (played by Sam Rockwell) is the sole human crew member of an automated mining base. He’s on a three-year contract, but his live satellite link to Earth is down so the only company he has is the ship’s computer Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), and a few plants. One could forgive him for having a little cabin fever, and it’s perhaps no surprise that Sam starts to have hallucinations, even if he doesn’t like to admit it.

There are just two weeks of Sam’s tenure to go when disaster strikes. He’s out investigating a fault with one of the mining machines when he experiences another hallucination, causing him to crash his lunar rover. He wakes up in the base infirmary, a little worse for wear, but tests reveal that he’ll be back on his feet in a few days; till then, he has to stay indoors. But Sam is impatient to get back to work, especially with that same mining robot continuing to malfunction. He contrives a way to get Gerty to allow him outside, and goes back to the site of his accident — to find another buggy crashed there, with someone who looks very like him inside. Sam takes the man back to the base, and asks Gerty who he is…

We then cut to the infirmary, where a pasty-faced, injured Sam wakes up in bed while a healthy-looking Sam stands over him. From hereon in, there’s wonderful ambiguity as to who’s who: pasty Sam is the mysterious stranger rescued from the second LRV (isn’t he?), yet he says he’s been at the base for three years. What’s indisputable is that there are two Sams, but neither behaves in a way that makes immediate sense, given what has gone before; and Gerty seems remarkably unconcerned about this strange situation.

In fact, the computer appears to spill the beans willingly about halfway through the film; the rest of the movie fills in the gaps, in a roundabout way. This is where things get frustrating: it’s interesting to work out what’s going on; but, once you have, there’s not much that stays behind. Solving the puzzle closes off imaginative possibilities (compare with, say, Franklyn, which opens them up). And there are ethical issues which are touched on briefly, but never really dealt with.

On a more aesthetic level, it’s good enough. The budget shows, but not embarassingly so. Rockwell does well with his part(s), and one can sense Spacey recording his HAL-esque lines with relish. There are some nice touches, such as Sam sitting in an old wingback chair wearing his slippers while Gerty cuts his hair; and some that don’t work so well, such as there being nothing to watch on TV but stuff like Bewitched and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Sam having Chesney Hawkes as his alarm call (amusing, yes, but not very likely, I’d suggest).

So, Moon is a good movie — even a good science fiction movie — though not a great one. Still, it’s a good start to Jones’s film career, and he’s a director worth keeping an eye on.

The Duckworth Lewis Method – The Duckworth Lewis Method

Audio: ‘The Nightwatchman’

One of my favourite musicians is Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy. It’s been a while since he last released any new material, but it seems we can expect a couple of albums from him this year: a new Divine Comedy record later, and first this — a concept album about cricket, made with his friend Thomas Walsh (of a band called Pugwash, whom I know nothing about, but will have to look up, if the present album is anything to go by).

Of course, the concern with any album of this nature is that it’s going to be a novelty, or only of interest to fans of the subject matter. Well, there’s no danger of that with The Duckworth Lewis Method. Which is not to say that the album pays lip-service to being about cricket (some, though by no means all, of the songs go into minute detail about the sport), or that it lacks a sense of humour (it certainly doesn’t) — just that it was a made by a pair whose ears fro a good tune are clearly as great as their love of cricket.

What of the actual songs, then? They’re (perhaps surprisingly) quite a diverse bunch. There’s the terribly civilised ‘Gentlemen and Players’, about the Victorian game; and the tongue-twisting ‘Jiggery Pokery’, about Shane Warne in the 1993 Ashes. There’s ‘The Age of Revolution’, a funky number celebrating the spread of cricket around the world; and the gentle ballad ‘Flatten the Hay’, where Walsh recalls playing cricket in his childhood.

All in all, The Duckworth Lewis Method is a lovely set of songs that deserves a listen, whether you’re into cricket or not.

Video: ‘The Age of Revolution’ (live)

The Turing Test by Chris Beckett (2008)

4102ooW3sWL._SL160_AA115_Earlier this month, the winner was announced of the Edge Hill Prize for the Short Story. The shortlist included collections by a Booker Prize-winning author, and two former Booker nominees — and this Elastic Press book of science fiction stories by Chris Beckett. A classic case of tokenism, one might think — except that Beckett won.

‘It was…a bit of surprise to the judges, none of whom knew they were science fiction fans beforehand,’ commented one of the judging panel. Well, the obvious thing to say to that is that you don’t need to consider yourself a ‘science fiction fan’ to appreciate science fiction, any more than you have to be a ‘literary fiction fan’ to enjoy literary fiction (not, of course, that the two need be mutually exclusive). Readers interested in good fiction shouldn’t be surprised to find stories of interest in any given quarter — but apparently some still are.

Anyway, I don’t know the other books, but it’s not hard to see why the judges thought The Turing Test a winning book, because Beckett’s stories are superb. He’s especially good at examining human concerns against the background of a science-fictional future. The title story sums this up nicely. The ‘Turing test’ refers to a means of assessing whether an artificial intelligence is convincing enough in conversation to be indistinguishable from a human being. Our protagonist is a gallery owner named Jessica, who finds herself the recipient of a highly sophisticated ‘virtual PA’. Jessica is feeling rather insecure with life (one of her first acts is to ask the PA to change its avatar to something less attractive, and hence less threatening to her self-esteem), and the real question Beckett asks is not whether a computer could pass the Turing test, but whether a person could — perhaps Jessica’s greatest fear is that she could not.

The theme of artificial intelligence returns in ‘La Macchina’, where a man finds his ideas about robots challenged when he vists his brother in Italy. Robots are now commonplace, but they’re not supposed to talk to humans, except in superficial, rote ways — so when one tries to strike up a friendly conversation with our man, does that alone make it a ‘Rogue’ that could cause havoc, and hence needs to be destroyed? Then there’s the ‘Safe Brothel’ staffed by sinteticas made to look indistinguishable from human women — but sinteticas are more popular, so some human women pretend to be robots. What’s the protagonist to make of that? All adds up to a very different kind of robot story; the experience of reading it is distinctive.

The same could be said of many stories here; Beckett transforms SF staples with the ‘ordinary’ grounding he gives them. ‘Dark Eden’, for example, is a space opera where a small group of people travel to an exotic world — but the ups-and-downs of their relationships are not so different from ours. And ‘The Marriage of Sky and Sea’ puts yet another spin on the form with its tale of a spacefaring writer who makes a living from books about the cultures of more ‘primitive’  human colonies than his own — but his latest trip, to a Viking-style society, makes him question his attitude…

My favourite story in the book (which forms the first half of a pair) is about virtual reality, though with Beckett’s characteristic twist. ‘The Perimeter’ is set in a London where the vast majority of people are ‘consensuals’, living in a virtual world; and the more they can afford to pay, the higher their resolution. Only a few, very rich, individuals remain flesh and blood, inhabiting the ruined ‘real’ world, and able to experience the virtual reality through an implant. This story tells of how young consensual Lemmy meets the physical Clarissa Fall, and has his very sense of self challenged. But the tables are turned in ‘Piccadilly Circus’, where we meet Clarissa again a few years later, and she has to face up to her increasing irrelevance as a ‘physical’. To my mind, these stories — and ‘The Perimeter’ especially — have the best fusion of ideas and human consequences; but many of the other tales are almost as strong.

In his introduction to The Turing Test, Alastair Reynolds makes what has turned out to be a very appropriate comment: that he hopes the book will bring more attention to Chris Beckett’s fiction. He ends by saying, ‘I’m confident that you’ll finish The Turing Test wanting to turn more people on to this singularly underrated writer.’ So I’ll end by saying: yes. Yes, I do.