Last December marked the end of my long-running “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” and “Adventures in Music Acquisition” posts. I don’t miss them but I realize now that I made some musical and literary discoveries in January that I’d really like to tell somebody about. Maybe you. So I’ve decided to start a new series of posts that I’m going to call “The Month in Music & Books”. It’s basically my two old series mashed up into one monthly post, but with more of an emphasis on the highlights and less of an emphasis on saying mean things about the stuff I hated.
To give you an idea what I’m talking about, this first post is going to feature half of the books I read in January and about 20% of the music I got. No more standing on a ladder to get it all in the picture.
The two records with geometric patterns on the covers are the first releases by Lightning in a Twilight Hour, the latest band featuring one of my favorite songwriters, Bobby Wratten. As you may know, he was the guy responsible for the Field Mice, Northern Picture Library, the Occasional Keepers, and Trembling Blue Stars. I loved all those bands and was quite sad when the most recent of them, Trembling Blue Stars, called it quits back in 2010. I didn’t hear anything about Bobby Wratten for years and thought he might’ve retired. Then I recognized his voice on an Elefant Records sampler late last year. I dug a little deeper and learned he’d managed to sneak two releases by me in 2015. Before I knew it, I was $40 poorer. Vinyl sure is expensive.
The CD with the flowers on it is the full-length debut from Tiny Fireflies, a band out of Chicago that formed when the woman from Tiny Microphone got together with the guy from Fireflies. I guess the naming formula went something like this: Tiny Microphone + Fireflies – Microphone = Tiny Fireflies. I wonder what they did with the microphone. Regardless, it’s gentle indie pop that’s pretty much been my soundtrack for January.
The book up at the top right is The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. It’s a non-fiction book that tells the story of the Chicago World’s Fair held in 1893. Much of the book is about the people who planned and built the fair and the issues they dealt with to successfully pull it off. Embedded in and around that primary story is a secondary one about the serial killer who built a hotel a few blocks from the fairgrounds and used it to lure his many victims. I don’t usually read much non-fiction, but I’d had my eye on this one for much of the last decade and finally decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did. Both stories were interesting and the author did a great job of knowing when to switch from one to the other. I’m also happy to say that the serial killer side of things never got too lurid, which can potentially happen with true crime stories.
(Let’s go over to the bottom left now.)
There aren’t many musicians who are interesting enough to merit a 670 page autobiography, and I wasn’t sure Elvis Costello was one of them when I bought his Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. Well, it turns out he is. Although it took me three months to read, I thought this was one of the best musical biographies I’ve ever read. It’s right up there with that crazy book Ray Davies wrote back in the 90s. Elvis tosses chronology out the window and jumps all over the place, but his stories are compelling whether he’s talking about his childhood, recording with Chet Baker, or throwing records out the back of a flatbed truck in a sad attempt to get some publicity in Tokyo. My favorite part, though, was when he called smart phones “pocket oracles”. I only mention it here because I’d like to remember that term. Oh, and I also liked the Desmond Dekker story.
The best novel I read in January was Jane Gardam’s Old Filth. It’s the first book in a trilogy about a retired lawyer and judge who returns to England after spending his career in Asia. (FILTH stands for Failed In London Try Hong Kong. As Beth mentioned, why isn’t it FILTHK?) I decided to try this series after reading and enjoying the author’s The Hollow Land last year. I don’t have much to say about Old Filth as it doesn’t really feel like I’ve finished it yet. It felt more like the first part of a larger book than a stand-alone novel. Normally that kind of thing annoys me–getting to the end of a book and realizing I have to buy another one–but I find that I’m excited to get my hands on The Man in the Wooden Hat. That’s the best thing I can say about Old Filth: it made me want to find out what happens next.
The next two CDs are five-song EPs by the singer from the Decemberists. The first one is Colin Meloy Sings Sam Cooke while the one beneath it is Colin Meloy Sings the Kinks. I found the Sam Cooke one at Everybody’s Records for $3.99 and bought it because I used to really like Sam Cooke and because I thought the cover art was charming. I was investigating my find later on and learned that there are three other EPs in the series. The first two are out-of-print, but the fourth one was still being sold on the Decemberists’ website. I immediately bought it when I saw it was the Kinks and featured cover art that was even more charming than the Sam Cooke art. Zoom in on those cartoon Kinks…they’re great. Oh, and all ten songs across the two CDs are very well chosen and performed. Even “Harry Rag”, which I’ve never cared for. I can never remember what it means. Is it doobies?
The last thing I’d like to share in this post is the LP at the bottom right, Listen to Formation, Look For the Signs. It’s the debut record by a singer from New Zealand named Nadia Reid. I read a review in a recent issue of Mojo and knew I had to investigate. I’m not usually a fan of listening to sound samples, but I went over to Bandcamp and previewed a couple songs. I liked what I heard and ordered the LP. I don’t know how to describe the music despite the fact that it reminds me of a lot of other stuff I’ve heard. I guess Listen to Formation is essentially an acoustic folk record, but there are a couple songs that get a bit loud. I wanted to skip to the quiet ones at first, but now I find that I look forward to that occasional burst of electric guitar. Either way, it’s a great album all the way through, and one that somehow gets better with each new listen.
Well, that’s all I have this month. Check down below to hear some of the stuff I rambled on about.
- Download a free Lightning in a Twilight Hour song from Elefant Records.
- Download a free Tiny Fireflies EP from the group’s Bandcamp page. This three-song EP includes a lovely version of the Skeeter Davis song “The End of the World”.
- Last but not least, have a listen to Nadia Reid’s record. Or buy the LP here.