Book review: The Crane Wife - Patrick Ness

The Crane Wife begins with the protagonist, George, waking in the middle of the night and finding a crane in his garden. The crane has an arrow sticking through one of its wings, so George helpfully removes it. The next day a woman named Kumiko enters his print shop. They hit it off and soon start collaborating artistically using George’s paper cuttings, something he considered a mere hobby up until this point, combining them with feather collages made by Kumiko. Unexpectedly, they cause a buzz in the art world and soon start receiving extravagant bids for their works.

The Crane Wife is a loose interpretation of a Japanese myth. The narrative of the book follows George and his relationship with the ever mysterious Kumiko, as well as his always angry daughter Amanda, interspersed with a mythical narrative involving a crane and volcano struggling against their relationship.

And that’s the man pin of this novel – relationships. Both romantic and platonic/familial. George himself is, as the novel never hesitates from telling us, is a nice guy – too nice. He has had a number of relationships, but they have all ended because of his niceness – it turns out to not be enough. But he is still close friends with his ex-wife (Amanda’s mother) and inspires loyalty in his friends. His relationship with his daughter is explored, as well as her relationship with her ex-husband, ended because of her anger issues.

It is an engaging read. I found myself intrigued by Kumiko’s character, despite there being no big surprises with it, and the relationships between the different characters were interesting, and I did walk into work five minutes late rather than stop halfway through the climax. But it is not a great book. The problem lies in the style of narrative. Ness has tried to present a narrative set in the present day with a kind of mundane magic realism. This could work if the characters were fleshed out more, but the characters are in some ways two dimensional - similar to those in mythological stories. George’s main thing is that he’s nice and it holds him back. Angela is angry. Her colleague Rachel puts on a persona to fit in with people’s expectations. And is very annoying (she speaks in questions? Like this? Which is meant to be annoying? But it really is? And makes you want to throw the book across the room?). Kumiko is mostly symbolic and there to drive the narrative and provoke the other characters’ realisations. Ness mainly focuses on a main trait for all of the characters, not rounding them out much further. This means that they don’t convince as people and fail to get under the readers skin.

Because of this, the book becomes lost somewhere between myth and a straightforward contemporary novel. It’s an enjoyable read, and I found it thought provoking, but it never really manages to sink its teeth in – something that has never been an issue with Ness’ other books.

3/5.

Live review: The Knife – Roundhouse, London, 9th May 2013

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The Knife’s current shows were highly anticipated – they have only toured once before seven years ago, the year their previous album (Silent Shout) was released, so tickets sold out sharpish. It’s fair to say that judging by the Silent Shout tour, and gigs by Karin Dreijer Andersson’s Fever Ray project, their fans were expecting that they would be seeing the duo of Dreijer Andersson and her brother Olof Dreijer performing the songs live on stage, probably with some outlandish get up on and interesting visuals. Well, they got the latter parts, but not the former.

The title of the new record is an indicator of how the gig would be – Shaking the Habitual. After a support act involving ‘deep aerobics’ (a man in a silver wig pumping up the crowd), the wayward rumblings of A Cherry on Top fill the Roundhouse and a whole troupe of people walk on stage. It’s not easy to discern which of them are the two siblings that make up The Knife. There are strange instruments dotted around the stage, which are struck and plucked – but they’re just being mimed for visual effect. This is more engaging than anticipated. Who would have imagined that strange squealing sound as coming out of a wind instrument? It’s like watching a band of musicians playing odd futuristic instruments in a sci-fi film. Soon after, the instruments are wheeled off stage, and the rest of the set is mostly dancing and lights, with the performers careening around the stage and taking turns to mime the songs, finishing with an amazing light show for Silent Shout.

The shows on this tour have annoyed a lot of people. Mainly because they were hoping for a more traditional gig, with musicians playing instruments, prodding sampler pads and fiddling with laptops, and they didn’t get it. But the disappointment is hard to understand – The Knife have always done things differently and when musicians known to be subversive release an album entitled Shaking the Habitual… what would you expect?

But did it work? Well, it was certainly fun. The dancing was amateurish, and there were few particularly surprising moments when it got going. When the dancers stood stock still for the greater part of Full of Fire, it would have been unusual not to imagine that they would suddenly break into a full on freak out. And when they did, it was slightly faltering and clumsy. If the dancing was more professional it would have made a more convincing visual spectacle. Alternatively, maybe I would have minded less if I had a standing ticket (I was seated) and it was a Saturday night rather than midweek, so I could get into the spirit of things and start dancing myself.

It was entertaining and different enough that it didn’t occur to me to walk out as some people did, and it made me question what I expect from a live gig. The Knife have asked themselves how to present their music, which is not the easiest to translate from the studio to live performance, and made something that, while it isn’t completely successful, is exciting, engaging and has got people talking. Never a bad thing. So I’m happy for The Knife to continue on their weird way, and let’s hope they keep making incredible music whilst they’re about it.

7/10

Hey, Who Sunk My Battleship?

A weekly track review.

This week Vampire Weekend are sinking my battleship with Ya Hey

Ahhh, the song comes in like a warm hug and it feels like someone has told Vampire Weekend to take it easy and slow down. It doesn’t sound like you would expect from a song called Ya Hey (possibly because my brain immediately tried to rearrange it to Hey Ya?). Soon it appears that someone is playing a SNES RPG in the back ground. Oh, and now it appears that the Chipmunks are making a cameo on backing vocals, without even being too annoying.  And here’s a cheesy spoken word bit which comes, bizarrely, close to lifting from James Joyce (Ya Hey – ‘My soul swooned as I faintly heard the sound of you spinning “Israelites”’, James Joyce, from The Dead, - ‘His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe’).  I haven’t dwelt too much on the lyrics, but there’s a strong sense of conflict with religion. It doesn’t spell anything out, provoking the listener to question rather than providing him or her with answers. Which is how it should be. A solid 4/5.

Hey, Who Sunk My Battleship?

A track review.

Today Dark Bells are sinking my battleship with Wildflower

Bardo Pond and early Smashing Pumpkins have had a baby, and here it is – Wildflower by Dark Bells. I thought this was going to be a purely instrumental psych jam until the shoe gaze-y vocals make a brief entrance after a couple of minutes before disappearing off again for most of the song and then wandering back for the end (note, I was listening the 6 minute version on Spotify – vocals are a lot more prominent in the video version above). It’s competent stuff, but pans out as you’d expect from the start without any surprises. Noodly guitars build up until the whole band breaks out into a rocky groove and play with their pedals. They slow it down and go quiet for a bit, almost stopping and then… woosh, they crank the volume and wake up for the grand finale.  The bass sits oddly in the song. It’s a pretty standard bass line, which would be fine if it had a bit of grit to mesh it with the rest of the sound and make the whole song a bit more muscular. But for the main part, it sounds too clean with a little bit of studio reverb slapped on, sticking out like a sore thumb. It’s a nice enough song, but it mostly makes me want to dig out my Bardo Pond records. 2/5

Hey, Who Sunk My Battleship?

A, ahem, weekly track review.

This week Haim are sinking my battleship with Don’t Save Me

Don’t Save Me. Fine, I won’t. Haim probably won’t need much saving – they’re the BBC’s “Sound of 2013”. Judging by Don’t Save Me, the sound of 2013 is the sound of the 1980s. It’s a pretty decent slice of pop that’s pleasing enough on the ears. It could easily be the soundtrack to the emotional climax montage of a rom-com at that moment where everything has fallen apart and we have to pretend that we don’t know that the main characters will get over their issues and work it all out in the end.

3/5

Hey, Who Sunk My Battleship?

A weekly track review.

This week Joyland are sinking my battleship with Bella the Butcher

This song is like an incoming text-message from the past via outer space. Gary Numan is clinging on to the back of it and trying to shake off Billy Corgan, who has a firm grip on his trouser leg. There’s a bit of a You Forgot it in People era Broken Social Scene vibe to the chorus. Overall it reminds me of reading Kerrang in the 90s when I was about 13. It’s not actually that bad. The video is bloody awful though. 3/5

Hey, Who Sunk My Battleship?

A weekly track review.

This week Standard Fare are sinking my battleship with Crystal Palatial

This band will indie your face off. Standard Fare favour a ramshackle guitar, bass & drum set up with half-arsed ‘you’re-lucky-I-got-out-of-bed’ vocals. They probably spend at least a few minutes of every rehearsal checking with each other whether it’s still the 90s or not, and what does that matter anyway. The lyrics are pretty twee – “We sat by a bridge and shared a cigarette/Smoking’s bad/She put her hat on my head”. The chorus consists of ‘crystal palatial’ being sung repeatedly – presumably because they thought it sounds vaguely interesting rather than there being any particular meaning behind it. Although they sound like they should be playing in a grotty pub two decades ago, some of the lyrics made me laugh (albeit unintentionally) and it rollicks about the place in a fun enough way. 2.5/5

Hey, Who Sunk My Battleship?

A weekly track review.

This week Efterklang are sinking my battleship with Hollow Mountain

Impressed. Interesting arrangements, percussive wanderings, choir/horn sounds, strings and synths stroll around each other, and then the bass gets its groove on. There’s about two or three songs inhabiting Hollow Mountain and I could hear echoes of the likes of the Beta Band (in the ‘do it, do it’ chanting particularly), The Knife, Vespertine era Björk and Curtis Mayfield. It’s a song that is already trying to rearrange parts of your brain on first listen and leaves you wanting to immediately go around for another ride. Which is what I’m going to do. 4/5.

Hey, Who Sunk My Battleship?

A weekly track review.

This week Straight Lines are sinking my battleship with Ring the Bells

This is a competent slice of 90s sounding indie rock/emo. The intro bursts in with some tunefulness straight away, confidently letting you know that it’s not going to mess about – this is a tightly packaged pop song. There are some nice melodic guitar sounds in parts, but it’s all let down by the “ring the bells/the boys are coming home” latter-day Green Day-lite chorus. Checking out Straight Lines’ background details, I was surprised that to learn that they are from Pontypridd, as they sound like American teens sound tracking an episode of One Tree Hill. Overall it’s inoffensive and has some nice bits. If the chorus was more interesting, maybe they would have got me on my way to Camden Market to look for a black hoodie. 3/5

Introducing - Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci

Supposedly named after a pun on ‘dimwit reproductive monkey’, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci were formed in their native Wales by a 15 year old Euros Childs (vocals/keyboard), his friends John Lawrence (vocals/guitar), Richard James (bass) and sister Megan Childs (violin). They ran from 1991 up until 2006, releasing a string of albums and a number of almost hits.

Always psychedelic and eclectic, their sound veered between pop and folk throughout their career, with early off the wall albums influenced by the likes of Kevin Ayers and Soft Machine, and later albums settling further towards the folky side of things.

Barafundle, which straddles the line between oddball pop and more pastoral eccentricities is probably the best all round introduction to their music. Released in 1997 when the band were in their early twenties, it is full of youthful experimentation, a whole host of different musical instruments (including the medieval shawm and a hurdy gurdy) and is one of those albums with a special atmosphere of endless possibility and other worldliness. Seeing them as an impressionable 14 year old performing the absurdly buoyant multilingual “Patio Song” on Later with Jools Holland led me on an obsessive journey as I followed the rest of their career.

The start of the album bursts out with the merry “Diamond Dew” singing of the world waking up, coming home from school and houses by the sea, but with an undercurrent that all is not quite chirpy or innocent as it seems – “there’s evil in his eyes as the child disobeys”. Throughout the album’s 16 tracks there are spiky tales of voyeurs on the beach (“The Barafundle Bumbler”), young love and boating on “Patio Song”, innocence lost on the wonderful “Heywood Lane”(‘Aunty Nancy and Uncle Clifford/let me see the way you differ’), mad school teachers (“Meirion Wylit”), wizards and lizards (er, “The Wizard and the Lizard”) amongst songs filled with a heartfelt and beautiful melancholy that hint towards their later work in “Better Rooms”, “Sometimes the Father is the Son” and the hopelessly romantic album closer “Wordless Song”.

If Barafundle leaves you hungering for more, head towards the superb Spanish Dance Troupe (1999) and The Blue Trees (2000) for more of their folky leanings, and towards the fun and bizarre worlds of Bwyd Time (1995) and Tatay (1994) for their more adventurous side (which is the route I’d recommend first, personally – you can also add the compilation 20 (Singles and EPs 1994-1996) to the list). If you find yourself having delved into their entire back catalogue and are still not sated, Euros Childs is now an absurdly prolific solo artist and performer – as a bonus, his last few albums are available on a pay-as-much-as-you-like basis from his website. There have also been some fine records released by John Lawrence (under his own name and as Infinity Chimps) and Richard James that are well worth checking out.

Spotify link: Barafundle

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