Understated Classics #28: The Meadowlands by The Wrens

One of the first lines of "The House That Guilt Built", the soft cricket-laden lament that opens The Meadowlands by The Wrens, is "I'm nowhere near where I thought I'd be". The last line of the whole album is "this is not what you had planned". These bookending lines set the tone for this shimmering, ramshackle masterpiece – a fatigue and careworn pride in failing to meet impossible standards writ large over its first and last eighty or so seconds. "The Meadowlands" is probably the best record you've never heard, and once you have heard it, you will never be the same. Even better, it changes and you change with every single listen. If you're living your life and you really mean it, then this is the record for you.

cover of the meadowlands by the wrensAnd what makes a masterpiece? Well for a rock album you want great songs that mean something and stand out as works of art. You need something recognisable and yet still fresh and distinctive. You need those songs to be sung with a voice that moves you, that you recognise as your own. And you need at least some of those songs to really rock out. On "The Meadowlands" The Wrens deliver all of this in spades. Take second song "Happy" which moves through about three movements in its five and half minute run time – from stoner groove to a pogoing riff, tracking the course of a relationship from doting courtship to bitter ever-after.

The next track "She Sends Kisses" is even better. It starts by picking through biographical detail over reedy sounding accordion before building in to a weary chorus, before doing the same over again. The striking feature of the song is how much the riffs and the counterpoint in the melodies do as much work for the song as the lyrics do, particularly in the gentle final minute or so.

Having hit upon the Beach Boys style vocal take offs for "This Boy Is Exhausted" another band might have really pushed idea but instead it's pushed to the margins and it's actually the beautiful walking bass line that provides the connecting tissue between verse and chorus that is the real jewel of the song. It's a great song that you can sing along to but if you listen closely you'll hear that it's immaculately constructed, almost built for that serotonin hit of totally understanding, but not quite being able to sing along to, the chorus.

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Could Yellow Be Oscar’s New Favourite Colour?

Given that Wes Anderson is *finally* up for a best director Oscar for The Grand Budapest Hotel, I thought it might be good to recall this post that I wrote a few years back digesting all his films so far on the premise that yellow might be his favourite colour. Well all of his films except for the Oscar-nominated The Grand Budapest Hotel. I’ve only seen it the once and loved it. I look forward to seeing it again. Nevertheless I think that Moonrise Kingdom should have received more awards and recognition, it’s a fine film. I’ll write an addendum to the yellow post at some point including more of my thoughts about The Grand Budapest Hotel. The Grand Budapest Hotel is much less yellow than his other films, but many of the other features I identify in my original post are present. Anyway, I’ll write about all of that later.

Hero image is “Oscar Statuettes” by prayitno on Flickr. No modifications have been made to this image. Creative commons license.

Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks

Cover of Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. BanksFeersum Endjinn is one of Iain Banks' few non-Culture sci-fi novels. Like the Culture novels, an existential crisis drives the plot: in this case the action takes place on Earth in the far future and the sun has aged to a point where it will grow and swallow the earth. This is referred to as the Encroachment. The characters are divided between the good guys who seek to find a solution for the greater good and bad guys who use the Encroachment to consolidate their power and influence.

While the experimental construction makes Feersum Endjinn feel like one of Banks' weaker novels, it also serves as a reminder that few authors write from multiple points of view as well as Banks did. In fact, the entire novel is a game of points of view. Each chapter is split between four factions representing different plot elements and character not only hop in and out of one another's heads, but they also meet different representations of themselves. One strand of the narrative is written as a stream of consciousness: ravver weerd spellin lik this iz yoosed, mayb Banx wus reedin erly drafs ov Tranespottin? As with my experience of reading Hawksmoor, it's surprising how quickly you adapt to it.

The other standout feature of Feersum Endjinn is the compelling setting of the Serehfa Fastness – an enormous building that houses an entire state. Once the base of a space elevator, it is now home to the humans who stayed behind after the rest left for the stars. It's never explicitly stated but going by the clan structures and feudal society described, you get the impression that society has regressed. Superstructures abound in the Culture novels written after Feersum Endjinn, though orbital habitats feature heavily in Consider Phlebas. The Fastness is perhaps the oddest and most compelling character in the novel. In fact, even in the Culture novels the only other superstructures that come close are the shell worlds so vividly described in Matter.

I think Feersum Endjinn would make for a decent film or mini-series. If it were made as a film, I'd try to compress each of its forty sections into roughly four minute pieces – though that would leave you with a near to three hour film that chops between four main strands which might be a bit difficult to follow. Certainly there's nothing in the novel that can't be rendered with CGI and there's enough intrigue and action for it to be exciting.

To conclude, Feersum Endjinn is an enjoyable and uncomplicated sci-fi novel. If the idea of that appeals and you're put off the Culture novels for whatever reason, you could do worse than give this one a go. For more thrills and spills try Against A Dark Background (Feersum Endjinn is the better novel overall though). However, the best of Banks' non-Culture novels is "The Algebraist" and I'll write about that in the near future.

Don’t just take my word for it, here are some additional reviews:

  1. Sing, Muses!
  2. Overwatering
  3. sff.net
  4. Challenging Destiny

Hero image is by Tonio Loewold – a page from the book, it shows one of the stream of consciousness sections.

Happy New Year For 2015!

Just a brief message to wish everyone a happy new year for 2015! I’m still having difficulties getting my flat connected to the internet so it's still not as easy to post as I would like. However, I have some workarounds now1 and I hope to write (and post) more often from now on.

Like everyone I make resolutions at this time of year, though as the years pass I realise that the best resolutions are to adopt a new way of being rather than a new way of doing. I find it quite difficult to "change" myself by willpower alone. I think this is true of most people. Travelling taught me that it's better to evolve. I just do one little thing differently and then try to notice the benefits as they accrue. As you become aware of how you are changing it gets easier and you can shift your focus to doing another little thing a bit differently, a bit better. At least that's the theory.

Then of course, there's the arbitrariness of the date. Why January 1? Why not June 17? At least if you were to pledge to run more on June 17 it would (probably) be better weather for it. Sure if you can adopt better habits now while it is cold and the days are short2 then more power to you, but I find I am more likely to fail if I make things tough for myself.

So I've set a reminder on my phone to sort out my "new year's" resolutions on June 17. Feel free to join me. It's for the big stuff, the really big changes: the weights, the runs, the (shudder!) vegan diet. It's arbitrary mind you – I haven't even checked whether it falls on a friend's birthday yet (awkward!) – and subject to change at short notice. In the mean time, I'll just try to change a bit at a time – starting by showing my face on here more often.

Let me finish by wishing you a happy and prosperous new year. Whatever your ambitions and dreams are, I hope you are closing to achieving them by the end of this year. Good luck!

Hero image is “Häppy New Year from San Francisco!” by Peter Theony. Found on Flickr and subject to a creative commons license. I didn’t change the picture at all because it is already great!

  1. Well, I still need an idea for how I am going to post on a Sunday – might just be a picture or two shunted out using the mobile app or Pressgram.
  2. Apologies for the northern hemispherical focus here!

On conviction, whereas to the strength of and belief in the same

Overlong reflection upon the past is one sure way to make yourself unhappy so I try to avoid it. Nevertheless it becomes unavoidable at this time of year, especially if, like me, you are somewhat prone to reflection.

At this time last year I was, as detailed in the most recent report of my South American adventure, in La Paz, Bolivia. I think I felt as lost then as I do now, though back then I had the novelty of new places and good friends to steer me through. This year I find myself stuck in an expensive flat that I can hardly afford to heat in a city where I hardly know anyone: it seems ridiculous that I had more people around me in La Paz than I do here but there you go.

Reflecting on all this made me think about this feeling of being lost – I certainly wasn't sure of my place going into 2014, or 2013, or for many of the years before that. And I realised that you often feel lost if you do not (or are not able to) live your life with complete conviction at any given moment.

This was the problem that I had before I went away. On the trip I was able to say "I'm travelling now, this is what I do". I didn't have to feel like I was good at it in order to be happy doing it (most of the time I did not have a clue), but at least – over all that unknown terrain ironically enough – I knew what I was doing, that there was an itinerary, a course. I was less sure of what might come after the tour, but Bolivia was barely the end of the beginning so I didn't have to worry too much.

And going in to 2015? I feel like a lack of conviction has returned to my life. My current path is one of necessity rather than invention and I feel uncertain. Every wobble of the household and every sigh of boredom feels like a return to square one. I can't mourn a life I didn't want nor regret my rejection of the same, but I can wonder whether this is the best alternative.

It comes back to conviction. A driver of happiness is the belief that you have a mastery and purpose, that you are indeed doing the very thing that you, and few people else, were meant to do. I think I lack that conviction: I cannot convince others because I am not convinced myself. I'm nearly thirty-five years old and I still have no idea what I am supposed to be doing, or even what I want to do.

Of course, one is not supposed to be doing any given thing – or else we would all be conscripted to our callings, and, funnily enough, I suppose I would not have these uncertain feelings. I just don’t have much conviction in what I am currently doing, and have no idea what I could be doing that would make me feel any different.

Hence I am lost. My mission for the year ahead: go find the place where I can rest, convinced in myself – and therefore convincing to others – that I really should be there.

Hero image is “Conviction” by Thomas Hawk. Creative Commons License, no modifications made to the original image.

On Entropy and Star-shapes

I find myself in the unusual position of having to decide what to do with my days. Well, it is unusual compared to the last year or so. Boredom is like age in that you are only ever as bored as you feel. It’s taken a bit of time for me to realise that I quite like the mundane rituals of running the show on my own, and that it’s better to get on with things in order to take pride in ones accomplishments as soon as possible – even if it is just getting the dishes done.

Writing is harder though. All these small rituals and such leave little room for thinking up big ideas. I find myself with little time to ponder big questions and it seems funny just how much I thought about big ideas while looking for work and while largely out of control of my life earlier this year. I guess control over one’s destiny is never really acknowledged when we have it, and is ardently missed when it is gone.

As such my mantra these days is that advantage is temporary. No matter who you are, your high ground and comfort will eventually be traded away. You may not even recognise your current position of safety until it is gone. There is no malice involved, it’s just the passing of time and/or the second law of thermodynamics. Nothing bad lasts forever – the hold of troubled times has its own entropy too. However, the flip side to that is that you have to cherish the good times while they are here.

You have a wealth of talent and treasure available to you. We all do. It also magnifies when shared with others, something that I wish I’d learned sooner. I could go into all the reasons why I lost sight of that, but it’s better to just say it loud and proud now and try not to forget it. At the moment my slow rhythms and small victories are my own, but I hope to start sharing them soon. Perhaps I will write more and share that way, perhaps I might meet someone and share my life: I certainly have the room.

Talking of which, I will sleep star-shaped in bed tonight. I have to do so while I can. After all, advantage is temporary.

Hero image is “Star-shaped flower petals” by Rachel Dale. Found on Flickr. Creative commons license, no modifications made to the original image.

October and November 2014

I recently started a new job and moved in to a new flat. This means I’m too busy to write any long blog posts at the moment. Also I’m still not quite at home there, so I tend to spend my evenings tidying up or setting up new things. It’s a shame because I have plenty of things to write about (even without observations on moving, starting a new job, etc) but I guess the writing will happen eventually.

What’s funny is that October and November are usually purple patches for my writing. My archives tend to look a little thin in Decembers due to the demands of the season, and some years I publish short stories during advent and then delete them after Twelfth Night. I’m not sure I have enough material for an advent calendar this year but if I get enough time to think about it, I will certainly try to come up with something. Otherwise, I can fill out the blog with all the posts that built up while I didn’t write.

Life is an adventure at the moment. It has been for over a year. I got myself away from a toxic job and from people who were doing me no good. I’ve reconnected with my family, made new friends, and now have a new career path to explore. Starting again has its frustrations for sure, but for the moment I can say for certain that I am happy. It is a good feeling.

Hero image is my new bedroom.