Ruin Beach -Kate Rhodes (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Kate Rhodes launched her Scilly Isles based crime series at the beginning of this year with “Hell Bay”.  I was particularly impressed by the intensity she managed to build up around the location of Bryher, the smallest inhabited island with less than one hundred permanent residents.  The ramifications of murder on such a close-knit isolated community were fascinating.  Perhaps, understandably, the author has widened her net a little here (she couldn’t keep bumping off those poor Bryher residents) and focused the action on the neighbouring island of Trescoe with double the population and a more touristy feel.

 This population begins to decline when a diver is found dead in a cave.  An object found jammed in her mouth suggests that this was no accident.  D I Benesek Kitto, who grew up on and has now returned to the Scillys, together with Czechoslovakian Wolfhound Shadow (in the course of two novels already up there amongst the best dogs in fiction) are on hand to investigate.  We get a first-person narrative from Kitto interspersed with some short third person sections which drive the plot forwards.

 It becomes apparent that Jude Trellon, the diver, has been killed because of what she knows about shipwrecks around the coasts of the islands and secrets kept means others are in peril.  Kate Rhodes does characterisation very well and as well as developing her human (and canine) characters she is also able to convey the sea convincingly as a main character in the novel, which is like some of the island residents, calm and co-operative one minute and destructive and deadly the next.  Atmosphere-wise, however, I do not feel that this has that edgy intensity I enjoyed so much in “Hell Bay” and the plot here did not feel as impressively tight, there did seem to be quite a lot of recapping which affected pace at times but this is a very satisfying crime series and with the next novel “Burnt Island” planned I will certainly be looking out for it.

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 Ruin Beach was published by Simon & Schuster in hardback in November 2018.  The paperback is due in February 2019.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

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House Of Stone – Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (Atlantic 2018)

 

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Recently I was asked to help out with reviewing books looking towards a longlist for the Edward Stanford Travel Awards which has a category which focuses on fiction which has a sense of place.  My job was to read three books, of which this is the third to be reviewed on here.  (Reviews for both “The Water Thief” and “Smoke And Ashes” can be found by clicking the links.  All three were books I was unlikely to have encountered otherwise and I think I have saved the best until last.

When teenager Bukhosi vanishes following a rally of the Mthwakazi Secessionist Movement his friend Zamani strives to infiltrate his way into his family aiming to replace him in his parents’ affections by finding out all he can about their “hi-story”. This spans back half a century into the history of Zimbabwe, from the latter days of colonial Rhodesia and Civil War through genocide and atrocities carried out in the name of the new regime. Zimani is a unreliable narrator, planning and manipulating for his own ends hidden in his own hi-story which is linked with his friend’s family. He gleefully exploits weaknesses in his quest to find some form of revenge whilst being inextricably pulled into what he sees as this new family grouping.

This is an extraordinary debut novel from an author who grew up in Zimbabwe. I had a very sketchy knowledge of her homeland before reading this and the complexities which lay behind this African country but her handling of the location has certainly enriched my understanding. And this has been achieved totally through story as the author weaves the events in the lives of Bukhosi’s parents with Zimani’s in a narrative steeped in the development of this nation both before and after independence. Along the way there are some brilliantly memorable characters and writing often outstanding in its vibrancy and power. The horrors are not at all shied away from but there are also moments of great humour and to put at the centre the dark machinations of the narrator is a stroke of genius. It’s a prime example of how a location can be seamlessly embedded into a plot and used to inform and enrich.

True, sometimes I lacked the cultural understanding to pick up on all of the references and there was the odd part where I wasn’t totally sure what was going on but Tshuma was soon able to pull me back in through her use of language. There’s also a liberal smattering of African terms which most will be unfamiliar with but once again I do not feel that this matters. For me this is the sign of the intelligence of the author not wanting to dumb down any of what would seem alien to much of her readership but demonstrating the ability to keep them totally on board.  Because of this I think this is not only a book which reads well but also has the potential to impress more on re-reading.  I am certainly keeping hold of my copy.

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The House Of Stone was published in hardback by Atlantic in June 2018.  Many thanks to Nudge and for the publisher for the review copy.   An edited version of this review can be found on the Nudge Website.  The Shortlist for the 2019 Edward Stanford Travel Awards will be announced in January 2019.

Smoke And Ashes – Abir Mukherjee (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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It’s very unusual for me to read a mid-series book but circumstances caused me to pick up Abir Mukherjee’s third novel in his critically acclaimed Sam Wyndham series without having read the other two. Wyndham is a Captain in the Calcutta Police Force in the years after the First World War. It certainly kicks off with a pacy punch with the drug-addled Calcutta Police force Captain coming round during a raid on an opium den. In his bid to escape detection he encounters a mutilated corpse. The novel is set in the run up to Christmas 1921, with Wyndham, hiding his addiction caused by trauma from the Great War, and his Indian Sergeant known as “Surrender-not” Bannerjee investigating some strangely linked murders during the build up to a Royal visit from the Prince Of Wales.

What lifts this novel above standard adventure-fiction fare is both the strong sense of location and the historical setting of a Calcutta preoccupied with the non-violent, non-co-operation policies advocated by Gandhi which is causing serious malfunctions in the running of the Empire. The political situation creates dilemmas for both British and Indian characters which adds to the richness of the plot.

Mukherjee’s two main characters have been obviously well established in the first two novels allowing him to focus on the historical detail and in bringing 1920’s Calcutta to life. It is a fascinating time in the history of India as Imperialism looks increasingly inappropriate in the aftermath of the War and the events here are based on actual happenings married with the thriller writer’s licence for creating an involving and plausible tale out of these. It works well as a stand-alone novel but for those who, like me, find chronology important in reading books from a series are probably advised to start with Mukherjee’s debut “A Rising Man” which won the Historical Dagger at the 2017 Crime Writer’s Awards. The second in the series was shortlisted for the same award this year but ultimately lost out to “Nucleus” by Rory Clements. This is quality adventure fiction.

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Smoke And Ashes was published in hardback in June 2018 by Harvill Secker. Many thanks to Nudge and the publishers for the review copy.  An edited version of this review can be found on the Nudge website.

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 65– Stevie Wonder – Love Songs: 20 Classic Hits

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Love Songs: 20 Classic Hits (Motown 1985)

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The CD I turn most to for the early years of Stevie Wonder’s career is this 1985 compilation which arrived without much fuss nor any impression on pop charts.  It has an interesting mix of tracks which are predominantly from the 1960’s, kicking off with a 1962 recording , and is a fascinating blend of hit singles and other less well-known performances.  It goes up to the point where Stevie manages  to wrest more control over his career from Motown and come up with a sequence of albums in the 1970’s which are considered to be soul classics.  It provides a very solid introduction to the sheer talent that is Stevie Wonder in his formative years.  Hit-wise it contains 11 UK Top 40 hits spanning from 1967-72 and 12 US Top 40 hits covering the same period. 

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Motown signed Stevie Wonder when he was just 11 years old in 1961.  It took a few singles for him to make his breakthrough.  CD opener here “Contract Of Love” was his third single released at the end of 1962.  I’d never heard it before its appearance here and it’s an interesting proposition to open the album with such a rarity.  It begins with “Baby Love” style handclaps and male voices until Stevie, voice not yet broken, eases confidently into a doowop style song produced by Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland just before they also really hit form.  It was obviously a learning process for all concerned, it’s certainly not a bad track but rather pales compared to the quality of the songs that follow on.

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Stevie then billed as “Little Stevie Wonder” broke big with his next track in his homeland.  This was a rough and ready harmonica instrumental which was probably too raucous to make much impression in the UK charts of 1963.  In the US it gave him a chart-topper for three weeks.  “Fingerprints Part 2” may very well be the only occasion where a Part 2 of a song topped the charts.  His youthful exuberance and obvious talent charmed America although it did seem to push him along the novelty instrumentalist line as 1963 and 1964 was spent putting out harmonica dominated singles that never lived up to “Fingertips”.  That debut hit is not included here as it does not fulfil the brief and nor does his more mature comeback track form 1966 which saw the “Little” dropped, concentrated on vocals and gave him a US#3, UK#14 “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”.

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This CD picks up again with his next UK hit, a cover version and really the only version of “Blowin’ In The Wind” that I would like to listen to.  The folk song is transformed into a rolling call and response duet between Stevie and I always believed an uncredited Levi Stubbs but now I can’t find any evidence which says this is so.  It is, however, an early example of the social awareness and his eagerness to convey protest in a song.  This became A Top 10 hit in the US in 1966.  On both sides of the Atlantic the big version of this had come three years before recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary but this has a gospel grittiness which works very well.  From here the hits carried on flowing and most of them are present here, his next one being the country-folsky-R&B mash-up of “A  Place In The Sun” which does recall Stevie’s hero Ray Charles in the type of song and slightly uncool backing vocals which also got to #9 in the US and became his second Top 20 hit in the UK. 

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I think things notched up a gear with the next track which really has the feel of some of Stevie’s best tracks over the next few years .  Henry Cosby produced “I Was Made To Love Her” which combines the Stevie sound with the Motown sound more successfully than what we have heard from up until now.  A US#2 and UK#5, this track really asserted Stevie’s position as a leading male vocalist of the time.  Pretty much the same team of Cosby producing and Stevie and Sylvia Moy helping out with song-writing duties for “I’m Wondering” (US#12,UK#22) and “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Do-Da-Day” (US#9), acceptable enough tracks although unlikely to be too many people’s Stevie favourites. 

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Things move up to the top notch again for a great song written by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden which had been given to other artists but Henry Cosby decided on a more uptempo version which turned the song instantly into a pop standard.  “For Once In My Life” gave Stevie his biggest UK hit to this point, reaching number 3 and US #2 and is a great vocal performance from him as well as an exciting return from the harmonica.  We are now in 1969 and Stevie notches up three hits the lovely although rather uncommercial sounding ballad “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” which marked the first time a Stevie recording performed better in the UK than in his homeland (#14 as opposed to #39) and also had Stevie credited as co-producer alongside Don Hunter; the absolutely commercial gem which hovers a little towards the sickly “My Cherie Amour” which reached #4 on both sides of the Atlantic and “Yester-Me-Yester-You-Yesterday” a song which is infinitely better than its title might suggest which got to number 7 in the US and became his first single to just miss out on the top spot in the UK, reaching number 2 (held off by “Sugar Sugar” by The Archies).  Hard to believe that at this stage in his career, after this string of hits Stevie was still a teenager.

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Stevie was still spreading his wings here, doing more in both the song-writing and production fronts but Motown were keen to keep the relationship with Henry Cosby going.  In 1970 we had the lovely, swaying “Never Had A Dream Come True” (US#26,UK#6), the driving “Signed, Sealed Delivered I’m Yours” (US#3,UK#15) and the brooding gospel tones of  “Heaven Help Us All” (US#9,UK#29) all drastically different sounding tracks which once again underlined his versatility and all three would sow seeds for the Stevie material that was to come later in the decade.  In 1971 Stevie produced his own version of the Lennon & McCartney song “We Can Work It Out” which reached  US#13 and UK#27.

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 Stevie was growing up.  In 1970 he married his Signed Sealed Delivered writing partner Syreeta Wright, who was also signed to Motown as a solo artist and had been boosting the girl group sound of both Supremes and Martha and The Vandellas tracks.  He was also, now he was no longer a child, in a better place to negotiate with Motown.  1971 saw the release of his statement of independence, the album “Where I’m Coming From” with all tracks written by Stevie and Syreeta and all produced by Stevie.  The hit track from this “If You Really Love Me” took him back to number 8 in the US and 20 in the UK and features a singalong chorus alongside Syreeta vocalising and a rather sparse, slowed down verse which makes it all rather fascinatingly uneven yet very likeable.  Single-wise this is where “Love Songs” calls it a day but also included is the star track from this Stevie produced album “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer” which only appeared as a B-side.  This is a big and yet tender, mournful ballad track which has remained near the top of Stevie’s repertoire and was a song he chose to revisit at the Memorial Service for Michael Jackson and certainly fulfils this album’s “Love Songs” brief. 

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The remaining tracks on the album include a harmonica instrumental version of Bacharach and David’s “Alfie”, a 1967 song written by Stevie with Clarence Paul and Morris Broadnax which remained unreleased until Aretha Franklin had a hit with it in 1973 “Until You Come Back To Me”, the same team’s “Hey Love”, a doowop influenced tune which doesn’t stand out in this company and “Nothings Too Good For My Baby”, a Northern Soul style stomper from 1966.

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These 20 tracks represent, if a long way from definitively, the early years of Stevie’s career when he was still very much under Berry Gordy’s control.  From his age of majority Stevie was able to explore avenues with a greater freedom that had also been accorded to Marvin Gaye who had responded with a couple of all-time classic soul albums.  This was Phase 1 of the Wonder career and throughout the rest of the 70s and into the 80s Stevie would continue to soar, but this time more on his own terms.  There would be considerably more gems to come…………………..

Love Songs is currently available from Amazon in the UK from £8.83 new and used from £0.33.  It can be purchased as a download for £7.99.  In the US I found it on Amazon with a different cover new from $28.32 used from $2.55.

The Water Thief – Claire Hajaj (2018)

 

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This is Claire Hajaj’s second novel and it is a masterful work up there with the best books I have read this year.  Main character Nick, an architect, abandons preparations for his wedding to travel to Africa to assist with the building of a hospital and to atone for a tragedy in his past.  We know from the outset that things will go wrong but then the author backtracks to tell a rich, haunting tale which works on so many levels.  The location is non-specific and yet created so evocatively, an area hit by drought where the villagers struggle to survive and water supplies have to be bought from an unscrupulous governor.  It is he who is behind the showpiece of the hospital but the people have more basic needs which demand to be met.  The struggles of the villagers, the heat and corruption feel so authentic and are incorporated seamlessly into the unfolding plot as we see Nick getting further into situations which cannot end well. 

There is very strong characterisation.  Nick goes to lodge with a local doctor and his family, which includes JoJo who acts as narrator for sections of the novel.  He is a twelve year old who brings to mind event in the Englishman’s past.  Claire Hajaj is a great-story teller and received critical acclaim for her first novel “Ishmael’s Oranges”.  She has a background working in international aid and conflict resolution for the United Nations and she uses this to weave a story which is as gripping as a thriller as well as being beautifully written.  Even though the opening gives plot developments away to an extent I was totally involved throughout and felt a strong emotional response to the unfolding of her tale.  This is very highly recommended.
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The Water Thief was published in hardback by Oneworld in July 2018.  Many thanks to Nudge and the publishers for the review copy.  An edited version of this review can be found on the Bookhugger section of the Nudge website.

Atlantic Ballroom – Waldeck (Dope Noir 2018) – A Music Now Review

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Electro Swing seems to have been mooted for some time as being the next big thing but so far hasn’t had the lasting commercial clout that it promised, despite the odd hit which have had the smack of novelty about them.  Acts like Caro Emerald, Caravan Palace and Yolanda Be Cool have been flying the flag for this fusion of jazz and  swing with modern music  The BBC did not help matters by imposing on us in 2015 an Electro Swing track as the UK entry for the Eurovision Song contest which ended up near the bottom of the scoreboard in 24th place and probably put paid to any “cool” factor suggested by the best examples of this musical style.  There are certainly strong elements of Electro Swing in this new album release by Austrian musician Waldeck, his fifth studio album in a career which has spanned 22 years since his first EP release “Northern Lights.”

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 Klaus Waldeck

I had never heard of Waldeck before being contacted regarding the release of “Atlantic Ballroom” on Dope Noir Records last month.  I was asked about the possibility of a review and I thought I’d take a listen to see if it could be the album to revitalise my Music Now Section which I have neglected as the amount of new music I am listening to is diminishing.  It didn’t take long to see that it really does fit into the reviewsrevues brief and to ignore it would be missing out on a good thing.  This is a successful marriage of electronic dance music and trip hop elements with jazz, blues, swing and latin influences.  I’ve actually always been a bit of a sucker for retro music presented in a modern style.  In fact, one of the first singles I ever bought was “Looks Looks Looks” by Sparks which had the feel of forties swing in a quirky rock song and since then Manhattan Transfer, Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, Kid Creole, Madonna’s “I’m Breathless” album and , Caro Emerald amongst others have all ensured that this kind of mix is never too far from my music playlists.  It can be cheesy, it can be cool, but the very best combines the two, doesn’t take itself that seriously and would lift the mood of any dance floor.  I can’t help thinking that Waldeck is only one guest appearance on “Strictly” or having music used in a TV ad campaign away from really breaking into the big time.

 The ace up Klaus Waldeck’s sleeve here is the featured singer who appears on half of the twelve tracks, Patrizia Ferrara, half Sicilian, half Austrian chanteuse who drips coolness onto her tracks in vocals recall some great blues and jazz artists.  There’s also three largely instrumental tracks, two songs featuring long-time collaborator vocalist Joy Malcolm (formerly from Incognito) and one featuring fellow Austrian Big John Whitfield.

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On the piano led opener “Rough Landing” Ferrara’s vocals are conveyed with the  cool style and sass not seen since the under-rated Lina’s 2001 track “Playa No More”.  There’s also a feel of The Propellerheads work with Shirley Bassey and their  “History Repeating”.  Good instrumental solos reinforce this track’s  jazz credibility and the whole thing sets out the store for the album, even if not one of the stand-outs.

 I really have come to like the 2 and a half minute instrumental  “Uno Dos.. Heissenberg”.  It holds its sixties credentials high and feels like a forgotten theme tune from a 60’s ITC Entertainment show- “Man In A Suitcase” meets “Austin Powers” with its downright grooviness merged with ethereal voices.  This is a track I would have liked to have gone on longer building to some massive crescendo of Carnaby Street influenced style, as it is it just tends to fizzle out.  The 60s feel continues for “Keep The Fire Burning” with vocalist Joy Malcolm turning out a Stax-type track with stabbing  brass and Hammond organ flourishes.  Although I do like this track it is the one which perhaps feel a little out of step with what else is on the album. 

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Patrizia Ferrara returns with four tracks which contain some of the real highspots of the album, getting under the skin with a Billie Holiday style vocal on a track with a real Cab Calloway feel in “Stay Put”, a slinky Henry Mancini “Pink Pantherish” intro to “Quicksand”which is a classy and well-structured song that again recalls Holiday and also in the phrasing some of the recent Doris Day stuff especially her 2011 track “Heaven Tonight”.  “Illusions” ups the Latin feel and with its distorted electric guitar and bass licks has a feel of 80’s Jazz-Funk over the bossa-nova style rhythms.  Best of all is the almost Charleston feel of “Never Let You Go” which sounds the most like a potential hit single on here.  The lyrics don’t matter but there is a lovely vocal performance which has shades of Peggy Lee at her perkiest.  With “Me No Americano” being such a big hit a couple of years back and also Caro Emerald establishing a world-wide reputation with a similar sound that there is still great commercial potential lurking here.

 The second instrumental is let down by that over-used sound gimmick of the scratched record.  I’m of the age where crackles were always a huge disappointment on a vinyl album and yet we still seem to have to listen to it in a digital format.  There’s not much going on in “Puerto Rico” other than the title repeated but its Latin grooves has more than a touch of Camila Cabello’s recent chart-topper “Havana”.  In this format it doesn’t hold my attention as much as many of the other tracks.  More successful, even if equally familiar in its sound is the Latin swing of “Quando” which has a feel of Rosemary Clooney and is imbued with a great sense of warmth which makes the combination of Latin rhythms and European oompah band seem a valid proposition.

 “Bring My Baby Back Home” seems the most novelty like with its “King of The Swingers” feel merged with Scatman John and his lunatic but highly likeable “Scatman’s World”.  There’s also a touch of LunchMoney Lewis and his recent hit “Bills”.  It won’t be long before you are “dub-dibby-dibby-dub-dub-ing” along and recreating the Charleston and Black Bottom dance at the Office Christmas party.  If this all sounds too cheesy it has an optimistic cheeriness which has won me over.

 The cheesiness is short-lived as “Waltz For Nathalie” is a mature instrumental  which brings to mind Swing Out Sister’s “Kaelidoscope Affair”, which I have always loved.  This has a strikingly mournful ending which feels like a suggestion of darkness looming on the horizon, noticeable on an album with such little darkness and so much optimism, but fear not as it eases into the handclapping uplift of “Freedom” the second of the two Joy Malcolm helmed tracks which feels like a club anthem with effective electro-swing touches.

One of the phrases I feel I’ve used quite often in this review is “brings to mind”.  That would suggest that “Atlantic Ballroom” is not the most original of albums but it is the wealth and variety of these “bring to minds” which makes it a compelling listen.  Waldeck has synthesized a lot of musical history into these twelve tracks and produced an album which feels positive and invigorating.  With so much Top 40 stuff now sounding the same (am I sounding like my father again?) it is good to see releases which challenge the status quo of electronic dance music and tropical vibes to offer something which feels different and fresh and yet reassuringly familiar.   

 

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Atlantic Ballroom is currently available to buy from Amazon in the UK for £16.04 new, used from £9,65 and as a download for £7.99.  It is also available to stream from Spotify in the UK.

100 Essential CDs – Number 41– Amy Winehouse – Back To Black

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Back To Black -Amy Winehouse (Island 2006)

UK Chart Position – 1

US Chart Position – 2

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 Before the release of this album, I was aware of Amy Winehouse but, probably like most people hadn’t really listened to her a great deal.  I knew that her debut album “Frank” (2003) had been very well received but hadn’t really sought it out  (I did later).  I knew that it had a jazz vibe about it but wasn’t sure whether it was for me.

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There was quite a buzz about this follow-up album before its release.  I’d read a couple of reviews which had seen it as a modern take on the 60s girl group pop of The Ronettes and The Shangri-Las.  I think I had seen the video of the lead single “Rehab” on what used to be a Saturday morning staple “The Chart Show” and all of this was enough to convince me to buy this album on the day it was released.  A lot of people did the same as its first week sales were enough for it to enter the UK album charts at number 3 (“Frank” had stalled at 13).  The following week it dropped seven places but word of mouth was so strong that it wasn’t long before it was heading for the top spot which it achieved on its 11th week on the chart.

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According to a recent BBC 4 “Classic Albums” documentary it went on to sell 16 million copies worldwide and was a chart-topper in virtually every country in Europe.  In the US it did not reach the very summit but Amy became the first British woman to win 5 Grammys including “Record Of The Year”.  Amy’s music and look soon ensured she was a household name everywhere.  Fame, was of course, a double-edged sword.  She had never contemplated anything like that level of success for her music and found the trappings of fame very difficult to cope with and the temptations that a healthy bank balance can bring too much to bear.  There was never another studio album and Amy Winehouse died in 2011 at the age of 27.

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Because of what ended up happening to Amy it’s not as easy to listen to this album as it was when she was going strong.  There is an added level of pathos which is impossible to escape.  As a live performer I had always found her difficult to watch, you were never quite sure what you were going to get and that unpredictability even at the height of her fame would always make me feel quite tense.  Her stage presence could veer from lioness to little girl lost and the live appearances became patchier as time went on until the point that she was trying the patience of her most loyal fans.  For me, the greatness of Amy Winehouse is summed up by listening to these 11 tracks, which ended up both making and breaking her.

 

Producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi

And the music here is great.  It is one of the best studio albums by a British artist.  Her record company sent her to the US to record and six of the tracks were produced by then hot DJ and producer Mark Ronson in New York and five by Salaam Remi in Miami.  Remi had worked with Amy on “Frank”. The Ronson tracks established the feel of the album, incorporating that pain and heartbreak of the 60’s girl groups, Remi’s were going in a slightly different direction building on the jazz credentials of her debut but as soon as the Miami team heard the New York tracks they were able to tweak what they are doing to provide the cohesive sound of this work.  In the BBC 4 documentary Ronson claims he was aiming for “heartbreak on a giant scale” in recreating a mid 60’s teen angst sound.  He acknowledges that it was in the mixing by Tom Elmhirst that a more contemporary sound was added, making it more relevant and less explicitly retro.  This is actually part of what makes “Back To Black” so good.  It takes its influences from over 40 years of great pop, R&B, Reggae and Soul music and turns it into a package which sounded fresh in 2006 when it was released.  Amy had herself largely synthesized these influences and when she came to record knew what she was doing.  Mark Ronson said that these tracks were recorded faster than anything he had done before.  This was also helped by him bringing in the Dap-Kings as musicians, who through their work with Sharon Jones, brought with them their highly professional Daptone sound which recreated the sound of 60’s and 70’s R&B and funk.  Everyone knew what they were doing here and the results are evident.

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The CD kicks off with “Rehab”, which is perhaps the liveliest, most novelty like of the tracks on display but which set out Amy’s store brilliantly.  Her singles from the previous album had only been minor hits but “Rehab” sounded like a big hit from the first hearing.  It reached number 7 in the UK and 9 Stateside.  The President of Island Records could not really believe what he was hearing.  He knew the song was autobiographical and related to a real event but couldn’t imagine that this could be turned into a hit song.  It was, he said on the “Classic Albums” documentary “something that has a dark underbelly, (with which) she could actually make people smile.”  It is true that the defiance which seemed endearing on first listens now give pause to thought.  If only she had said “yes, yes, yes” instead of “no, no, no” the Winehouse story might have had a different outcome.  That sounds crass but it is a relevant point to how we hear her music today.

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However, all that is to ignore what an absolutely stonking start to the CD this track provides.  That chunky drumstick and handclap rhythm, R&B and Ska influences over Amy’s voice works a treat.  It is also hard not to be drawn into the story behind the song and the earworm of the chorus ensured its success.  This was to be the only US single hit from the album and in the UK it also become the highest charting song.  Here it was followed up by the lovely “You Know I’m  No Good” one of the greatest songs concerning infidelity and low self-esteem.  It has a sleazy, sunshiny feel with great brass work.  It also has the obscure “Roger Moore” reference which has always fascinated me although I don’t know what it refers to.  This has made me recently check the lyric sheet.  I’ve always thought Amy sang “you’re ten men down/like Roger Moore” and have always thought it was a reference to a depleted football team in one of his movies.  On that recent BBC4 documentary I had the subtitles on, and I know I should know better than wholly trust BBC subtitling but they printed the “Roger Moore” bit as “I want you more.”  Had I been singing along to this song wrongly for years mistakenly thinking it was Amy’s nod towards the former James Bond? But, thankfully the lyric sheet does reinstate him to former glories, although the correct line is “you tear men down/like Roger Moore” but I’m glad he’s there and not a entry into the pantheon of misheard lyrics.  “You Know I’m No Good” reached number 18 in the UK Charts.

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Single-wise, this was followed up by the title track, one of the highlights of the album.  Despite it not being released a single in the US this tended to perform better than “Rehab” internationally, as Amy became much better known.  Although in the UK it stalled one place lower at number 8, it was a Top 3 hit in Austria (where “Rehab” had got to #19) and became a Top 20 hit in, amongst other territories, France, Germany, Ireland, The Netherlands and Switzerland, where “You Know I’m No Good” had also been a Top 10 hit).  “Back To Black” ladles on the drama and was helped by a moody, black and white promotional video which was Amy at her best.  The song itself is the one that best encapsulates that whole 60’s girl group things with that chilling empty bit in the middle reminiscent of a twenty-first century take on The Shangri-La’s “Remember (Walking In The Sand)”.  It’s a moody, doom-laden piece of the end of a relationship which is a cross between a deep-soul ballad and a Phil Spector production with contemporary drug and sex references.  It is a track of genius and is still striking 12 years on.

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Another highspot comes with “Tears Dry On Their Own” which uses the musical track of Motown and a “chick-a-chick” rhythm similar to what had worked so well on “Rehab”.  Here, it is Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s monumental ballad “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” which is synthesized into this very modern song of defiance after bad treatment in a relationship.  This became a number 16 single in the UK.

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There was still enough enthusiasm for the album for a 4th UK single release and for this the label chose the aching ballad “Love Is A Losing Game”.  On the “Classic Albums” documentary it was said that Amy was adamant that she did not want strings on this track as it would have made it cheesy.  Mark Ronson persisted despite Amy’s protestations and when she heard the finished track loved it.  This is a beautifully written  and produced song that show’s Amy’s huge potential to become a great lyricist. It revels in its own simplicity.  Releasing a 4th track as a single might have been pushing it a bit as this stalled at a lowly #33 in the UK, which is certainly no reflection on its quality.

Outside of the singles we get the slick R&B of “Me and Mr Jones” with its nod to the great Billy Paul song here transferred to a less than satisfactory relationship. “What kind of fuckery are we/Nowadays you don’t mean dick to me (dick to me)”.  I’ve never got to grips with swearing on music tracks, but on this album, Amy just gets away with it as far as I am concerned and here it actually puts a smile on my face.  It is the Ska feel which is more explicit on “Just Friends”, a good, solid album track with some a lovely little brass refrain.  “Wake Up Alone” sounds like a mid 60’s soul ballad.  Perhaps my least favourite track is “Some Unholy War” although there’s nothing wrong with it other than in this wealth of riches it does not shine out.  Amy puts in a great vocal performance, it may just because it seems to have its influence in neo-Soul rather than the retro feel of much of the rest of the album.  I also feel this a little bit about “He Can Only Hold Her” written alongside Richard and Robert Poindexter but its ska influenced brass refrains brings this back into the feel of the album.

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The album closes with the fifth of the Salaam Remi produced “Addicted”, a love song to drug use, which has a great feel but is another of those tracks where the poignancy of the tragedy of Winehouse dims the response.  This was always one of the tracks I listened the most to before Amy’s early demise, nowadays, much less so.  It’s odd that the two lyrically most charged songs “Rehab” and “Addicted” are musically the most light-hearted, bordering on novelty.  Despite this one being catchy as hell, it was unlikely to get played daytime on Radio 2.

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Amy Winehouse was original, defiant, rebellious and was like a breath of fresh air onto the music scene of the mid-noughties.  She could not, however, cope with fame and there is no doubt that the combined talents that put together this album both made and broke her.  There were no more studio albums after this so it is impossible to know where she would have gone next.  The tracks that were produced after this did not have the opportunity to be formed into something of a coherent whole and this is where this album is so good in that it stands as a complete piece, a testament of lost loves from an inspired and thrilling artist.

Back To Black is currently available from Amazon in the UK from £5.97 new,0.09 used and £8.99 as a download.  In the US it is available new from $8.70 and used from $1.51.  It is available to stream in the UK from Spotify.

Not Dead Yet – Peter James (2012) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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This 8th instalment of the Roy Grace series pushes Peter James upwards in my list of most read authors, now sitting at number 8 just below Patrick Gale. Its predecessor “Dead Man’s Grip” became my first James five star recommendation earlier this year. I felt that it was a classic crime novel which had everything I would look for in a police procedural. This is not as good.

I used to live in Brighton and part of my attachment to this series is to do with its location and very strong grounding in reality. Although here the locations are present James seems to have ramped up the plot to a heightened level which at times hovers too close to the preposterous. Central to this is a type of character I’ve come across before and I’m yet to like. This character, here called Gaia, is a Madonna/Lady GaGa hybrid of the huge international celebrity. She was present, along similar lines in Zadie Smith’s “Swing Time” (2016) where she was called Aimee and was the weak spot in an otherwise impressive work and, here, despite me thinking there’s value in exploring the notion and trappings of celebrity, Gaia also does not ring true in this context.

With a stalker on her trail she returns to her Brighton birthplace to take up a film role as mistress to George IV using the Royal Pavilion as a location. Others are interested in her return closer to home. Meanwhile, a torso is discovered on a chicken farm and Roy Grace inches further towards fatherhood. There’s also significant development in two ongoing plot lines; Grace’s missing wife Sandy and the leaking of sensitive information to the press.

Although Gaia’s presence can make the plot feel far-fetched the groundwork is set so well in this series that it doesn’t really matter. James continues his blurring of fact and fiction with the film co-stars Hugh Bonneville and Joseph Fiennes written in. He also uses the real names and professions of many of those law-enforcers who contribute to his research.

The whole thing is more larger than life than usual but the rooted ongoing characters and their lives feels important and once again this really drew me back in. That is why I think it is so important to read this series in order. It does crank up to a climax which affected me more because James has made me care for the characters. If I had just picked this off the shelf without reading any of the series before I might have thought it just a bit silly. Pace is good and it reads well and all in all, despite my reservations, this is a solid instalment to a great crime series which just falls short of being considered amongst its best.

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Not Dead Yet was published in 2012 by Macmillan.

Libraries Week 8th-13th October

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This week is National Libraries Week in the UK.  The theme this year is to promote wellbeing and is being promoted with the tagline “My Time.  My Space.  My Library”

Being a discerning and intelligent bunch reading this I hope I don’t have to tell you the key thing about libraries is use them or lose them.  With local councils continuing to make cutbacks library services  continue to be vulnerable.  If you haven’t visited your local library for a while this week would be an excellent time to put that right.

Before you go check out your local council’s websites as there may very well be special events going on to celebrate the week.  Libraries are no longer just about books and you may discover a whole range of activities which will get you socialising and lift spirits.  Here on the Isle of Wight, where, as I’ve mentioned many times before I am employed as a relief library assistant in a number of the libraries ,  this week we are offering activities such as talks about the history of libraries, art courses, Scrabble Club, initiatives to make poppies to commemorate the fallen of World War I in visual displays, reading , dancing, colouring, music and knitting groups as well as special rhyme times, story times, art activities, Lego and Minecraft challenges for children.  We will be running sessions to get people to use library resources online.  Many areas now offer an on-line book, magazine and audio books facilities free to use for library card holders (here we have recently moved over to Borrowbox and Press Reader which are proving very popular).

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On Saturday at Sandown Library I will be doing something which proved to be very successful last year.  I am holding a Readers Advisory Day.  Hopefully, people will be coming in for advice as what to read next and I’m planning to introduce them to their next favourite author.  I will let you know how I get on.  Those near enough to the Isle Of Wight can find information about the events I have just mentioned by following this link.

The rest of you will just have to look up your local council website to find out up-to-date information on events throughout the week.  Even if your area is not celebrating National Libraries Week why not visit your nearest library sometime during the week for your own celebration.  You might just find what you are looking for.

We have been provided with some fact around the use of libraries from the good people at http://www.librariesweek.org/facts.

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Be good to yourself.  Visit a library this week.  Let me know how you get on………………..

100 Essential CDs – Number 17– Barry White – All Time Greatest Hits

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All Time Greatest Hits (Polygram 1994)  

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This twenty track CD released in 1994 gives a great overview of the work of Barry White.  Less well known than his 1988 “The Collection” which reached number 5 in the UK charts and hung around on the listings for over two years this was released as part of a very worthwhile “Funk Essentials” series and for me has the edge.  When I was looking for a CD to replace my vinyl edition of “The Collection” this was the one I opted for.

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 Despite Barry White being a household name I think his musical achievements are often underrated.  In the mid 70’s his musicality was unprecedented in the world of Soul Music as he launched in rapid succession tracks which were orchestrated like mini symphonies topped with lyrics like mini soap operas.  This was a man with a huge talent and a great understanding of how music worked. This was largely instinctual.  In the sleevenotes to this CD David Ritz says; 

“White neither reads nor writes music, yet hears it all in his head, dictating each line for each instrument, honing his own harmonies, flavouring the stew with wildly flavourful ingredients.” 

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In the UK this meant 16 Top 40 hits over a twenty-three year period.  In the US the total is 11 over a similar period, which includes both chart-topping albums and singles.  There is a timelessness about his material which meant that although at times the music he was making fell out of favour he was never too many years away from a comeback.  Not bad for someone who was not fussed about being a singer in the first place.

 Barry White had been involved in music production since the mid 60’s and one of his tracks “I Feel Love Comin’ On” a joyous slab of Motown-ish pop-soul by Felice Taylor became a sizeable hit in the UK, reaching #11 in 1967.  Barry, together with arranger Gene Page was keen to put together a girl group, who he trained and rehearsed with for a considerable time before recording.  This group he named Love Unlimited and the lead singer Glodean would go on to become Barry’s wife.  The track which broke big for them “Walkin’ In The Rain With The One I Love” got to number 14 on both sides of the Atlantic in 1972 and introduced the world to the voice of Barry White as mid-way through the song Glodean takes a phone call and the voice on the other end dripping honey down the phone is Barry White’s. 

 

 

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 With chart success Barry was going to be in demand as a producer and he put together some tracks that he wanted a male singer to record.  The label heard his demos and were convinced that they wanted Barry himself to record them.  He took some persuading but the rest is history.  The first Barry White album “I’ve Got So Much To Give” was released in March 1973 and gave him his first two hit singles.  Towards the end of that year Barry was keen to produce an orchestral instrumental album.  The label, 20th Century,  needed some convincing as to the commercial viability of such a project.  White and Page put together the first tracks by the Love Unlimited Orchestra and the end result opens this CD.

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“Love’s Theme” is a magnificent opener.  The strings just ascend heavenwards from the first bars and the whole piece is redolent of sunshine and possibility.  In the US it topped the pop charts.  It had been four years since a purely instrumental track had reached the summit and that had been by orchestral stalwart Henry Mancini with his “Love Theme From “Romeo & Juliet”.  This was a very different proposition, it felt both contemporary and classic, it could be danced to and it contained the uplift that is felt in the best disco and dance tracks.  In his history of disco “Turn The Beat Around”  (2005) Peter Shapiro, never one to mince words, has this to say;

 “In many ways “Love’s Theme was the perfect disco record; its unabashed celebration of ‘beauty’ and lushness and its complete willingness to go over the top in the pursuit of that goal, its swooning strings,…….and ultimately its utter lasciviousness..”

barrywhite7CD from the same Funk Essentials series – worth seeking out

 That really sums up the whole of the Barry White sound in a nutshell.  From this point on the tracks follow in largely chronological order but is rounded off with another Love Unlimited Orchestra track “Satin Soul” which reached #22 in the US.  The Orchestra released ten albums over their career.  Listening to much of their output now is a little like stuffing yourself with sugar, it all becomes a little too much.  To cut through the sweetness something more astringent is required and Barry’s gravelly voice could certainly do that.

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When it comes to Barry White I think I am probably more of a singles man than an an album fan. Sometimes his album tracks are overly elongated and the highlights can be more effective when encapsulated in a three minute single. And the longer the track goes on the more likely it is that he will start to get seductive. Contrary to what he is famous for, his much quoted notoriety of being the cause of many babies being conceived by listeners, I prefer him when he is pleading or lamenting lost love than when he is on full seduction mode which I find a tad embarrassing.

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Certainly this seduction patter is what he became known for in the early part of his career. Debut album “I’ve Got So Much To Give” had just five tracks. His first two hits which came from this clock in at 8 mins 11 and 7 mins 20 in their original album version but work better at just over 5 and under 4 in their hit single versions. There are also two tracks on this CD from his second album “Stone Gon” another five tracker, both of which were edited for single release. These four tracks certainly put Barry White on the map. Debut solo hit “I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little More Baby” reached US#3, UK#23. Its follow-up “I’ve Got So Much To Give” was not one of his strongest efforts and that was reflected commercially with its US#32 placing. He was back in the US Top 10 with the very good “Never Never Gonna Give You Up” (U#7, UK#14) but faltered somewhat with the still strong “Honey Please Can’t You See”.

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From late 74 around a year on from his chart-topping instrumental he began a run of classic singles which took him until mid 76 and seemed to see him almost continually in the charts. These kicked off with the soul classic “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love” which became his first US solo chart-topper and marked his first appearance in the top 10 (#8) in the UK. His next release from the same US#1 UK#4 album “Can’t Get Enough” stalled at number two Stateside but took him to the top of the charts in the UK. “You’re The First The Last My Everything” is a classic love song, which certainly doesn’t get too steamy by Barry’s standards and was not significantly edited for single release. Unfortunately, on this CD you do not get the spoken intro which I really love and which sets up the track so well. It doesn’t sound as good if it launches straight into the Orchestra’s stabbing string refrain. The song itself was apparently a re-written version of an unrecorded country song called “You’re My First, My Last, My In-Between” which does not work nearly as well.

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From this chart-topper onward Britain got the Barry White (Love) bug and his singles often performed better than they did in his homeland. “What Am I Gonna Do With You” (US#8,UK#5) and “I’ll Do For You Anything You Want Me To” (US#40, UK#20) came along next but even better was the track he closed out 1975 with. “Let The Music Play” (UK#9, US#32) sums up everything I like about Barry White. There’s a brief talky bit, we’re plunged into the middle of the situation, he’s turned up at the disco without his woman “she’s at home, man/she’s at home” and he’s certainly pained and going to use disco as his escape. So you get this man almost howling in agony in a stonking uptempo disco number. It’s a gem and may very well be my favourite of his tracks.

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But it’s a close run thing because he came up with another classic with “You See The Trouble With Me” (co-written with Ray Parker Jnr) which amazingly did not do very much in the US pop charts but got to number 2 in the UK. This features very effectively another White technique of it all becoming too much for him and his part coming to an end leaving the orchestra to play things out without him. This track had a new lease of life in 2000 which sampled the Barry White vocal onto a club track which I think had then to be re-recorded by a Barry White soundalike due to copyright reasons and that version topped the charts and was one of the biggest records in the first year of the Millennium. The beat and the sample made it incredibly powerful but this release by Black Legend wasn’t a patch on the classy original.

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Before that record had died a death in the UK Barry was back again with a track which pushed Love Unlimited far more to the fore. Glodean and the girls had scored another UK hit (#11) in 1975 with the sublime “It May Be Winter Outside (But In My Heart It’s Spring) (itself a very close ringer to The Supremes’ “Everything Is Good About You” from their  essential “I Hear A Symphony” album so their unique harmonising would be familiar to British audiences who took the strong “Baby We Better Try To Get It Together” to number 15. He was back again in another couple of months with his number 17 hit “Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long”. From Track 6-13 on this CD I am transported to musical heaven with these examples of Barry White at his very best.

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However, in the US his sales had slowed down and for me the quality stuttered for “I’m Qualified To Satisfy You” which barely crept in the UK Top 40 and missed out in the US altogether. Barry’s response was to turn to different writers for the first time in his singles career. The fabulously named Nelson Pigford and Ekundayo Paris certainly fulfilled the lengthy title brief with “It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next To Me”, perhaps a track which moved away from the orchestral towards a stronger R&B groove. At the time I remember thinking it was disappointing but it has grown on me over the years. Response in the UK was also lukewarm as it dribbled into the Top 40, Stateside, however it gave him his biggest hit since “First, The Last My Everything” getting to number 4. It remains an influential track as it the groove has been sampled many times over the years, perhaps most familiarly to us Brits in “Rock DJ” by Robbie Williams.

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The resulting seven track album 1977’s “Barry White Sings For Someone You Love” also used more writers than before and was one of Barry’s most successful in the US and spawned another US hit in “Oh What A Night For Dancing” (US#24) and another popular track from this “Playing Your Game Baby” is also featured on this CD. Barry White’s last great hurrah, as far as I am concerned, during his tenure at 20th Century Records is when he played it very simple and came out with a cover of Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are”, a lovely version of a track which had been a hit for the composer earlier on in the year. In the UK Barry bettered Billy’s number 19 position by getting to number 12 at the end of 1978. In the US where Billy’s version had been much bigger (#3) it did not chart. But this track seemed to me a great direction for Barry to go into -as a song stylist, because his performance on this track is both exemplary and very Barry White and fits into exactly what he was known for but not going over the top on the cheesy seductions. In 1978 Disco was flooding the charts yet here was the man who was one of the original Disco Kings moving away from the dancefloor and it felt right.

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Barry White left the label which had been the home for his hits in 1979 and this is where this CD comes to an end. He kept recording, most notably for A&M and actually in later years his studio albums became much better value and two of his albums “The Right Night And Barry White” from 1987 and “The Icon Is Love” from 1995 are, apart from this CD, those I play most from this artist. He came up with some more great singles. I’ve always had a soft-spot for the strangely off-ley “Sho’ You Right” (UK#14-1987) in which he really bellows his way through and he scored his last transatlantic hit when the impressive “Practice What You Preach” got to number 18 in the US and 20 in the UK in 1995. His last slice of pop chart action came in 1996 when a duet with Tina Turner “In Your Wildest Dreams” got to number 32. I feel that this should have gone higher but it was one of those “cynical” duets. The track was a highlight on Tina’s “Wildest Dreams” album as a duet with Antonio Banderas. With White looking to be hot property again Banderas’ vocal was lifted and White’s phoned in. I’m sure they did not re-record the duet together.

After a long battle with health conditions, largely attributed to his size, Barry White died in 2003 at the age of 58. His is a lasting legacy in the history of pop, R&B/Soul and Disco music and the many highlights can be found on this CD.

is currently available from Amazon in the UK new from £6.27 and used from £0.09.  It is available to download from £7.99.  In the US it is currently available new from $7.97, used from $1.14 and as a download for $9.49.  In the UK it is available to stream from Spotify.  Other Barry White compilations are available, the current big seller is the three CD box set 46 tracker “The Complete 20th Century Singles” released in April 2018.