December appearances online and elsewhere

Delighted to have been asked to write a short guest post on 2009 in review for the BookNet Canada blog.

I also got a contribute some short recommendations for the wonderful folks at the Advent Book Blog.

Finally, the Oxford American's 2009 music issue is still on the stands, and it is a fine piece of reading, coming this year with no less than two CDs. It is, as usual, a fine list of contributors, among whose august company I was thrilled to pen a short piece on Memphis Slim's "No Mail Blues".

Gorgeous Ambient Cover Art

One of the things I've enjoyed most about 2009 has been my exposure to ambient music. There's more about this to come, but enough to say now that this was quite unplanned. I'm not sure why, or for what reason, I first found myself building upon a collection that had previously only held Global Communication's 76:14 and some Ulrich Schnauss. Perhaps it was the entirely accidental discovery of Tied & Tickled Trio's clinical but whimsical and intimate Aelita in a stack of promos courtesy of the wonderful people at PopMatters. Perhaps it was the discovery of iTunes smart playlists to tie together all the music that I might arbitrarily consider ambient with those albums that I would be comfortable boxing into an 'ambient' genre:

So it's largely by accident that I've realized that my (admittedly meagre) 'ambient playlist contains the most beautiful cover art (apart from, perhaps, the 'hard bop' playlist).

Some examples:

Eluvium – Talk Amongst the Trees: the perfect cover for an album in which themes precipitate out of heavy ghostly textures, delivering with sudden familiarity feelings of consolation and companionship and a golden haze, though they at first seem distant and opaque and cloaked in satin noise.

Ulrich Schnauss – Goodbye: the album is actually a severe disappointment after the innocent beauty of Far Away Trains Passing By and A Strangely Isolated Place, but what a cover. The lure of this image keeps the album on my iPod even though I never listen to it.

Keith Jarrett – Changeless: the space and circle on the cover suggest at once the broad textures, atmospheres, and themes of the music; the rough edges of the figure suggest the tolerance -- actually the showcasing, the celebration -- of imperfection in the album's textures; the understated typography for the title implies the relative lack of emphasis on narrative -- melody -- throughout the album. "Endless" is, by far, the standout track, an epic performance in which Jarrett, Gary Peacock, and Jack DeJohnette conjure the turbulence and beauty and calm and capricious rage and peace of the ocean.

The Fun Years – Baby, It's Cold Outside: a cover which, like the album, is a composite of unbreachable strangeness, overwhelming its components and becoming something both close and distant; but in which moments of lightning clarity appear brilliantly against moody and indiscernible backgrounds.

Solo Andata – Fyris Swan: delicate, shimmering, ambiguous surfaces suggest a music distilled from the air, a music made by subtracting elements, by overturning sounds to reveal their undersides. Noises that meld and jar and rest and agitate adjacent to one another in an order both formal and arbitrary. "Together Apart" is, as has been pointed out elsewhere, liquid sex, majestic and intimate; its wooden and aluminium instrumentation is a distant cousin to the textures on RZA's score to Jim Jarmusch's 1999 film Ghost Dog; its sway is tactile and coaxing; its promises are eternal but its touch momentary. But -- hauntingly beautiful as it is -- it is not the strongest track on the album: "Midnight" sings of forgiveness, swims in time, shimmers around the inside of your head, and redeems the minutes that you dare not to sleep for fear of losing a whisper of luminescent beauty. Wonderful.

Lawrence English – Kiri No Oto: like the music, an image of dense richness, though its first impressions are those of an immensity which is cathedral in its scale and non-negotiable in its terms. I first listened this while flying from a Vancouver that was saturated in early morning mist and rain; the image was both a promise of movement and a statement of the moment; something at once familiar and permanently unattainable.

More to come.

Vacation Reading

This year's absurdly ambitious (as ever) vacation reading stack:

The themes:

  • Dystopia
  • Love
  • Music

And my obligatory Summer mainstays:

  • Modern Library editions (double book score for the Ellison on music)
  • At least one John McPhee
  • At least one Western
  • At least one Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • At least one YA lit (double book score for Anderson's dystopian Feed)

I look forward to reading perhaps 30% of these and the other books that I will doubtless pick up along the way. On that note: not pictured is Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, acquired mid-journey.