Funny old year, 2012; a mandala of changes, endings and beginnings. I know that's essentially just life, but isn't it convenient to map ups and downs and ring-fence them by the calendar? While everyone else was distracted by the Olympics, I said goodbye to a beloved 21-year-old cat. Several weeks later, I said hello to a beloved baby daughter. The exigencies of an ever-expanding full-time job, coupled with a fundamental shift in technology (people just don't access websites outside of the Facebook perimeters any more, but more on that later), I have let both sites I sometimes look after, this one and the superior RandomCatProject, languish in obscurity. The only update to the Hearsay site at present is this annual list of random stuff. I hadn't even noticed that our contact email address was hopelessly out of date, so if anyone in the last year or three has written to hello [@] hearsaymagazine.co.uk, I'm afraid it got forwarded to an obsolete address until about January 2013. Should be fixed now tho. Drop me a line and find out!
This year, instead of trotting out a list of favourite things, I've picked a couple of cultural exemplars and a theme to explore.
It's hard to feel anything other than a deep flush of pride when an artist you've always sort of liked suddenly pours accelerant on their talent. I've followed Norway's Ane Brun for a few years and found much to enjoy on her earlier records, but it took me a while to pick up her latest, It All Starts With One (actually from 2011). It hadn't felt an essential purchase on release, just something to add to an ever-increasing wish-list of new-albums-by-people-I-already-have-a-lot-of-albums-by, but I still booked to see her tour in April, on a whim, and having never caught her live before. Once the tickets were pinned to my fridge, I made a mental note to pick up the album sooner. This became more pressing when I suddenly noticed a succession of five-star reviews clustering around my Facebook news feed (sigh), so I especially sought out the double-disc version with outtakes and covers. Within seconds of putting it on, I knew it was great, as the heart-fluttering percussion of These Days tumbled out of the speakers. Having now lived with it for a year now, I can safely say I haven't heard a record that has become so entrenched in the brain, so webbed to the nervous system for many years, perhaps because I don't buy very many new albums any more, but perhaps that's because there aren't very many new albums that sound like this. It is magnificent. It conjures a world entire, dark yet brimming with heart, with magnetic and propulsive forces at its core. Immaculately arranged throughout, it has lots of the hallmarks of the beautiful music that has been transmitted from Scandinavia in the last couple of decades - it's profound and entire like an element; intricate and complex like a compound.
Given that The Dark Knight (2008) is as perfect a Batman film as I had ever thought I would see (I speak as a Batman fan since the age of 4), I was braced for the inevitable conclusion to Nolan's Bat-trilogy to be disappointing. I was expecting Bane to be a faintly ludicrous, unthreatening nemesis, for the portrayal of Catwoman to be psychologically threadbare, incongruous yet over-familiar. I was prepared for bloated set-pieces and cod mythology, far removed from the murky psychodrama and battle of wills of its predecessor. I got all these things I was dreading, but at least I was prepared for them. What I could never have been prepared for, however, was quite how utterly stupid and unnecessary The Dark Knight Rises was. I spent two years avoiding potential spoilers online, only to find the film itself has spoiled the rest of the series.
I'm not sure TDKR contains a single moment to rival any of the sporadic, throwaway chills of The Dark Knight (when the corpse of a vigilante hits the office window, or when the Joker card surfaces casually among the judge's notes, to name two of many). Does TDKR have a single exciting moment beyond the physics-defying opening scene? The demolition of an entire sports field looked breathtaking in the trailer but in the midst of the film's narrative it barely registers, because there is nothing plausible and nothing human at stake. Every set piece stalls, its drama simultaneously flat footed and gauche like online fanfic. In TDK, by contrast, the increasingly muddy morals heighten events like Jacobean tragedy (apologies: I realise the trope of likening grim blockbuster films to Jacobean drama is now as cliched as likening alt-country to Raymond Carver was in the 90s). It too has its plot holes and continuity problems, but they don't matter as much because the film's heavily enunciated theme is the fluidity of good and evil, the inadequacy of moral codes (my favourite moment is still the interrogation scheme, where the Joker cackles: 'You have nothing to threaten me with', a chilling phrase it's all too easy to recall when observing the new-monied super-rich harpies of west London, screaming at a hapless shop assistant over a supposedly faulty product). The Dark Knight Rises has none of its predecessor's guts. On leaving the cinema, my wife commented: 'What a pity the two big secrets kept at the end of the last one had to be revealed so clumsily.' What a pity they had to be revealed at all. And I can't help thinking how deftly a writer like Steven Moffatt (or even Joss Whedon) would have handled the resolutions of the final twenty minutes, which, in the Nolans' hands, were an echo-chamber of clunking. And what about the much-vaunted increased use of IMAX? In TDK, every time the screen switched to full height, the fight-or-flight narrative and cinematography scaled up to match. In TDKR, the switches are arbitrary and distracting, like someone fiddling with the aspect button on their TV remote control. It's a mystery that it had a relatively easy ride from critics and fanboys, even (especially?) from the vocal minority who despised The Dark Knight. Perhaps the average cynical critic more effortlessly enjoyed the fact it was closer to standard superhero fare. But I don't want clunky, goofy dialogue, ludicrous plot holes, characters whose motivation is as arbitrary as the plot mechanics dictate, implausible flying machines, and scenes of skyscrapers being hit by missiles. That's what Marvel Studios is for. The Dark Knight Rises is so tonally inept, confused and half-hearted in parts when it should be confident, while strident and self-important in moments when it should be nuanced, that it's impossible to make any serious artistic claims for it. This only matters because it makes it everything its predecessor, by a largely identical creative team, managed to transcend. The genius and courage of The Dark Knight now looks like a happy accident, but I could sit down and watch it again right now. I don't think I ever want to see The Dark Knight Rises again.
After Hearsay ended in 2000, Ewen and I had a brief surge of enthusiasm to try to do something similar with a broader remit, and to interview writers and artists alongside musicians. We wanted to take the one aspect of Hearsay we'd especially enjoyed - the sense of it being a forum of like-minded people, offering fragments of wisdom and conjecture, to give a sense of a conversation on the page that would bear re-visiting outside the narrow time-scale of someone talking about their latest work. This never took off, but a couple of years later, Mark Ellen and David Hepworth launched Word magazine, which was roughly similar but infinitely better. Just as I had lost all interest in reading about music, this was a way back in: some writing about music by writing around music, and filling in the blanks with the musings of satirists and skeptics. It wasn't always successful (it lost its way for quite a while after a change in name and format a few years ago), but month after month it told me about things I didn't know i was interested in. And then, suddenly, in July 2012, it was all over. The magazine ended with indecent haste (I wonder what the full story is there?), with a blanket announcement on Twitter and much sadness expressed through that same, flighty, frivolous channel. Only a few weeks before, I had been going through back issues to make space, tearing out exceptional articles and recycling the rest. There were so many things to tear out, I half wondered why I was even bothering to edit them down. Now I wish I had kept a complete run. But what was especially disappointing was the manner of its demise - an overnight pulling of the plug, a scrambling to honour existing subscriptions by switching (god help us) to The Week magazine. (To paraphrase Will Self on Stephen Fry, The Week is a stupid person's idea of what a smart magazine should be.) There was no attempt to wind down, to celebrate its unique coverage of the last few years, just an advert for a subscription offer changed to add the strapline 'Now tragically cancelled!' across the details. It was hard not to feel cheated by what resembled a casual dismissal of the readership in the face of the economic forces we'd helped resist for so long.
But what really irks me about its demise is how, in the current age of proliferation of choice, it is more and more difficult for niche material to thrive when it should be the opposite. One of the last vestiges of the BBC's amazing GLR radio station of the 90s, Danny Baker's afternoon BBC London show, was also axed last year, despite being the only remaining distinctive show across its wretched, cabbie-chasing schedules. There is lots of choice out there if you don't mind fragments, with a Facebook/Twitter wrapper. I feel immeasurably enriched to be a click away from incredible writing by, say, Bryan Appleyard, Tim Parks, Andrew O'Hagan, Steven Poole and Charlie Lyne, but more choice seems to mean less content - the curated, catholic, thoughtful selection process seems redundant now, more so than ever in 20th-century media such as print and radio, and that is a terrible shame. (I realise, btw, that all those examples above are male, but I am struggling to find links to the pieces by Helen Lewis and Kate Mossman I wanted to highlight. Will add them in as and when.)
David Lowery's counter-blast against the 'content wants to be free' nonsense
TV: Wonderland (especially Walking with Dogs, and A Dad is Born); all the Shakespeare stuff
Film: I loved Damsels in Distress and hated Moonrise Kingdom, but for everyone else it was the other way round.
Books: Dial 'M' for Murdoch by Tom Watson & Martin Hickman - I cannot get enough of this story for so many reasons. And I continue to love Rupert Everett's memoirs.
Live: Ane Brun (Shepherd's Bush Empire, April 2012); Amanda Applewood (supporting Emmy the Great, QEH, March); Rosanne Cash & John Leventhal (Union Chapel, March); Scritti Politti (Bush Hall, April); Elvis Costello's Spinning Songbook (Royal Albert Hall, May)
Exhibitions: Bronze (Royal Academy); Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist (Queen's Gallery)
Things I liked of late... (this is incredibly piecemeal at the moment; I'll probably tweak and knead it a bit by January)
The Story of Film: An Odyssey 
Holy Flying Circus
The Shadow Line 
Wonders of the Universe 
The Slap 
1. Mark Cousins used to be a funny old stick on Moviedrome and whatnot. I think he was even immortalised in one of Adam & Joe's toy movies, but perhaps I'm thinking of Tom Paulin. He seemed to have vanished from the screens for a decade, but his return in the 15-part Story of Film was cheering. It's hard not to want to see every single film touched on in his epic, partisan survey, and harder still to resist narrative observations of the calibre of: 'Like Ronald Reagan, David Lynch was also afraid of the outside world...'
2. People really hated this, didn't they?
3. Mixed feelings about including this, and mixed feelings about the presenter and his peculiar habit of addressing all his comments to someone slightly to the right of the camera, but Chris Holt's script had astonishing moments. I was haunted by the representation of entropy for days afterwards. Fact: Chris Holt is also a wonderful portrait painter, who popped up in this year's excellent BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery.
4. I have it on good authority that the book is awful, but this adaptation took me quite by surprise. I sometimes think the best any art can do is to make us understand difficult and sometimes horrible people slightly better.
Gerhard Richter: Panorama (Tate Modern)
Gabriel Orozco (Tate Modern)
Ida Kar: Bohemian Photographer / Hoppe: Street Portraits (National Portrait Gallery)
The Cult of Beauty (V&A)
Shape of Things to Come: New Sculpture (Saatchi Gallery)
Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography (Royal Academy)
Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven (Dulwich Picture Gallery)
David Lowery - The Palace Guards
Emmy the Great - Virtue
Snakefarm - My Halo at Half-Light
P J Harvey - Let England Shake
Kate Bush - 50 Words for Snow
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
John Grant & Midlake (Royal Festival Hall, September)
John Grant (100 Club, July)
Pink Martini & BBC Concert Orchestra (Royal Albert Hall, October)
Teddy Thompson (Barbican, March)
Gillian Welch & David Rawlings (Hammersmith Odeon)
Don Patterson - Reading Shakespeare's Sonnets
Stewart Lee - How I Escaped My Certain Fate
1. Not really many novels. I've become the typical 40something who abandons fiction overnight, as recently described by Zoe Williams in the Guardian. And I'm not even 40.
The trouble with push-button publishing is that the effort required is so small, one often forgets to push the button. I compiled this list weeks ago and have only just remembered to activate it, thereby underscoring the Hearsay blog's essentially moribund qualities, like so many blogs. Here goes with a random selection of highlights, complete with various footnotes.
Memory Lane 
The First Day of the Rest of Your Life 
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans
The Kids are All Right
1. Absolutely beautiful French film; my highlight of the London Film Festival. Otherwise apparently unreleased.
2. Shaky, lazy start. Uneven tone. Ultimately magnificent. One of the most moving scenes I can recall witnessing towards the end (in the car).
Christen Kobke (National Gallery)
Celeste Boursier-Mougenot. The Curve (the zebra finches playing the guitars, Barbican, spring)
Chemistry: A Volatile History
Doctor Who 
Ego: The Strange and Wonderful World of the Self-Portrait
The Lady and the Revamp
Renaissance Revolution 
Newsnight Special with Christopher Hitchens
Tropic of Cancer
Amish: World's Squarest Teenagers 
The Genius of Design
The Private Life of Cows/Chickens/Pigs 
The Virtual Revolution 
Mad Men 
Requiem for Detroit
The Great Outdoors
1. Thank god (thank god) Doctor Who is middle-class again. There's only so many times you can see millions of Cybermen taking over a tower block in Wales; give me small-scale sinister duck ponds in the Cotswolds any day. (Incidentally, despite producing about five or six truly great episodes over five years, is there any show of recent years more underwritten and over-wrought, bloated on its self-belief, than the Russell T Davies-era Doctor Who?) I have loved Steven Moffat's writing since I was about 16, I think. I love it still.
2. A little Matthew Collings goes a long way, but this was his most triumphant series to date.
3. I have loved Steven Moffat's writing since I was about 16, I think. I love it still.
4. Hiding behind the awful BBC Three-style title was a lovely little documentary, I kind of expected the Amish kids to be sweet, but I was even happier to see how thoughtful and witty and empathetic the secular British teenagers they stayed with were. No one's interested in nice people from different walks of life getting on, are they? No wonder they had to change the title.
5. Apparently, cows can have up to 70 friends.
6. Really thoughtful, measured analysis of where we're going with all this internet flummery, Amazingly enough, presented by Aleks from Bits, my favourite late-90s computer games review programme, which deserves to be back on! (What happened to Emily and the interchangeable Scandinavian presenters?)
7. After a hazily indulgent third series, this fourth wove a spell worthy of the smartest behavioural psychologist. I've followed the recent debate in the New York Review of Books - a beautifully crafted and persuasive demolition of the show - but I can't resist the allure. Probably the closest viewing equivalent to reading a satisfying novel.
Sophie Zelmani - I'm the Rain
Cowboy Junkies - Remnin Park
Natalie Merchant - Leave Your Sleep
John Grant - Queen of Denmark
Lissie - Catching a Tiger
1. Very few albums compelled me throughout the year. There was plenty on all the above I liked. I've also enjoyed the newish innocence mission and Laurie Anderson releases, even if they provided less of what I normally go to them for. I'll probably add more to this as I think of them and encounter more.
Nick Drake tribute (Barbican, January) / Kate McGarrigle tribute (RFH, June) / The Triffids/David McComb tribute (Barbican, April)
Natalie Merchant (Hammersmith Odeon, May) 
Bettye LaVette (Purcell Room, June)
John Grant (QEH, November)
The Elixir of Love (ENO, March)
1. I was cynical about this before it started, especially with the paucity of arrangements for such a big show - always a heart-sinking moment - but Natalie really pulled it off and the audience went home ecstatic. I'm happy that there was such a rapturous response to poetry set to music with accompanying slide show featuring items from various literary archives. Maybe we're not losing it after all.
This space intentionally left blank. 
1. If only because there are so few reads which have really entranced me this year. Three of my favourite novelists, Anne Michaels, Geoff Dyer and Lorrie Moore, all produced their newest fiction for a decade or so, and all of them, while reassuringly coming from their 1990s voices, struggled to match past efforts. I enjoyed Jake Arnott's silly The Devil's Paintbrush, but lately I've been reading lots of frivolous, bitchy memoirs, and it really wouldn't do to pick out Rachel Johnson's Diary of the Lady, or Gyles Brandreth's Something Sensational to Read in the Train as books of the year, even if they had been fervently recommended by the Stephen Frys and Danny Bakers of the world. I'd never live it down.
Last night I caught myself reading a book called Churchill's Wizards while en route to see the nail-biting bomb-disposal saga The Hurt Locker at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. Ten years ago, I would have been reading something by Carol Shields en route to an Eric Rohmer film. I hope I'm not becoming a version of Mark Corrigan ('Mark Borrigan', say). But perhaps it's more about looking for insight and diversion from a broader range of sources than before. Since I stopped trying to keep up with everything, it's often surprising where truly unexpected delights can be found. Thinking back over this year, for instance, I surprised myself into a conclusion that the tribute to Rodgers & Hart at Cadogan Hall in the summer was possibly one of the most exquisite concerts I've ever attended. You don't need too many new songs when some of the most playful, ingenious and urgent ones (My Romance, It Never Entered My Mind, He Was Too Good to Me, I Could Write a Book, and, especially, the almost other-worldly Where or When) were written in the 1920s, and these were immaculately arranged, and lovingly contextualised. I, and the audience of David Jacobs-alikes, were charmed from the off and I haven't enjoyed live music so much in years. Have I lost everyone, or shall I plough on?
Other things enjoyed (as always, not a best-of list, merely an inventory of delights):
The Russian Linesman/Mark Wallinger - Hayward Gallery
Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite - Royal Academy (the 18 year old in me would have loved this; I was pleased to find I enjoyed it much the same at twice that age)
Astrid Williamson - Here Come the Vikings (flamboyant, complex return to form)
God Help the Girl - God Help the Girl (calculatedly sweet)
Various - Dark Was the Night (heady, arcane)
Various - Cohen: The Scandinavian Report (staggeringly good Cohen covers by many of our Swedish heroes and heroines help us fall in love with old friends all over again)
Emmy the Great - Emmy the Great (manic pixie dream girl makes delightful sounds)
Adventureland (pitch-perfect; loveable; this and the endearing Bandslam make me glad that it's not all Skins lifestyles for Skins viewers; then again, no one actually went to either of these films so perhaps their market is exclusively nostalgic adults)
Broken Embraces (a complex tease - better if you know nothing about it before it starts)
An Education (seductively composed, lovingly cast; and celluloid evidence that a cup of tea and three Custard Creams solve everything for most English people)
The Hurt Locker (astonishingly confident film-making. The strength of this film lies entirely in plunging the viewer, with absolute conviction and mastery, into the mind and body of someone, somewhere, we would never expect to be. Ironically, it was directed by the predictably incredible Kathryn Bigelow, whose ex-husband, James Cameron, has just cleaned up with bloated, hokey 70s sci-fi rubbish based on a premise involving inhabiting others' bodies.)
That five-part misanthropic Torchwood extravaganza was surprisingly entertaining and provocative. Usually Torchwood has the rare feat of being even more embarrassing, overwrought and clunky than Doctor Who (and, let's face it, chasing aliens in Cardiff isn't necessarily any cooler or more inherently dramatic than delivering milk in Basingstoke). But it was fun to see 70s-style moral complexity and misanthropy seeping into prime-time television. There was so much other great stuff on TV this year, I'll never remember it all. Intelligent programming like Horizon, Storyville and True Stories clamour for my attention regularly, to the extent that I almost feel obliged to watch them irrespective of subject matter. And I now feel about BBC Four the way I used to feel about GLR - that it alone justifies the licence fee. Micro Men and Desperate Romantics both caught the tone of hyper-real, irreverent biography; the many series of programmes (Electric Dreams, Games Britannia etc) offered schedules stuffed with treats. Special mention to that episode of Timewatch Blitz: The Bombing of Coventry - heart-warming one moment, heart-mangling the next. Wonderland is an almost-worthy successor to the 1990s Modern Times, and the episode I Won University Challenge was sweetly fraternal. The poetry season produced many touching moments, including the moving My Life in Poetry by Robert Webb and Sheila Hancock, both of which reminded me of the hothouse earnestness of English A-level classes. Elsewhere, Charlie Brooker is spreading himself too thinly, but continues to perform an essential function in society. Finally, although most TV programmes are far too long these days (to pack out the infinite schedules), the repeated Arena interview with Orson Welles managed to be far too short at three hours and was probably the best thing on TV throughout the Christmas season.
I haven't read the books I meant to read this year, but having waited fifteen years for a new Lorrie Moore novel, I can wait a few more months till The Gate at the Stairs appears in paperback. Among the random proof copies I picked up, would say Paolo Giordano's The Solitude of Prime Numbers was my number 1 book of the year (and numbers 3, 7, 11 and 13). And the targets of Tom Perotta's The Abstinence Teacher might have been obvious but were decorously picked off. Francine Prose's Goldengrove had one of the loveliest final chapters of any book I've read in the last decade and is the first book I've ever read on the tube which has caused a fellow passenger to grab me to discuss it with me, excitedly.
Enron offered everything I expect from theatre and so rarely get - complex issues presented in the form almost of an hallucinatory altered state, to reach a kind of understanding straight fiction and documentary alike can only skirt. In its own way, Red, a series of fictionalised spirited debates between Rothko and his studio assistant, did the same thing - setting up argument and letting it run, unresolved, as if the flames in the crucible are their own reward.
I'm not much of a gamer, but Assassin's Creed II was just beautiful.
Ultra Culture offers the perfect response to the kind of films emerging right now, and in a manner the internet demands. I am very happy that it is produced by someone who has only just finished his A levels. The antithesis of the Ultra Culture mode of criticism is epitomised by the venerable Roger Ebert, whose reviews I still always enjoy and still nearly always disagree with. But since he lost the power of speech, his blog has become a constantly provocative and engaging source of wisdom and debate - fiery and frank, the broader range enables him to speak louder than ever.
I’ve been sitting at the computer for a while now, trying to write this blog post. I’m reminded of something Neil said to me the other day when we were discussing the Hearsay website. He pointed out that neither of us have ever got the hang of blogging – we can’t grasp the fact that you are just supposed to freeform thoughts. We both want to write ‘finished articles’ and maybe that’s why our blog posts are so few and far between.
Anyway, there’s no way this is going to be a finished article because I’ll never get my thoughts in a coherent order, and rather than writing nothing at all I’d rather just attempt to freeform and maybe some insights will come out of it. What I want to write about is the death of the wonderful singer and songwriter Kate McGarrigle, earlier this week, when she lost her long battle with cancer. I heard the news while I was at work, and it floored me. The world has, of course, lost an extremely talented musician, but that alone couldn’t explain my reaction and my clear need to write this post. Also, it’s not as if Kate was the first of that exclusive bunch of Hearsay singer-songwriters to shuffle off this mortal coil. David McComb, Grant McLennan and, most recently, Vic Chesnutt have all left us. I never got to meet either David McComb or Grant McLennan, but Vic gave us a memorable interview, and a most idiosyncratic performer has left the building. But Kate McGarrigle was something else.
The interview Pete and I conducted with her and her sister Anna in the summer of 1997 was perhaps the most wonderful of my entire Hearsay career. It came right at the height of the magazine’s success and seemed to be the interview I had been building up to, the one where our idiosyncratic questioning technique found its match in our subjects, and the result was bizarre, slightly crazy, but full of insight and often beautiful.
More than this, however, it felt as though we were being admitted, however briefly, into that wonderful Wainwright-McGarrigle musical family. The interview took place in Kate and Anna’s hotel room, rather than some anonymous lobby or record company office, and they took most of the afternoon to just sit, chat and laugh with us about any and everything. It wasn’t really an interview, more a wonderful conversation, and I think they enjoyed it as much as we did.
The family nature of the affair was enforced when they told us about the making of the upcoming debut album by Kate’s son Rufus Wainwright, giving us a glimpse into what (although we didn’t know it then) was a career that would go on to equal, or perhaps even eclipse, that of his famous parents. They then introduced us to daughter Martha and we took her down to the Twelve Bar Club on Denmark Street, to introduce her to the proprietor, whom we knew from playing gigs there ourselves, and secured her her first solo London gig. The following day, we bumped into them all heading to their Festival Hall gig and waved a big hello.
I’m not saying all this to name-drop; simply because what I loved most about that family was the way they epitomised an honourable tradition of wandering family music-makers, a folk tradition that stretches back over centuries but is almost entirely absent from the modern commercial music world. To be admitted into that circle, however briefly, was a rare and magical privilege. Of course, back in those days, the likes of Rufus and Martha would tour with Kate and Anna during the summers, visiting folk festivals on extended holidays, and play and sing on stage together. In more recent years, especially since the diagnosis of Kate’s cancer and the burgeoning careers of Rufus and Martha, Kate would be more likely to be witnessed joining one of her children on stage to provide backing or to sing one or two of her own classic songs. The roles were reversed but the tradition, and the balance, was exactly the same.
I’m not sure Kate McGarrigle ever quite got the respect and acclaim she deserved as a songwriter and singer. In many ways, her career was overshadowed by the existence her family – her ex-husband Loudon Wainwright III, her children, the fact that she made her albums with her sister; although of course Anna McGarrigle is an equally talented songwriter in her own right. I think what I am saying is that, for Kate McGarrigle, making music wasn’t about being a star, or about ego – it was just a joyful communal activity that she happened to be exceptionally good at. The fact that her music-making happened in the public arena was almost neither here nor there, but we can all be extremely grateful that it did.
When we interviewed the McGarrigles, the subject of mortality came up quite a bit, largely because it was a recurring theme on their then-current album, Matapedia. Kate ended the interview by saying something quite wonderful, that epitomised her attitude to family and to music and to life and, I think, means that the seeds of her music, which she got from her own parents, will never die. She said, "My father died 31 years ago and my son went into his closet and found one of his sweaters – we leave our parents’ clothes hanging in the closet – and… Rufus went in and took out the sweater and said ‘hey mom, can I wear this?’ They’re wearing the clothes, they’ll see a jacket, a coat, a hat… and that’s immortality. That’s life.”
I think she was talking about more than clothes. I think she was talking about music, about songs or – even more than that – about the way that nothing ever quite ends. The way Kate McGarrigle lived is the way we all should live, doing what we love most, sharing it, passing it on, not caring for convention or what others might think. Making music is about being alive and, cliché it may be, through her music Kate McGarrigle will never die.
Now we are old, I’ve been thinking a lot about the virtues of re-discovery over discovery. It was very easy, years ago, to be exhilarated by a constant supply of new talent and new music, and to have a powerful motivation to go out and discover it. The sensations are almost addictive, the compulsion more biological than intellectual. The younger me loved a lot of stuff, and loved how I loved it. But with each passing year, newness in itself is less and less appealing, while older things improve with age, as the relationship I have with music I listened to 20 years ago becomes more layered and nuanced, amplifying and re-casting the music itself. I still buy crate-loads of new CDs, but I’m often taken by surprise when I realise how much more interested I am in, say, a box set of Nina Simone’s 1960s recordings for Philips, or in upgrading some of my cassettes (cassettes!) from the 1980s and 90s, than I am in buying whatever 6music tells me to like. I wonder if music really was so much better in the early 90s Hearsay era than it is now, or if I have just heard enough. I’m reminded of how Victor Lewis-Smith once remarked that old people like to grumble that you can’t get a decent floury potato these days, oblivious of the fact that this was the result of their atrophying tastebuds rather than a decline in farming standards. So perhaps it's me: the raw nerve endings which were so fired up by the talent I used to review have become clogged and furred, the limbic system all calcified, unable to respond with the vehemence it once produced.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that there are still a few things I have really loved in the nine years since we ceased publication, and I want to itemise them here. It tends to be certain albums which really compel me these days, rather than favourite artists, so the following is more a recommendation of specific listens which have excited me in the way the older stuff used to. I’m not attempting to review anything here. If you’re interested, you can just listen to them on Spotify.
Artists I didn’t know during the Hearsay era, who have made magnificent albums I have loved in its wake (if the mag were still going, we would be heavily evangelising them):
Sarah Harmer – You Were Here
Oh Susannah – Sleepy Little Sailor
Death Cab for Cutie – Plans
Hem – Rabbit Songs
Trespassers William – Different Stars
Maximilian Hecker - Rose
Keren Ann - Keren Ann
[shamefully] Hearsay artists I didn’t fully enjoy or appreciate during the Hearsay era, but who subsequently made albums I completely love:
Britta Phillips and Dean Wareham – L’Avventura
Paula Frazer – Leave the Sad Things Behind
Cat Power – The Covers Record
Duncan Sheik – Daylight
Josh Rouse - 1972
Big names, brilliant records:
Anne Sofie von Otter and Elvis Costello – For the Stars
Laurie Anderson – Life on a String
Kate Bush – Aerial
Hearsay artists redux
It's startlingly difficult just to compile a list of recommended artists by classic Hearsay artists as so many of them, heartbreakingly, just don't make proper albums any more. Some seem to have stopped releasing altogether, others have been distracted by self-released side-lines. Of those we interviewed, I can vouch that I've continued to enjoy recent work of many of them. If I had to compile, cautiously, a list of especially rewarding releases of old friends, it would contain:
I've been listening to Sophie Zelmani a lot for the past few weeks. Correction: I've been listening to Sophie Zelmani a lot for the past thirteen years. I record this here in semi-disbelief at the fact that you can buy a poorly packaged box set of her first five albums for around £12.00 on Amazon marketplace, which would be the bargain of the decade if people nowadays didn't settle for streamed or copied music for free. If you still like physical artefacts such as CDs (and, incidentally, how did we move so quickly from the CD to wholesale digital files, torn (okay, ripped) from their context and intention?), I highly recommend it. I discovered Sophie Zelmani back in the days when I felt obliged to buy every new album from every new enigmatic female singer-songwriter to review in Hearsay. I would love to say I instantly knew she was something special, that on first listen she announced herself as someone distinct from the pack, her faltering delivery and slightly disjointed lyrics aspiring almost by accident to the revelatory, but in fact her self-titled debut was only okay. I do remember one moment, I'd Be Broken, reducing me to tears in Basingtoke town centre as it filtered through my Walkman headphones on the hottest day of 1996, when the concrete around seemed to be vibrating, but that was an exception on an album that was pleasant if unremarkable. The fact certain songs turned up on Dawson's Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer pegs it immediately as a certain mid 90s vibe, as innocuous as it was heartfelt.
Zelmani almost immediately lost her international profile but retreated to her native Sweden where she has quietly released one album every two years, almost all of which are magnificent. The change was apparent immediately with her second album Precious Burden. Everything had curled in on itself to better look outward: the spectral yet confident, deeply and almost profoundly acoustic arrangements all announcing something both transient and timeless. The packaging, with frosted CD case and Anton Corbijn photos recapitulated the confidence within. The title track (about loving someone beyond death, and with pride) was unbearably moving and the overall mood haunted. I remember playing it to Hearsay compadres Pete and Dan one evening when they pleasingly gatecrashed my bachelor pad. They assumed it was an undiscovered Carla Torgerson solo album. Precious Burden established a pattern which Zelmani has repeated with little deviation since, although for a while each album managed to top its predecessor, culminating in Sing and Dance (2001) which is a heady distillation of her greatest styles, a faultless listen, and a record I return to again and again for the kind of nourishment and wisdom I only normally get from the likes of the innocence mission, Cat Power and Kate Bush. Actually, in common with the innocence mission and, to some extent, Mark Kozelek, Zelmani inhabits a peculiar space in terms of artistic ambition. There is a very clear formula to follow, a limited palette deployed, aurally and thematically, and a corresponding risk of repetition or flatlining. Yet neither occurs. Rather each album adds up to a far greater whole; there is a passionate intention behind the works, a questing need for endless refinement. They all sound the same in much the same way that, say, all Hokusai prints look the same. Zelmani's breathy vocals, which sometimes fail and crack, together with her English-as-second-language lyrics, fumble and explore, stumbling into truth, accidentally summarising and challenging, in a way that leaves the listener feeling flattered as confidante, encouraged as soulmate. After a couple of less special records (Love Affair and Memory Loves You), her most recent effort, The Ocean and Me, propelled her back to a compulsive listen. The first six tracks in sequence form a lovely encapsulation of her moods and styles; they are as good as anything she has recorded.
I have never seen her live. I would have loved to have interviewed her for Hearsay. She is intimate and inscrutable. I know nothing about Sophie Zelmani and yet I feel she is a great friend. Please disregard this post. I want her all to myself.
Well, it’s been a while since I wrote anything here. Nothing on the amount of time between latter issues of Hearsay, of course, but still a bit too long. Having said that, mind you, I have absolutely no idea if anyone is reading this.
I find the concept of blogging very odd. Some blogs that I regularly check, particularly those belonging to singer-songwriters I love, seem to get updated so infrequently that they hardly contain news at all. More often than not the most recent post is the one promoting ‘my new album’ nine months or more down the line. Equally, I have a few artistic/creative friends who blog, and I look at these to get a sense of what they’ve been up to. These blogs seem to get updated almost daily and I can’t take it all in - it’s a case of information overload.
It’s very hard to write without any idea of your audience, or even if there is one. Some people blog for the outside world, others seem to do it as an exercise for themselves, an aide to getting their thoughts in order. If I had the career of a Hearsay-style songwriter I think I’d want to use my blog as a machine for really giving dedicated fans an insight into works in progress. I’d write once a week and say things like “we had the string sessions for the new album this afternoon. The arrangements were going to be done by the world renowned Nelson Riddell but at the last minute I decided to have a go at doing them myself. You’ll hear the results sometime later this summer but, I have to say, they soar like a rainbow.”
If any reader out there knows anyone Hearsay-esque who genuinely blogs in this way then please do drop me a line and let me know. I’d love to read great musician blogs because I love the whole process of how music is made.
Of course, the whole concept of ‘my new album’ many months (or even years) down the line is a curiously modern phenomenon. I find it fantastically strange that in this day of instant downloading, the democracy of the internet, artists taking control of their careers and all of that, that it actually takes people so much longer to make and release music than it used to. I have here beside me a biography of Dolly Parton, complete with album discography. To pick but one random year, in 1970 the estimable Ms Parton released six albums – in February, March, April, July, August and November. Even accounting for the fact that one of those was a greatest hits set and another was a live album, that’s still the kind of output that is utterly unimaginable today.
I understand how, at the height of the major label era during the 1980s and 1990s, it was deemed commercially necessary to make an expensive album, release six singles from it and tour it right around the world before taking time off and then starting writing the next one. But surely no creative artist actually liked working like that? Surely the creative people are, by definition, creative. They want to create. They burst with ideas. Now that so many great Hearsay-esque artists have their careers in their own hands, why aren’t they making music? Lots of music! All kinds of music! Where are the string quartets, the rock operas, the demo collections? Sadly, it hasn’t really happened like that.
Actually, I wonder if too much freedom might be bad for the artist. Now people can make whatever records they want whenever they want, record cheaply and professionally at home, release instantly via the internet, it’s all a bit daunting. After all, Hearsay is exactly the same. I now have a forum to write whatever article I wish whenever I want to write it and publish it instantly. I could review any album I wanted. It doesn’t even have to be new. I could write an article tracing the use of religious metaphor in the works of Leonard Cohen or the use of the synthesizer in the albums of seminal singer-songwriters during the 1980s. And what do I actually write? Barely anything.
The internet is a strange thing – too much information is available to us and yet not nearly as much as we sometimes want. Too much music is suddenly available at the click of a mouse and yet people aren’t producing half as much as we really wish they would. Maybe, to bring proceedings to a very clumsy close with a totally unnecessary and conservative song reference, George Michael was right when he sang “I don’t want your freedom.”
Fanzines enter (poorly photocopied, hand-drawn) pages of history, apparently. Nice. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/7908705.stm
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