Posts from 22nd December 2005

22
Dec 05

Big Mouth & Ugly Girl by Joyce Carol Oates

The Brown Wedge5 comments • 3,660 views

There’s never been another writer anything like Oates, and although she is clearly immensely admired and respected, I don’t think she is as treasured as she should be. She is – no contest – the most prolific serious literary writer ever, by a very long way, which is striking enough even if you don’t know that many of her books are large, nearly all of them are very intensely wrought in terms of feeling and prose, and they are extremely varied, as if she is always needing to stretch herself.

This book is her first aimed at ‘young adults’, the blurb tells me. I’m not terribly clear as to what that means, whether such a sector exists, but this is a little less intense than usual, in some ways, a little lighter. Normally her prose has the demanding gravitas and potency of a Faulkner or Patrick White, but this has less weight and more bounce and light. She’s retained all of the strength of feeling and richness of character from her heftier old-adult novels – the Big Mouth of the title is a teenage boy who makes some cracks at school that are reported to the police as death threats. He’s in the line of a number of other Oates characters for whom one incident turns them into legends, if only on a local scale (and this of course fits with her fascination with Monroe, as in the magnificent fictionalised bio Blonde), and she’s terrific on the image and the reality, the outside and the inside. The Ugly Girl is a really remarkable character, strong and complex and rich and unique and familiar, one of the most impressive creations I’ve read in years, sad and impressive and difficult. Not all that much happens after the opening incident kicks things into gentle motion, but it’s packed with beautifully incisive moments, with a fine and deep grasp of how social issues at school can cut and burn you.

I adore Joyce Carol Oates always, whatever she is writing about. It’s an analogy that’s hard to defend in any depth, but this book feels to me rather like a deeply serious towering rock albums artist suddenly making a great pop single. I enjoyed it immensely, and I’m sure anyone else would too.

A Top Ten

FT + New York London Paris Munich1 comment • 2,649 views

Oddly enough I’m feeling happier about music, and writing about music, than I have for a couple of years. 2006 is going to be a treat: I want to get there quickly, not look back.

So I got a machine to look back for me. I was a late iPod adopter but it’s come in useful, and it has a neat little feature which counts up how often I’ve played each track on it. So this Top 10 is quite simply the ten current tracks I’ve listened to most. I left out one record – Inaya Day’s “Nasty Girl” – because it was on my wife’s playlists more than mine – but otherwise this seems an accurate half of a story.

That half of the story happened in my living room, and among my fellow message-board co-dependents. The other half happened away from headphones, further out in the world, finding or rediscovering or refreshing places for music to happen to me. Places like:

– Seattle, for the EMP conference. Jetlag and a hectic schedule meant I didn’t spend as much time with the people I met as I’d planned, but the event reminded me how exciting thinking about music can be (and also how boring it sometimes is).

– My office. I’m lucky enough to work with people who I actually like, and who like music enough to argue with me about it. Working there has made me explain things I’d dismissed as obvious and like things I’d simply dismissed. I’m also lucky enough to work at a place that has the radio on all day. Maybe it’s obvious – to everyone but me-as-was – but listening to the radio makes you a better pop critic.

– Poptimism. I’ve been DJing at club nights for a few years but Poptimism was the one that ‘clicked’, won its own crowd, and turned briefly into something special. To have it suddenly taken away was more than just irritating, but even if we don’t find a new venue in ’06 (and we will), it was a joy to do it, to give physical meaning and expression to our ideas about music, and to get ghastly drunk on cheap wine. Thanks to Steve, Pete and Alan, and thanks to everyone who came and joined in too.

10. Uniting Nations – You And Me: In Feburary I played for 300 or so people at my work company party. It was corny white-collar fuxx like me dancing badly to predictable records, but that didn’t make the delight we all took in filter-disco floorfillers any less glorious. “You And Me” hadn’t been released then but it makes me think of that night when the double-hit drums come in for the chorus.

9. tATu – All About Us: So the lesbian stuff turned out to be a (very profitable) metaphor for indivisibility, the suffocating dangerous closeness of a hyperbolic teenage friendship. The kind of desperate friendship which even as a teen you probably didn’t have but one could recognise anyhow. One of those records that makes me imagine that I might be in a film and that it might end, thrillingly, badly.

8. Field Music – You Can Decide: A song I was surprised to find on the list, I assume I listened to it a lot for Stylus’ Singles Jukebox UK, trying to find an angle. I probably failed and gave it a 6. Stylus gets a good deal of online flak for many reasons – some good – but I’m grateful to it for letting me write uncomplicated silly singles reviews when I needed to. Field Music as I remember make a gentle, slightly fastidious noise which is difficult to dislike or love.

7. Roll Deep – The Avenue: The vibe here is a pop musical, Summer Holiday or something, big characters bursting into rhyme just because they can. At first it sounded ridiculous and clumsy but it seems to have lasted just through exhuberance. “Feel a sharp pain in my left tit” – that’s the best bit.

6. Madonna – Hung Up (Stewart Price Extended Remix Dub): this is the best version, you get more of the ABBA (make that sample pay its way!) and less of the Madonna, which is how I like it. And Price makes the ABBA record tease in a way which is enjoyably un-ABBA-ish. I’ve only heard the Madonna album once but it reminds me of the ‘song-poem’ phenomena somehow.

5. Robyn – Konichiwa Bitches: I was sure Fannypack’s “718” would end up here, since I’ve been glibly saying it’s my favourite song of the year, but apparently far from it. “Konichiwa Bitches” nods to Fannypack in its closing lines and sounds like a charming home-brewed tribute to pop-hop. It got so many listens because of its payoff, when Robyn finally brings in the synths. It also became a huge cult favourite at work, which made me very pleased.

4. Missy Elliot – Lose Control (Jacques Lu Cont Mix): This is my wife’s favourite record of the year, and I played it even more in our car. She likes the opening couplets – “Cute face / chubby waist / thick legs / in shape” – I like the way Jacques Lu Cont has been so ruthless at stripping out Missy’s old-skoolisms for something more Euro-relevant, a sleek synthpop attack with a rough bootleg edge.

3. Rachel Stevens – Nothing Good About This Goodbye: I’ve listened to this track most because it’s Rachel’s best performance. So many people have mentioned her lack of personality that it’s become a cliche but it works in her favour here – she needs to sound bruised, subdued, slightly crushed, and she does.

2. Girls Aloud – “Biology”: If the year were a few months longer we’d see “Models”, “Wild Horses” et al. on the list too. “Biology” is a hard track to do justice to – its infectious confidence lets it get away with its structural chutzpah, and the tricks and easter eggs never get in the way of the song’s momentum. I especially like how the brazen blues intro is the part that repeats later, dropped in as if to say, “Well, now do you see what it was doing there?”. This is a walking through London song, I try and make sure it’s the last thing playing when I reach the pub.

1. The Killers – “Mr Brightside (Thin White Duke Remix)”: I was surprised to see this top my list but it makes sense – I listened to it incessantly when I heard it, and rarely switch it off now, it’s made the switch from inspiring to comfortable without ever slipping through ‘annoying’. When I started my new job the original “Mr Brightside” was barely off the radio and I grew to hate it, for reasons I can’t remember. All I hear now when I think of the original is what this remix found in it, qualities I’d hardly noticed myself. The remix slows it down, lets it flower into an epic of self-regarding heroic woe, vanity in vain, which might only be a stately bore but the beats give it just enough momentum and direction. It ends up in some unsought sweet spot between “Jungleland” and a ZTT 12″.

So that’s what I listened to this year.