Friday, 31 December 2010

Hogmanay Treat 2010...

As Mr Scott raises a bottle in celebration of the old year and the promise of the new a wee song to see you into that New Year, and I can't think of a more apposite one than Donald in the Bushes with a Bag of Glue by Ballboy.

With or without bushes and glue I hope everyone has a great evening and a Happy 2011.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Top 5 Scottish albums of 2010...

Picking my favourite five Scottish albums of the year is usually a straightforward affair, but this was a particularly top 12 months for Scottish music and there this has been a difficult selection to make. So apologies to Burnt Island, Lloyd Cole, Meursault, The Scottish Enlightenment, Belle and Sebastian and Mitchell Museum all of whom were close to inclusion. Here are those who made it:

1) Teenage Fanclub's Shadows is their best since 1997's Songs From Northern Britain. It doesn't  break any new ground, and nor would we want it to. Nobody is as good as being Teenage Fanclub as Teenage Fanclub, despite the best efforts of others. For the full review click here Out of the Shadows... This is one of the tracks of the year, it's Sometimes I Don't Need to Believe in Anything:

2)Steve Mason: Boy's Outside. When fellow blogger and music industry tycoon Peenko asked me to vote for my top 5 albums of the year for the 2010 BAMS (the link to which you can find in the far column), this is the one that I forgot about, and I can't believe that was the case. I've probably played it more than any other album this year bar John Grant's Queen of Denmark. For all those who miss the Beta Band, Boy's Outside will help, and the full review can be found here; Outside Now...  Here he is with an acoustic version of the beautiful All Come Down:

3) I Build Collapsible Mountains: A Month of Lost Memories. From the stable of the aforementioned Peenko came Luke Joyce's solo project. I loved it from first listen and I think you might as well. To read a longer review go to I Build Collapsible Mountains... This is a live version of Rails:

4)Admiral Fallow: Boots Met My Face. This was a late entry as I didn't get my copy until just before Christmas, but it's what I've been mostly listening to since. There were lots of fantastic, melodic, music made this year which featured harmonies and the unexpected return of the flute, but Admiral Fallow just saw off the other contenders. This is from their performance at T in the Park, and it's Subbuteo:

5)Edwyn Collins: Losing Sleep. You can't listen to Edwyn Collins' latest album without your mind going to the struggles he has been through recently, but after a while you simply concentrate on the music and this is a terrific record, one of his very best. You can read the full review here Back to the Old School...  and watch the video for the nostalgic You'll Never Know below:

So that's it for another year.
Just in case any one's wondering, my top five non-Scots albums were:
1)John Grant: The Queen of Denmark
2)Elvis Costello: National Ransom
3)Kisses: The Heart of the Nightlife
4)Eels: End Times
5)Avi Buffalo: Avi Buffalo
Every one a peach. Have a great Hogmanay and I'll see you on the other side.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Top 5 Scottish Fiction 2010...

This year saw some of Scotland's big name writers publish new fiction and it's perhaps unsurprising that they dominate this end of year round up. There were lots of new voices that appeared in print, but these were mostly to be found in one or more of the year's short story collections, the pick of which was Cargo's The Year of Open Doors. Other novels which just failed to make this list include Robert Alan Jamieson's Da Happie Laand and Alice Thompson's The Existential Detective. Here are the five that did:

1) One of the most iconic Scottish novels of the last 20 years was Alan Warner's The Sopranos. It is a better novel than his highly regarded début Morvern Callar and although 2006's The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven was a return to form after the poor The Man Who Walks, I was worried when I heard that he was about to publish a follow up to The Sopranos. The Stars in the Bright Sky is not as good as the earlier novel, but it comes close in places. One of the criticisms of Warner's work, that he is sensationalist and extreme, is precisely what makes him one of the best writers around. He captures individual voices so that they stand out while sharing a collective history, and even if the situations are unlikely; Warner has always professed that he writes to entertain. The characters that we are familiar with from The Sopranos are older, but barely wiser, and it feels like catching up with old friends. There are problems, but this was the most enjoyable novel of the year. You can read my full review here: The Girls are Back in Town... .

2) While many of Warner's central characters are women, to date all of Louise Welsh's protagonists are male. To Rilke in The Cutting Room, Philip Marlowe in Tamburlaine Must Die and William Wilson in The Bullet Trick there can now be added Dr Murray Watson in this year's Naming the Bones. It is Welsh's most straightforward thriller, but it is still full of unexpected imagery and characters. Where Welsh is most successful is in capturing a sense of place and making the familiar disturbing. Edinburgh, Glasgow University and the Isle of Lismore are all used and twisted to add to the drama. Naming the Bones is this year's best page turner, and the full review can be found here: Naming the Bones... .

3) James Kelman has had a controversial couple of years even by his standards. His last novel Kieron Smith, boy won critical plaudits and awards, and was arguably his best novel since the mid-90s, but apparently sales were poor, a situation that probably led to his getting stuck in to 'genre' fiction and the importance it was given in Scotland at the 2009 Edinburgh Book Festival. While many saw this as sour grapes it did instigate an important discussion of the role and worth of literature in our culture. After all this his latest collection of short stories arrived this year with the briefest of fanfares. That's a shame because Kelman is a master of the form, and if it is your life is as good as any of his previous collections. As I mentioned earlier, there were a few great short story collections this year but none matched the consistent quality of Kelman, proving once again that he is one of the most important writers Scotland has, or has ever had. We should not forget this. The longer review of if it is you life can be found here: Kelman Shorts... .

4) The most enjoyable surprise of the year was Kevin MacNeil's A Method Actor's Guide to Jekyll and Hyde. I say surprise as it's always a little worrying when 'Jekyll and Hyde' is named in a book's title. We are primed to expect that there will be questions surrounding the nature of good v's evil, the supernatural v's science and that the thorny question of 'doubling' in Scottish culture will be raised, a theory which has surely been flogged to within an inch of its life in the last 200 years. MacNeil's novel deals with all these things and more, but it is so much more than simply a rehash of Stevenson's tale, or another homage to James Hogg's 'Justified Sinner'. Rather it is a modern story of guilt, revenge, jealousy and the desire for celebrity. The final section caused me to review everything I had just read, and that is a rare and refreshing thing these days. The full review can be found here: Dr Jekyll and Mr MacNeil... .

5) All of the above books were well written and diverting, but the most impressive novel of the year, and perhaps the best Scottish novel of the last five years, arrived at the end of 2010 from James Robertson. And the Land Lay Still is the epic novel that Scotland has been waiting for. Spanning 60 years it deals with post-war Scotland's history, culture and politics in a manner that many other writers wouldn't  consider, or even want to. Much of Scottish literature is concerned with the difficulties of life for the individual, and through their struggles we are faced with wider social and political questions. That applies to all of the writers above. Realistically, in terms of contemporary Scottish writers, only Kelman, Alasdair Gray or perhaps Allan Massie would attempt a novel on this scale, and they would be strikingly different books. Robertson has built up as fine a back catalogue as any modern writer, and it seems as if he has been building up to And the Land Lay Still

There will be a full review of And the Land Lay Still in the New Year, but if you are looking for a novel to lose yourself in after Christmas excesses then this is the one. This list is not in any order of merit, but there has not been a better, or more important, novel written in Scotland in the last 12 months, and I don't expect there to be in the next. I hope I'm proved wrong, but it seems unlikely. But if the quality of writing next year comes close to 2010 we will all be spoiled.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

'He Just Wasn't Made for Those Times', Stuart Adamson: In A Big Country...

It's perhaps difficult to sufficiently express just how popular Big Country were for a few years in the mid-1980s. Albums went straight to number 1, there were regular Top of the Tops appearances, they were lauded in music publications from pop paper Smash Hits to the weekly NME and Melody Maker and were also well-liked and respected by many of  their peers. For a while few had a bad word to say. Even if the music wasn't your particular thing people appreciated that there was an honesty about how and what they played. But this critical approval disappeared extraordinarily quickly. There were multiple reasons for this, from the lazy reviews concentrating on their 'bagpipes and tartan' stylings, through their accidental omission from Live Aid, where their rightly admired live show would have been a highlight, to include some bad decisions in terms of producers. Allan Glen's new biography of guitarist and singer Stuart Adamson: In A Big Country honestly, and concisely, covers all of these and all the other incredible highs and lows of Adamson's life. It's a fascinating story that will appeal to more people than just those who are fans of his music.

Although Adamson appears like a single minded character, his life and music are defined by the various partnerships that he entered into, both professional and personal. The depiction that comes across is that Adamson had a love/hate relationship with other people, or rather he needed, and desired, these relationships to create the music that was in his head, but was frustrated that this necessarily meant he had to compromise his vision. He was by instinct the leader of those bands he was involved in, but by ideology he wanted them to be socialist democracies; creative collectives. The tensions between these two positions were perhaps at the root of the problems he would encounter throughout his life.

The first significant partnership began when the young Adamson saw lead singer potential in fellow Fifer  Richard Jobson. Together they fronted the Skids and what Glen makes clear, often through the testimony of others, is that they remain one of the more influential acts to come out of Scotland in the late 1970's. Here they are with one of their best tracks, Charade. You can see the two characters playing their own roles. Jobson the hyperactive gobshite who seemed to be challenging the audience to a square go, and Adamson the serious muso, exploring the riffs that would make him famous:

The major part of the biography is taken up by the story of Adamson's next band Big Country. They seemed to arrive perfectly formed, or you felt that they'd been around for years. With the benefit of hindsight, the success of their début The Crossing was actually the beginning of the end for Big Country, at least in terms of critical success. They would release two other hit albums, Steeltown and the more 'mystic' The Seer. Both sold well, making numbers 1 and 2 in the chart respectively, and another five albums would be made that had diminishing returns. Although the band kept a committed and sizable core of fans who to this day see them as life enhancing, their popularity shrank. Even those fans would admit that it was the sound of that début that overshadowed the rest of their career, unfairly so, something that Allan Glen makes clear.

Even with their recording career beginning to falter, the place they always made the most sense was live on stage, and that would never change. They were one of those live acts that would blow the roof off a venue, something that was rare from bands from the image obsessed 80s. The following clips are from a famous Hogmany show at the Glasgow Barrowlands at the end of 1983. The first track is the rousing Harvest Home, their first ever single, and a song that shows off the often underrated rhythm section that is Tony Butler on bass and Mark Brzezicki belting the life out of  his drums. This is followed by the anthemic In A Big Country, the song which gave Allan Glen the title of  his book and broke the band around the world. It's an epic rock song that builds to an exultant end: 

These clips express perfectly what fans loved and critics hated about Big Country. The tartan scarves, the backdrop of  cardboard Munros, the duelling guitars, and imagery of the croft. They had such a strong identity that it was bound to split people. Again it can be said that one of their strengths eventually came to work against them. What comes across so clearly when you read the biography and consider their career is that Adamson understood music but seemed to be misled in the ways of the music business, although some of their latter lack of success was simply down to bad timing. But that original line-up of Adamson, Watson, Butler and Brzezicki were as tight a unit as could be found at that time.

One of the most interesting sections of the book are the mid-chapters where Adamson continued to write incredibly moving songs that, by this point, hardly anyone was listening to. That in itself must have broken his heart. Here is one of those songs, one which features Eddi Reader on backing vocals. 

The final chapters of In a Big Country are really emotional as Glen sets out the last movements of Adamson before his death. I have to say that I could have done without the detailed coroner's report, but Glen captures the sense of helplessness and loss that others felt when Adamson went missing, then the depth of feeling at his death. Many friends, family and other musicians are quoted as they eulogise Adamson's life and work. The most concise but precise comes from U2's guitarist The Edge who simply said 'He had a heart as big as a mountain'. That is what Adamson brought to The Skids and Big Country, 'heart'. It often makes us uncomfortable when we encounter someone who cares this much, but have a look again at the crowd at the Barras in '83 (above), that's a celebration, and that's what Allan Glen's book is about. It's a celebration of a man who cared too much, someone who wasn't able to turn the emotion off. Listening to those early records again while reading In A Big Country made me realise that Scottish music misses him more than it realises. Allan Glen has written a biography that serves as a timely reminder of this.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Kevin MacNeil Competition Winners...

Thanks to everyone who entered the competition to win a signed copy of Kevin MacNeil's fantastic novel A Method Actor's Guide to Jekyll and Hyde.

The question was: In R.L.Stevenson's original story, what are the first names respectively of  Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde?
And the answer is, as everyone who entered knew: Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde.

I have just pulled the winning names from my old bunnet and the lucky people are Kirsty Neary and Graham Leary (the rhyming nature of the winners is pure, if pleasing, coincidence). Congratulations to both of you, you'll be getting the book as soon as the weather will allow.

Keep a look out for future competitions on Scots Whay Hae! and there will be a chance to win a signed copy of Kevin MacNeil's début novel The Stornoway Way when next month's Indelible Ink column appears at dearscotland on the first Monday of the New Year.

You Have Been Watching...Comfort and Joy

Apologies for repeating myself because I've looked briefly at Bill Forsyth's Comfort and Joy in the past, but it is a film worth considering in greater detail. Also, I wanted to concentrate on a great Scottish film set at Christmas and they are few and far between, but Comfort and Joy is just that. This is his most 'serious' film, dealing with one man's mid-life crisis and territorial gang wars. But this is Forsyth so we are not going to have   Bergmanesque silences or Scorsese like violence. What we do get amongst the angst is ice-cream fritters, seasonal shoplifting, pokey hats on the upholstery, kunzle cakes (remember those?), 'thrifty pops' and the comedian Arnold Brown as a naval, and sex, obsessed psychiatrist. 

Bill Patterson plays Alan 'Dickie' Bird, an early morning DJ whose tempestuous relationship with the beautiful, unpredictable, Maddy comes to a sudden and unexpected end, at least unexpected to him. This leads to a re-evaluation of his life which he sees as empty without Maddy, and he decides to make changes. The following scene where Maddy leaves their home is beautifully played, with Patterson particularly good as it slowly dawns on him just what is happening:

Dickie wants to be taken seriously as a 'journalist' and is looking for the big story that will change people's perceptions. While flirting with ice-cream maiden Clare Grogan in traffic, he decides to follow her van to try and talk to her and accidentally uncovers an ice-cream war in Glasgow that he believes will break him in his new direction. He throws himself into trying to resolve the feuding parties problems and stave off his own loneliness and depression. Forsyth strikes a perfect balance between Dickie's heart felt heartbreak and the knock about scenes as the Bunnys and McCools wire in to each other like a Glaswegian Sharks and Jets.

Comfort and Joy boasts a tremendous cast. Patrick Malahide is perfect as Dickie's suave best friend Colin, a man who has the life that Dickie wishes he had.  Alex Norton is Trevor, otherwise known as 'Mr Bunny', the new kid on the ice-cream scene whose business, and health, is under threat from rival 'Mr McCool'. 

There are two female leads in the film, and they have very different fortunes. Eleanor David's Maddy is a great turn; infuriating, beguiling and completely believable as the woman who has broken Dickie's heart. Clare Grogan, on the other hand, is criminally underused as Charlotte. Putting aside personal opinion, it does seem odd that one of the breakout stars from Gregory's Girl is relegated to pouting in the background and little more. There are actually a few other Forsyth alumni with cameos in the film such as Robert Buchanan, Caroline Guthrie and Billy Greenlees. There are also two great comedy cameos; Ian McColl's Mantovani loving nutjob Archie who takes time off from smashing headlights and heads to get an autograph and a request for his granny, and the legendary Rikki Fulton as radio station boss Hilary, resplendent in a cream suit.

This scene sees Patterson and Norton head to head, surely 1980s Scottish cinema's equivalent of DeNiro and Pacino meeting in Heat (make of that what you will):

The only fault that I can find with Comfort and Joy is in the ending. Forsyth normally finishes a film with a flourish; think of Gregory and his sister Madeline discussing just who is Gregory's Girl, or Mac in Local Hero, back home and lost in Houston, then the phone rings in Furness. The finale of Comfort and Joy is, in comparison, too neat and doesn't deal with the underlying problems that Dickie has faced. It's not a bad ending as such, just a little uninspired, and one that is at odds to the melancholic feel that the rest of the movie has, but it's a small complaint. As the poster claims, this is 'A Serious Comedy', and Forsyth manages to pull off that particular balancing act with ease. This is one of the best films from one of Scotland's great film makers and, when the more obvious and saccharine festive films lose their attraction, reach for Comfort and Joy.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

It's a Plan...

Anyone waiting for on-line deliveries in time for Christmas will be sweating from now until the 24th as we are promised more snow in the next few days. If you're looking to pick up something to tide over friends and family in case Santa doesn't make it; a 'just in case'  gift to avoid tears and tantrums, then you could do worse than pop down to recently opened graphic novel shop Plan B, which can be found at 5 Osborne St in the Trongate area of Glasgow, just along the way from Mono.

Yes it's a cliche, but they really have something for everyone. You have a smattering of the quality end of the big two (DC and Marvel) but it is the other items that are the more interesting. Writers such as Jamie Hernandez, Daniel Clowes, Grant  Morrison, Joe Sacco and Joe Matt can be found, and there is the promise of further expansion soon.

They are also hosting various readings and public events. Already they have had a 'night with' Mark Millar (yes, that Mark Millar) and artist Frank Quitely, and a reading from Denise Mina from her latest graphic novel A Sickness in the Family, and there are more events to come. You can find all the information you require at their website planbbooks . They also make a fine cup of coffee.

What is of particular interest at this time of year is the fantastic range of children's and young adult titles they stock. You can relive your own childhood while also introducing sons, daughters, nieces and nephews to the joys of The MoominsTintin, Calvin and Hobbes, Asterix the Gaul, Where the Wild Things Are and Peanuts. There are lots of more up to date examples on sale such as Lucky Luke and Monkey Nuts, but a little indulgence in the past is no bad thing. With that in mind, here's Vince Guaraldi and the Peanuts gang, followed by the trailer to perhaps my favourite film of 2009; Spike Jonze's brilliant adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are:

Anyone who has ever dreamt of running a bookshop (and I would imagine that's many of us at some point) should admire those who actually do it. Independent bookshops are an endangered species, so it's inspiring to discover one as good as this. A browse round Plan B will make your day.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Top 5 Scottish Tracks That You May Not Have Heard of 2010...

One of the nicest things about writing Scots Whay Hae! is that people send you new music to consider. I can't  comment on it as I'd like because I just don't have the time, but all the music is listened to and greatly appreciated. The following tracks are my favourite discoveries from the last year, at least at the time of writing.

The first song comes from Maple Leaves. I heard their recent E.P.Golden  Ether through the urgent promptings of a fan of theirs and a friend of mine (thanks Jennie!) and if you're looking for a perfect stocking filler then this is it. It would be a lovely thing to play on a cold Christmas morning. This is Golden Ether:

Next is a band who got in touch earlier in the year to say 'listen to this'. I did, and it was good. There are a lot of bands out there who do the quiet/noise/quiet thing but few are doing it as well as this. From their 0.3 E.P. this is We're Only Afraid of NYC with Louder Loudest (draw in close):

One of my albums of the year was A Month of Lost Memories from I Build Collapsible Mountains, the debut release from Luke Joyce who some may remember from The Gothenburg Address. This is gorgeous; and it's called Where We Go Tomorrow:

The Scottish Enlightenment have been going for a wee while now, but this year saw them take a step up releasing The Little Sleep E.P. followed by the triumphant album St Thomas. All this and they have the best name around, which always counts for a lot. From St Thomas this is The First Will Be Last:

Finally, one of the most accomplished bands around who are as comfortable making music for sweaty dance floors as they are for sweaty venues. They are Night Noise Team. They make you sweat. (there's your next press release). This is a cracker, it's called, appropriately enough, Burning:

Putting that list together was a tough call as there is so much great music out there. Go and find it because it wants to be found. Next year, if all goes to plan, we'll be covering a lot more music at Scots Whay Hae!, both new and old. Something for everyone.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

You Have Been Watching...I Know Where I'm Going

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made some of the greatest films of all time such as The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death and Black Narcissus. They were known for marrying often heartbreaking stories with ground-breaking visual flourishes which stay with audiences long after they have finished viewing. I Know Where I'm Going is not one of their better known, but it is one of the most subtle and successful. It may not get you immediately, but you'll want to watch it again and again.

It's the story of independent woman Joan Webster, who 'knows where she is going' in life. Determined to marry rich and old, she travels to the island of Kiloran to wed the industrialist Sir Robert Bellinger who has a house there.  Do things go awry? Of course they do, and Joan finds herself stranded on the Isle of Mull with a cast of eccentric locals as company. Although the supporting cast are great, particularly Pamela Brown's hooray Henrietta 'Catriona Potts' and C.W.R Wright's ornithological oddbod 'Colonel Barnstable', the film is all about the love/hate relationship between Wendy Hiller's 'JoanWebster' and the great Roger Livesay's 'Torquil MacNeil'.

Their relationship is similar to Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn in Adam's Rib or Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. These are two headstrong characters who clash constantly despite the obvious attraction. Livesay in particular is having the time of his life, almost winking to the camera as he winds up the often infuriating Joan.  Things do become a little predictable towards the end, but by that time, unless you have a heart of stone, you want it to be predictable. Having said that I've often thought that Catriona would be a better match for Torquil.

Here's the trailer followed by a short clip which includes a classic Powell and Pressburger dream sequence:

As you can see from the above clip the film is beautifully shot, as you would expect from P&P. The camera captures the drama of the Hebrides and there are some scenes that are rightly held up as classic. The 'Colonel's phonecall' which takes place under a waterfall, the boat ride through the Corryvreckan whirlpool, the local ceilidh, and the scenes in the Castle of Moy are just a few examples, and you have to keep you're eyes peeled to spot many of the visual gags and flourishes.

Over the years this has come to be one of my favourite Scottish films, partly because it is slightly magical in a way that few films are. Even if you're not a fan of Powell and Pressburger (although I can't imagine why that would be) this is still worth viewing. It'll warm those cockles that you forgot you had.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Words and Pictures...

Jarvis Cocker, in an interview during the height of Britpop, claimed that it had taken Pulp years to become an overnight sensation. While being widely accepted as one of Scotland's most celebrated writers since the publication of Lanark in 1981, it does feel that Alasdair Gray's lesser known persona 'the painter' is having his time in the artistic limelight and is rightly enjoying it. He has two major exhibitions (at The Scottish Gallery of Modern Art and The Talbot Rice Gallery, both in Edinburgh) to coincide with the publication of his 'pictorial autobiography' A Life in Pictures. His   appearances on TV, radio and in the national newspapers in the last month reminds those of us who admire the man how he typically relishes confounding and confusing audiences and presenters alike. It would be great to think that we could hear his voice more often but the problem is that those who make those decisions seem to be desperate to get to what's happening next. If A Life in Pictures tells us one thing it's that the great artists are not famous for 15 minutes, theirs is a lifetime project.

This is a book that shows and tells, and more than any book of recent times reminds us that art and life and inseparable. You could have had the words without the pictures, or vice versa, but both lift the other to mean more than they would have otherwise.

I've written about Alasdair Gray and his debut novel Lanark elsewhere (see Lanark...), and if you know his fiction then some of the life story will be familiar. What you may be less familiar with is the art that has not been used to illustrate the plays and stories, so here is just a small selection of his work:

This book is a celebration of life, and not just Gray's own, but all of those people who influenced and enriched his life. The pages are filled with family, friends, people, places and comrades past and present. Gray manages to conduct proceedings just off centre stage and you sense there was more to tell.  But you'd be wrong to think this is some sort of  full stop to this artist's life. He already has plenty more work under way, and I get the feeling that we'll be entertained and tested by A.Gray for some time yet.