The Tracks Of My Year: SWH!’s 10 Best Songs Of 2019…

2019 was another year of exceptional albums, from such as Sister John, Andrew Wasylyk, Blair Coron, A Mote Of Dust, Tenement & Temple, James Yorkston, Richard Luke, Half Formed Things, Broken Chanter, Awkward Family Portraits, Dumb Instrument, Cloth, Harry Harris, Bis, Anna Meredith, and too many others to mention them all here.

Ali will be talking albums when he is a guest on Cumbernauld FM‘s Postcards From The Underground radio show on Sunday 8th December (8-10pm) discussing his pick of the year with hosts Mark and Gary (who will in turn appear on the Best Music of 2019 podcast to talk about their musical year, and which will be available this weekend).

However, traditionally on the pages of SWH! we like to concentrate on individual tracks whether from singles, EPs, albums, soundtracks, or anywhere else. So, without further ado, here is our choice of the ten best songs reviewed on these pages over the last 12 months. Think of it as a mix-tape of the soundtrack to our year, and if you like what you hear you should investigate further by clicking on those hyperlinks.

That’s enough preamble – here’s the countdown, listed in order of their date of release, and what we thought about them at the time with a few relevant updates…

Sister John – I’m The One

We are going to kick off with Sister John. Their debut release Returned From Sea was one of the finest albums of 2017, introducing a band who arrived fully-formed and who have music in their very souls.  Their latest album, also called Sister John, is released on the 25th January on Last Night From Glasgow, but from it the song ‘I’m The One’ is out now and it’s a doozy.

There’s a distinct CBGB’s/Bowery vibe going on – imagine The Velvet Underground’s ‘Rock & Roll’ sung by a chilled-out Patti Smith and you’ll have some idea. With understated rhythm and twangy guitar backing Amanda McKeown’s soulful vocals it’s a lesson that when it comes to music to move you less is almost always more. The accompanying video is a thing of joy as well. This is ‘I’m The One’ – Let’s dance!:

Lola In Slacks – Postscript In Blue 

Lola In Slacks and single ‘Postscript In Blue‘ oozes class from start to finish. You would expect no less from a band whose members include Lou Reid, Brian McFie, Lesley McLaren, Davy Irwin and Fiona Shannon, some of who have been heard with the likes of The Big Dish, Altered Images, Craig Armstrong, Mull Historical Society, The Bluebells, and more. Only an elite few can boast such a CV.

From the off it is clear that Lola In Slacks are a band who are the perfect sum of those impressive parts. Everyone plays their role to perfection, making music which is out of time yet utterly of the here and now. Lou Reid’s smoky vocals are to the fore, reminiscent of European Torch singers Francoise Hardy, Marianne Faithful and, more recently, Camille, and also of North Americans Julie London, Neko Case and Laura Veirs. The voice is perfectly matched by the playing, which is quite exquisite. McLaren’s drumming in particular is an understated thing of beauty. Listen for yourself, then go back, play it again, and listen once more. This could be the start of a beautiful relationship:

James Yorkston – My Mouth Ain’t No Bible

A new James Yorkston record is always reason for cheer, and his latest long player, The Route To The Harmonium, has been on close to constant rotation on the SWH! turntable since it appeared last month. Yorkston is one of those artists who is unmistakable and unshakeable. He plows his own furrow with a clear idea as to what he wants to create. And what he creates is always essential, and often mesmeric.

He seems to tap into something undeniably Scottish and literary, as much influenced by poetry and fiction as music, with a desire to tell stories in a tradition which follows on from the ballads and spoken word. From The Route To The Harmonium this is ‘My Mouth Ain’t No Bible’, with James coming over like an East Neuk Preacher Man – where fire and brimstone meets fear and loathing. Funny, angry, wry, and possibly rye, it could just be James Yorkston’s defining moment – except his whole career is littered with those.

Natalie Pryce – Martin Amis

It’s the warmest of welcomes back to these pages to the enigmatic and remarkable Natalie Pryce, a band who dance to their own tune, but who forcibly drag you with them on to the dance floor. I do like a band who unsettle you – I’m thinking of the likes of Captain Beefheart, the Cardiacs, Ministry, the Bad Seeds, Sons & Daughters – all of whom carry with them the threat of threats as yet unnamed, as do Natalie Pryce.

This track is ‘Martin Amis‘, and there is wailing saxophone, understated drums and bass, and whispered vocals which suggest pain and pleasure in equal measure. So hip it hurts, this improves with every play, and gets to the dark heart of its subject in four minutes far better than any biography could ever do:

Annie Booth – Magic 8

Annie Booth‘s debut album An Unforgiving Light(a joint release on two of Scotland’s most discerning record labels – Last Night From Glasgow and Scottish Fiction) is one of the most talked about in recent years – literally. More than any other I can think of, perhaps with the exception of LNFG label mates Sister John, it was the record that people discussed most often at gigs and get togethers, often in hushed and awed tones. Her latest EP Spectral (another LNFG/SF collaboration – &, by the way, more of this sort of thing can only be a good thing) shows clearly that Booth is a rare talent indeed.

There’s a melancholic and haunting quality in her vocals which, on the evidence I have seen, can silence any room, but it is in the songs themselves where the real magic is to be found. All four tracks on Spectral are memorable, but ‘Mirage’ and the single ‘Magic 8’ are two of the best of the year. I’ve been trying for a while to think who Annie Booth reminds me of (cos that’s the sort of thing reviewers do) and have realised that, among others, it’s Aimee Mann, especially in terms of marrying the songs to the way they are delivered. There’s an integrity to her music which demands your attention. During one of those gig conversations, as mentioned above, someone whose opinion I rate highly called her “the best singer/songwriter in Scotland at the moment”. Listen to Spectral and I think you’ll find it hard to disagree. From it, this is ‘Magic 8’:

Half Formed Things – The Apostate

Half Formed Things album To Live In The Flicker opens and closes with the peal of church bells, and the songs in-between each tell their own tales, like chapters in a book, not unlike Tindersticks, or, and I don’t say this lightly, The Blue Nile – with each song working individually but coming together to create an even greater whole. Other influences I detect are David Sylvian, Kate Bush, and late-period Talk Talk, with a similar sense of space being evoked. That suggests ambience, yet the music is always insistent – it will not be ignored. There’s a sense of momentum to the album – like glimpsing scenes from a moving train, you’re not quite sure what you’ve just witnessed.

That’s what the first listen to Live In The Flicker is like, you know you’ll have to listen again, and again, to try and understand fully. From the opening ‘Flicker’ to the closing ‘The Calm’ you are taken to another place by a soundtrack which makes your head swim – with instruments being used for different purposes – drums and cymbals take the lead, piano riffs keep the rhythm, and harmonies (oh, the harmonies!) becoming an instrument all of their own.

So make room in your lives for Half Formed Things’ Live In The Flicker as it may just be your new favourite album – or maybe, for you, just a very good one. Ultimately you decide, I can only guide. You certainly won’t hear another album like it until they make their next one. Scottish Album of the Year? Half Formed Things may just have made an album for the ages. This is the live version on ‘The Apostate’.

Broken Chanter – Wholesale

An now – a track from an album which was one of the most eagerly awaited of the year, and a video featuring friend of SWH! and Olive Grove Records hi-heed-yin, Lloyd Meredith, tied to a pole in the middle of nowhere. The artist is Broken Chanter and the track is ‘Wholesale’, and if it’s an indicator of the quality of the rest of the album (*Spoiler Alert – it was) then we are all in for a treat.

As anyone who has been to a Broken Chanter live show knows ‘Wholesale’ has quickly become a highlight of the set, and rightly so as it is Celtic pop at its finest, with David MacGregor’s world weary vocals (for Broken Chanter is he) beautifully offset by heavenly harmonies and a band playing at the peak of their powers. They include Audrey Tait, Jill Sullivan, Gav Prentice, Hannah Shepherd, Kim Carnie, and Emma Kupa – just about the most super-group you could imagine. If the summer starts with Half Formed Things and Live In The Flicker it could be rounded off nicely by the Broken Chanter album. Phew, what a scorcher! In the meantime, enjoy ‘Wholesale’, video and all:

Anna Sweeney – Way Back When

Those of you who know me well will know that there are few things I treasure more in life than a great pop song, and that’s just what you are about to hear. It is Anna Sweeney‘s latest single ‘Way Back When’ and it is one of those tracks which could come to define a summer – revelling in nostalgia for better, simpler, days in a manner similar to classics of the genre such as ‘The Boys Of Summer’ or ‘Summertime’ (or ‘Summertime’) the slick pop production carrying more than a hint of melancholy.

It’s where the Jackson 5 meets Haim and they both ‘Want You Back’. Play it once, play it again – play it all summer long – ‘Way Back When’ is a song which once it has its hooks in you will not let go. Sit back, relax, and surrender.

Flying Penguins – Antimony

New favourite band alert!!! Flying Penguins released their latest single ‘Antimony’, from the EP Bodies & Artefacts, and it swiftly became a firm favourite, reminding me of some of SWH!’s best-loved musicians such as King Creosote, Modern Studies, Lomond Campbell, Admiral Fallow, eagleowl – basically those bands who make classy, affecting, and poignant music which puts you in that state of musical melancholia which feels just right.

It’s rare to discover a band who feel like you’ve been listening to them for years when you haven’t, but that’s how I feel about Flying Penguins – as if they were the soundtrack to a better time, and the memory of that has just come back to me. I’m sure there is a word for that feeling, but before we all rush to find out just what that is – sit back, relax, and enjoy ‘Antimony’:

Zoe Graham – Gradual Move

New music from Zoe Graham is always met with great cheer round here. A musician who first came to our attention with the excellent Hacket & Knackered EP, she soon became a must-see live act any time she was on tour. Recently named the Best Acoustic Act at this year’s SAMAs, Graham is one of the most assured, individual and interesting artists around, with a musical style which is all her own, blending melancholy vocals with a distinctive guitar style and understated electronica.

Her latest single, ‘Gradual Move’, continues to move Graham further away from her acoustic roots towards writing increasingly complex yet carefully crafted songs which remain intensely personal. It suggests Zoe Graham is about to take things to another level and we will all be the beneficiaries of that. It just could be that 2020 is her year.

A fine selection, we hope you agree. In all honesty it could have been twice the length and more. You’ll be able to listen to our podcast That Was The Year That Was: It’s The Best Of 2019 Podcasts – (Music)… this coming weekend, and don’t forget to tune in to the Postcards From The Underground on Sunday 8th to hear what SWH!’s favourite albums of 2019 are.

We’ll be back soon with more reviews of the best new music around…

Tokyo Storm Warning: A Review Of Scottish Opera's Iris…

Scottish Opera’s Opera In Concert series is a musical highlight of any year, and their latest production at Glasgow’s City Halls was Mascagni’s Iris. These concerts are in many ways opera in the raw with the orchestra and chorus, conducted by Music Director Stuart Stratford, taking centre stage. This is an all too rare chance for the audience to see the dynamic of the orchestra in full effect, and it’s as fascinating as it is awesome.

It’s also a chance to witness the power and control of opera singers up close and personal, with the cast at the front of the stage, either sitting or standing, with literally no place to hide. As much as you may love the full theatre Scottish Opera experience, with the lavish sets, lighting, props, etc, there is something pure and immediate about seeing opera presented in such a straightforward way. You can concentrate intently on the music, and the plot. Which brings me to the heartbreaking tale of ‘Iris’ herself.

Set in Japan in the Edo period, Iris is a dark and disturbing tale which proves to have parallels with high-profile recent events. The titular character is tricked and kidnapped from the family home, where she lives a peaceful life with her blind father, and taken to a geisha house of ill-repute in the city. It is made abundantly clear that Iris is little more than a child, still playing with dolls and entranced by puppet shows, and while her story is shocking, as it should be, it doesn’t take much to bring to mind recent stories of child slavery, sex trafficking, and more examples of such exploitation in evidence today.

Across the board Iris’s innocence is lost at the hands of men, with even her father turning against her, but while it can feel at times as if she is being punished for simply being a woman you are left in no doubt as to where the blames lies. Masculinity has rarely been so obviously toxic, and the theme of the abuse of power runs throughout. If this sounds unremittingly bleak (it is opera after all, where happy endings are rare to say the least) it is saved by the humanity of Iris’s story, and the thought that this is theatre, and as with the puppet play which took place on stage, it is there to make us think as well as feel, and in this Iris ticks all the boxes.

Mention must be made of the music as well which marries east and west traditions in often subtle ways. Japan has long been used as a backdrop in opera, with Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly perhaps the most well-known. In Iris instruments are adapted to put you in mind of the traditional sounds of Japan, with the playing of the double bass particularly effective – a sort of ‘Kubo & the Four Strings’.

Iris is one of most powerful and moving operas I have seen, a real tour-de-force from everyone involved. Rarely staged today, this was another example of Scottish Opera resurrecting a lost classic and making it vital and relevant for a modern audience. It was directed by Scottish Opera’s Staff Director Roxana Haines and you can hear Roxana talking all about her life, work, and her role in the company on the Scots Whay Hae! podcast from earlier this year, which you’ll find here – The Scottish Opera Interviews #6: Staff Director, Roxana Haines.

You can find all The Scottish Opera Podcasts in one handy place.

Hills & Tales: The SWH! Podcast Talks To John D. Burns…

For the latest podcast SWH! was back in Edinburgh to talk to mountaineer, storyteller, and writer, John D. Burns, and the story he has to tell is a fascinating one. He talks about how he first discovered the delights of hillwalking in the Lake District in his youth, his thoughts on how we should treat, view, and interact with nature, why he fell out and then back in love with the hills, the politics of the wild, his forays into poetry, theatre, and stand-up, and so much more. It’s one of the most interesting and informative podcasts yet, and I know you’ll come away with a new view on our landscape, and on life.

John’s first two books, The Last Hillwalker and Bothy Tales, are both bestsellers where John describes his time spent on the hills of Scotland, and the stories accrued over that time, both personal and from fellow hillwalkers and bothy dwellers.

His latest book, Sky Dance, (right) is a novel set in Highlands, and John sets out why he decided to move into fiction, and the importance of telling and sharing stories as a way to understand and respect the land and the creatures who dwell there.

If you are new round these parts there is quite a substantial back-catalogue of podcasts for you to discover. If you aren’t yet a subscriber you can do so, (or simply listen) at iTunes, on Podbean, with Spotify, or by RSS (but you’ll need to have an RSS reader to do so). 

You can also download the podcast by clicking on the relevant link to the right of this post, or, if you want it right here, right now, you can listen on SoundCloud

..or on YouTube:

All of John’s books are published by Vertebrate Publishing.
Thanks to Holyrood 9A in Edinburgh for their hospitality & understanding when we were recording (and their excellent selection of beers).

Coming soon are our Best of 2019 podcasts which will be with you very soon, but in the meantime you can also check out our series of Scottish Opera Podcasts.

New Musical Success: The Best New Music From The Last Month…

As we begin to move towards the end of the year many minds start to turn to Best of the Year lists and countdowns. However there is still great new music being made and released right here, right now, and the latest review looks back at best from the last month to prove just that.

With the return of old friends and the arrival of new, it’s a heady mix which does tend to reflect the diversity and trends of the year as a whole. There’s plenty of contemplation, meditation, and good vibrations in evidence, with artists often looking back to move forward. There’s also exciting and experimental electronica, classic pop tunes, old school indie with a twist, and the continuing rebirth of the cool, all courtesy of some of the best musicians, singers, and songwriters around. Musically speaking we are living in good times. Read on and I’ll prove it to you…

New music from Zoe Graham is always met with great cheer round here. A musician who first came to our attention with the excellent Hacket & Knackered EP, she soon became one of those live acts who you go out of your way to see whenever the opportunity arises. Recently named the Best Acoustic Act at this year’s SAMAs, Graham is among the most assured, individual and interesting artists around, with a musical style which is all her own, blending melancholy vocals with her distinctive guitar style and understated electronica.

Her latest single, ‘Gradual Move’, continues to move further away from her acoustic roots towards writing increasingly complex yet carefully crated songs. It suggests Zoe Graham is about to take things to another level and we will all be the beneficiaries of that. It just could be that 2020 is her year.

And while we’re talking welcome returns, Anna Meredith is back. An enigmatic, experimental, and extraordinary musician, she had quite a 2019, not only releasing her latest album FIBS but also her score for the celebrated film Eighth Grade, and the digital album Song for the M8, two tracks from which were used on the Oscar winning movie, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite. To paraphrase Mugatu in Zoolander, “She’s so hot right now!”.

But for all Meredith’s marvellous collaborative work, it is her own music which most interests me, and FIBS proves that feeling to be the right one with songs which work their way into your subconscious and set up camp there. While there are influences on show to be noted and admired, it’s fair to say that no-one sounds quite like Anna Meredith and that’s what makes her so very special. From FIBS this is ‘Inhale Exhale’.

Quiche have featured on our pages before, and there are very good reasons for that. They are a band who are hard to pin down, but that’s why you’re reading this so here goes. We called their last single ‘Grey Matter’, ” a mod-inflected psychedelic song reminiscent of The Kinks or The Zombies”, because it was. Their latest single, ‘Silhouette’, is something quite different, yet still recognisably made by the same band.

If ‘Grey Matter’ was steeped in the ’60s, this begins like a ’70s or ’80s rock ‘n’ soul ballad which could have been written by 10cc, Christopher Cross, or Paisley’s very own Gerry Rafferty, before building to a climax more reminiscent of Dinosaur Jr or The Afghan Whigs. However, rest assured, Quiche are a band who are much more than their record collection. They are making psychedelic rock music, which has a fine yet often overlooked tradition, with style and substance. If you think they’re not for you, then think again. This is ‘Silhouette’.

It’s quite common to see bands who amaze live but can’t quite transfer that magic to the recording studio, and I’m honest enough to admit I had that concern with Fat-Suit, a band so accomplished that they have to be seen to be believed. I need not have worried as Waifs & Strays, their latest album, captures what makes them so special and more.

Another band who refuse to make life simple for reviewers by being easy to pigeon hole, they incorporate jazz/funk/folk/fusion, and I’ve never written that combination of genres on these pages before. The following track, ‘Mombasa’, shows their virtuosity and vitality off to full effect and proves that Fat-Suit are musicians at the very top of their game, revelling in playing as much for themselves and each other as for anyone else. Thankfully we all get to reap the rewards.

The Girl Who Cried Wolf are one of the best things to come out of 2019, creating classic pop songs with a real edge. Their previous singles, ‘Way Back Down’ and ‘Second Best’ introduced us to the dynamic duo, singer/songwriter Lauren Gilmour and drummer Audrey Tait (who had a hell of a year, also playing with Broken Chanter and St. Andrew’s Fall, two more of 2019’s outstanding bands).

The latest release, ‘Oops’, builds on that promise and suggests that they are only getting warmed up. Tait and Gilmour are also music producers and it shows – the production on the track as tight as an Audrey Tait drum, with not a note wasted or out of place. There are hooks so sharp you could do yourself an injury, understated synths and keys, drums which work both as lead and rhythm, all backing Lauren’s smooth and soulful vocals. On paper it shouldn’t really work. In reality it’s fantastic. Take a listen and take notice of The Girl Who Cried Wolf.

It’s always a pleasure to discover new bands and songs. It’s one of the main reasons for writing these reviews in the first place! New to SWH! are Etape whose single ‘Human Touch’ found its way into our home and hearts. It’s where guitar-led indie meets electronica, putting me in mind of a lo-fi Hot Chip, Foals or alt-J with a simple yet insistent riff building to a crescendo of drums, guitar and vocals. Recently to be found supporting SWH! favourites HYYTS and Brighton’s Ralph TV, Etape may just be getting started but you can’t help but feel that they are one to watch in the coming year. Keep ’em peeled. This is ‘Human Touch’

We are going to end this review with two of the finest singers at work at the moment. The first is Kohla, whose latest single ‘Gorgeous’ has the feel of Zero 7, Sneaker Pimps, Morcheeba, early Goldfrapp, Lamb – in fact many of yours and my favourite records from the late ’90s/early ’00s, but with a production, sound and attitude which makes it feel utterly of the here and now.

But what really sets this apart from the trip-hop crowd is Kohla’s voice which is melodious, moody and magnificent. ‘Gorgeous’ deserves to be heard as far and wide as possible as it will noticeably make your day better, and possibly make you better as it’s a song to help cure what ails you. Do yourself and others a favour – listen closely, and pass it on…

If you have been a regular gig-goer in Scotland over the past few years you may well have been lucky enough to have seen, heard, and marvelled at the singer/songwriter known as Kitti. A jazz chanteuse in the torch tradition of Billie Holliday, Sara Vaughan and Dinah Washington, she has a voice that speaks of an old soul, someone who lives and breathes the music she sings.

Her new single ‘Chasing The Crowd’ shows what she does to full effect, with tasteful yet essential R&B backing allowing that voice to be front and centre. Glasgow in particular has long had a vibrant and thriving jazz scene, but it’s having a particular moment right now and Kitti takes her rightful place at the very centre of it.

That’s all for now. We hope you’ve discovered something to your taste.

Our annual Tracks Of My Year list will be with you soon with SWH!’s best songs of 2019, but in the meantime you can catch up with the back catalogue of our SWH! Radio New Music Monday Playlists here, and there’s a new one to enjoy each week.

Two’s Company: A Review Of Alan Warner & Brian Hamill’s Good Listeners…

I’ve said it before, but there is no doubt that short stories get a bad rap, and I’m not entirely sure why. Some of the finest books of the last 10 years have included memorable collections from Anneliese Mackintosh, Kirsty Logan, Chris McQueer, Vicki Jarrett, Helen McClory, and there are many more, but there is still a prevailing feeling that a writer can’t really be considered such until they have a novel published. This is nonsense, and ignores the fact that some of the most celebrated writers’ greatest work is to be found in the shorter form.

It could be argued, and I’m happy to do so, that James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, and Agnes Owens are rarely better than in their short stories (more of which below), and there are many other examples I could name. As most writers will tell you the short story is not a lesser form of writing, just a different one – one which allows established writers to experiment, and which can also work as an introduction to a new voice.

With that in mind, it was with great interest that I read Good Listeners, the short story collection from Alan Warner and Brian Hamill, published by latter’s new publishing entity The Common Breath. Warner has written eight novels to date, including personal favourites Morvern Callar, The Sopranos, and The Deadman’s Pedal and it’s always a treat to read new work.

I know Brian Hamill as much as an editor and publisher than as a writer, particularly through his work with the excellent magazine thi wurd, and their fiction anthology Tales From a Cancelled Country, but he has had several of his stories appear in some of Scotland’s finer literary publications including Edinburgh Review and New Writing Scotland. I was fascinated as to how such a collaboration would work, and what it would tell us about each writer.

Multi-authored collections are not unknown. One of Scotland’s essential works of literature is Lean Tales, with stories from the aforementioned Agnes Owens, Alasdair Gray, and James Kelman. Warner himself was first brought to many readers’ attention with his contribution to Children of the Albion Rovers, where he shared pages with, among others, Irvine Welsh, Laura Hird, Gordon Legge, and Kevin Williamson. Such collections, when they work, tell us something about the writing of the time in terms of both style and substance.

Good Listeners is small but perfectly formed, with six stories, three from each. If you have never read Warner before this is a great place to start as you get the sense of his world-view that is always slightly askew. A local luminary’s legend grows without his knowledge – the community keeping a secret to save his blushes, there’s an ingenious yet simple money-making scam which has a terrible twist in the tale, and an unforgettable funeral fulfills an unusual last will and testament. All perfectly normal in the world of Alan Warner

Hamill also shows himself as a storyteller willing to examine the everyday in a fresh and atypical way. Like Warner you get the feeling that he is writing about people and places he knows, but not in a way that anyone involved would (necessarily) recognise themselves. A creative writing student gets conflicting advice leading to a crisis of confidence verging on the existential, an unlikely friendship examines the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of relationships, and the story which gives the book its title sets out the dangers in “Sitting there and doing nothing” for too long as a bus journey becomes a dark night of the soul. Taken as a whole the stories work together seamlessly – two writers who are clearly close in terms of style and vision.

Good Listeners is an interesting and welcome publication, and one which leaves you wanting more – not only from these two writers, but for the prospect of a further collection of short stories which reflects the current state of Scottish writing. While we are lucky to have fantastic literary magazines such as Gutter, New Writing Scotland, thi wurd, The 404 Ink Magazine, and the eagerly awaited Extra Teeth (among others), surely the time has come for another standalone collection to rival Lean Tales, Children of the Albion Rovers, and 2011’s The Year Of Open Doors. The Common Breath is the perfect place for such an idea to flourish and I urge you to visit their website to see how you could get involved. I have a feeling that Good Listeners could be the start of something very special indeed.

Good Listeners is out now published by The Common Breath.

New Musical Success Special: SWH! Premieres Blue Tiles’ ‘Never Stand A Chance Alone With You’…

Scots Whay Hae! has a long and loving history with Edinburgh record label Errant Media and their twin driving forces Sean Ormsby and Stephen McLaren. It’s one which goes back to the days of Permawhale Records when Sean was part of Night Noise Team, and Stephen was in the band Collar Up, and it was sealed when the two appeared on the SWH! podcast where they set out the ideas and inspirations behind Errant Media.

Since then the label has become home for their recorded output, producing a small but perfectly formed back catalogue which includes releases from Errant Boy, Locked Hands, Stephen McClaren’s solo work, and Sean and Stephen together as Blue Tiles, an electronic duo who used to be known as Shards and whose music I loved from first listen.

Blue Tiles have an album out, the unusual but aptly named Melancholitronica, and you can hear the latest release from it right here and now as Scots Whay Hae! has the exclusive first play of ‘Never Stand A Chance Alone With You’.

Haunting yet urgent electronica matches the mournful vocals and thoughtful lyrics. Like the very best pop music it hooks you in with its melodies, and then breaks your heart without you realising it. It is sharp, sensual, and soulful, made by two musicians who understand each other perfectly. Put all of that together and it makes for the perfect introduction to the album, and what Blue Tiles do. Listen now and see that I’m right…

Ten years in the making – as long as SWH! has been in existence – with the release of Melancholitronica it feels like a great lost album of the last decade is finally with us just as it comes to a close. I am here to tell you it’s been well worth the wait.

The Scottish Opera Interviews #8: Music Librarian, Gordon Grant…

Gordon Grant in Scottish Opera’s Music Library

For the latest in our series of podcasts in conjunction with Scottish Opera SWH! spoke to Gordon Grant, the company’s Music Librarian. What unfolds is a fascinating insight into a role which few consider when they think of opera but which, as you will hear, is a vital one.

Crucially involved in productions from the very beginning to the final curtain fall, Gordon explains what the role entails, how he came to it, the importance of close collaboration, and what are the challenges and constrictions when it comes to the musical score. 

As well as being SO’s librarian Gordon is also in charge of their supertitles, the written translations and text which have become an important part of opera and he explains the technicalities faced. Overall it’s an engrossing conversation which looks in detail at an individual role but which will give you a greater insight into Scottish Opera as a whole.

These podcasts attempt to give greater understanding into the workings of Scottish Opera and the different roles of those involved, lending a rare and engaging appreciation of Scotland’s largest national arts company.

If you are new round these parts there is quite a substantial back-catalogue of podcasts for you to discover. If you aren’t yet a subscriber you can do so, (or simply listen) at iTunes, on Podbean, with Spotify, or by RSS (but you’ll need to have an RSS reader to do so). 

You can also download the podcast by clicking on the relevant link to the right of this post, or, if you want it right here, right now, you can listen on SoundCloud

..or on YouTube:

The next Scottish Opera Interview will with you soon.
In the meantime you can find all The Scottish Opera Podcasts in one handy place.

Lessons From History: A Review Of Catherine Czerkawska’s A Proper Person To Be Detained…

Sometimes you start a book which defies your expectations to such an extent that the only thing to do is recalibrate and start again. That’s what happened with Catherine Czerkawska’s A Proper Person To Be Detained (Contraband, Saraband Books). I knew the story was centred around a real-life crime, one which had a direct relationship to Czerkawska and her family, and think I was expecting a whodunnit with the author acting as detective through the ages. I should have known better – Catherine Czerkawska would never be so obvious.

There seems to be a real appetite for true crime which is always with us, and which is often accompanied by a sense of voyeurism – a desire to get a vicarious thrill from discovering the worst that men can do. This is an accusation which cannot be pointed at A Proper Person To Be Detained despite the premise. What unfolds is more of a social and cultural commentary on the Britain of the day, but one which forces you to make parallels with the present.

Regular readers of Czerkawska’s will know that she takes her research seriously. A prolific poet and playwrite as well as a celebrated novelist, her previous books include The Curiosity Cabinet, The Physic Garden, The Posy Ring, and 2016’s The Jewel (the story of Jean Armour whose life has always been overshadowed by that of her husband, Robert Burns). A champion of the under-represented, overlooked, and persecuted Czerkawska is rightly known as one of the most interesting and individual historical novelists we have, able to find a relatable way to tell a story which may have been overlooked otherwise.

With A Proper Person To Be Detained the author’s familial relationship to events lend it an extra dimension which is almost palpable. This time it’s personal and it shows. Murdered in a drunken quarrel, her great-great-uncle John Manley was the son of Irish immigrants, and the way he, and his kith and kin, were treated shows that many lessons are taking a long time to learn. The tragic incident is used as a ground zero from which a family tree evolves and then runs throughout the book, allowing the writer to examine the multiple strands which lead to her own.

But this is not simply a literary Who Do You Think You Are?. Czerkawska uses the plight and experience of her family, and the documents and details resulting from her research, to examine so much more, particularly the plight of immigrants. She discovers plenty of evidence to suggest that myths and stereotypes were widespread and had influence. Well into the 20th century signs could be found on hostelry doors which read “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” (the title of John Lydon’s 1994 autobiography) and Czerkawska looks in great detail as to why such victimization prevailed, and what it meant for those who suffered it.

Perhaps the most shocking commentary on how the Irish were viewed at the time comes from the pen of Frederich Engels, who famously co-authored The Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx, but who appears to have believed that although all working men are equal, some are more equal than others. His thoughts and attacks on the ‘Irishman’ have to be read to be believed, and have parallels with the treatment of, and the reporting on, immigrants and their families today, often persisting through generations. Such prejudice can be as stubborn as it is damaging.

In some ways A Proper Person To Be Detained makes an interesting companion to Jemma Neville’s Constitution Street and the call made in that book for a written bill of rights which should include, among others, the ‘Right to Housing’, the ‘Right to Education’, the ‘Right to Food’, ‘Health’, ‘Work’, and even ‘Life’. An aspect of Czerkawska’s book which is shocking yet unavoidable is the thought that we may be moving backwards rather than forwards when it comes to respecting those rights, particularly when she looks at the social structure of the various places that her family found themselves, including Glasgow’s Calton/Trongate. The detail of the poverty and hardship that had to be endured resonates all too clearly with some areas in cities today.

A Proper Person To Be Detained examines poverty, immigration, mental health, racism, and misogyny, all of which were inherent in everyday life in the late 19th/early 20th century, and unarguably still are today. As you read on you can sense your own anger growing with that of the writer as ever more hardships, tragedies, and injustices are visited upon her ancestors and those like them. Starting with the personal Catherine Czerkawska has written a powerful historical novel, arguably her most memorable to date. By looking at the past with an eye to the present she makes you realise that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Catherine Czerkawska’s A Proper Person To Be Detained is published on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books.

You can still hear the podcast we recorded with Catherine Czerkawska back in 2017.

The Talk On The Street: The SWH! Podcast Talks To Jemma Neville…

For the latest SWH! podcast Ali headed to Edinburgh to chat to writer Jemma Neville all about Constitution Street: finding hope in an age of anxiety (published by 404 Ink), her fascinating and inspirational book which SWH! described as, “a socio-political work with humanity at its heart, and a timely reminder that there is more that unites than divides us.”

Talking in the welcoming surroundings of The Hideout Cafe (below) on the very street itself the two discuss the ethos behind the book, the way it is structured, and how both are reflected and inspired by the place and the people who live and work on Edinburgh’s Constitution Street.

Jemma talks about what prompted her to write this book, the importance of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the responses of her interviewees, how an area can change but still retain an identity, the importance of communal spaces for meeting and more, how the issues and themes of Constitution Street relate to communities of any size and place, and a whole lot more. You’ll never look at your own locale in the same way again.

This podcast is the perfect partner to the book, expanding on some of its themes, but by no means all and the best thing you can do is to discover that for yourself. To convince you further you can read the full SWH! review of Constitution Street here.

If you are new round these parts there is quite a substantial back-catalogue of podcasts for you to discover. If you aren’t yet a subscriber you can do so, (or simply listen) at iTunes, on Podbean, with Spotify, or by RSS (but you’ll need to have an RSS reader to do so). 

You can also download the podcast by clicking on the relevant link to the right of this post, or, if you want it right here, right now, you can listen on SoundCloud

..or on YouTube:

The next podcast will be with you very soon, but in the meantime you can also check out our series of Scottish Opera Podcasts.

Rememberance Of Things Past – Part 2: A Review Of David Cameron’s Prendergast’s Fall…

*Before you read this review I would advise you go to Rememberance Of Things Past – Part 1: A Review Of Charlie Laidlaw’s The Space Between Time which explains why we are considering the two novels together.*

You wait for one novel examining the unreliable nature of memory and then two come along at once. The first was Charlie Laidlaw’s The Space Between Time about which we said, “The Space Between Time offers hope for the future no matter the tricks and tribulations of the past. […] Pictures, events, and remembrances are reappraised and a different story emerges, one which will have the reader returning to the book’s earlier sections to see if they could have read them differently.”.

It just so happened that a second novel appeared around the same time looking at similar themes and ideas, but in a rather different way. It is award-winning poet David Cameron’s Prendergast’s Fall (published by Into Books), and to say it is unusual in structure and form doesn’t begin to tell the story. In fact it’s a novel which is as much about the way the story is told as the story itself.

Split into distinct parts, what you get are two unreliable narrators for the price of one as businessman Martin Prendergast’s life unfolds in different and distinct directions, first on the way down during the ‘fall’ (real or imagined, we’re never certain) and he remembers and examines the events which brought him to the edge of that ledge, his life flashing before his, and our, eyes – journeying all the way back to Prendergast’s first breath.

Once you have reached that point you then flip the book around, start at his very beginning, and work your way back through now familiar events which inevitably leads us back to that ledge. (I have been told that is the way the book is meant to be read, although it would be interesting to speak to someone who did so the other way around).

You may think that this just amounts to reading the same text twice, but there are differences, often subtle ones, which lend the telling of the life of Martin Prendergast a literal different turn of events. It’s an inspired twist which asks the reader to reflect on their own past, and how memories are central to the idea of self and individual identity.

Prendergast’s existence, on the first reading, appears to be one of increasing disappointment, with life, with others, and with himself. Things have not worked out as they should, and he feels he has failed as a son, lover, husband, and father. Even work, which seems successful to others, causes him anguish instead of pride. While it is way too simplistic to say that his life unfolds once as tragedy, again as comedy, there is more positivity to be found in Prendergast’s younger life which makes a greater impact in the second telling. It shows that where a story begins can be as important as where it ends.

With Prendergast’s Fall Cameron has written one of the most inventive and interesting novels of recent times (and the best book by anyone called David Cameron of 2019). The structure may be eye-catching and unusual, but it is the writing which stays with you – nuanced, insightful, and exacting. If you are looking for comparison’s then in terms of structure there are echoes of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novella The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Andrew Sean Greer’s novel, The Confessions of Max Tivoli – but only echoes as it stands alone.

In terms of themes and ideas I would offer you Andre Gide, Albert Camus, and James Kelman as all examine the nature of existence and being, and what that means to the individual. You also can’t avoid comparisons with Proust’s examination of involuntary memory, In Search of Lost Time. However your own experience of memory will be enough to make an immediate connection with Prendergast’s Fall.

It is a novel to take your time and pour over (and possibly become mildly obsessed with). If you’re anything like me you’ll return to the story for a third time, making direct comparisons between the two versions. It is a novel which demands a degree of commitment from the reader but then all the best novels do.

Prendergast’s Fall is available now, published by Into Books (Into Creative).