Favourite albums of 2016

1. Mitski — Puberty 2

A record full of life and haunted by death, that fizzes and rages and feels fresh and surprising on every listen.

2. Angel Olsen — My Woman

A shape-shifting statement of vulnerability and resilience.

3. Brian Fallon — Painkillers

An album made to be played on repeat as you’re driving at night, the only car on the road and no destination in mind.

4. Leonard Cohen — You Want it Darker

A supremely graceful final act

5. Beach Slang — A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings

“Your arms are a car crash / I want to die in”

6. Frank Ocean — Blonde

The platonic ideal of the pop record as public diary entry.

7. David Bowie — Blackstar

“Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen”

8. Teenage Fanclub — Here

Songs which instantly feel familiar in the best way, classic, timeless, warm.

9. Beyonce — Lemonade

One of the most zeitgeisty pop culture artefacts of the year, but even more satisfying as a record than thinkpiece fodder. Human, angry, tuneful, beautiful, vital. Both timely and timeless.

10. Julia Jacklin — Don’t Let the Kids Win

Prematurely world weary, like a twentysomething Neil Young likening to his life to an old man’s or Patsy Cline sighing into a golden microphone.

11.Car Seat Headrest — Teens of Denial

The album about growing up bored and and disillusioned that feels so homespun and relatable that we’d all like to think we could have written it .

12. Maxwell — BlackSUMMERS’night

The second part of an immaculately produced song suite where all the sharp edges have been sanded down to a smooth, shapely whole. A balm for strange times and a collection of songs to luxuriate in.

13. Bon Iver — 22, A Million

The year’s most enigmatic record. Pure gibberish or visionary genius? I’m willing to spend a lot of time figuring it out.

14. Bat For Lashes — The Bride

Underrated concept record with that brand of stylish, lush darkness only Natasha Khan can do.

15. Japanese Breakfast — Psychopomp

A record which explodes with sunshine and life and then reveals hidden depths. Bittersweet like all the best pop music.

16. The Radio Dept. — Running Out of Love

Pop symphonies for introverts.

17. Drive-By Truckers — American Band

At first glance, the title sounds blandly descriptive. A few listens later, it sounds like a mission statement of admirable clarity, something to strive towards.

18. The Handsome Family — Unseen

Dark, deeply funny, empathetic: a classic Handsome Family record.

19. Frankie Cosmos — Next Thing

The best collection yet from a prolific talent. Fragile earworms and intimate song sketches.

20. Solange — A Seat at the Table

The second entry of the Knowles family in this list #proudparents

21. Nada Surf — You Know Who You Are

Unfashionably melodic and improbably consistent, Nada Surf have had maybe the best career of any band ever written off as a one (novelty) hit wonder.

22. Pinegrove — Cardinal

Sturdy songs which feel lived in, formed of experience and wisdom.

23. Summer Flake — Hello Friends

A sleeper record built to both soothe and thrill. Melodies buried under a heat haze and guitar noise.

24. Hamilton Leithauser & Rostam — I Had a Dream That You Were Mine

A pop genius and a cult crooner team up. You’ll never believe what happens next…

25. Let’s Eat Grandma — I, Gemini

Almost single-handedly made recorders cool. Pop songs written by people who had never heard pop songs before.

Honourable mentions: Eleanor Friedberger, Hiss Golden Messenger, The Goon Sax

Favourite songs of 2016

  1. Maxwell – Lake by the Ocean
  2. Solange – Cranes Across the Sky
  3. Mitski – Once More to See You
  4. Angel Olsen – Shut Up, Kiss Me
  5. Frank Ocean – Ivy
  6. Lush – Out of Control
  7. Julia Jacklin – Pool Party
  8. Brian Fallon – Steve McQueen
  9. The Weeknd – I Feel it Coming
  10. Michael Kiwanuka – Falling
  11. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – I Need You
  12. Carly Rae Jepsen – Boy Problems
  13. Pup – If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will
  14. Spain – Station 2
  15. Allo Darlin’ – Hymn on the 45
  16. Rihanna ft Drake – Work
  17. Mobo – Apple Cider, I Don’t Mind
  18. Richmond Fontaine – I Got Off The Bus
  19. Marissa Nadler – Janie in Love
  20. The Goon Sax – Sometimes Accidentally
  21. Japanese Breakfast – Everybody Wants to Love You
  22. The Lonely Island – Mona Lisa
  23. The Handsome Family – Back in the Day
  24. The Tindersticks – Hey Lucinda
  25. Tegan and Sara – Boyfriend

The MCA’s ‘Tatsuo Miyjamia: Connect with Everything’ exhibition

Whether lying on your back and looking up into the deep red neon haze of ‘Arrow of Time (Unfinished Life)’ or surrounded by the chilly beauty of ‘Mega Death’, the works of Tatsuo Miyajima are deeply immersive, drenching everyone in their proximity in light. Epic in scale and engaged with the grandest of ideas, his is a thematically unified and stylishly recursive body of work.

One of the major names in contemporary Japanese art, Miyajima’s work has been exhibited over 300 times, but the Museum of Contemporary Art’s summer blockbuster ‘Connect with Everything’ is his first major solo retrospective in Australia. Visitors will find all the key room-scale installations and LED-based sculptures from across his remarkable career.

They’re visually spectacular, but also steeped in deep melancholy. A recurring motif in Miyajima’s work are displays of scattered numbers counting down from 9 to 1, then cycling through the process again, creating a kind of infinite loop of life, death and rebirth.

Speaking through an interpreter, Miyajima says the countdown ties in with his Buddhist beliefs. “In Buddhist philosophy, we’re born, we live, we die, but then we come back, so there’s a cyclical nature to that journey”.

Growing up in postwar Japan, he was surrounded by childhood mortality (including his own serious illness) and the legacy of nuclear destruction, both of which informed his work. “I actually despaired for humanity at times” he says. “But it’s a Buddhist thing to fight that evil, that utter darkness within us”.

Rachel Kent, the Chief Curator at the MCA and the curator of this exhibition, says Miyajima’s installations are fascinating partly for how they deal with death without ever becoming maudlin. “There’s a wonderfully redemptive quality,” she says. “There’s a sense that life eventually resumes again.”

It’s very much a passion project for Kent, who says her initial exposure to Miyajima’s work, back at London’s Hayward gallery in 1997, was a hugely memorable one. “I was in the early stages of my career as a curator… and it was a beautiful big exhibition and it just made this incredible impact on me,” she explains. “It stayed with me for years. I can still remember different parts of that exhibition today.”

She reconnected with Miyajima’s practice for the MCA’s 2012 exhibition ‘Marking Time’, introducing him to Sydney audiences and paving the way for future collaborations. “That (exhibition) was all about how artists mark the passage of time so Tatsuo was obviously central to my thinking, and it was a good way of starting a conversation towards a major retrospective of his work, ” she says. This current exhibition is the culmination of more than three years work and feverish planning.

The ambitious and technologically based nature of the work made for huge logistical challenges, Kent says. “There’s been an enormous amount of construction (for the exhibition), we’ve pretty well had to rebuild parts of the gallery, knock down walls, drop ceilings.” Some 9 tonnes of coal were shipped in for ‘Counter Coal’, while installing ‘100 Time Lotus’necessitated bringing in some 6,500 gallons of water as well as live fish and lotuses.

The huge undertaking has produced a fascinating exhibition which feels both futuristic in its tangles of electric wires and microcomputers, and in thrall to the past, having a strong memorial aspect. It’s a collection that bridges technology and humanism, and you won’t be able to look away for a second.


‘Tatsuo Miyajima: Connect With Everything’ will be showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art from 3 November 2016- 5 March 2017. Book tickets here.

Book review: ‘The Pier Falls’ by Mark Haddon (2016)

“I wish this story had a happier ending” one of the narrators in this new short story collection sighs. Having shot to literary fame on the back of the ultimate optimism of his hit The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time, it seems Mark Haddon is all out of happy endings. The millions enthralled by that fiendishly clever modern fable may be surprised by the unremittingly morbid nature of this skilfully assembled and tonally consistent anthology of death and desolation.

The award-winning titular story is a vividly evoked account of a tragedy at a beachside town in the 1970s which eventually claims dozens of lives. Marked with a restrained tone and sustained mood of eerie calm, it is classically beautiful even in its depiction of smashed bones protruding from skin and drowned bodies disappearing beneath the raging water.

Another standout, ‘Wodwo’, hits similar aesthetic heights, etching out the various arrivals of family members at a picturesque English Christmas, where fallen snow “blots and softens the top of every object like icing on a plum pudding”. Internecine rivalries and long-held acrimonies bubble beneath the surface in a finely detailed portrait of a somewhat tense but generally unremarkable family gathering.

The story then pivots seamlessly into something far darker as the revelry is interrupted by a stranger with a gun, who issues a challenge to restless alpha male Gavin a la the Green knight to Sir Gawain. The surreal incident throws his life into chaos over the ensuing year as he throws away his career and relationship and descends into isolation, codeine addiction and homelessness.

Here, Haddon achieves something that is not quite magic realism, but an inspired,
disquieting blend of dirty realism around a mythical catalyst event, with convincing psychological detail used to render an extraordinary story palpably real.

Other stories depart from the here and now, only to find more emotional desolation; one tale sees an Athenian princess abandoned on an island, elsewhere a failed mission to Mars turns into a mass suicide.

Throughout, Haddon proves a heady stylist alive to moments of beauty even in the midst of despair. When a depressed man comes across a woman attempting suicide on a morning walk with his dogs, he records her jump from the edge of a weir with grimly poetic panache: “It is both more and less real than anything he has ever seen…Her blonde hair rises like a candle flame”.

‘Bunny’ is similarly dark, focusing on a massively overweight man who has dropped out of society, filling his days with trash TV and video games. He meets Leah. Like many of the characters here, she is so deep in a rut she has forgotten what sunlight looks like. She seems to have missed her chance to escape a dead-end town and abusive relationships, feeling “there was comfort in being hurt in the old, familiar ways”. She starts to act as a carer for Bunny; they bond over their cruel mothers and disappointing lives. But the equilibrium of their relationship proves tragically fragile.

As with ‘Wodwo’, both ‘The Island’ and ‘The Gun’ show an abiding interest in the mechanics and physicality of violence, how shooting a gun blows someone back, the particular spatter of blood. The former sees two boys making a formative trip out into the woods with a weapon while the latter recounts the princess’ grisly meeting with Islanders with stomach-churning exactitude.

Equally queasy-making is ‘Breathe’ where Carol returns home from America to find her elderly mother living in a derelict state after her husband died. The daughter’s sudden return and involvement in cleaning up her mother’s filthy house angers Robyn, the sister that remained local when Carol moved overseas, presumed never to be seen again.

Far too many contemporary short stories are bound by ennui and lack urgency. The Pier Falls presents an action-packed, unpredictable antidote to this malaise. Every story here has the power to give the reader a jolt, with Haddon’s pristine and stately prose only heightening the power of each violent upheaval.

Whether in a council estate, adrift in deep space or stalked by demons ripped from ancient mythology, these people are all hopelessly alone, hunted by the inevitability and randomness of death.

Book review: ‘Cambodia Noir’ by Nick Seeley

A hard-bitten photographer, once idealistic and feted for his work, Will Keller now finds himself adrift in Phnom Penh. Notionally working for a local newspaper, he stumbles from one grisly photographic assignment to the next in a numbing haze of sex, drugs and alcohol. His main interest, he explains, is taking photos of corpses; the dead pay better.

In the midst of another punishing bout of self-medication, he is approached by a Japanese American woman calling herself Kara. She wants to pay him to track down her missing sister, June. The latter had been working as a junior journalist at the same paper as Will and rented out his room while he was in Laos. He discovers her diaries, a tortured but vague account of her attempts to break free of her past. Preliminary investigations reveal little, but Will suspects her journalistic investigations into the region’s smuggling and drug trade may have got her in trouble with the wrong people.

Coincidentally or not, the unexpected assignment comes hot on the heels of an unprecedented incident where the police turn on the all-powerful army. A four-star general is shot in the raid and the police uncover a large stash of heroin. Soon after, Will’s friend Bunny, a well-connected political operative, is gunned down. Will’s life becomes a waking nightmare, visions of these deaths and haunting memories of the human carnage he witnessed in Afghanistan becoming indistinguishable from his hellish reality.

In classic noir style, the story which unfolds is not one of light and shade, but shadows within shadows. Another noir staple is the potentially redemptive nature of the mission, which soon leads Will back to the enigmatic Kara. He is a skilful liar, but Kara is better. It soon becomes clear there are very good reasons this femme fatale is employing the services of Will rather than reporting her sister’s disappearance to the authorities.

He may not have any experience as a PI, but he knows where the bodies are buried; which hotels facilitate drug and paedophile rings, who can get a lock picked, a body exhumed or tap into police intelligence to run a background check on someone.

Soon, he needs all these resources and a healthy dose of rat cunning just to stay afloat. The case sees him dig into a darkness even this seasoned war photographer couldn’t have imagined and the mystery of June’s disappearance comes to completely consume him. It leaves him a broken figure: “I am blank, a film cell” he reflects. “I am the thing that records”.

Will emerges as an inspired, gruffly compelling narrator, like some Raymond Chandler hero hopped up on dexies and complaining about backpackers. He has a nicely acrid wit and is prone to moments of bruised philosophy, musing at one point that Tom Waits could have been Cambodian as he has the exact right timbre of pain in his voice.

Keller inhabits a Cambodia that is less a developing tourist trap and more the last gas stop before hell; everyone here is on the run and discovering the hard way that all the drugs in the world can’t kill their demons. It’s a fever dream of a backdrop, and the closest comparison is probably Nicholas Winding Refn’s ultra-violent and divisive Only God Forgives. Its prevailing mood of narcotic paranoia may well prove similarly hard to shake.

The debut work of Nick Seeley, a journalist with experience in both the Middle East and South East Asia, Cambodia Noir draws loosely on some of the political manoeuvring in the titular country. What is foregrounded, however, is a feverishly drawn but convincingly harrowing netherworld of exiles, a city where “every backpacker and junkie and psycho on the planet comes to die”.

Sentences are blunt, truncated, with pronouns and adjectives shorn off until they are left as nasty and lean as a sawn off shotgun. It’s a style capable of both ugly propulsion and surprising lyricism. Some of the influences are familiar: Ellroy’s staccato rhythms and unrelenting cynicism, Hubert Selby Jr’s piercing blasts of lyrical anguish, but assembled in a way that feels both novel and queasily effective.

Not absolutely everything works: there are a couple of contrivances that detract from an otherwise sturdy narrative arc. Similarly, there is an occasional tendency to tonal inconsistency, with the normally indurate Will suddenly spitting action movie dialogue a la McBain. But these seem minor quibbles in the face of Seeley’s vision, a fresh, vicious thing bound to haunt your dreams.

Book review: ‘The High Mountains of Portugal’ by Yann Martel

After the runaway critical and popular success of Life of Pi, Yann ­Martel’s long-awaited next novel was Beatrice and Virgil, a cluttered meta-fiction that, in part, followed a Martel-like novelist and his efforts to follow a blockbuster hit. It proved an unfortunate case of life imitating art, its sputtering story of a novelist producing an unsatisfying work being itself unsatisfying.

The High Mountains of Portugal splits the difference between the rapturous proselytising of Life of Pi and the structural trickery of its successor, returning to his best-loved novel’s theme of loneliness, loss and animal companionship, as well as worshipping the primal power of story­telling and parables.

Split into three (somewhat) linked novellas titled “Homeless”, “Homeward” and “Home”, a kind of playful literary triptych, the first section sees grieving museum worker Tomas venturing across Portugal in mad, ­single-minded pursuit of an ancient crucifix. Gradually losing heart and his sense of purpose, he draws inspiration from the journals of Father Ulisses, whose mournful remembrances of his missionary work in Africa turn into an inco­herent obsession with the idea of home.

Tomas is given as a gift one of the nation’s first automobiles, a strange and wondrous ­machine that he struggles to tame. Initially viewed as a cheerful curiosity by those he ­encounters, his voyage comes to take on a tragicomic tone as he is beset with various physical and automotive ailments. At one point, he emerges from his vehicle hunched and dirty, wildly scratching his unbathed body, a simian figure made a pariah by his unflinching quest for religious grace and solitude.

The story skips forward to the late 1930s, when a pathologist and his wife free associate about Agatha Christie novels and enter into an extended exchange of theories on the enduring appeal of her mystery stories. They ponder that only Christie and Jesus Christ, a figure constructed almost entirely from second-hand accounts, are chiefly concerned with the question of “What are we to do with death”. A woman comes to visit his offices, asking for an autopsy of her husband (who she is carrying in a suitcase), and he makes a macabre discovery, sending this thread of the tale spinning off into fantastical territory.

Finally, ageing Canadian politician Peter is jolted out of his ennui when he has a moment of connection with Odo, an intelligent and social ape, at a research facility. With his wife dead and his family having become a scattered and embittered mess, he makes the impulsive decision to buy the animal, abandon his plateauing career and head to the wild beauty of the country he moved from as an infant, Portugal.

 

Read the full review at The Australian: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/life-of-pi-author-yann-martel-heads-to-mountains-of-portugal/news-story/26baa10e32a72110b9c09d0e4d640d72