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Nick Hornby Tag

I don’t even know why I’m here, frankly. I think it’s pretty well documented that all I do these days is write about television and interview people for Bullz-Eye ’til the cows come home. I’ve barely had time to write my columns for Popdose. (In case you’ve forgotten, “Hooks ‘N’ You” and “You’re the Voice” are mine.) Once upon a time, though, I used to be a music critic, dammit…and once you’ve had opinions about music, you’ll always have opinions about music. As such, here are my thoughts on the albums and songs that grabbed me this year. This may be the first time I’ve actually written about most of them, but you can damn well be sure that I’ve spent plenty of time listening to them.

Favorite Albums

1. Tom Jones: Praise & Blame
It’s a pretty consistent tradition that my #1 slot on my Best Albums list of any given year belongs to an artist whose career I’ve followed for quite some time, but Sir Tom earned his spot fair and square. Kicking things off with a stark cover of Bob Dylan’s “What Good Am I?” which will leave listeners spellbound, the Welsh wonder goes gospel with this record, and while it’s admittedly not the sort of career move that generally results in the shifting of mass units, it’s a creative success, one which befits a man entering his seventies far more than, say, another retread of “Sexbomb.” Having already secured legendary status (not to mention a knighthood), our man Tom can afford to step outside of people’s perceptions, and for those who’ve been paying attention, that’s what he’s been doing for the past several albums, including 2008’s 24 Hours and his 2004 collaboration with Jools Holland. But while Praise & Blame is a continuation of an existing trend, it’s also arguably the first time Jones has made absolutely no commercial concessions. There’s no wink-and-a-nudge cover of “200 Lbs. of Heavenly joy.” There’s no song by Bono and the Edge nor uber-hip production from Future Cut. There’s just Tom Jones, age 70…and, by God, he’s still got it.

2. Glen Matlock & The Philistines: Born Running
It isn’t as though it’s surprising that John Lydon’s the member of the Sex Pistols who’s gone on to have the most successful solo career – he was, after all, the frontman for the group – but it continues to be equally eyebrow-raising that so few of the band’s fans have kept their ears open for the consistently solid material emerging from Glen Matlock‘s camp. It’s not quite as punk as the Pistols – which makes perfect sense if you believe the story about Matlock supposedly getting the boot from the band for liking the Beatles a bit too much – but the songs on Born Running still pack a fierce wallop.

3. Brian Wilson: Reimagines Gershwin
The older I get, the less I allow myself to feel guilty about enjoying an album that I could easily peddle to people my grandparents’ age. All things considered, I’d much rather have a full collection of new originals from Mr. Wilson, but the way he takes these Gershwin classics and arranges them to match his traditional sound is still music to my ears. Then, of course, there’s the added bonus that he’s taken on the task of completing a couple of previously-unfinished Gershwin songs. Unsurprisingly, they sound just like Brian Wilson compositions…not that there’s anything wrong with that. At all.

4. Farrah: Farrah
There’s Britpop, and then there’s power pop, but you don’t tend to find bands who can manage to comfortably keep a foot in both camp; I’d argue that Farrah succeeds at this task, but given that they don’t have a particularly high profile in either, I suppose it really all depends on how you define success. For my part, though, if an artist releases an album which contains a significant number of catchy-as-hell hooks, it’s top of the pops in my book, which means that this self-titled entry into their discography is yet another winner for Farrah.

Cratedigger

Ben Folds and Nick Hornby - Lonely AvenueThe news of an impending collaboration between indie music darling Ben Folds and the acclaimed British novelist Nick Hornby was intriguing to say the least. That collaboration has now resulted in an album called Lonely Avenue, and I’m pleased to report that it more than lives up to expectations. I am also happy to tell you that you can win your very own vinyl copy of the new album courtesy of Nonesuch Records. Just read through to the end to find out how.

There are few artists today who can deliver up a wistful melody and break your heart in its delivery better than Ben Folds. In lyricist Hornby however, Folds has found a foil who won’t let him get away with easy sentiment. In fact, Hornby never makes it easy for Folds at all. There are no glib rhymes, and Folds must have found it challenging to fit some of the lyrics into the format of a song, but he makes it work.

Folds’ way with a beautiful melody is in evidence here on a song like “Picture Window,” but lyrically Hornsby spins a sad tale of someone checking into a hospital for what might be the final time (“You know what hope is? Hope is a bastard. Hope is a liar, a cheat, and a tease.”) while fireworks light the sky over London. “Practical Amanda” relates the sad tale of someone who might be missing out on life’s big picture because she is sweating the small stuff. In “Password” the narrator tries to convince his loved one that he’s been paying attention all along, but then realizes that he really hasn’t been paying attention at all. In the album-closing “Belinda” a “one hit wonder with no hits” shares his regret over having left the person he really loved because he “met somebody younger on a plane. She had big breasts, and a nice smile. No kids either. She gave me extra complementary champagne.”

Hot on the heels of his new novel Juliet, Naked is Nick Hornby’s screenplay for An Education. Though the writer’s name is a selling point for the film (a rare honor for a lowly scribe) don’t expect the pop- and sports-obsessed musings of the movies based on his books About a Boy, Fever Pitch, and High Fidelity. Based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, this one’s about a girl. And what interesting company 16-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan) proves to be.

An Education takes place in 1961, just before London started to swing. From the start, the movie is excellent at signifiers: The period production design (Andrew McAlpine), art direction (Ben Smith), set decoration (Anna Lynch-Robinson), and costume design (Odile Dicks-Mireaux) all show a proper, if mildewed, English reserve, and the lighting, by John de Borman, has an uncanny restraint, as if it too is being rationed. Conservatively raised by parents Jack (Alfred Molina) and Marjorie (Cara Seymour), Jenny would seem to be far from the epicenter of the cultural earthquake that would collapse the fifties into the sixties. But she’s a little braver, and more precocious, than her schoolmates, to the occasional dismay of her teacher, Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams), and the institution’s headmistress (Emma Thompson), who see her as Oxford material.

However, the enigmatic businessman who gives Jenny a ride home one day in his Bristol roadster, David (Peter Sarsgaard), sees her as something else. At least twice her age, and Jewish to boot, David is enchanted by his slightly thorny rose, who is in turn captivated by his stories of Paris and his familiarity with the worlds of art auctions, nightclubs, and racetracks. That David’s business partner, Danny (Dominic Cooper, from Mamma Mia! and The History Boys) and Danny’s girlfriend, the sexy but scatter-brained Helen (Rosamund Pike), are a rougher sort, and that the nature of their business is on the shady side isn’t too worrying. Jenny’s hooked, and so, to her surprise, are her parents, who buy the couple’s white lies, figuring that her association with a worldly type who brags about his friendship with C.S. Lewis can only improve her chances of getting into Oxford.

Nick Hornby is Exhibit A in defense of the crusty old adage “write what you know.” He built his reputation on a pair of books that traded on his twin obsessions – football (the autobiographical Fever Pitch) and pop music (his debut novel High Fidelity) – while exploring the impacts of such fixations on interpersonal relationships. His next novel, the brilliant About a Boy (1998), didn’t explore fandom directly, though one of its main characters was a former pop singer who used the residual income from his one big hit to keep the world at bay.

Since then, Hornby has broadened his thematic horizons to encompass religious fervor (How To Be Good), suicide and therapy (A Long Way Down), and teen pregnancy (the “young adult” novel Slam) – all, unfortunately, with returns considerably diminished from his earlier work. In fact, his most essential work of the last decade was a nonfiction immersion into his music fandom: the essay collection Songbook (titled 31 Songs outside the U.S.), which explores his emotional attachments to tunes by artists ranging from O.V. Wright to Royksopp. Any Popdose loyalist who has not already picked up a copy of Songbook should do so immediately.

With all that in mind, it was welcome news indeed when Penguin’s Riverhead Books subsidiary announced that Hornby’s new novel would return him to the world of those who create and devour popular music. Indeed, the setup of Juliet, Naked is almost impossibly juicy … at least from the perspective of a 21st-century music writer like me (and many of you). If you read the excerpt we posted here last week, you already know that Duncan is an obsessive fan of singer-songwriter Tucker Crowe, who walked away from his middling career under mysterious circumstances 20 years ago and has since become the subject of endless conjecture about his past and present lives. As leader of the “Crowologists,” and administrator of a website devoted to picking apart every detail of the singer’s career, Duncan receives a preview copy of a new CD featuring “naked” demos from Crowe’s most acclaimed (and final) album, Juliet.

“It’s always that one song that gets to you. You can hide, but the song comes to find you.”
— Rob Sheffield (Love Is a Mix Tape)

I dislike Rob Sheffield for many reasons—his writing comes off as pompous, hipper-than-thou snark (and that’s just for the stuff he likes); his greasy, perpetual grad student look smacks so obviously of affectation; his voice on those VH1 shows sounds like he’s gargling bathwater with a tampon shoved up each nostril; and he made music writing safe for a whole army of people just like him (read Spin lately?). I also dislike him out of insane jealousy; in spite of all the above, he wrote one of the most moving books about music and music fans I’ve ever read. The bastard done really good. Go to Amazon now and purchase a copy, or borrow one from your local library, that most wonderful of socialist institutions.

A song I’d relegated to the leaky, cobwebby space in the back of my mind recently came to find me. I’d been in the mood to listen to some vinyl, and one of the hundred or so LPs I had standing at attention on a shelf in my living was Foreigner’s 1987 album Inside Information. Immediately, I knew which song I would drop the needle on first; I flipped the thing over to Side Two, and let my trusty old turntable do its thing.

If you’re a loyal Popdose reader who’s read (or seen) High Fidelity or About a Boy — or who has reveled in Songbook, his prose tribute to some of his favorite tunes — then you’re already well aware that Nick Hornby is One Of Us. Has any other novelist even approached his keen yet effortless portrayals of pop fandom, in all its minutiae and benign obsession? The great news is that, after several novels in which Hornby throttled back that fandom in an effort to make broader statements about the human condition — or, at least, the middle-class English form of it — he returns to the new-release racks next week with a novel that offers the best of both his worlds. We’ll have a review of Juliet, Naked in this space next Thursday. Until then, enjoy this sneak peek at the first chapter … and if you’re as curious to find out what happens next as we think you’ll be, pick up the book when it’s released on Tuesday.

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They had flown from England to Minneapolis to look at a toilet. The simple truth of this only struck Annie when they were actually inside it: apart from the graffiti on the walls, some of which made some kind of reference to the toilet’s importance in musical history, it was dank, dark, smelly and entirely unremarkable. Americans were very good at making the most of their heritage, but there wasn’t much even they could do here.