Humour me for a minute. Every so often, a piece of work like this comes along (it’s not just an album it’s a project, maybe even a concept) where every aspect and detail is absolutely perfect. The humouring bit concerns my particular slant on the project. MusicRiot’s gig team, The Riot Squad, are big fans of Dean Owens, the UK representative on the project, so forgive me if I spend a bit of time on Dean’s contribution. It’s fair to say that Dean’s solo material has a strong sense of location; he writes about the area and the people he knows, just like Ian Rankin and Irvine Welsh in their novels and short stories. It’s also fair to say that he’s always been willing to push the boundaries in his collaborations, spreading out into traditional Scottish folk ballads as Redwood Mountain with Amy Geddes, rockier material with his occasional band Deer Lake and his consistently excellent work with Will Kimbrough (more about that later).

Buffalo Blood is something else indeed. Dean teamed up with his Nashville friends and collaborators Neilson Hubbard, Audrey Spillman and Joshua Britt, along with sound engineer and photographer Jim DeMain to spend two weeks deep in the New Mexico desert feeling the forces of previous lives played out there while writing and recording  fifteen songs that tap into the echoes of centuries of betrayal, exploitation and alienation of the Native American peoples. And it’s not just the songs; there’s video and photography as well. The incredibly ambitious aim of the project is to immerse the listener in five hundred years of Native American experience. What’s truly incredible is that they actually succeeded. “Buffalo Blood” is an album that will entrance you, engage you and enrage you; maybe it will even make you take a serious look at the history of the indigenous peoples of the American continent. That’s what can happen when creative artists follow their instincts and beliefs and just create; I can’t imagine any of the major music providers bankrolling this project, but I believe “Buffalo Blood” has a real shot at commercial success; it’s that powerful.

The songs were recorded live outdoors in the desert, the wind and animal noises contributing to the feeling of immersion in an environment that retains echoes of centuries of struggle. The quality of the songwriting is consistently high across the album as Celtic, European and Native American influences combine to create a perfect musical backdrop for a message that is still relevant (Standing Rock ring any bells?).

The album has a narrative flow; it moves from the original contact with European settlers through time to the closing lament “Vanishing World”, which is perfectly suited to Dean Owens’ plaintive voice. This album is a classic, carrying a very potent message through the medium of haunting melodies and flawless performances; get it on your wishlist.

If you needed the album to be ground-breaking in any more ways, it’s the first UK release on the Eel Pie Records label and it’s available as a vinyl gatefold double album or digitally from Friday February 15 (EPRLP001)

Breaking news – Dean Owens won UK Song of the Year at the UK Americana Awards 2019 for the title track from his 2018 “Southern Wind” collaboration with Will Kimbrough. And that’s not the only good news from the Buffalo Blood camp; Neilson Hubbard produced “Southern Wind” and also Ben Glover’s “Shorebound” (UK Album of the Year winner) and “Rifles and Rosary Beads” for Mary Gauthier, who won International Artist of the Year and is up for a Grammy this year. Not a bad haul, and that’s before “Buffalo Blood” is released.

If you need any more recommendations for Buffalo Blood, try this:

First impressions; sometimes you can stake your life on them and sometimes… Well, this was one of those. The opening song, “Let’s Go Back in Time, Man”, screamed out ‘Rockabilly Revival – again’, and we’ve all seen too many of those built around mediocre pop bands. But the album’s twelve songs long, so let’s not be too hasty. Guess what? By the second song I’d admitted to being a bit premature and by the end of the album, the message had hit home; the title of the first song’s ironic and this is about viewing a mid-twentieth century musical phenomenon through a twenty-first century lens. Forget the revival, this is how Rob’s rockabilly rolls in 2019.

Now, with the best will in the world, some of the original UK rockabilly bands were characterised more by enthusiasm than expertise; that’s definitely not the case with Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra. These people can play and what they are is much, much more than a skiffle band with better gear. And maybe rockabilly isn’t really a wide enough description for the scope of their work. Just look at all the incongruous elements.

The second song, “There’s a Hole Where my Pocket Used to Be” combines  a Spaghetti Western ambience and choral refrain with a Theremin and a clever lyric built around the number six. Don’t look for too many predictable where Rob Heron’s concerned. Song number three, “Life is a Drag”, combines lyrics about the joys of cross-dressing with a jazz arrangement, an accordion solo and lead guitar that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Les Paul record. And so it goes on – “Une Bouteille de Beaujolais” evokes a Paris café with an accordion solo, a gypsy Django feel and wine references. You wouldn’t find either of those two songs in a Crazy Cavan set.

That’s not the end of the invention by a long way. “Fool Talkin’ Man” has a Gallic Jacques Brel feel with some atonal touches creating a slightly menacing feel while the title song has the feel of a seventies American TV theme married to a lyric about unwanted gentrification in our cities. And even if the album’s closer, “Double Meaning, Double Entendre”, is based on a fairly thin premise, it’s still good fun and there’s always a place for that. Give it a listen; even better, go out and watch them on their upcoming tour.

“Soul of My City” is released on Tea Pad Recordings (TPCD006) on Friday February 1st, 2019.

 

A few words about MusicRiot before we get underway. You won’t find any negative reviews here. There’s way too much negativity everywhere around us; why add to that? We pick music that we like, live or recorded and we tell you about it; nice and simple. Well, it is most of the time, until you bump up against an album like “Trouble Holding Back”. It’s Helen Rose’s debut album, it’s a labour of love and she’s poured a lot of herself into it. Which brings us back to negativity and how we try to avoid it.

There are some truly outstanding songs on this album but (and here’s my subjectivity cop-out kicking in) there are a couple that I just don’t get. I’m not dwelling on them, but I can’t see the need for another cover of “When the Levee Breaks” and the title track, to my ears, is an over-cooked glam rock stomper. So let’s look at the positives.

The album’s second song “Flatlands of North Dakota” is a little classic, combining echoes of Bobbie Gentry with sweeping string arrangements and a nod in the direction of Roy Budd’s “Get Carter” theme. Match that up with a message about mothers doing what they have to do to bring up a family and you have a great song. “Mississippi Moon” is subtle, lush and atmospheric with a tasteful close-miked sax solo and not too many frills and “Oh Glory Be” is a full-on rock ‘n’ soul production with a horn section and a call and response gospel refrain. And let’s not forget the beautiful stripped-back version of Steve Earle’s powerful indictment of strip-mining, “The Mountain”. There’s more than enough good material here to make this well worth listening to.

“Trouble Holding Back” is released on Friday January 25th 2019 on Monkey Room Music (MRM 0008).

Time flies. It’s over three years since we reviewed the last Sam Lewis album “Waiting on You”. Well, he picked up the opening slot on Chris Stapleton’s ‘Traveler’ album tour, which is a long way from the last time we saw him in the basement at Green Note. He’s moved on a bit in terms of his songwriting as well. The voice is as good as ever and, like the arrangements and stylings, it’s in that confluence where the rivers of blues, soul and country meet. It’s quite a voice; for those of a certain age, if you take a touch of rawness away from Frankie Miller, you’re getting somewhere close.

Events in the outside world have had their impact on Sam’s songs (as they have on many other American songwriters during that time) and there’s a move away from the personal in the lyrics towards an exploration life in America in the Trumpton era. It’s certainly darker than his previous work and definitely in tune with the zeitgeist. And there are some great tunes as well.

There’s a theme running through the album of moving from or towards something, but it goes a little further than that. “Great Ideas” references the management theory of disruption as a means of progress and, despite the darker mood of the album, there’s a huge amount of positivity as well. The message of “Do It” is to spread the love around, while the title track is about the idea that unity and diversity can happily co-exist, even today.

Looking at the whole thing, the album is gorgeous. Sam’s voice is as smooth and seductive as ever and the arrangements are perfect, serving the song without ever becoming too showy or obtrusive. The closest we get to a showy guitar solo is on “The Only One”, and even that’s very tasteful, and definitely not ostentatious. Standouts; it’s all very, very good and bears repeated listening, but I think it has to be the title song “Loversity” which stacks the two guitars prevalent throughout the album up against horns and huge choral backing vocals over a Stax-style groove; what more could you want?

“Loversity” is released in the UK on Loversity Records on Friday January 18th.

Meanwhile, feast your eyes and ears on this:

Welcome to 2019. Here’s the first album review of the year for you.

Listening to Gordie Tentrees’ studio output, it always struck me that there was something missing; I couldn’t quite commit to the albums. It appears that many fans of Gordie and Jaxon Haldane’s live shows thought the same, repeatedly asking for an album that was more representative of the live experience. The result was “Grit”, recorded over five separate gigs in five different venues and it’s fair to say I’m convinced now. The press release warns that ‘All songs contain GRIT. The essential ingredient to overcoming adversity’, or, alternatively, the difference between an oyster and a pearl.

The pair function as writing collaborators as well as duo performers, with a couple of their co-writes, “Grit” and “Junior” featuring on the album in addition to a brace of Tentrees/Fred Eaglesmith songs and a number of Gordie Tentrees  solo efforts.

The most astonishing aspect of “Grit” is the variety. The variety of instruments featured (ten between the two players, including the musical saw) and the variety and breadth of the songwriting, which ranges from the social satire of “Craft Beards and Man Buns”, dispensing fashion victim advice to the younger generation, to the moving (but still humorous) account of Gordie’s marriage. There are also a couple of sideswipes at some of the characters that travelling musicians meet along the way. “Sideman Blues” takes aim fair and square at songwriters who are propped up on the road by sidemen who receive little or no credit and not much more reward and, incidentally features some phenomenal playing from both Gordie and Jaxon.

And my favourite song? It’s a two-way choice between the aforementioned “Lost” and the profoundly moving and ultimately uplifting road burn-out song “Junior”. Either one works for me.

It’s a pretty good start to 2019. It’s an album that captures Gordie and Jaxon doing what they do best; performing. They cover all bases instrumentally, melodically and lyrically and do it with a great sense of joy.

“Grit” is released on Friday January 11, 2019 on Greywood Records.

You can find out for yourself how good they are at any of these UK tour dates:

JANUARY

Wed 30

Thu 31

London

South Molton, nr. Barnstaple

What’s Cookin’@ Leytonstone Ex-Servicemens Club

The Plough Hotel

FEBRUARY

Fri 1

 

Wellington, nr. Taunton

 

The Beambridge Inn

Sat 2 Worth Matravers, nr. Swanage The Square & Compass
Sun 3 Worth Matravers, nr. Swanage The Square & Compass                                                          NB. Matinee Show
Mon 4 Brighton The Greys
Tue 5 Bangor, North Wales Blue Sky Café
Wed 6 Southport Grateful Fred’s at The Atkinson
Thu 7 Stroud The Subscription Rooms
Fri 8 East Barsham , Norfolk The Moonshine Club, East Barsham Village Hall
Sat 9 York House Concerts York
Sun 10 Coldingham, Scottish Borders Coldingham Village Hall
Mon 11 Glasgow The Doublet
Tue 12 Dundee Gardyne Theatre
Wed 13 Kelso, Scottish Borders The Tipsy Ghillie
Thu 14 Edinburgh The Bluebird Cafe
Fri 15 Alford, Aberdeenshire Piggery-Smokery
Sat 16 Aberdeen The Blue Lamp
Sun 17 Biggar, South Lanarkshire The Wee Gig, Arcadia Music Cafe

 

Allan was a bit chuffed to get his first big festival photo accreditation this summer for Cornbury Festival in Oxfordshire. It was perfectly timed to coincide with a complete weekend shutdown of rail services through Oxford during the hottest weekend but it takes a lot more than that to stop a determined photographer. When he eventually made it there, well, we’ll let him tell you about it.

 

OK, Friday night and the first band to play in the dark with stage lights was Stereo MCs. Had to be done really. It was a bit of a nostalgia thing; loads of memories of my DJ days in the late eighties/early nineties. From the outset, it was obvious that Rob Birch is still a hugely charismatic and dynamic frontman. I think this just about captures it:

Last set on Friday night was UB40. I saw UB40 on their first national tour when they supported The Pretenders on tour across the UK in 1980. They were fired up, they wanted to succeed and they sounded amazing. Nearly forty years on, it’s a very different story; there are two UB40s touring and neither’s convincing. This version is pretty pedestrian, but they have one secret weapon – Brian Travers. I’m sure he wouldn’t claim to be the best sax player in the world, but he knows how to sell it:

Saturday night was busy (although Alanis Morissette decided not to allow any press access for her set) and the Songbird Stage was the place to be. Obviously Mavis Staples was a do-not-miss, but PP Arnold was another. You would think she’d never been away; she sounded fabulous and looked like this:

Sunday afternoon on the Pleasant Valley Stage; anyone for a bit of Deacon Blue? Definitely; I saw them a couple of times in the very early days and I loved them. It’s partly a Scottish thing, but it’s mainly a music thing. They have great songs and they have the experience to sell them on a festival stage. You never know, Ricky might do a bit of politics. Actually you do know, he will. Anyway, he’s looking pretty pumped these days:

Sunday evening headliners – Squeeze. We go back a long way; I saw Squeeze for the first time at Dundee University Students’ Association; there were more people on stage than in the audience and it was still a great gig. I’ve photographed them on occasions forty years apart (I know, I don’t look that old) and I still love those Difford/Tilbrook songs. This time, it was Yolanda Charles that really caught my eye:

As ever; songs, not singles. These songs are all from albums that we’ve reviewed this year (that’s Stone Foundation ruled out again – sorry guys). There’s something else, apart from greatness, that links all these choices; they’re not the only songs from the albums they feature on that could have made this list. The albums are all wonderful pieces of work taken as a whole, but they all feature at least two standout tracks that would have been seen as singles in a different musical era. There were difficult choices but ultimately it had to be whittled down to five songs. In no particular order, here are Allan’s favourite five songs of the year; the songs that made his heart soar or made him cry, but definitely made him hit the repeat button.

 

“The Last Song” – Dean Owens

Just to be contrary, it’s actually the first song on the album, ”Southern Wind”, which was a collaboration with Will Kimbrough. One of the things Dean and Will bonded over was their love of Ronnie Lane, whose influence is all over this one. Having heard it live a few times, where it tends to appear towards the end of the set, confirms the power of the song and allows Dean to riff on repeated choruses by throwing in lines from, for example, “Ooh La La”. It’s fun and it’s memorable; if you don’t love this, you’ve got icicles for ventricles.

 

“Love in Wartime” – Birds of Chicago

Absolutely gorgeous. This clocks in at about the six minute mark but you just want it to keep going. It’s one of those that seduces you in with a gentle intro then builds and builds to the first chorus. And by that time, you’re hooked; you’re there for the duration. Maybe there’s a nostalgia thing there; the feel, the chord progressions are a lot like classic mid-seventies era Bob Seger. The melody’s hummable, the harmonies are superb and it’s hugely uplifting. I dare you not to be moved by this.

 

“Out from Under” – Michael McDermott

This is a song where you just have to accept the Bruce Springsteen comparison because this is a stadium rocker in the mould of “Born to Run”. It’s a monstrous ‘wall of sound’ production driving along by pounding, relentless floor toms and a huge full band arrangement. In the context of the album, it’s the song that represents the start of the upward turn in Michael’s rehabilitation and the uplifting lyrical message is carried along on the tide of a widescreen musical setting. Taken out of the context of the album, it’s a song that FM radio in the States would have been all over in the 80s – not just a powerhouse arrangement, a potent message as well.

 

“Son of an Immigrant” – Gerry Spehar

A perfect example of the song that leads you in a certain direction before pulling the rug from under you and twisting the point of the narrative. It’s not just an example of a clever narrative trick; like the rest of the album, this is a powerful commentary on the current state of the USA, and its current leader. The song has a very clear message; if you go back far enough almost everyone’s an immigrant in the land of the free. Like “Out from Under”, it sits perfectly within the context of the album without needing that context to shine as a great song.

 

“The Shape of You” – Rod Picott

Sometimes a song just needs to find the point in your life where it fits. This one happened for me on the Tube on the way back from a gig at Green Note. I’d already heard it a few times but this time it suddenly hit home. It’s about the realisation that someone has become a part of you. In this case because that person has gone, but I guess the image works if they’re still around. The song opens with the image in the title, then develops that image. It’s a really simple idea but beautifully effective. The arrangement’s sparse, with mainly acoustic guitar and vocal with some very subtle Will Kimbrough guitar atmospherics just lurking in the background. Delicate and gorgeous.

There are many other songs that could have been on this list; there’s so much incredible music out there, but these were the ones that were buzzing around my consciousness when I put this together. Have a listen, and I hope you enjoy.

The High Fives feature just wouldn’t be the same without a contribution from Our Friend in the North. Steve J has been a very busy man this year, reviewing loads of gigs for us while working as a radio presenter in the Peak District and somehow manging to publish a couple of books as well, “On the Radio” with his brother Paul and a solo effort, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Twilight”. They’re both cracking reads (subtle stocking-filler hint here) and our totally unbiased view is that you should get hold of a copy of each for your nearest and dearest. In the meantime, here’s Steve’s reaction to hearing some of his classic 45s (ask your nan) performed live.

High Fives. This year has been the year of classic singles – LIVE!! So I’ve picked my fave live performances of five classic singles that I’ve experienced this year, bookending from ‘I’m Not In Love’ to ‘Is This Love?’ See what he did there? Certainty into uncertainty. Metaphor for the year, n’est-ce pas?

 

“I’m Not in Love” – 10CC

A beige, plastic-labelled 45 on Mercury Records. A night out at The Opera House in Buxton. Nearing the end of a storming set and the lighting changes. Suddenly, I become aware of an effect which has been more or less redundant all night…a cutaway mirrorball, throwing darts of seventiesesque silver light in elderly lovers’ eyes and randomly piercing the sudden dark blue wash which had swallowed the stage. And with stunning clarity and instant recognition, the keyboard strikes up for one of the most perfect, flawless and in a way, perplexing lurv songs of all time. And it’s all there. The ambiguity in the title, suggesting despair or disdain or something in between (Disappointment? Disenchantment? Take a look into this lovely audio mirror; see what bounces back) and all wrapped up in that rich electric keyboard swirl which at times sounds like it is emerging, dripping, from between the trees. And can the CCs pull off the stunning build up of layer upon layer of vocal harmonics before it all dissipates in a crystalline sprinkle of sparkly synth? Sure can. Sure do. Four or so minutes of suspended animation. Perfect.

 

Travellin’ Band – John Fogerty / Creedence Clearwater Revival

Ain’t nothing fancy about this; a UK-release blue-labelled Liberty Records mono 45 cut like the San Andreas Fault and heavily worn with spiral striations due to jukebox wear (the arm skims the toast rack of records, reaches down, grabs, makes a wear imprint and over time, your 45 will fade from shiny black to shimmering grey) with a stomped-out middle and a triangular black centre piece. And a night out in the former Millennium Dome in London. But what a way to start a set. This ain’t no polite calling card; this is a ‘blow the doors off’ statement of intent. John Fogerty rips into the opening tune with the ferocity of a storm-force wind. Rasping and what even for then was uncompromisingly ‘dated’ sax gives way to the foghorn honk of Fogerty’s amazing vocal. You can read millions of pages about what it was like to live the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle; or you can listen to this for about two minutes twenty seconds and get the whole story. You’ve paid for it. And you’re having it.

 

2-4-6-8 Motorway” – Tom Robinson Band

Red and salmon pink-labelled EMI demo 45 stamped ‘Factory Copy; For Demonstration Use Only’. And as tended to happen with the ‘airplay’ samples, it’s a Porky Prime Cut alright, tyre-wall black and uncompromisingly deep. Wherever it plays, it cuts the air like a knife. Pop tune meets rock anthem meets The New Wave (sort of). Probably the most out of context of all TRB’s output (with the exception of a few plain duffers on the second album) it is the Show Closer all century long, ensuring an enthusiastic crowd stick around for the encore and are Up For It. As a song it just screams to be hit hard, and sung with lust for life and played with drive and passion. And at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, that’s what it gets as the Tom Robinson Band roll back the years and suddenly we’re all somewhere else, sometime else.

 

“Rock ‘n’ Me” – Steve Miller Band

Another beige plastic-labelled Mercury Records 45. Another drivetime classic meets live anthem. But this one is very ‘American’ as we return to the Drearydomeydrome, London, once more. This just ‘drives’ along on vinyl, with the singer’s voice sounding as artificial and as ethereal as Fogerty’s is to sound ‘real’ and very much Of This World about half an hour later, same place, same night. This is as much a tribute to the fine art of producing recorded sound as it is to it being a mighty fine, well-arranged song. And after an early evening where the sound sold Steve Miller and the Millermen seriously short, it was good to hear the whole thing come together and produce three minutes of unadulterated joy, which evoked top-down, hedonistic, Californian sunshine of various kinds just as vivaciously as the little unassuming vinyl disc did when it first lit up my grim Scottish tenement flat as I first played a demo copy to myself on a horrible little autochange record player way back in (I think!) 1976. Keep On Rockin’ Me, Baby.

 

“Is This Love” – The Wailers / Bob Marley and the Wailers

Island records multi-coloured label 45 with the lurid green palm tree in the foreground, and with the centre knocked out for use as a Jukebox copy, my “Is This Love?” is a well-travelled audio file. I’ve taken it out on more gigs than The Beatles, The Stones and The Who have played put together and sure enough it bears all the scars of wear, tear, spilt beer, exposure to sunshine on outdoor gigs, grit in between the single sleeve sides, greasy buffet fingers and sub-zero storage. Old-school DJ abuse, in short. As do The Wailers, who continue unsteadily but utterly charmingly into the future, carrying Bob Marley’s live legacy with them. Both on the 45 and in the Manchester Academy, the song and the way it is delivered contains enough space to walk around in. Space. Clarity. No clutter. And those chord progressions and the odd squirt of squealing lead guitar every now and then. And that drummer. Live, just as on the record, strolling, loping along as if it’s the easiest, most natural thing on earth. (Try it some time! I stand in awe of most musicians due to my own limited abilities but reggae drummers….well.) On stage as on vinyl, sunshine, but more than that, a hope bordering on a belief that love can indeed triumph over all, and that peace will be the outcome and unity will be the end result; which lasted about as long as it took for me to walk outside into the typecast Manchester rain and for some bloke half my age and twice my size to attempt to kick me swede in whilst waiting for a taxi. And the compliments of the High Fives to you, too.

I know, I know; we’ve said this before. The Riot Squad loves the way that artists taking part in this piece stamp their individuality on their contributions – you never know what you’re going to get. We’ve had a huge variety already this year including Dean Owens’ American tour highlights and Track Dogs’ UK tour discoveries and we’re just over halfway through December. In this particular piece, Gerry Spehar, whose “Anger Management” album blew Allan away this year, has taken the opportunity to say thank you to some of the people that have made a difference for him in 2018. Gerry’s kept this very simple, so we’re going to respect that by not including any distracting visual images. And thank you Gerry.

 

Thank You High Fives  2018

 

Robert Mueller and the American justice system for giving me hope.

My kids, grandkids and other family for giving me roots.

Ellen for mending my broken wings.

Paul, Tommy and the other fine musicians for polishing my soul.

Geraint, Allan, Bill, Kim, Mike and other promoters, reviewers and stations for making it smile.

 

Allan is a huge fan of Rod Picott. He loves the last two albums, “Fortune” and “Out Past the Wires”, he’s seen him live and was gutted to miss Rod’s latest appearance in London in the spring of 2018. Rod can sing and play with the best but, beyond anything else, he’s a storyteller; the characters in “Out Past the Wires” will be appearing in a volume of short stories in the near future. So it’s absolutely no surprise that Rod’s High Fives for 2018 are literary picks. He’s also very thorough, so he provided all of the cover artwork to use in this piece.

 

“The Flame” – Leonard Cohen

This is Cohen’s final piece of work and in fact he died before finishing. “The Flame” is a loose collection of poems, drawings and lyrics from his later albums. Most of the drawings are of Leonard himself with his aged and jowly face surrounded by small sometimes mystical phrases. The book is revelatory in showcasing the familiar syllabic repetition in much of Leonard Cohen’s work. It’s surprising to see the rhythmic patterns emerge over and over as they bring the reader to a sort of trancelike state. The familiar themes are all here. Love, loss, sex, death, aging and the mysterious relationship Cohen had to life itself. “The Flame” is a wonderful book and an intimate look inside one of the great artistic minds of the last fifty years.

“Gone ’Til November” – Wallace Stroby

This noirish crime fiction novel grabs you from the beginning and Stroby masterfully drags the reader along into a fast-paced mystery that never lets up. This is not the kind of fiction I’m usually drawn to but the “Gone ’Til November” characters are so vivid and the story so compelling that I couldn’t put the book down. The plot unfolds much like a great film and is just as cinematic. Simply – great crime fiction worthy of Elmore Leonard comparisons.

Substitute – Nicholson Baker

The genius of Nicholson Baker can’t be overstated. “Substitute” is a 719-page memoir of Baker’s tenure as a substitute teacher in the public school system of the state of Maine. Baker does something in his writing that is absolutely unique. He writes as a person’s mind works without any nod to plot and without any hint of manipulation. It is a wild and strangely compelling trick that keeps you wondering where his words will go next. There are untamed swings of thought that keep you on your toes the entire time. “Substitute” is basically every thought Baker had during his 28 days as an on-call teacher. Baker’s observations are so sharp and his empathy so present that this project is an incredibly moving journey through what should be incredibly pedestrian territory. In lesser hands this book would never work. A stunner.

Paris Trout – Pete Dexter

This novel is straight up my alley – dark southern gothic filled with vivid intense characters and rich brilliant prose. “Paris Trout” is simultaneously dark, violent and comic and the novel goes places you do not see coming. The main character himself is a racist, wife-abusing storekeeper in the dreamy small southern town, Cotton Point, Georgia. Dexter reveals our common flawed humanity through the townspeople’s reaction to a tragic incident brought on by Trout. Such vicious narrative requires a deft hand and Dexter never leaves the reader in doubt as he drags you into deeper and deeper water.

Trampoline – Robert Gipe

This illustrated novel is a work of absolute genius. The narrative is so vivid that I can recall the story as if I have seen a film. That’s saying something. The book follows the life of wry, restless fifteen-year-old outsider Dawn Jewell. Woven into her story is a larger narrative that addresses the brutal nature of strip mining in her small Appalachian Kentucky town. Gipe’s own loose, scratchy inked illustrations are a marvel of economy and power. The drawings of Dawn are often accompanied by a few carefully chosen words that reveal her inner mind and the conflict therein. Your heart will break for Dawn as she navigates her small world and the inevitable collisions that come with her finding her way to some kind of peace inside the chaos around her. This book is a game-changer we seldom receive in fiction.