Trim tomes for your travels, Sónar sounds and our pick of Monocle music for the summer.
Split Enz, The Mullanes and the Finn Brothers have all shared Neil Finn’s fresh, deft songwriting, but his Crowded House records have borne his finest hours. Fourteen years after Together Alone, Time on Earth’s toned down sound confirms Neil Finn’s reputation as New Zealand’s not-so-modern McCartney: a writer enthused by and infused with melody, simplicity and a certain stubborn constancy.
While the Londoners’ debut single was shelved in the “electro punk” pigeonhole by pop librarians, it was simply a good pop song made great by being sped up a bit and embellished with some angular architecture. Their Playroom is a danceable diagram of their influences: Gang of Four guitars; Kraftwerk keyboards; vocals courtesy of a girl who sounds like a sexy computer. Sure, the Ponies dress trendy, stay out late on Saturdays and can twist an orally fixated lyric around a squelchy synthesiser, but they won’t scare the horses.
Pájaro Sunrise recently relocated from León to Madrid to find a slightly larger attic from which to home-make this, their debut album. The road trip through northern Spain’s heat haze seems to have inspired 10 lithe yet languorous songs where pop and country-rock snooze together under a mosquito net of dusty guitars, soft-sung vocals and a trace of reggae. A smoky summer classic.
That Free School Milk is such an utterly irresistible debut might be considered unlikely since the band, surefire future festival favourites, wear their hoary old influences on their sleeve: sharing their name with an Elton John song made famous by a film inspired by a Led Zeppelin tour. They also seem to like the Wurzels as much as the Faces, daydream about what John Squire might have done with Sister Sledge (rather than the Stone Roses) and don’t think the Waterboys’ Big Sound was nearly big enough.
Jean Painlevé’s half-century of mesmerising Surrealist natural history films are required viewing against the current backdrop of Discovery Channels, sensationalist shark-baiters and late, lamented croc-botherers. Seventy years before Bill Murray lampooned Cousteau as Zissou, Painlevé was snorkelling the shallows and diving the depths to capture and catalogue the weirdness of the underwater environment, specialising in molluscs, invertebrates and rareties. Love Life of the Octopus, accompanied by Pierre Henry’s pioneering Gallic electronica, made grotesquerie into sub-aquatic erotica; The Seahorse found unlikely commercial success; The Vampire, a rare foray on land to study blood-sucking bats, was Painlevé’s response to Nazism. The auteur anthropomorphised his watery subjects and judged them by human standards, too: octopi are “animales horrifiques”, bats likened to Murnau’s Nosferatu. American fans and mighty fine avant-rockers Yo La Tengo have provided an alternative soundtrack for the BFI’s summer double-DVD release of Painlevé’s Science Is Fiction anthology.
Two publishers address the problem of bags bulging with books this summer. Melville House’s “Art of the Novella” series houses what it calls “this renegade art form” in simple, smart volumes with concise notes and biographies of their well-travelled authors, among them Stevenson, Melville and Kipling.
Penguin’s “Great Journeys” embarrass any modern travel itinerary: take, for example, the Spanish adventurer Cabeza de Vaca’s account of an expedition to explore Florida in 1527 that resulted in his becoming the first European to cross the American Southwest, or William Dampier’s terrifying tales of the true pirates of the Caribbean. The volumes are arranged as travel guides, with maps at the beginning and end of each classic tale of the unexpected and unexplored.
Meanwhile Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives is a novel of wildness and the wilderness, both physical and personal. This first English translation of the late Chilean author’s last masterpiece follows his idealistic protagonists as they flee through Mexico City, Barcelona, Israel, Liberia and finally the deserts of Mexico to track down an obscure Mexican poet. Chile’s answer to García Márquez left on the highest literary note.
Barcelona’s Sónar Festival has become a byword for electro-pyrotechnics and musical discovery since its inception in 1994. The first festival drew in 6,000 curious Catalans, and the burghers of Barcelona have presided over yet another civic success story while keeping a watchful eye on how their musical playground has grown ever since.
Such has been the triumph of Sónar’s symbiosis with the streets of its hometown that it has exported its expertise to Tokyo, Hamburg and Seoul via its Sónar Sound roadshow, set to visit Buenos Aires in November while the Beastie Boys, Cornelius and Devo have just confirmed headline slots back home in Barcelona this June.
As this summer’s expected figure of 80,000 visitors represents something of a ceiling for the number of ticket holders, attendant journalists and freebie-seekers who can enjoy themselves in the city, Sónar’s organisers have also become renowned as astute, if temporary, town planners – accommodating four main stages, art installations, cinema spaces and a Sónar Village – in effect recreating the whole city as a single, organic multimedia hub, in the Barrio Gothic, the Fira Van Gria and further abroad.
Monocle’s summer bookshelf
01. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, ZZ Packer
02. The Prince of Nantucket, Jan Goldstein
03. The Yellow Jersey Companion to the Tour de France, Les Woodland
04. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson
05. The Sushi Economy, Sasha Issenberg
06. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, Xiaolu Guo
07. Young Stalin, Simon Sebag Montefiore
08. The Magus, John Fowles
09. Way Off the Road, Bill Geist
10. A Far Country, Daniel Mason