Reading Round Up/ On Being Busy

So, if you cast your minds back to the beginning of the year I set myself a challenge. And I failed that challenge. I failed to share my favourite read every month- I failed to even read at all some weeks. It’s now April and I’m writing a four-month old blog post that’s been left cold and lonely in my drafts. Continue reading

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The Resolution Reading Challenge

This year, as ever, I set myself some ludicrous and probably entirely unachievable resolutions. The one I’m most excited about for 2018, though, was one that I actually failed to keep a couple of years ago: although I love to read, it’s something that in my current life climate (doing a Masters, working 30-odd hours a week, watching the entire backlog of Friends on Netflix…) I don’t carve out enough precious time for.

Two years ago I set myself the challenge to read fifty two books in a year- one a week. I knew it was tough, but I figured with all the TV and Instagram scrolling that I engage with daily, it should be easy.

In 2016 I read twenty five books. Less than half of my challenged amount.

But, that’s a hell of a lot more than I read in 2015. It spurred me on, and last year, although I didn’t keep count, I kept reading and I’m pretty sure I broke that twenty five book-barrier.

So I’ve decided to try again, but with some changes to my resolution.

In 2018 I want to read a lot (fifty books would be great). But more importantly, I want to share what I read with Ramajamn. So at the end of every month I challenge myself to write my monthly ‘Round-Up’- a summary of what I’ve read, and whether I think you should (or, as always, should not) read it too.

 

‘It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.’
Oscar Wilde-

I would love to hear about what you’re reading, any awesome books you think should be on my list this year, or if you fancy joining in on the challenge and sharing what you read too.

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Michael Kiwanuka in Exeter- One Year On

Last week Michael Kiwanuka, the enigmatic thirty-year-old London-born soul-pop singer/songwriter returned to Exeter almost exactly one year after his Phoenix gig. This time in the much bigger University hall, and with a larger entourage, Kiwanuka proved just how much success can change a young artist’s performance, even if he doesn’t fully realise it.

The inclusion of the three-piece gospel choir and the wind section (one guy deftly manoeuvring between tenor sax and flute at the drop of a bass note) was a great idea, but not necessarily well-played out. The singers were great, and accentuated Kiwanuka’s voice with harmonies that added depth and character to the more soulful numbers. The saxophone was far too loud, without being properly audible- a wall of sound seemed to emanate from the far-left corner of the stage, and the subtleties of the melody were lost to this sound design malfunction. And the fact that he was adapting between the two instruments so fluently mid-track meant that the sound was never going to be right for either instrument.

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Michael Kiwanuka at the Great Hall, Exeter

The rest of the band were as tight as ever- the lead electric guitar, keys, bass, drums and percussionist have obviously worked together for a lot longer than these new members, and it showed. The guitar especially was beautiful, and played with so much soul that at one climax I heard the person behind me say ‘reminds me a bit of Hendrix’ (perhaps a little hyperbolic, but we’ve all been in the hold of a decent guitarist on a Monday night in Devon).

Kiwanuka himself was on as good a form as ever: his naturally shy stage presence seems to evaporate the moment he plucks either his electric or acoustic, and his voice rings out with a truth that seems implausible from such a young musician. It was, again, only the sound design that let him down. You can tell a vocalist’s mic is caked in too much reverb when they try to tell the audience an amusing anecdote and it gets lost somewhere between him and the third row. Not much of a talker anyway, Kiwanuka’s occasional funny stories were only worthwhile if you were devotedly standing at the front of the hall. It seems strange to me that someone with a voice so naturally full of depth and feeling should need so much layered onto their vocal mic. This made the performance lose a fair amount of its effect, as you would expect only being able to hear half the lyrics would do.

The set list was mixed up a little from last year, with the inclusion of the 2012 top forty single ‘Home Again’. Slightly out of place amongst the plethora of soul-funk pieces surrounding it, this track seemed to hint at a weaker sense of Kiwanuka feeling confident enough to be able to do what he wants at his own gigs. Well received by his audience, it seems he may have decided to do what makes the people (and perhaps his manager?) happy.

And then there’s the encore. Having rounded up what seemed to be a generally well-thought-out and executed set (assuming the sound guys are in-house and not part of the entourage), Kiwanuka and band insisted on giving us, the people supposedly wanting of it, a dramatic and over-played encore. We knew it was going to happen- he was yet to play two of the most important singles of the 2016’s Love and Hate– but there was a small part of me holding on to the idea that the beautiful ending of the first set could be the way Kiwanuka wants to be remembered. I was, of course, wrong.

Kiwanuka thanked the band, one by one, before they took leave of the stage to the roar of the crowd (especially Hendrix-junior). The keys player was the last left standing, beautifully repeating the final two bars of the melody the band had spent fifteen minutes gradually stripping back. Finishing on a cliff-hanger, without satisfying us with the final note to make the perfect cadence, our keys player stood up unconfidently and walked the long way off-stage, without once even looking up, as if rehearsal in the garage was over and his mum had called him for in for his tea. It was beautiful. Celebrating the true nature of good live music, without charm and charisma, just showcasing that one guy at the back who’s a fantastic musician but kind of just forgets the crowd is there, this was a perfect end for a show like this. It was only when the house lights didn’t ping back on that I realised we were now going to stand here for ten minutes waiting for them all to trope back on and give us another two numbers.

Why, Kiwanuka, why?

Please, be confident in your own performance so that it doesn’t warrant this frankly ridiculous notion that you’re not an established and well-loved performer until you’ve made your paying audience scream your name at you because we cannot stand the idea that your hour-and-a-half set is over. Aside from some technical stuff that probably comes together with the venue (which didn’t suit the set-up as much as the much smaller hall from last year), this was a great gig. If only two-album pop stars would realise that they can do whatever they want, without playing up to the audience’s expectations, and that the true Devonian fans will still be there to pretend they understand any of the racial-tension that they pour so authentically into your lyrics.

The Kitchen, Falmouth

Last month I was lucky enough to be invited to The Kitchen, Falmouth’s coolest new hang-out. Serving small plates that use local ingredients in a way that celebrates the best that this country has to offer, with everything having been either foraged, shot or fished sustainably, it’s no wonder that the simple but tasty dishes coming from The Kitchen have already created a buzz that brings both locals and tourists returning.

The Kitchen 1

Cauli & Cheese

As I sit and soak up the atmosphere of an already-busy Friday evening in the courtyard, co-owner Rory joins me. I’m trying one of everything on the menu- far too much for one person, and this is food meant for sharing.

While we chat about everything The Kitchen is (and isn’t), plate after plate of delicious food is brought to the table. Whole artichoke baked with tarragon butter causes a brief pause in the conversation, as I delight in tearing apart the tender leaves greedily, fingers dripping in butter, grinning in the child-like pleasure of something so simple yet decedent. Next up is local Sea Trout, served with marrow and sea kale. Beautifully presented, perfectly cooked, and fresh. We continue to feast on ‘cauli and cheese’, squid (my favourite dish of the evening- lightly grilled and served with a chilli oil and bobby beans), charred padron peppers, rich pigeon with plums and a new potato and Gouda dumpling, and rabbit with peppery-caramel covered carrots. Each dish brings something new, surprising, and most importantly delicious.

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Sea Trout

It’s not just the quality of the food leaving the pass that The Kitchen’s duo, Ben and Rory, are passionate about: the source of the ingredients, the playlist, the art on the walls, even the countertop underneath the coffee machine has been made by a local artist, who was given the the measurements but otherwise a free reign. ‘We want to support local artists, as well as using local food. Everyone has a part of this thing’, Rory tells me.

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Chef at work- Ben

Considering he’s never worked in hospitality before, Rory has done a pretty good job of running his own restaurant. Alongside head chef and foodie mastermind Ben, who has  always wanted to run his own kitchen, Rory found the space and let the rest happen naturally. With the right ethos, passion and work commitment, The Kitchen has become a hub in Falmouth for food and atmosphere, offering something unique and appealing in it’s relaxed style.

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‘Like stepping into our living room’- Ben leaves his caramel coated carrots to set on one of the dining tables.

‘We want the restaurant to feel like stepping into our home- this is how we would treat you if you came over for dinner’, Rory tells me, before circling the tables to chat to customers and take dessert orders.

It certainly looks like a lot of people want to keep coming over for dinner, and I can’t blame them.

Follow The Kitchen on Facebook and Instagram. Rory & Ben don’t take bookings.

Acorn Vegetarian Kitchen- Bath

In May a friend and I were lucky enough to visit the renowned Acorn kitchen in Bath. Proudly holding Viva’s Best Vegetarian and Vegan Restaurant award, Acorn are known for creating inspired plates of veggie and vegan food that show they care not only about animals, but about good food, wine and a cozy atmosphere.

Set just aside from the beautiful Bath Abbey, we were tucked away in a corner to discover the delights of vegetarian fine dining. Each course was paired with wine, and the relaxed service and cuby-hole feel of the seating made for a dreamy evening that exceeded expectations.

To start we had the Wye Valley Asparagus with a mushroom parfait, dill, hazelnut and a light pickle. Decedent and indulgent, especially considering it was both vegan and gluten free, this plate balanced flavours perfectly- the mushroom parfait was rich and creamy, the asparagus perfectly cooked, and the pickle gave a light-ness to the otherwise heavy elements of the dish that could become overpowering.

I chose the Calabrese Broccoli seared and dressed with truffle, with cauliflower panna cotta and pickled kohlrabi (pictured above). Broccoli is one of my favourite ingredients- and it was not let down in this equally indulgent dish. Almost caramelised when seared, and served with a perfect cauliflower panna cotta, you could mistake this veggie dish for a pudding were it not for the tangy morsels of kohlrabi that brought the whole thing together and gave a zing to each mouthful.

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After an indulgent starter things only took a more decadent turn. Smoked Winchester Agnoletti, with king oyster mushrooms, in a rich mushroom emulsion with celeriac and monksbeard- no meat needed for this flavour-heavy dish. Perfectly cooked pasta in a creamy mushroom sauce, oozing with smoked cheese and layered with more mushrooms… This is truly special pasta, full of the kind of flavour that makes you groan in disbelief with every mouthful.

For a more delicate (ish) option, the carrot and cashew pate with roasted onion, and ‘seven seeds and grains’. This vegan option was stunning to look at- a plate full of colour and texture that was (almost) too good to eat. The pate was smooth and full of flavour, and the grains weren’t too heavy, perfectly matching the other delicate details of the dish.

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To finish we shared a chocolate and coffee parfait, with a pink peppercorn crumb. Dense, as vegan desserts often are, this was maybe not the best way to end such a heavy and decedent meal- perhaps a lighter option would have been wiser, but the espresso parfait and chocolate ganache bar were executed well, and the flavours were balanced, if a little heavy (despite, like most things on this menu, being gluten free).

Overall, this was a truly brilliant meal, that in no way needs to be prefixed with ‘vegetarian’. For a special evening, whether you’re vegetarian, vegan, carnivore, or if you just want to celebrate in-season produce, Acorn offer the best.

To find out more and to book a table, click here.

 

The Lemon Twigs- Do Hollywood

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Image Courtesy of thelemontwigs.com

4AD

The Lemon Twigs are doing something completely new in their blatantly days-of-old influenced debut Do Hollywood. Clearly audible influences such as the Beatles and Beach Boys, merged with the electronic blur that we’re used to hearing in the current pop world make for something ironically cutting edge, and very interesting.

The vocals are lo-fi and the instrumentation is classic of the record’s era (which as a statement is confusing in itself- what exactly is the era?). The predictable chord progressions are satisfying and the hooks are hooking, even if they flit away by the next verse and you realise you’re listening to a completely different genre. So much goes on in one track, and the passion and fun had in every section is palpable and infectious. The cheesy over-stated percussion and obvious bass riffs make you smile, before making you check you haven’t actually been transported back to the 60s. These four boys from New York take you on a musical journey that sounds like their childhood influences all mashed up together and smoothed out with modern-day techniques, culminating in an album that showcases something innovating but that your dad will also let you put on in the car.

In not trying to do anything different, in just loving the music they grew up listening to with their Long Island dad, and in being almost too hipster, The Lemon Twigs have created something new, and something the modern-day pop world needed: an album that’s fun, authentic, brimming with talent, and just plain good.

Jack Garratt- LIVE in Plymouth

Jack Garratt exerts an insane amount of energy in his live gigs. He bounces about the stage like an excitable puppy: drumming, guitar-ing, piano-ing and vocally-octave-jumping so much that if you closed your eyes you’d think there were 4 of him on stage. He shouts and jeers, banters and teases, and makes the whole crowd sing along to songs that were only released last summer. His talent for writing an anthem is tangible in the reaction of his fans.

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Impossible to pin down long enough for a photo- Jack Garratt in a blur on stage.

Garratt exploded onto the scene last year when he was announced as the winner of the BBC Critic’s Choice Award, and his debut album Phase was a massive success. The tour that has followed is brimming with excitement, and I stand by my notion that the 25 year old lad from Buckinghamshire is 100% a live act. The slick production of the album does the fun, electronic singles no good, and it does nothing to showcase the skill of this young musician.

Never did I think I’d enjoy booing at an act, but as Garratt teases the crowd with the intros to various covers, laughing in our faces as we shout angrily at him for stopping just before the drop, I find myself laughing back at him. He’s a joker, a performer, and definitely a crowd-pleaser.

At the moment there are no upcoming Jack Garratt gigs, but I’m sure he won’t be held down for long- another album and hopefully tour must be in the pipeline, and I would highly recommend grabbing tickets to listen to the album in it’s authentic, and I believe intended, setting.

Kings of Leon- WALLS

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Image Courtesy of popgoesculture.com

RCA

We Are Like Love Songs, the 7th album from legends of Southern-pop-rock Kings of Leon is a small step back in time to the good old days of 13 years ago. Keeping with the 5 syllable record name tradition, WALLS is easy-listening and fun, despite the somewhat depressing themes of loss and speculated divorce.

An attempted throwback to the days of Aha Shake Heartbreak and Youth and Young Manhood, the new record is almost where our nostalgia wants it to take us- with its 80s glam vibes and angsty thrashing guitars- but it doesn’t quite manage to shake off the wad of money that comes with the success of being one of the biggest bands of the last decade.

Kings of Leon have had some great moments: Youth and Young Manhood is in my top 10 favourite records ever. Since that year I bought every record, at first with delight, and then (mentioning no names, Only By The Night…) it became a bit of a risk. I tend to give Caleb and his brothers/cousins the benefit of the doubt these days, almost with a sense of pity as I discover that ‘Sex on Fire’ was  ‘the joke song on the album that nobody was supposed to notice.’ But is it too much to ask that you just push away the dollar bills and get back to the garage you guys grew up in? ‘Around the World’ perked me up a bit, but Caleb’s vocals still just sound too… good, and everything is so polished it kind of takes away some of the magic.

It could be worse though. This is a definite improvement on 2010 and 2013. Maybe album number 8 will give us just what we want? Just please KoL, don’t ever throwback to 2008.

Michael Kiwanuka- LIVE in Exeter

Michael Kiwanuka doesn’t have to say much. He walks on the stage of the tiny Phoenix, nods slightly at his devoted audience, picks up his guitar, and plays an hour and a half of mesmerising soul. He makes us clap and sway our hips at one moment, and freeze open-mouthed with glisten-eyed wonder at the pure emotion pouring out of one man and an acoustic guitar the next. The room falls silent for these moments, and everyone unites in their imagination of what it’s like to not be white middle-class Devonians in the local arts centre.

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It’s a rare thing when a new album provokes as much audience reaction as a debut. But Michael and band (which were brilliant, and so serious and succinct in what they’re doing) succeed in exciting the crowd with tracks from Love and Hate that aren’t even released singles. I also have an immense amount of respect for an artist that doesn’t play the single that a lot of people know him by, and that put him in the ‘British Folk’ category in 2012. The Home Again single wasn’t even hinted at.

The transition between the two albums is fluent, though, firmly creating the notion that the two, while involving a lot of musical and personal development, provide Kiwanuka with a successful back-catalogue of already-classics.

‘The power went down on the bus today so I couldn’t play Fifa- had to go and actually look around. I like Exeter, I’ll be back’, he says shyly, before closing the set with the epic title single of the new album.

Next time, a full brass section and gospel backing choir please Michael- but for now I’m happy with the soulful authenticity of this 29-year-old Fifa-playing boy from North London.

The tour continues until May next year, with a few more UK dates towards the end. To find out more and get tickets click here.

Bon Iver- 22, A Million

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Image courtesy of pitchfork.com

Jagjaguwar

5 years after the success of Justin Vernon’s debut record Bon Iver, Bon Iver, the indie folk musician that we thought we knew and loved is back, with a whole new sound that he calls ‘folktronica’- a genre he’s brought back to our attention and into the mainstream through his previous success, but which of course is no new innovation to subculture folk history.

It is, however, a definite shift in Bon Iver’s creative output: there are no more lulling acoustic guitar strums and calming goat-y vocals: Bon Iver is a different, more serious man. The record opens with confused glitching- it’s not until Justin’s beautiful vocal harmonies come in that we’re sure our MP3 file isn’t corrupt, and then we’re drawn into the album, like angels have descended and pulled us up into the disturbing depths of Vernon’s mind. The soft lullaby of the saxophone draws us in further, and suddenly we’re lost in the experimental dream that 22, A Million surely is.

There is no standard song form: the record slowly walks us through the beauty of Bon Iver’s uncertainty about life, his existential insecurity and his clear boredom with just playing his acoustic guitar and singing over the top. Nothing is safe about this record, and nobody can escape the innovative folk world that Vernon’s created.

‘29 #Strafford APTS’ is probably the most recognisable track- still streaked with Bon Iver’s electronic vocal harmonies, but built around a string section, it is more what we might have expected. Neatly slotted almost exactly halfway through the record, it acts as a nice grounding for the listener to grasp a hold of some sense of reality, before lurching straight back into the album.

I don’t think it’s possible to review this album without mentioning the title tracks, which themselves are enough to confuse our already disoriented folk-loving brains- ‘00000 Million’, ’33 “GOD”’… It’s almost enough to make us want to snap straight back to 2011 and forget any of this ever happened. Almost.