Sharon Van Etten’s new album “Are We There” Soars.

Sharon Van Etten's Are We There.

Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There.

Sharon Van Etten has been wowing the good folks at NPR’s All Songs Considered (reviewed earlier here) and the boys from Pitchfork for some time now. Her last album Tramp (2012) was produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner and includes a guest appearance from Beirut’s Zach Condon. And in his profile of her in this month’s New Yorker (‘Relaxed Fit”), Sasha Frere-Jones describes her latest album as “astonishing”.  In other words, we’re talking indie royalty here.

Her fourth studio album, Are We There, is a serious piece of work. But on first listen, it seems to be a tad conservative, conventional even. There’s nothing here that we haven’t heard before. Songs of heartache set to pleasing melodies layered with lush harmonies.

The mandatory All Songs Considered podcast.

The mandatory All Songs Considered podcast.

What’s “astonishing” is how the whole adds up to so much more than the sum of its parts. These are songs that really ache, and those melodies and harmonies build and grow with every listen. Before you know it, they’re securely lodged in the comfort of your subconscious.

This is the album Van Etten has been building up to. Sonically, she’s come a long way from the hushed confessionals of those early recordings. This is a much fuller sound, but it’s achieved without sacrificing any of the intimacy. On the contrary, the bigger sound amplifies the emotional heft. What’s she’s produced in other words is the ultimate Fleetwood Mac album.

You can see the video for Every Time The Sun Comes Up here.

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The New Yorker Magazine, A Beam of Light Illuminating Innumerable Worlds.

The New Yorker staff writer Jonah Lehrer resigned in July, after eventually being forced to admit that a number of the quotes he’d attributed to Bob Dylan in his best selling book Imagine: How Creativity Works had been made up by him.

You can read about it here in The Washington Post, or you can get the full account of precisely how he was unmasked by the man responsible, Michael C. Moynihan, in his fascinating piece in The Tablet, here.

Inevitably, some people have suggested that this could be as damaging for The New Yorker as Jayson Blair was for The New York Times after similar behavior there.

But Lehrer’s “lies” were in his best selling book, not the magazine. And if anything, what both cases point to is how increasingly difficult it is to get away with that kind of dishonesty in this day and age. Especially when you write for a publication like The New Yorker, which is so justly famed for the quality of its writing and the meticulous care with which each and every piece is put together.

I’ve been subscribing for about ten years now, and I waft about the place in a permanent state of wonder at the quality of each and every issue.

The July 9th and 16th edition for instance contained the following (there are 47 issues every year so some of the holiday issues cover two weeks, instead of the usual one):

There was a fascinating if inevitably depressing overview by Dexter Filkins of where Afghanistan is after ten years of US occupation, and what’s likely to happen there after they leave in 2014.

At over 10,000 words long, there are few if any other publications in the world prepared to provide their writers with that kind of window, and to give them the funds needed to conduct the sort of research a piece like that demands.

Then there was a piece by Michael Specter on Oxitec and the genetically modified mosquitos that they’ve released into certain carefully controlled environments in the Caribbean and, now, in Brazil. These have been genetically designed to self-destruct.

What will the unforeseen consequences be of releasing creatures created by man in the laboratory into the environment? On the other hand, very unusually, mosquitos appear to exist for the sole purpose of reproducing.

They don’t seem to be part of anything else’s diet, and the only creature they seem to rely on is us. And they’re responsible for half the deaths in the history of humanity. So surely the possibility of eliminating them is something to be welcomed?

Nathan Heller had a piece on the uber-hip TED talks and their messianic advocates.

And there were wonderfully illuminating and quietly moving extracts from the diary kept by the American writer Mavis Gallant as she struggled to balance being a woman, a writer, and an American trying to eek out a living in the detritus that was left of Europe in the aftermath of the II World War.

Then there are their stable of critics. Anthony Lane on cinema, Alex Ross on classical music, Judith Thurman on fashion and Peter Schjeldahl on art, to name but four of their unflappable titans. Plus the financial page, their Shouts and Murmurs (Joel Stein was particularly funny in this issue), their cartoons and of course their fiction.

It’s a slow week when I manage to finish reading an entire issue in any given week, and the short story that they publish is usually, alas, an inevitable casualty. But I make an exception for William Trevor, Junot Diaz (who had a piece in the following issue), Alice Munroe, Colm Tóibín and any of the older pieces by Updike or Nabokov that they occasionally publish.

It is by a country mile the best written, most meticulously researched and impeccably curated publication in the world. And at a little over $100 a year for a subscription, it’ll cost you barely two Euro a week. If you’ve any curiosity at all, about anything under the sun, you should treat yourself now.

And so what if you don’t manage to finish reading it (or even opening it) every week. Your read and unread copies will be greedily welcomed by friends and family alike.

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Apple, Amazon, the Big 6 and the Future of Publishing.

In May, Apple and three of the Big Six lost the first round in what looks likely to be a long and costly fight (two of the other three had reluctantly settled and one, Random House isn’t involved). What’s at stake is, not to put too fine a point on it, the future of publishing. So here, very briefly, is the story so far.

When Amazon began selling ebooks through their Kindle in 2007, the price they charged for them was a lot less than for actual physical books. For one thing they didn’t cost as much to produce. But much more importantly, ebooks were a completely new idea, and people had to be encouraged into trying them out. So frequently, Amazon would sell their ebooks at a loss, for even less than they had purchased them from the publisher in the first place.

Culturally then, this discount selling was both welcome and necessary. Economically however, it meant that Amazon quickly established a stranglehold on a rapidly expanding market. Not only that, but the rise of ebooks threatened to render the traditional bookstore and indeed the conventional publishing world redundant.

Nobody wanted to let what had happened in music take place in publishing. So when Apple entered the ebook market with the iPad two years later (followed by Barnes & Nobles and their Nook), a new pricing system was put in place; the agency model.

Instead of publishers selling at a discount to retailers, who would then take their cut from the price they sold it on to the public for, publishers would set the price that the public would pay for a book, and the retailer (whether Amazon, Apple or whoever) would get a flat 30%. This is what Apple did in music.

But Apple would only agree to enter the market in the first place if a minimum of four of the big six (see image below) agreed to implement their new agency model. In the end, five of them did, and the sixth Random House joined in a year later.

So Amazon had no choice but to play along. But they were as the Americans say pissed. They made more money from the books that they sold now, but their share of the still growing ebook market had gone down from 90 to 60%. And culturally, they were being forced to sell books for more than they might have liked. Or to put in another way, they were being prevented from so dramatically undercutting their rivals.

So they went to the courts, and in May the US Department of Justice found in their favour. After all, as Ken Auletta says in his much more in-depth piece in the New Yorker here, the letter of the anti-trust legislation is crystal clear. Didn’t Apple say that they would only go ahead if they got agreement from at least four of the big six? And hadn’t the cost of books to the public gone up once their agency model had been put in place?

But wait a minute. The cost had gone up, but the publishers were now receiving less. So how can it be a cartel, if the people organizing it end up making less money? What’s more, Amazon was now getting more. And wasn’t the whole spirit of the anti-trust legislation designed to curb the likes of Amazon, and prevent them from putting the much smaller publishing companies out of business?

Of course Amazon could afford to sell its books at a loss. Books make up just a tiny fraction of what Amazon sells. But books is all the big six do.

All of this has been brilliantly charted by publishing (and now digital publishing) guru Mike Shatzkin, whose blog (here) is a must for anyone interested in the world of publishing. But what it all seems to boil down to is this:

The publishing world allows for a wide variety of books to be published by using the money it makes from the few books that sell hugely, to fund a plethora of books that might, but almost certainly won’t do anything like as well.

And the physical bookstore is the best and only place for some of those smaller titles to get noticed. And who knows, maybe even take off.

By siding with Amazon against them, the DoJ is seriously putting that whole eco system in grave danger. And there is a very real possibility that the only thing that will result is a significantly narrower choice of books to read from, with significantly fewer writers making a living from it.

And the question then is, if Amazon is the only player left standing once bookstores and the world of publishing have been dismantled, will they have any interest in trying to do anything about that? Or will they just be far too preoccupied in having to compete with rival monoliths Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook for an ever-narrowing choice of profitable content?

Oh, and for all of you who still think that e-readers are a fad, have a look at this one year old trying to operate a magazine, here.

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