Les Paul Documentary Shines Light on Guitar Pioneer

Directed by Evan Haiman
MVDvisual #0392D

Only one person is in both the Rock 'n Roll and the National Inventors Hall of Fame; his name is Lester William Pulsfuss–better known as Les Paul (1905 – 2009). When Michael Braunstein, director of the Les Paul Foundation, remarked, "Les Paul is the Father of Modern Music," he was stating fact, not engaging in hyperbole or organizational promotion.

Les Paul certainly made his mark musically. He hit the road at age 13, when country music was in its recording adolescence, and left it behind in the 1930s when he discovered Django Reinhardt and began playing jazz with Art Tatum. At the height of that success, he pivoted again because he was displeased with how the acoustic guitar sounded when attached to electric pickups. He played a different kind of axe pumped through a different kind of sound system when he resurfaced in 1948 to make hit records with country singer Mary Ford, his second wife (1948-64).

Les Paul did not invent the solid body electric guitar –Adolph Rickenbacker and several others did that– but he made it sound better. It started when Paul sawed an Epiphone acoustic in half, inserted a "log"– a 2 x 4, some magnets, and some wiring— under its surface and tinkered until he finally got Gibson to produce "The Broadcaster" in 1952, the prototype of a guitar still favored by legions of rock 'n rollers. Along the way, he did a few other things. Through Ford, he experimented with close microphone singing, which gave vocals a whole new feel, and he also pioneered in multi-track recording and playback. In all, Les Paul held more than 450 patents.

A recent DVD pays tribute to Les Paul's achievements. It's largely a 2006 interview merged with a Hollywood concert held that same year to honor Paul's 90th birthday. Edgar Winter asks, "Where would rock n' roll be without the electric guitar?" and the concert fittingly trots out some top players to strut their stuff on instruments inspired by Paul's designs. The lineup includes: Joe Perry (Aerosmith), Slash (Guns n' Roses), Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Steve Lukather (Toto), Robben Ford (KISS, Miles Davis), and Neal Schon (Journey). Highlights include Winter belting out "Superstition," and a nice ensemble turn on "Rock n' Roll Hootchie Koo," but three performances really stand out: Joe Satriani's innovative solo, Buddy Guy killing it on "Hootchie Coochie Man," and Shayne Steele delivering turn-back-the-clock Aretha-like power vocals.

The footage is rock at its best—loud, aggressive, and fronted by muscular guitar gods.  Concert material is interspersed with interview clips. I'd be lying if I said any of this was remarkable filmmaking. A lot more attention should have been paid to structure. Like many fans, the director and producers of this film assumed too much—even though the point is made early on that Les Paul is an underappreciated figure. A more linear script with strategically placed information would have fleshed out basics (so I didn't have to in this review). But maybe this is because the film's central figure, though no saint, tended toward self-effacement. Of the post-1960s guitar giants, Paul remarked, "I started and they kept it going." Toward the film's end, though, some of Paul's puckish humor creeps in. When commenting on the new wave he commented, "Each guy has something to say. It's what inside that makes it unique." He followed with a twinkle and an impish grin: "But they all got it from me."

Yep. If you don't know, watch and learn. If you do know, pick up your air guitar and play along.

Rob Weir


Currier and Toulouse Lautrec a Great match

Currier Museum of Art
Manchester, NH
Through January 7, 2018

Aristide Bruant
Art and the bourgeois life don't get along very well. There's something about comfort, contentment, and respectability that gets in the way of creative muses. If you think about it, some of the greatest art has been made by tortured souls: Courbet, Van Gogh, Schiele, Claudel, Kahlo, Warhol…. With the possible exception of Van Gogh, few plumbed the depths as deeply as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). A new show at the (underappreciated) Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire, displays more than a hundred of Lautrec's works and it's easily one of the best shows of the year.

Lautrec was born into an aristocratic family, but was beset by problems and ill health from the beginning. He broke one leg at age 13, the other at 14, and neither healed properly. This was blamed for the fact that he stopped growing, but the congenital condition that often bears his name is the more likely culprit. His parents were first cousins from a line of inner-bred families. Although Lautrec's head and torso were normally shaped, Lautrec topped out at 4'8" and his short legs and fingers are consistent with inherited forms of dwarfism. But even had he been of normal stature, Lautrec was not temperamentally suited for conventionality. By six he showed distaste for propriety and a precocious artistic ability for the painting, drawing, ceramics, and printmaking that consumed his remaining thirty years on earth. Later came drinking, prostitution, absinthe addiction, and failed flings in the commercial art realm. He left behind more than 5,000 drawings, around 1,000 oil and watercolor paintings, some 360 prints, and a smattering of objects and sculptures. 

Jane Avril
  The hyphenated "Toulouse" was an affected part of his last name; Lautrec assumed it after an 1887 exhibition in that French city. But it was the opening of the Moulin Rouge that had the greatest impact on his art. Lautrec spent his days among gays, lesbians, whores, the sporting crowd, and addicts such as himself before dying of alcoholism and syphilis at age 36. There were few better at presenting the allure and horrors of debauchery than he. But just because Lautrec indulged in Parisian lowlife didn't make him uncaring. As the Currier exhibition shows, Lautrec's sympathies lay with the prostitutes, can-can girls, and entertainers, not their clients. His favorite models included bombastic cabaret singer Aristide Bruant, the clown Cha-U-Kao, comic actress Yvette Guilbert, and can-can dancer Jane Avril. He also adored the prostitutes and often showed them in candid moments: in the bath, lesbian lovers embracing, dressing, dancing, combing their hair…

Shadowy predator?
The term "male gaze" wasn't invented until 1975, but Lautrec understood it and his compositions suggest he was disgusted by it. He often displays female escorts and prostitutes in full color and/or detail, but reduces the older bourgeois men to silhouette shadow, or parody. Sometimes he uses salacious poses to call attention to what the male gaze is really about, not what it pretends to be. 

Eros Vanquished

Lautrec also had a sharp critique of social conventions of all sort. What else is one of make of the suggestive cover for Catalogue d'affiches artistiques (Catalog of Artistic Posters)?  Of plunging necklines and gratuitous crotch shots? Or his devastating Eros Vanquished? Or his wicked depiction of a an early automobile driver—a pursuit of the wealthy at the time of his death—in which the driver looks like as if he lifted images of a maniacal anarchist and put him in a car jacket.

His irreverence and humor partly explain why Lautrec never made much money with commercial art and most of his prints adorned small magazines or the dance halls and bars he frequented. His was a tragic life, but what a trove of treasures he bequeathed us.I highly recommend seeing these prints from the Museum of Modern Art in Manchester, as MoMA seldom has this many on display at one time.

Rob Weir


Sjostrum, Dunne, Kilgore, Strong Water and Others: New Music

Tyler Sjöström is a Chicago-based singer with umlauts in his name and desperation in his soul. He has a new album, Bones, Hold Me Up, plus a Noisetrade project called Saucy Sampler and here's your takeaway point: he really knows how to frame a song. His songs tend to deal with themes such recovery, survival, and trying to be strong—which would be standard folk fare, except that his takes are smart, honest, and robust. "Holding On" is a catchy tune ditty of the hand-clapping variety, but his strong guitar, open voice, and offbeat cadences make it more than that. "Red River" is another one that catches you slightly off guard. Sjöström doesn't have a naturally big voice, but he makes it sound that way and tosses in some whistling for something that's like Appalachia meets the Great Plains. "Straight Bourbon Whiskey" is about a sad man who I merely "half way gone," knocking himself out with things that "won't kill my body/It will kill soul." I also really liked "Ghostly," which comes off as electrified mountain music with resonant low notes and a definitive bom-bom-BOM pattern that makes for a really great arrangement. If my review doesn't entice, you gotta love a guy whose take on his own art is "music wrought by the love of the wild and the pursuit of truth, spun as cognitive word vomit with the frills of folk." Stick this guy on your one-to-watch-for list. ★★★★

Brian Dunne is a Brooklyn-based singer songwriter with a voice that's what a folkier version of Ryan Adams might sound like. Dunne's Bug Fixes and Performance Improvements is a confessional album and the sins for which he wishes forgiveness is that he has a tendency to screw up a lot. His single "Don't Give Up On Me" is typical. It's a gorgeous little song—made all the more so with Liz Longley singing backup—rendered in high sweet voice. In it he admits he's not perfect and that he's looking for perseverance more than redemption. Another really great song is "Taxi," which about the search for something unknown and unnamed.: He said kid are you going?/I said that's a good question/He laughed and said you'll figure it out/But I'm riding in the backseat?in this old taxi/Heading through a tunnel downtown. Many of Dunne's songs are stripped down, which gives the LP the feel of a live performance. I really liked his honest emotions and the way in which he tosses off lines that capture them. "We Don't Talk About It" is about a relationship in which the lights have gone out: We don't talk about it anymore/Your silence is your way of war. There's just enough electric guitar in this one to add to the desperation. "Here I Go Again" has a nice riff, the first part of which is evocative of Richard Thompson's "Vincent Black Lightning." The scattered and quick notes mirror lyrics that express the fear that another screw-up looms. "Chelsea Hotel" is also terrific. It's famed for the fact quite a few angst-ridden people have dwelt there and Dunne uses it as a metaphor for ghosts and psychological crutches. Yet it, like most of the material, is so musically pleasing that it takes a moment to get that. Terrific album from still another talented alum of the Berklee School of Music. ★★★★

Little Reader is a Nashville-based pop duo consisting of Kate Tucker and Russ Flournoy. Their debut release, The Big Score, draws inspiration from bands such as Depeche Mode by way of The Bangles. Featured track "Speed of Light" is typical of Little Reader's approach. It's filled with oscillating electronic pulses and guitar that's made fresh through hints of musical retrofitting. It's danceable and catchy. The downside is that this is also the formula for other songs I sampled: "Running Toward the Sun," "Burn Eternal," and "Best Regret." Overall the instrumentation dazzles more than the vocals. Flournoy has the power to punch through the thick mix, but Tucker's is better suited for quieter material. More variety would guard against becoming a now-but-not-tomorrow phenomenon. ★★ ½

You never know what will happen when you leave a town like Bellingham, Washington and land in Austin. It worked well for Shawnee Kilgore, who you might know for doing some music for director Joss Whedon. Now the two of them have an EP, Back to Eden, a six-song project for which Whedon wrote most of the lyrics and Kilgore the music. Kilgore has the kind of voice you'll either love or think odd; it's small and a bit nasal, but I like the fact that like all good singers, she knows how to bend, inflect, and color it. My favorite track is "Unforgiven," with its wonderful line, I was told I came out crooked/So I walked a crooked line. The fiddle and backing vocals come from Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek. The title track is also superb. It has a lonesome feel that's enhanced by Janeen Rae Heller's musical saw and deepened by Vanessa Freebairn's cello. I also liked how Kilgore's voice contrasted to Eric Holden's bass on "Three Legged Dog," and slid between Peter Adams' quiet piano in "Love Song." ★★★★

Strong Water is a Harrisonburg, Virginia-centered trio plus friends whose take on Americana is influenced by Noah Gunderson and Mumford and Sons. I'd call it muscular bluegrass sifted through rock and folk rock. Their debut LP, titled Strong Water, makes them a band to watch. Lead vocalist Greg Brennan, also the band's guitarist, has a whiskey-soaked voice that is so powerful that he over-sings on occasion—more like he's playing arena rock than bluegrass—but he performs with such earnestness that it's easy to forgive him. But you will certainly not find flaws with the amazing fiddling of J.J. Hosteller, or the fine harmonies she lays down behind Brennan. Check out the cool slow-run-run-run-slow patterning of "Tippie Canoe," the lead/echo vocal formula of "Remember July," the desperation of "Derailed," and the atmospheric moodiness of "Evergreen." These are all fine songs but what will linger in the end are the superb arrangements. There's the breakdown fiddle of "Streets of Gold," the back-beat of "Dinobones," the fiddle/cello opening of "Golden Days," and the as-advertised "Jam in G." If these don't spin your head, "Whiskey Sour" will. Its electric power is shot through with rock and R& B, but it's the strings that sound more dangerous still. Here's a young band that knows how to build drama. ★★★★

If you like big music, as in B-I-G, try The Weeks and their ironically named Easy Does It. This is bop and hop dance music—not always profound, but good loud rock n' roll. "Bobby" feels like a souped-up 50s throwback and even has a switchblade reference to give a whiff of dangerous nostalgia. Check out the structure of "Wishin' My Week Away," but put away all the technical analysis—it's basically noise, a few guitar runs, noise, more runs, and lots of noise. And that's kind of their point. There are occasional lead guitar breakouts, but these Jackson, Mississippi lads are more into rock as attitude and amplitude. "Lawman's Daughter," for instance, is a classic bad boy/good girl song and the fact that he's a wanted man complicates things, to say the least. A personal favorite was "Talk Like That." Not much poetry in this one either—it's just robust and loud for those times when that's all I want from a song. ★★★


American Pastoral: Video Review

Directed by Ewan McGregor
Lionsgate, 108 minutes, R (language, violent images, sexual content)
★★ 1/2   

American Pastoral was one of the biggest box offices bombs of all of 2016. In most places it closed before the theater popcorn filled the hopper and it took in a mere $541,000. It's not that terrible, but being merely mediocre isn't good enough for an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Philip Roth (1998).

To repeat a point I've made in other reviews, there simply haven't been many decent films about the 1960s counterculture. Most are either embarrassingly romantic or conservative screeds. American Pastoral gets credit for at least attempting to interject nuance, but ultimately it's as flat a bowling alley. The blame for this rests squarely on the shoulders of director Ewan McGregor, who simply hasn't mastered that role at this stage of his career. The film opens in 1995, with Roth's frequent alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), in Newark to attend his 45th high school reunion. There he runs into an old friend, Jerry Levov and right away we have problems. For old friends, Nathan and Jerry are icier than freezer pops in Greenland. The scene is a hackneyed device for one of the most shopworn of all filmmaking techniques: the voice over narrative that sets up a flashback.

American Pastoral centers on Jerry's brother, Seymour ("Swede"), who was the high school/college Golden Boy who married the Golden Girl and former Miss Jersey, Dawn Dwyer (Jennifer Connelly). After amusing but overly sweet overtures to convince Swede's father, Lou (Peter Reigert) that a nice Jewish boy and a nice Roman Catholic girl are meant for each other, Swede (McGregor) and Dawn proceed to build a Golden Life in the Golden 1950s: a tidy home, Swede's takeover of Lou's glove factory, a happy interracial workforce, and the birth of a flaxen-haired daughter upon whom her parents dote. But we all know what Shakespeare said about the glister of gold. The Vietnam War radicalizes daughter Meredith (Dakota Fanning), mom and pop are at a loss to know what to do with foul-mouthed angry as a hornet "Merry," and are too inept to prevent her from trudging over to New York City to hang out with other radicals. The Levovs vainly try to stay above the turmoil of the 1960s—rather turgidly told through stitched-together news clips—and to maintain the historic alliance between blacks and Jews in the wake of the Newark race riot. The latter gets a stagey treatment, by which I mean it truly looks more like a theater set than an urban riot. Piece by piece, Merry is slipping away. When a bombing kills an innocent shopkeeper the Levovs have known forever, Merry is the prime suspect and disappears within a group that's the Weather Underground thinly veiled. Every new bombing makes the Levovs wonder if Merry is involved.

Roth readers will recognize another common trope: the erosion of the American Dream. (How meta—a trope about a trope!) Dawn is metaphorically and then physically transformed by all of this, while Swede grows obsessed with trying to find his daughter and wonders what has happened to basic human decency when his only connection to her is Rita Cohen (Valerie Curry), a vulgar slogan-chanting taunt-the-Establishment punk. The deeper Swede goes, the more his American pastoral turns to parched earth.
McGregor departs from the novel at various places as the film winds to a clunky conclusion—none of which are improvements.

There's a lesson here: Don't try to upgrade a book that carries off literature's top prize. Here's another: Ewan McGregor is much better in front of the camera than behind it. It's an interesting idea to play off the liberalism of his central family. We seldom see the clash between liberals and radicals in films about the 1960s, though the two did indeed despise each other with as much fervor as they battled conservatives. There's also an enticing theme of liberals betraying each other. Sadly, McGregor lacks the panache to flesh out these moments or to bring to life much of the detail from Roth's novel (some of which was drawn from actual people he knew).

Maybe it's not so surprising that it took nearly twenty years for anyone to make American Pastoral into a film. Perhaps it's simply too sprawling in scope to lend itself to a good adaptation. Should you watch McGregor's effort? There's certainly no harm in downloading it. Like I said; it's neither terribly good not terribly bad. It just made me sigh. If we can make so many great films about Vietnam, why haven't we made at least one about the war at home?

Rob Weir 


Art Road Trip: Ottawa, Part One (Inuit Art)

Ottawa's National Gallery of Canada (NGC) isn't the Smithsonian and it doesn't try to be. It's mostly as advertised: a repository of works from our northern neighbor and that makes it a treasure in its own right.  Remarkably, prior to comedian Steve Martin's recent curation of the works of landscape artist Lawren Harris, few Americans had thought much about Canadian art. Their loss. I will highlight a few things that struck my fancy in a recent visit to the NGC. Full disclosure: I'm not an art historian, so my remarks will be personal, observational, and preferential.

The Canadian aesthetic begins with how Canadians view indigenous peoples. They neither ghettoize native peoples nor assume that works from academically trained practitioners of the "fine arts" tradition are superior or more complex. It's normal to enter a NGC gallery and see works from "First Nations Peoples" such as the Cree, the Crow, the Tlingit, or the Métis (Indian/European mixed race) standing cheek by jowl with oils, sculptures, and other pieces produced by Euro-Canadians. And when curators comment on a Haida carved box from the Northwest, they do so with the same reverent terms they apply to Impressionist or Renaissance paintings.

My favorite First Nations artists are the Inuit. Art from the Arctic Circle region consists largely of ritual objects, stone-engraved prints, graphic designs, drawings, sculpture, and vernacular items such as baskets, clothing, fishhooks, harpoons, blankets, and tools. Some of these are ancient and date as far back as the 5 th century BCE, but much is more recent. That's because a lot Inuit art is analogous to that from Native Americans of the Southwest: it developed in response to Euro-Caucasian market forces. In other words, it was made for trade or sale. This became even more pronounced in the 1960s when the Canadian government set up art cooperatives to bring outside income into remote areas. It worked especially well in Cape Dorset, located on the southwest tip of Baffin Island. Today, Cape Dorset prints and carvings fetch handsome prices across the globe.

 My love of Inuit art comes from having seen works on paper from Pudlo Pudlat (1916-92) in both Montreal and Toronto in the 1970s, and then the NGC's retrospective of his work in 1990. I'll leave it others to determine Pudlo's place in the Inuit artistic pantheon, but if you have any doubts about whether art can change society, consider that in the 1970s most North Americans knew little about Baffin Island other than what they read in tales of ice-bound explorers and now it's the center of Canada's newest territory, Nunavut.  Its art is often naturalistic, mythical, or religious in nature, but there are also heavy doses of geometric design and representations of ordinary life. Some of my favorites are trenchant comments cloaked in humor on the ways in which tradition melds, contrasts, and clashes with Western religion, politics, customs and technology. There are scores of graphic artists on display at the NGC, but you need not take a crash course to appreciate their skillfulness, whimsy, or command of color and shape.

Carving is the best-known Inuit tradition. There's a gallery devoted to centuries of Inuit carving and even a brisk walk through will reveal the differences between museum and gallery quality works and the cheap knockoffs pedaled in tourist shops. Carvers originally worked in antler and ivory (from walruses and narwhals). Some still do as First Nations are allowed to hunt whales and game, but most newer works are fashioned from resin, bone, or soapstone—polished and buffed to a high sheen. These works are solid, weighty, and tactile. Popular themes include marine animals, bears, mythical creatures, and people. 

I highly recommend spending a lot of time in these galleries. Let's face it, you don't need to go to Ottawa to see European art, but you might to see stuff from Baffin Island. It may be the world's fifth largest island (who knew?), but all of Nunavut has just 37,000 people. Inuit art will help you imagine what life was once like in such a remote land. It also challenges you to imagine it is now. Art and technology have helped transform Nunavut, but next time you're in Montreal, pause to consider that Cape Dorset is still another 1250 miles to the north!     


New Music for Early October: Featuring Shelly Waters, Swearingen and Kelli and More


Remember this name: Shelly Waters. Her new self-titled recording showcases a voice that demands adjectives such as huge and wide ranging. Best of all, she really knows how to sing. These twelve tracks capture her in many moods. “Drink the Water” is a gritty and grungy song in which the soulfulness of an old Motown record meets the muscularity of a Stax recording with Waters wailing above the Hammond B-3 about the man who done her wrong. She gets saucy on “Red Hot Red,” a retro road song with surf guitar, gets bluesy in old-style country way on “Jackpot,” covers Neil Diamond’s “Red Red Wine” like it’s a six-tissue weepy, makes the miles melt away in the (ahem!)  MyFirst Car,” and goes all Emmy Lou-like on “Evangeline.” Waters milks emotions from her material, sometimes in a commanding way, as she leads a bold electric song like “Blood, Sweat, and Tears,” and sometimes by making herself vulnerable, as in the lovely “Louisiana Rain.” ★★★★

Add E.J. Ouellette to the list of local artists whose music ought to get out more. He’s a Virginian by birth, but he and his band Crazy Maggie have long been a fixture in the Boston rock scene, though he’s more of a hybrid than a true rocker. Think Steve Earle with a fiddle. A Noisetrade sampler highlights his mix of roadhouse rock, blues, folk, and Celtic. He can swamp out on songs like “Conjure Man,” but hecan also put on the Irish and get reel; “Jenny’s Jam” is an exciting exploration of the Celtic standard “Jenny’s Chickens,” which is known in Scotland and Cape Breton as “Sleepy Maggie.” ★★★ ½

The National Parks” bills itself as an “alternative,” a (perhaps too expansive) label thrown onto music that takes advantage of electronics and strays a bit too far from the pop mainstream. The first adjective that pops into my mind upon listening to Until I Live is “shimmery.” Songs such as “Caracao,” “Anywhere,” “Meridians,” and “Take You Away” are indicative of the band’s preference for upbeat love songs and a surround sound presentation style that generally opens small, becomes big, and swells. Vocalist Brady Parks has a pleasant voice, though it is sometimes subsumed by all the production. At times, “alternative” means too many musical ingredients, which is what I felt about the string bridge of “Monsters of the North.” But I liked the use of strings on “You Are Gold” where things come together in a dramatic manner that feels like it ought to be playing behind a film. I also liked the simpler, sincere, yet mildly goofy “BaBa Ra.” Guess I’m suggesting that this band could use my stylistic variation—not just more things added to the mix. ★★★

The husband-wife team of Swearingen and Kelli (A.J. and Jayne) offer up a delightful new album heavy on love songs. Swearingen grew up in Pennsylvania with a love of outlaw country, Jim Croce, and the guitar playing of David Lindley. Kelli was weaned on artists such as John Denver, Glen Campbell, and Fleetwood Mac. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that their music draws from country, folk, pop, and soul—the stuff we tend to call Americana. It’s honest stuff and they have great voices. Listen hard to the launch notes from Swearingen; he’s a baritone, but you’ll hear bass at the bottom. Kelli is skillful in adding hints of defiance to her prettier tones. The title track of Marrying Kind is tender, but forceful—as befits a song about a woman who thinks she might not be cut out for matrimony, but might go there—on her own terms! Freedom and risk-taking also get workouts on “Trying to Try” and “Survival.” For his part, Swearingen adds husk through both voice and a variety of guitars, including a lap steel and an old Rickenbacker. The only video currently available from the new record is “Annalise,” a bittersweet remembrance of true love. This one is a tad lighter than some of the rest, so check out older stuff on their Website as one of the things I like about these folks is the way they mix things up. ★★★★     

Feel like you're out of touch with what the college crowd is into? Since 2003, Louisville's Forecastle Festival has showcased hot bands. I heard a mix tape previewing the 2017 festival that also included some past performances. Check out reggae-influenced "Feels Like Summer" from Weezer; the emo "Barbary Coast" from Conor Oberst; the ambient "Horizon" from Tycho; cacophonous rock from Big Thief ("Shark Smile"); power pop from Farro ("Walkways"); punk from Beach Slang ("Spin the Dial"); and soulful sounds from Chicano Batman ("Friendship")and Jeffrey James. There's also some badass rap that disses Kanye West from Jack Harlow. Others to check out include: Rayland Baxter, Jay Jayle, Oyster Kids, Whitney, and a host of others. You won't like it all, but at least you'll set your personal refresh button. ★★★

Joshua Radin and Rachel Yamagata have teamed up for a EP appropriately named The Coffee House Tour. Radin has been around for a while and you may have caught him on TV with Ellen DeGeneres. He offers sweet-voiced acoustic music that's like being wrapped in a blanket made of musical fleece. "Falling" is a fragile, pretty song about cutting to the no-BS part of a relationship: When you're falling/Do you think of me?/Are you the road or the end? "High and Low" is the logical follow-up: an I-in-for-the-long run song of commitment. These, like "My My Love" are bright songs sung in high tenor voice. I wish he'd do more at places where he aspirates, but that's me. Rachel Yamagata is the one who adds oomph. Her "Let Me Be Your Girl" won't knock you over with its pop lyrics, but she gives it some blue-eyed soul grit and meshes well with the song's strong bass structure. She's jazzy soulful on "Stick Around," and evokes late-night country blues on "Black Sheep." ★★★ ½


Beartown Derivative but Redeems Itself


By Fredrik Backman
Atria Books, 415 pages.

Here's a rarity: a Fredrick Backman book I merely liked instead of loving. It tells of a small Swedish town whose better days are in the past. Beartown lies in the sticks, it's cold, its economic base has withered, and more of its population struggles than thrives. In the States we'd call it a "tough" town. There is even a gang of black-jacketed men that frequent the local bar and menace everyone except the bar's owner, Ramona.

Beartown doesn't have much going for it—except hockey—a stand-in for what passes for civic pride. Hockey rules in Beartown and its best players are idolized, even when still in their teens. Seventeen-year-old Kevin Erdhal is a god on ice—one destined for the NHL, the former fate of Beartown's general manager Peter Andersson. Kevin and his brilliant coach David might even bring a national juniors championship to Beartown, which might mean a new rink, a hockey academy, and needed economic revitalization. It's practically a given that David's former mentor, Sune, will be fired as A-level coach and that he and Kevin will transition to A hockey.

A quick word on Swedish hockey: There are six levels of competitive hockey and things get serious when a player advances to the highly competitive top junior leagues for players aged (mostly) 16-21. The best junior players go A-level (for HockeyAllvenskan), a steppingstone to professional hockey for elite players. This is important for this story, as Swedish hockey is generally a club sport rather than one identified with schools. They have presidents, executive boards, well-heeled sponsors, and general managers, not just a coach or two.

Bang… bang … bang…. That's the sound of hockey pucks smacking up against the rink boards and it's also Backman's cue to look for chips in the ice that misdirect good intentions, good manners, good values, and basic dignity. Eventually. The first 170 pages of Beartown are derivative of Britt-Marie Was Here, but with a different town, older kids, hockey instead of soccer, and sans quirky Britt-Marie. After page 170, the novel turns darker and that's what saves it. Of hockey Backman writes, "It's only a game. It can only change people's lives." But not necessarily in good ways.

After page 170, Beartown ceases to be as much about hockey the sport and more about the culture of hockey—one that turns boys into skating warriors, transforms them into a wolf pack of spoiled brats, sows the seeds of misogyny, and so robs them of their childhood that they develop adult habits—mostly the bad ones. Beartown's adults have plenty of bad habits to pass on: alcoholism, domestic strife, hooliganism, ruthless ambition, emotional absenteeism, and a whole lot of stuff that falls into the category of what is often dubbed "the hidden injuries of class."
Backman once again assembles memorable characters. On the youth side there is Kevin, the hulking blue-collar defenseman Bobo, the pampered William Flyt, and Kevin's best friend, the sullen and secretive Benji. There's also a quartet of 15-year-olds: Peter's daughter Maya, her BFF Ana, immigrant Amat, and his best bud, the pudgy Zacharias. On the adult side there is Peter, a former star and present-day milquetoast; his passionate lawyer wife, Kira; Amat's single-parent mother, Fatima; and a wide ensemble of venomous hockey moms, amoral sponsors, local lowlifes, a teacher growing wiser by the moment, and a trio of protective sisters. The salty-tongued Ramona, though, is hard to resist. A sample Ramona rant: "Keep your trap shut when I'm talking! Fucking men! YOU'RE the problem! Religion doesn't fight, guns don't kill, and you need to be fucking clear that hockey has never raped anyone! But do you know who do? ...MEN! It's always fucking men!"

Of course, even Ramona is cribbed from the character Bank in Britt-Marie Was Here and Beartown is that book's Borg [town name, not Star Trek characters] set in the woods. Objectively speaking, Beartown is more pastiche than panache. But it does raise big questions, not the least of which is that its strip-away-the-crap look at sports obsession is like a high stick to the nose. If all a town cares about is its junior hockey team, does it have any values at all? Backman invites us to extend that metaphor. And so we should.

Rob Weir



Sam Gleaves and Tyler Hughes: September 2017 Album of the Month

Sam Gleaves and Tyler Hughes
Sam Gleaves and Tyler Hughes
Community Music

The unpretentious title of this album is also its dominant mood. This is Appalachian music featuring warm, inviting vocals and fancy pickin’ that never sounds like showing off. Sam Gleaves made a splash a while back with his admission that he’s gay and proud. That wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in much of the urban Northeast, but it was an act of courage in the backwoods part of Virginia from which he hails. Here’s the deal, though. A confessional such as his will get huzzahs from the LGBTQ community and its allies, but you still need to be good if you want applause from music fans. So get this in your head: he’s not just good, he makes mountain music the way it ought to be made. This record, a collaboration with a fellow Virginian, Tyler Hughes, is the sort you’ll dust off any time you feel like you need to get back in touch with things fundamental and time-honored. One listen to “Living with Memories” will remind you you’re hearing the real deal, not a bunch of studio enhancements. It’s an elemental sort of country weepy, but there's not a false note to be heard. It made me think back to the days in which music was supposed to connect on the personal level, not make you stare at the musicians like they were gods. Is it a bit corny? Sure, but it also invokes walking by a neighbor's house when he looks up and says, "Hey--want to hear an old song my grandfather used to play?"

Gleaves and Hughes are equally sublime on the delicate harmonies of the wholesome “When We Love,” the breakout solos and forays into the minor key of “Georgia Row,” and “Mister Rabbit,” an Appalachian children’s song popularized by Burl Ives that is rendered here in a more folkloristic style. Gleaves and Hughes also give us a pastoral remake of “I Can’t Sit Down” to make Sister Rosetta Tharpe smile from the Beyond. (I caint sit down/I caint sit down/Just got to heaven and I’ve got to walk around.] They give a spiritual twist to “I Washed My Face in the Morning Dew” and make “Lonesome Homesick Blues” sound like we tuned in the Wheeling Jamboree on Sunday afternoon. Two soothing high tenor voices and enough instruments to fill a music shop: guitar, fiddle, autoharp, mandolin, banjo, dulcimer…. These are songs and tunes that scurry and circle, slow down and crawl, give a swift kick and lift your soul to the clouds. It such fun that it’s easy to overlook just how accomplished it is. Call it honest, earnest music that will melt the stony heart of a flinty cynic.

Rob Weir


Scorces's Silence an Overlooked Masterpiece

SILENCE (2016)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Paramount, 161 minutes, R (violent images)

If I told you that a really long, slow, and frequently gruesome movie about 17th century Portuguese missionaries to Japan might be the best film you’ll see all year, would you believe me? You should.

Silence joins The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun to complete Martin Scorsese’s trilogy about faith, the need for tolerance, and the limits of the latter. It’s the movie he’s wanted to make his whole life, or at least since 1990, when he first tried to bring Shūsaku Endō’s novel to the screen. Scorsese, like many Roman Catholics in a secular age, has long struggled with church doctrines fashioned in the Middle Ages that make sweeping demands on believers, but are often rooted more in custom, archaic power structures, and the arcane reasoning of theological tribunals than in Biblical commands or the needs of followers. Scorsese also ponders deeper eschatological mysteries: life’s meaning, eternity, and the nature of God. He concludes that faith and reason are often incompatible lovers.

This is especially the case when it comes to God. One of the greatest conundrums is whether God hears our prayers. If so, why does it often seem as if we are alone in the universe? If you think about it, all organized religions are rooted in a monstrous conceit. Each poses an omnipotent, ineffable god yet insists that theirs is the only true deity—as if somehow they alone among finite beings comprehend the infinite.

In Silence, Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) add another layer of irony. Their self-claimed task is to smuggle themselves into Japan, minister to the scattered faithful, and find Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), one of the few priests not reported killed in the wake of the Shimbara Rebellion (1637-38), a revolt against Tokugawa shoguns widely (and conveniently) blamed on foreigners. So our two fathers leave Portugal, where the Inquisition remains in full force and non-Catholics meet fates similar to those suffered by Japanese Catholics! As they seek Father Ferreira, think a 17th century version of the search for Dr. Livingstone meets Heart of Darkness. They find small bands of faith-starved Christians, but also hair-curling persecutions: burnings, drownings, beheadings, and a few tortures not even Europeans had considered. Through it all, the question persists: Why is God silent?

Rodrigues and Garupe also meet a different kind of inquisitor, Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata). He’s like Torquemada meets Marcus Welby—calm, reasoned, and a strange blend of mercy and unspeakable cruelty. He’s quite willing to forgive those who apostatize by trampling on an image of Jesus—something the professed devout believer Mokichi (Shinya Tsukamoto) does repeatedly to save his neck—and then promptly begs priests for forgiveness. There is a scene between Rodrigues and Inoue that is at once a masterful parry of rhetoric thrusts and a portrait of chilling psychological terror. Again the big questions: What is the duty of the faithful? It is easy to despise Mokichi, a Japanese mash up of Judas and Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, but would you renounce your faith if by doing so you saved others? What if the cost of doing so meant that you and your flock would be forever lost? Would you save them, or bear the guilt that you let them perish? At what point does doubt overwhelm faith and fervor? How do you live with yourself if you turn your back on God? And what if God speaks in the silences, not during self-perceived acts of faith?

The film reaches surprising conclusions that, like Inoue’s demeanor, evolve with—mixed metaphor intended—explosive quietude. Silence is beautiful to watch and its locations (in Taiwan) are sumptuous and Zen-like. Garfield is wonderful as a devotee torn between desire to emulate Jesus and the fear he's not up to the task. Driver has a lesser role, but is also superb in his battle between reason and moral impulses of potentially disastrous consequence. Both are outdone by Tsukamoto and Ogata. Tsukamoto's Mokichi takes his place among Uriah Heap, Gollum, Francis Urquhart, and Peter Baelish as one of fiction's greatest obsequious, treacherous characters. For his part, Ogata stuns. Watch how he uses his seated body to collapse like a trapped toad, only to slowly inflate and assume a Yoda-like counselor's position. When he does this, he is about to puff again and mete out monstrous fates—all with a Mona Lisa smile upon wan lips. 

Does Scorsese solve the riddles of faith, tolerance, and the nature of God? Of course not, but you will never think of such issues the same way again. They will probably haunt you in your solitude.

Rob Weir



Richard Russo's Trajectory Hits the Target

By Richard Russo
Alfred A. Knopf, 243 pages.

Readers of this blog know that I am a big fan of author Richard Russo. They also know I am not a fan of short fiction. This raises the question of how I’d feel about a collection of short stories from Russo. Answer: Pretty good. Russo is such a gifted writer that I suspect he could generate interest if he penned the ingredients in haggis.

It certainly helps that the tales in Trajectory are closer to novellas than to conventional short stories. There are just four spread across 243 pages, which affords Russo more space for his characters to breathe and develop. But first, let’s muse on the title. The hardcover dust jacket sports a single archery target set against a wooded backdrop. The implication is that a well-drawn arrow fired toward the target will either land in or around the bull’s-eye, but that an errant shaft has a good chance of being lost in the forest. As any archer knows, the slightest quiver, twitch, or loss of focus alters the outcome. Sometimes, so does luck. These are precisely the scenarios played out in Trajectory. Complexity is layered into the narratives via protagonists who occupy a middle position between contrasting characters whose trajectories direct them toward success or failure.

“The Horseman” juxtaposes a smart but inhibited play-it-safe English professor between a student caught plagiarizing, family pressure, and a burnt-out colleague on one hand, and her imposing but misunderstood former mentor on the other. It is one of the better looks at academic insecurity I have ever read. To add a personal note, every professor I’ve ever respected has felt like a fraud at some point—and it’s a fear I certainly experienced.

“Voice” follows a different scholar to Venice, where he must confront a mistake, ageing, a resentful brother, a sad widower, and two enigmatic women. Is there a better place to explore feeling lost than labyrinthine Venice?

The sands of time also get a workout in the remaining stories. “Intervention” is set amidst the wreckage of the housing market collapse and manages to connect that debacle to deep family dynamics, sidetracked dreams, failed expectations, and successes that feel like failures. “Milton and Marcus” finds an unnamed writer torn between the thrill of the chase and his own grasp on reality when Hollywood courts him as a script doctor for a proposed blockbuster. He is appropriately anonymous as the writer is a bit player in a game he knows he can’t win: “It’s all bullshit and you know it, just as you know that in due course you’ll be fired, though probably not by the people flattering you now.” He’s also caught between the demands of a prima donna director and the memory of a deceased friend: an actor for whom he wrote the first treatment of the script in question a decade earlier. This one comes off as a cautionary allegory and serves as a devastating takedown of the vacuity, amorality, airbrushed mountebanks, and flea-like attention span of modern celebrity. But would you join the Big Dance of money, posturing, and positioning?

Many of the things that make Russo a great writer are on display in Trajectory: his poignancy, his facility with stripping emotions to their core and conveying them in ways that hit home, the manner in which he universalizes individual drama, and the skill with which he presents pathos and pulls back before it becomes bathos. There’s always a tinge of hope amidst the darkness in a Russo tale. Also humor, but of the nuanced kind that makes you chuckle just before you say, “Ouch!” Russo is like that—sort of like taking a stroll in a tranquil glade just before a wayward arrow whizzes past your head.

Rob Weir



Ocean Liners and Monsters at Peabody Essex Museum

 Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed, and Style
                        (through October 8, 2017)
It's Alive: Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection
                        (through November 28, 2017)
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA

The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) wants to become New England's second leading art museum. Until recently, PEM was mostly a memorial to Salem's 18th and 19th century maritime glories, which it honored with a cabinet of curiosities assemblage of all things watery. This means that it lacks a sizable permanent collection of paintings and objects that make art critics and curators swoon. Solution: If you can't beat the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, launch exhibits outside of the venerable MFA's métier.  

Ocean Liners is a perfect PEM exhibit—one that's simultaneously right in its saltwater tradition, yet innovative and unique. Prior to the 1960s, high-speed transportation across oceans conjured ocean liners, not airplanes. * From the mid-19th century until well into the 1950s, "speed" meant New York to London in under a week and those who could afford it, went in "style." The PEM exhibit is the stuff of enchanting mid-century Hollywood films in which classy passengers donned formal-wear for dinner. There were, of course, those traveling on the cheap—below-decks budget travelers and immigrants in steerage—and the PEM show gives a nod to those with fewer means, but the ballroom set dominates. Think Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in an Affair to Remember, a clip from which is part of the show. (So too is one of my all-time favorites, the hilarious Marx Brothers "stateroom" scene from A Night at the Opera.)

The breadth of the exhibit surprised me—more than 200 objects in all. There are numerous advertising posters from the golden age of steamship travel and these should be viewed as masterpieces of graphic design. Even smaller objects—such as dinner menus and hard-colored postcards—are exquisitely done. In fact, the word "glamorous" often seems inadequate, as well-apportioned ocean liners were floating mansions sporting carved oak paneling, detailing from masters in the decorative arts, Arts and Crafts furniture, and fine dining for 750 at tables outfitted with linen, gleaming silverware, fine china, and delicate crystal. Wallpaper, pianos, Art Deco tea services, lighting, fixtures, paintings, and decorative sculpture—you name it and it was done with upscale polish. Well-chosen costumes—of both passengers and crew—add to the ambience. It took a village to service what was, in essence, a floating small town. 

I longed for more on the below-decks crowd, but one of the more interesting things is how the ships were mirrors of social change. This is especially the case in observing  ways in which 1950s versions of modernism and 1960s trends tamped down the elegance. Seeing the well heeled in designer mini skirts, casual wear, and broad-lapeled suits reminds me that the upper crust simply can't do hipster without looking like poseurs. You can literally see Cary Grant-like sophistication losing out to the faux mod vibe of Sean Connery as James Bond. 

* Jet aircraft engines were developed in the 1920s, but World War II first demonstrated their potential. There were no commercial jet flights until 1952 and they were few in number because early "turbojet" technology led to catastrophic metal fatigue. "Turbofan" modifications moved mechanical energy away from, rather than through, the turbines and solved most turbojet problems. But jet engines didn't displace long-distance propeller planes until the late 1960s.  

It's Alive is the other end of the spectrum. It is 90 movie posters and objects from Kirk Hammett's personal collection of the era of classic horror and sci-fi, mostly the 1920s into the 1970s. If Hammett's name doesn't ring immediate bells, he has been the lead guitarist for Metallica since 1981. If you're a metalhead, you know that he usually wields guitars with movie scenes painted upon their bodies—almost always reproductions from posters he owns. I'll bet legions wish we had emulated what Hammett did and kept our childhood ephemera in mint condition.

There is, of course, a Gothic, ghoulish vibe to all of this, but because Hammett's stuff comes from the earlier era, it is more psychological horror than the blood-splattered graphic stuff of today. In a video, Hammett (b. 1962) speaks of how these old films and images were strangely comforting for an unorthodox and shy kid coming of age in the Bay Area in the 1970s. To this day he says he tries to play out horror film scenes on his guitar. Again, though, we're talking Frankenstein and Day of the Triffids, not Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Although his collection includes posters for two of the scariest films I've ever seen, Nosferatu (1922) and Psycho (1960), these films must be seen to induce nightmares. This is true of nearly everything you'll see. There's a goofy charm to Cold War sci-fi films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, Japanese monster movies like Godzilla, and the various Frankenstein and Dracula offerings.

I pre-scouted this exhibit for friends wondering if it would be okay for their eight-year-old. Although you might want to steer clear of a creepy oversized projection from The Mummy, most kids will be fine—especially if they are in the midst of their dinosaur/monster phase. The eight-year-old in question loved the show. You will too if you just channel your own dinosaur/monster childhood.

The final takeaway is the irony of a guy from Metallica resurfacing as an art curator. It just goes to prove an old adage: live long enough and you too have a shot at obtaining respectability!

Rob Weir

Just can't trust 'fake news'