4/26/17

Quiles and Cloud: April 2017 Album of the Month

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April 2017 Album of the Month

Cajuns use the word lagniappe (LAN-yap) to describe a small gift thrown in as a bonus. Compass Records recently did this for me. I requested a review copy of another Compass artist, which is very good. But they also threw in a download for Quiles and Cloud and it's safe to say that I adored Shake Me Now. If you're wondering about the band's agnomen, it's a combo of the last names of Maria Quiles (vocals/guitar) and Rory Cloud (guitar/vocals). The band also includes bass player Oscar Westesson.

The title track is indicative of how the trio approaches its material. The appellation suggests a song that rocks, but this is not that sort of record. The group has won a few bluegrass awards, but genre wise, Shake Me Now rests in the seam where folk, bluegrass, jazz, and Americana overlap. The group doesn't try to shake anyone— the effect is more like being swaddled in velvet. If I had to classify this record I'd say it's like Appalachian music without the twang and with its raw edges smoothed and soothed. Quiles and Cloud can ratchet the excitement when need be, as on "Black Sky Lightning," the opening track that hooked me, but it's the soft side that really highlights how special they are. As Alasdair Fraser often observes, most reasonably talented musicians can play fast, but you have to be really good to play slowly. And sometimes that's the best route for bringing home a song's essence. Check out the tender "Mississippi River," which makes you want to join the vocalists as they drift away from dull care. Think you know the Dylan song "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere?" Check out what Quiles and Cloud do with it and you might conclude you've never really heard it before. Maria Quiles has a voice that bathes you in gentleness, even when she comes at you strong, and her close harmonies with Cloud are a thing to behold. "Faded Flowers" is a particularly fine example of this, plus it's another beautiful heart-tugger.

The warmth of the vocals is skillfully contrasted with and integrated into Rory Cloud's robust flat-picking, Quiles' rhythm guitar, and Westesson's standup bass, which he sometimes bows to provide resonant bottom and atmospheric ambience. This winning formula is used on the trio's thoughtful mix of originals, covers, and traditional songs. Of the last, there is a delightfully restrained version of "Worried Man Blues," a jazzy, finger-popping take on "Feelin' Good," and a version of "Deep Ellum Blues" that's simultaneously countrified, soulful, and haunting. My only complaint is that this San Francisco-based trio won't be anywhere near me in 2017. But I'm eternally grateful to Compass for the best lagniappe I've received in quite some time.

Rob Weir

     

   

4/24/17

Reliving the Oscars on Video

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If you didn't get to see the films that won Best Picture at the Oscars, don't despair—unlike big-screen cotton candy like La La Land, both Moonlight and The Salesman will work well on your television set.

As you probably know, Oscar presenters mistakenly announced that La La Land had won as Best Picture. Glad that error was caught, because Moonlight (A24 Pictures, 111 minutes, R) is by far the superior picture. It's a Hollywood rarity as a prizewinner: an all-black cast with a black director, Barry Jenkins. Is it a "black" film? Yes and no. It certainly deals with the poverty, addiction, and diminished life circumstances within inner-city ghettos populated by people of color, but it's also about role models, father figures, LGBT issues, and—to paraphrase Langston Hughes—what happens to deferred dreams. Jenkins centers his film on Chiron and unveils his life in three parts: "Little," "Chiron," and "Black." Within this structure we move from idealism to harsh reality to hedonism and (perhaps) a search for redemption.

We first meet Chiron (Alex Hibbert) as a skinny boy in Miami's Liberty City. He is picked upon by bigger kids for his bookish ways and shyness so severe that he is literally tongue-tied when he flees a gang seeking to beat him up and is found wandering by Juan (Mahershala Ali). Director Jenkins cleverly twists white morality tales in which a character with a rough exterior turns out to have a heart of gold. Juan really is a bad dude—a drug dealer who packs heat and commands deference in the 'hood. But Juan is also the father that "Little" lacks. Chiron lives with single mom Paula (Naomi Harris), who works hard but also does crack and has a string of boyfriends, each less appropriate than the predecessor. By contrast, Juan is partnered with Teresa (Janelle Monáe), a true ghetto angel whose home is one of linen, clean sheets, and home-cooked meals. Through Juan and Teresa, Little dares to dream; he even cultivates a friendship with Kevin (Jaden Pinder).

In Part Two, Chiron's dreams soar and are shattered. As a youth, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is still skinny and his aspirations have taken psychological and physical beatings. His is a world of unexpected intimacies, betrayals, and violence. By the time we meet Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) again in "Black," he is a ripped physical dynamo living a perverse American Dream and filled with self-loathing. Can Teresa, his mother, and/or Kevin (André Holland) help him find redemption?

If you think recent movies are lame, Moonlight will restore your faith. You would have to search long and hard to find a negative review of this gem. Jenkins should have won Best Director—no one else had the chutzpah to build a trilogy in less than two hours, construct distinct narratives, and direct three sets of actors—all for $1.5 million. Ali won a deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but his was just one of uniformly brilliant performances. It's just a matter of time before we start thinking of Ms. Monáe as an actress first and a singer second. All three Chirons are superb, James Laxton's cinematography is stunning (check out what he does with cool color and mixed film stock), stereotypes tumble, and somehow—in the midst of varying levels of despair—we brush elbows with a deeper humanity.

The Best Foreign Film Oscar went to The Salesman (Memento Films, 124 minutes, PG-13). I still think Iceland's Rams was better picture, but it's hard to begrudge anything done by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, The Past). I constantly marvel over how he gets work past mullah censors. This film is in Persian with English subtitles, but you'll recognize parts of this play-within-a-film as it concerns a husband/wife team rehearsing Death of a Salesman while a real-life domestic tragedy/drama unfolds outside the theater.

Emad (Shahab Hosseini) is a modern, magnetic, and commanding teacher and director set to play the role of Willy Loman. Problems emerge when he and his wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) must vacate their apartment when a nearby construction project destabilizes the building. Luck is with them when fellow cast member Babak (Babak Karimi) offers an apartment whose previous occupant suddenly left. Strangely, though, Babak is vague about who she was or why she left her things behind. Matters take an ominous twist when Rana is accosted while bathing. The assault on Rana reveals Emad to be less progressive than we first supposed. He becomes obsessed with finding the man who did this— not because Rana was terrified and bloodied, but because of the stain on his honor.

This is a film about humiliation, obsession, patriarchy, revenge, assumptions, and masculinity. Farhadi deftly interweaves themes from Death of a Salesman and we begin to see Emad as akin to Willy in being stuck on the wrong side of social change. Emad's descent into revenge fantasies soon wearies his theater colleagues, especially Babak—whom Emad goes off script to insult— and Kati, a single mother whose sympathies are with Rana. Is Emad a symbol for Iran's theocratic rulers—cruel, self-righteous, and mired in out-of-date values? One wonders if Farhadi has pulled the wool over mullah eyes by cleverly immersing such implications within a mystery and its bathetic resolution. Has Emad become Willy—a man in pursuit of illusions and living in a bygone world? Does his definition of morality parallel Willy's antiquated values?

Farhadi likes to personalize clashing worldviews, often placing them within domestic settings. His is also a masterful microcosmic look at the pull of tradition versus the push of secularization. Is it also a veiled critique of Islamic fundamentalism? You don't have to imagine the film in this light, as it's dramatic in its own right. Part of the puzzle centers on the identity of the mysterious previous apartment tenant. Pay attention to who is drawing on the walls early on, as I think it's a clue. But Farhadi's forte—and maybe the reason he gets to take surprising liberty—is that he only reveals part of what he's thinking and leaves the rest for viewers to contemplate.

Rob Weir    

4/21/17

Terence Davis' Human Emily Dickinson

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A QUIET PASSION
Directed by Terence DAVIES
MUSIC BOX FILMS, 126 MINUTES, PG-13
★★★★

Fame is a fickle food
Upon a shifting plate
Whose table once a
Guest but not
The second time is set. —Emily Dickinson


If, like me, you live anywhere near Amherst, Massachusetts, you're likely to have one of two very strong opinions about native daughter Emily Dickinson—you either worship the grass upon which she trod, or you're sick of hearing her very name. I am a card-carrying member of the second camp. I feel about Dickinson much as I feel about characters from the Brontes and Jane Austen—enough with the tormented passivity and internalized repression. Director Terence Davies and actress Cynthia Nixon have not only made me reconsider Ms. Dickinson, they've sent me scurrying back to her poems.

The rejoinder to my impatience with Dickinson is, of course, that women of her era (1830-1886) had few options. Davies subtlety shows us the stultifying effects of being female in the 19th century. His is a very European film in style, filled with pan shots and moments in which silence speaks louder than dialogue. Though it might be hard for those weaned on action films to watch, there are several scenes of domestic non-bliss in which the camera slowly surveys a silent room in which men are contentedly reading and women look at if they might devolve into boredom-induced madness or melt into the patterned wallpaper upon which the lens lingers. Indeed, it's hard not to think of Charlotte Perkins-Gilman in moments such as these. Where are the cultural cracks through which non-conformists can escape? That's exactly the slant Davies employs in his look at Emily Dickinson—one whose interstices, jumps, and cuts are filled with snippets of her verse.

We see Emily as a rebel from the start—a woman fiercely guarding her own soul and willing to stand up to the indomitable Mary Lyons to do so—perhaps one of the reasons Dickinson only lasted ten months at Mt Holyoke Female Seminary. Davies doesn't give us an eternally gloomy Dickinson. Young Emily (Emma Bell) is light, clever, carefree, and saucy enough to bait her pious, drear Aunt Elizabeth. This carries over as she enters maturity. If you only know Cynthia Nixon from Sex in the City, be prepared to be astonished; it would not surprise me if hers supplants Julie Harris' as the definitive portrayal of Dickinson. Nixon gives us a Dickinson who takes joy in other insouciant women, especially her sunny sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), her good-hearted sister-in-law Susan Gilbert (Jodhi May), and the tart-tongued Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), the principal of a local school for girls. Bailey is a special delight. In the film, she drops witticisms, snide comments, and wicked remarks like a female Oscar Wilde. In fact, Dickinson's mid-life inner circle of female friends stands in contrast to the Stygian outlook of elders such as her sad-sack mother (Joanna Bacon) and of men drowning in their own impossible standards of honor and piety: her brother Austin (Duncan Duff), a procession of stodgy ministers, and her father Edward—expertly played by Keith Carradine, who finds it hard always to play the stern paterfamilias and breaks expectations when least expected.

This is far more than Life with the Dickinsons. There is plenty of heavy stuff: Emily's obsession with mortality and immortality, her desire for artistic acceptance, and her fury over being better known for her gardening skills than for her verse, a frustration she uses to batter editor Samuel Bowles (Trevor Cooper). And, of course, there is Dickinson's storied descent into isolation, misanthropy, and despair. What precipitated this? Well… that's the stuff of scores of dissertations and no one knows for certain.

Dickinson scholars, I'm sure, will bemoan liberties in the film. such as the conjecture that she was in love with a married minister, or a scene in which she is the interruptus to her brother's coitus with Mabel Loomis Todd. Austin indeed had an affair with Todd, but Emily never met the woman who later edited her poems. Non-Dickinson junkies might be baffled at moments in which Davies telescopes time in ways that require some pre-knowledge. It's certainly ambitious to tackle so much biography in one film and, perhaps, inevitable that gaps will emerge. I can forgive these, as Davies hands us a human Emily Dickinson whose sadness and resignation are balanced by flights into humor, hope, and independence. Are these readings too feminist? Too modern? Again, who knows? I want Davies' take to be true, and it's to his credit that he moved a Dickinson Abstainer such as I. There's a closing morphing sequence in which the (to-date) only authenticated picture of Emily Dickinson slowly becomes the image of Cynthia Nixon. And so I shall henceforth think of her.

Rob Weir

Postscript: The exteriors of this movie were filmed in Amherst; the interiors on a set in Belgium modeled on the Dickinson homestead.

4/19/17

WOW is a WOW! Exhibit

WOW: World of Wearable Art
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA
Through June 11, 2017

Some art exhibits welcome analysis and critique; the rare few beggar description and are best experienced through images. Such an exhibit is the World of Wearable Art at Salem's Peabody Essex Museum.

The skinny for those who've never heard of WOW: It began in the New Zealand South Island town of Nelson in 1987. Appropriately, its founder, Suzie Moncrieff, is a sculptor, not a fashion designer. Her idea was to combine design with the then emerging concept of performance art. To that end, she invited professional and amateur designers, artists and fabricators, and individuals working in various media to submit their wildest, most inventive designs for a show. The only rule was that whatever they created, it had to be wearable. That definition did not include the word "pragmatic;" in fact, the more whimsical and outlandish, the better. WOW, if anything, challenges, even lampoons, ideas of designer fashion.

  WOW was an idea whose time had comes. It is now in its 30th year, awards over
$165,000 (New Zealand) per year, and culminates in a sound, light, and art performance that's like Cirque du Soleil on steroids. It's also an international competition these days, but it's still by no means the domain of professionals—wood and fabric artists submit entries, but so too do taxidermists, metallurgists, and people who are simply clever at fashioning something from everything from plastic stay ties to re-purposed suitcases. The Peabody Essex Museum exhibit has 32 pieces, a stripped down show, but still one that's like falling down an LSD-induced rabbit hole. But enough words. Here are some visual examples of the magic awaiting a viewer. 

Lobster dress with working tail
Detail of claw


Plastic and ties

This is color printer sheets transferred onto sheet metal

Plastic & ceramic

Inspired by tattoo art


Inspired by reptiles shedding skin
Wooden dress

Lady Gaga? Cinna from The Hunger Games?

Felt but designed so that...

... the punchouts create the fasteners!
Commentary on British obsession with equestrianism

New Zealander commentary on American car love

Just wow!

Cat Woman goes op-art?
Woman warrior. Samoan if memory serves

Uniform made of old suitcases

Bra fashioned from hedgehogs


Iguana bra




4/17/17

Witchfinder's Sister a Harrowing Read

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The Witchfinder’s Sister. By Beth Underdown. Ballantine Books, 2017, 336 pages.
★★★★

Americans reflexively think of Salem whenever witch trials are conjured. We forget that the Puritans that conducted Salem's horrors were Englishmen, just as we forget that (by some estimates) 50,000 Europeans were executed for witchcraft from 1500 to 1800, 80% of them women.  A half century before Salem (1692), witchcraft hysteria swept East Anglia, particularly Essex, Wessex, and Suffolk.

The most notorious of England’s witchfinders were John Stearne and Matthew Hopkins, both of whom figure prominently in Beth Underdown’s gripping debut. Bear in mind that this is a historical novel. Very little is known of the historical Matthew Hopkins (?1620-47), other than the fact his father was a clergyman, and that Matthew moved to Manningtree, Essex sometime around 1640. From there he launched a two-year reign of terror in 1644-46 that saw more 300 individuals arrested, around a hundred of whom were executed. We don’t know if he had a sister, let alone one named Alice, Underdown’s protagonist and narrator. Moreover, Hopkins probably died of TB, not the more satisfying ending Underdown provides. So bear in mind as you read that the story is “true” in its essence, but not in its particulars.

They are mighty fine particulars, though. Underdown gives us a portrait of how hysteria begins small—whispers, gossip, grudges, innuendo­—and gathers steam when embraced by bullies, demagogues, and fanatics. She imagines Hopkins as more complex than a monster, a true believer who justified doing unspeakable things as advancing God's work. Alice and her associates represent the voices of reason. And never shall the twain meet, especially in a climate rent asunder by the English Civil War. Alice also represents a protest against misogyny, but that too was a cry in the 17th century social wilderness. Thus the catastrophe that unfolded. Underdown uses her invented characters to personalize the tragedy and give us entrée into specifics. Her description of a "swimming," a watery test for malevolence, is particularly vivid and makes us shudder. Ditto her depictions of witch "detection" tactics such as sleep deprivation, walking, watching, and examining for imps.

Most of all, though, the clash between Matthew and Alice over the unfolding events gives us both a micro and macrocosm perspective on the witchcraft trials. It is easy to forget that both accusers and victims were also ordinary people who prepared meals, emptied chamber pots, tended their gardens, mourned lost loved ones, courted, and conducted business. Underdown does a nice job of capturing the rhythms of everyday life without getting bogged down in minutiae that would detract from the central plot. She's also good with suspense. We, the readers, can see Alice's options melt and the walls begin to close in around her. It is to Underwood's credit that we feel like screaming out for Alice to run and keep turning the pages to see if she does.

To be objective, this book also bears some of the weaknesses of a debut novel. Several of the characters are drawn a bit too broadly; others (too) conveniently appear and disappear. Stylistically, I wish Underwood and her editors would learn when to use "her" and when to use "she." You can decide for yourself if she went over the top with her ending. I understand the allure of delicious irony, but sometimes it's better to leave things understated. You will also have to decide whether our narrator, Alice, is credible for the time period, or if she is a 21st century feminist in 17th century drag. For the record, I think Underwood wanted to have her both ways, hence I was willing to suspend disbelief in passages I found ahistorical.

The Witchfinder's Sister is a chilling tale that most readers will rip through. We should remember, though, that Matthew Hopkins was a real person and that his The Discovery of Witches was widely consulted as a go-to guide for more than a century. Salem loomed in the future, but European witch trials continued into the 19th century. England had a case of witch swimming as late as 1863, even though it repealed its witchcraft laws 127 years earlier. Underwood's novel ultimately made me think upon how easily hysteria forms and how hard it is to vanquish. Maybe the 17th century lurks closer than we might imagine.

Rob Weir

4/14/17

Wilderness of Ruin: A Boston Serial Killer

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The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer. By Roseanne Montillo. New York: William Morrow, 2015.
★★ ½ 

This review originally posted on the Website of the Northeast Popular Culture Association.

Gilded Age Boston and Chicago shared a lot in common. Both had World's Fairs: Boston in 1883, and Chicago ten years later. Each suffered devastating fires, with Chicago being nearly destroyed in 1871, and Boston losing most of its commercial district in 1872. Both also had notorious serial killers, with Boston holding the dubious distinction of producing Jesse Pomeroy, the first juvenile serial killer to be sentenced to hang. Pomeroy's story is the subject of Roseanne Montillo's sometimes fascinating, sometimes frustrating The Wilderness of Ruin.

Montillo, who teaches literature at Emerson College, has an eye for a good saga, and that of Jesse Pomeroy (1859-1932) certainly qualifies. Jesse's is a biography that would challenge the fictive powers of an imaginative crime writer. He was born into an economically marginal working-class family in Charlestown, a seedy neighborhood best known for its grimy waterfront. A childhood illness damaged Jesse's right cornea and left him with a distinctive cloudy eye. He was taller than peers and, from an early age, demonstrated disturbing characteristics: social isolation, fascination with his father's butcher knives, a love of violent dime novels, and acts of animal cruelty. His waterfront jaunts yielded the revelation that twelve-year-old Jesse was responsible for a serious of brutal attacks on boys as young as four. His first victim was stripped naked, tied, hoisted ahigh, and whipped; subsequent victims were cut, stabbed, pricked with pins, and brutalized­–often in their genitals. Because there were no known deaths, Jesse was sent to a reformatory where he was supposed to remain until his 18th birthday.

Pomeroy was out in 14 months, paroled to his mother’s care in South Boston, where the family had moved to escape ostracism. Jesse was released in February of 1874, and in March, nine-year-old Katie Curran went missing. In April, the body of four-year-old Horace Millen was discovered, and Curran’s body shortly thereafter–each mutilated in ways suggestive of Pomeroy's earlier spree. Pomeroy was convicted of first-degree murder in December, and was sentenced to hang. Governor Gaston's refusal to sign execution orders led to a year and half of legal wrangling before Jesse’s sentence was commuted to life in solitary confinement. Three months before he turned seventeen, Pomeroy was transferred from Suffolk County Jail to the state prison in Charlestown, where he spent the next forty years in a ten-by-ten-by-eight cell. During that time, he made a dozen serious escape efforts, exhausted the prison library, learned numerous languages, wrote a self-serving autobiography, and badgered a dozen governors with pardon requests. In 1917, he was allowed to intermingle with the general prison population, but showed no interest in doing so. Much to his chagrin, he was sent to the Bridgewater Hospital for the Criminally Insane in 1932, and died there in 1934. Only two murders were directly tied to Pomeroy, though rumors–sometimes from Jesse and sometimes denied by him–suggest he was responsible for as many as nine.

This is dramatic stuff that Montillo wisely opts to tell in a novelistic voice. This makes swaths of the book highly readable. Her instincts are sharpest when she connects Pomeroy to his broader social milieu, as Erik Larson did in his masterful The Devil in the White City (2003), the tale of mass murderer Dr. Henry Holmes (Herman Mudgett). Larson placed Holmes within a grand narrative stretching from Chicago's 1871 fire through the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Montillo uses Boston’s 1872 fire as a partial explanation of how Pomeroy’s first spree took so long to solve, and she is in good form when describing the tawdry waterfronts and grimy neighborhoods of Jesse’s youth. Especially crisp is her account of Jesse taking his first and only automobile ride in 1932; she puts herself inside his eyes to “see” how Boston had changed during his 58 years of confinement.

Alas, she dowses her literary fires when she tries to connect Pomeroy to Boston glitterati such as Herman Melville and Oliver Wendell Holmes. She wants us to view Jesse’s monomania as analogous to Ahab’s and launches into discursive and unconvincing analyses of Moby Dick. She also delves deeply into Holmes’ biography, though he was peripheral to Pomeroy’s case. There are also detours into Camus, Dickens, Irving, Poe, and others attracted to the dark side of the psyche. By the time I finished, I was reminded of times in which I was dazzled by the sight of a restaurant meal, only to taste it and conclude that the chef spoiled the dish by adding too many ingredients.

I wanted The Wilderness of Ruins to be a Boston version of The Devil in the White City; instead, it is more about Montillo than her subject. Note the subtitle. The “madness” part is mostly perfunctory unresolved psychological speculation; the “fire” offers little insight into a lad whose spree began a year earlier; the “hunt” was brief; and Pomeroy isn’t “America’s youngest serial killer,” only the Bay State’s. Too many ingredients! My advice is to borrow juicy material for your lectures, but only if it makes them more savory. 


Rob Weir





4/12/17

Folk Offerings for April

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April Folk Roundup

I get asked from time to time, "Where has folk music gone?" Answer: It hasn't gone anywhere. There are plenty of folks taking up folk music these days, though in today's mashable culture their take on "folk" tends to collapse genres.


Colin Hay is still recalled by many as the front man and primary songwriter of the Aussie rock band Men at Work. That's weird as Fierce Mercy (Compass Records) is his 13th solo release. Like several other pop/rock stars—Natalie Merchant comes to mind–Hay amped down when he stopped living on the pop charts. Fierce Mercy is 13 tracks of hummable songs in the seams where folk, rock, country, and retro pop meet. Toss in some lifted riffs, Hay's distinct voice, and a collection that's heavy on love songs, and you have a very likable release. The album opens with a killer pop song, "Come Tumblin' Down," an homage to things past (wishing wells, railroads, Ferris wheels, dreams). It's the kind of song that latches onto your brain and sinks in its hooks. There are several such catchy songs, another being "I'm Outside In," which has the brightness of an old Hollies release. Hay doesn't confine himself to pop these days. Songs such as "Secret Love" have country grit, "I'm Walking Here" is soulful commentary on the Trayvon Martin shooting, "Blue Bay Moon" has a Jimmy Buffett vibe, and much of the melody from "The Last to Know" flat out lifts the tune from The Eagles "Best of My Love." Or shall I say re-purposes it? If you like folk that's more quiet, try "Frozen Field of Snow," or the poignant "Two Friends" and "She Was the Love of Mine," which are about loss–two comrades in the first and his mother in the latter. One of my favorites was "Hundred Million Reasons," whose poetry is a bit forced. But Hay does as a good singer should do and breathes emotion into lines such as these: When the sun comes up over Paris/It's like any other day/Except that you're in Paris/What more need I say? Indeed, the depths of love transcend poetry and a skilled singer makes us feel as well as hear. Hay fits the bill. Sample all of these tracks at: http://www.colinhay.com/news/http://www.colinhay.com/news/
★★★★

The Western Den makes you feel cleansed just from hearing them. Their latest EP is titled All the Birds and it will make your soul glide. The Western Den is a Boston-based ensemble that embraces the term alt.folk. That one normally raises my hackles, but it's apt for a trio (Deni Hlavinka, Chris West, Alec Alabado) and a passel of friends whose music is dreamy and contemplative, but is more Nick Drake than New Age. It is, in turn, as gentle as the spring rain-like piano notes we hear in "Tumbling Down," yet as soaring in its build up as an avian flock taking flight. The EP's unstated themes are the constancy of love and moving forward despite obstacles. The title "Carter Hall" is suggestive of an old ballad, but it's actually about putting down roots as relationships grow and change. Ms. Hlavinka's gorgeous voice is one of the many things that will tear out your heart, as will West's dulcet tones, their delicate harmonies, the big-production choral swells, and sentiment such as: Been a while now, we're still in our house/Filling the void, and hoping our fates align from the aforementioned "Tumbling Down." Props for knowing you need to work on things and that as much as we'd like to freeze moments in time–a feeling expressed in "Stay the Sun"–that's not how it works. Also check out their retelling of the Biblical story of "Eden"–a smart look at the contrasting temptations in Paradise: Oh this kingdom is not for the dwellers/There's no vacancy for the other side of me.
★★★★

It's usually not a good thing to describe music as somnambulant, but in the case of Galapaghost (Casey Chandler) it fits. Chandler's music often feels like being inside a dream. I Never Arrived (Lovely Lady) is deliciously ambiguous and vulnerable in the sense that Chandler's not afraid to say he doesn't have things figured out–perfect themes for his semi-dreamlike musical wrappers. "Science of Love" opens with sounds that evoke the music of the planets, but his chemistry is more earthly: Suppose I lie and say I love you/Suppose you do the same/Is it better not to know/Or is it better to be alone? Drifting, ethereal tones also show up in the title track with guitar and piano producing a tune that's somewhere between folk, café music, and experimental music. "Secrets Our Body Keeps" establishes a repetitive groove that induces a soft trance. Chandler's voice is smooth and comforting, which adds to the ambience. This is especially the case in which it blends with a "female" voice on selections such as "Mazes in the Sky," "Somewhere," and "Salt Lake City," the last of these has little to do with Utah; it's the place where two lovers confront their differences with an eye toward resolving them or parting. This is typical of Chandler's candor. This shows up again in two songs–"Bloom" and "Mister Mediocrity"­–in which he confesses worries over whether his art is good enough. Yes. It is! About that "female" voice–it's Chandler, who also plays nearly all of the instruments as well.
★★★★

The New York-based ChameLeon is a five-piece ensemble built around vocalist/keyboardist Chloe Lowry and vocalist/acoustic guitarist Andrew Ross–she with a whispery pretty voice and he with smooth tones that contain hints of rasp. A percussionist, bass player, and lead guitarist join them, and all five come from a rock background. Their EP White Movement One lies in that uncertain border between folk-rock and ambient rock. It's heavy on sonics, which sometimes drown the vocals. At their best, ChameLeon surrounds us with sound. I liked the jangly effects in the first part of "White Flag" and wish it had continued in that mode. To me, though, the project feels overproduced. My favorite track was "Fade." Sample this band on NoiseTrade and see what you think.
★★