Brattleboro Museum and Art Center Serves Another Winner

Sandy Sokoloff; Amy Bennett; Joseph Diggs; Glasstastic 
Brattleboro Museum and Art Center
Brattleboro, Vermont
[Exhibits Closing June 16]
Click images for larger size viewing.

Alas, by the time most of you read this, these exhibits will have closed. So why review them? The first reason is to give a shout out to the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center (BMAC), which has a well-deserved reputation for creative curatorship. When you don’t have a permanent collection of beloved masterpieces and are located in a small city, you are forced to think outside the box. Few do this better than the BMAC, which accomplishes that feat by mounting shows from artists that perhaps you don’t know very well, but should.

Any time you find yourself in southern Vermont, you should stop by the BMAC and take a look. The second reason for the review is so you can keep an eye peeled. Most of the BMAC’s featured artists are well regarded in the art world, and once you’re introduced, you'll stumble upon them elsewhere.

Let’s start with Sandy Sokoloff. Maybe that name sounds vaguely familiar. His work wowed gallery goers from the 1970s into the 1990s, before he decided to step out of the limelight. The BMCA show was his first in 30 years and departs from his early work in numerous ways. He no longer works in oil due to an allergy to turpentine, so the canvases in the Emanation show are acrylic. Second, they are large and I mean really large. Foundation and Kindness are each 66” x 96” and Beginning is a whopping 72” x 104.”

Those names are translated from Hebrew. Although Sokoloff labels himself a non-observant Jew, he draws inspiration from the ancient Kabbalah and its esoteric mysteries. This is particularly the case when he contemplates the relationship between the infinite and finite beings such as humans. Sokoloff describes his current works as a cross between Op art and the Big Bang. That’s exactly how I felt viewing his work, even before I read his artist statement. His paintings are immense, bold, and hypnotic. Stare at them long enough and the eye and mind are tricked into thinking they are 3-D. From this point on, whenever someone asks me what the Big Bang was like I will tell that person to look at Sokoloff’s Emanation series.

Curator Mara Williams tracked down Sokoloff in his Grand Isle studio on Lake Champlain. Now that the word is out, I doubt Emanation will remain a secret much longer.

 Sokoloff works big, but Amy Bennett works on a much smaller scale. Her Nuclear Family exhibit is as advertised–sort of. This Beacon, New York painter has exhibited various projects widely. Sokoloff’s work appears three-dimensional, but Bennett actually works from carefully constructed models, which she lights and arranges before painting what she sees on relatively small canvases.

In Nuclear Family Bennett calls attention to the mental “models” we construct around families and some of their built-in contradictions. By painting tidy worlds with such geometrical precision, we subconsciously begin to unpeel myth from reality. She also accomplishes this by displacing our gaze. When she skews angles, it's as if we are aerial spies or peeping toms.

Bennett wordlessly suggests narratives of those we observe, especially when it comes to the roles of women–brides, mothers, domestics–within the family. Yet she also makes those women enigmatic. Bennett’s miniaturized POV keeps us so off-balance that we start to write our own narratives. Is the woman on the floor exhausted, or is she exercising. Does the nursing semi-nude feel trapped, or is she feeling exhilaration? Are the clean, organized displays of material prosperity symbols of comfort and success, or of soulless conformity and sterility? 

Joseph Diggs unhinges us by calling attention to how the world looks through African-American eyes. Diggs works in mixed media for his Proud 2 Be American. It is not
intended to be ironic–he honors his Tuskegee Airman uncle, for example–but it’s hard to be black in America and not comment on racism. Chalk Line Baller, for instance, evokes Negro League baseball, but also memorializes James Byrd, Jr. who was dragged to death behind a truck in 1998. The North Carolina-based Diggs excels is using iconic symbols such as the flag, baseball, music clubs, and military service to make us think about the many layers of experience beneath them. The namesake composition reflects upon pride and race. How does one untangle patriotic service abroad from discrimination at home?

The BCMA is noted for displaying the offbeat. If you think art museums are deadly serious places, you’ve not seen one of its fantastic Glasstastic shows. The very idea behind these is inspired. Curator Linda Whelihan and others asked kids from K-6 to imagine creatures, draw them, and write a short story to go with them. Twenty professional glass artists then reviewed the 1,200 submissions and brought some of the creatures to life–as it were–in glass sculptures based on the kids’ drawings. 
The works are amazing! They are also whimsical, imaginative, and often laugh-out-loud funny. No artist can possibly top the inspired silliness, innocence, and humor of the kids. Not every submission was sculpted, but the kids’ artwork and tales got a broader treatment. Their stories made me wonder what I did in elementary school as I know I wasn’t this creative: creatures that make us happy by shooting out cup cakes, a smiling tube with superpowers that can be a glue stick if needed, a spaghetti monster more flexible than Mr. Fantastic, a booger-eating critter, and all manner of bug-like, multi-limbed, alien, and monstrous beings. May these kids never lose their love of fantasy. May they forever live in their magical realms.

Rob Weir

Scotty Bowers Reveals Gay Hollywood

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood (2018)
Directed by Matt Tynauer
Greenwich Entertainment, 98 minutes, NR (Strong/graphic sexual content)

It shouldn’t shock anyone to learn that the lives of Hollywood celebrities seldom conform to the images crafted by public relations agents. Still, Scotty Bowers’ revelations make The Day of the Locust seem like a children’s tale.

Bowers, 95, expands upon his 2012 memoir Full Service in a tattletale documentary film about closeted gay and lesbian life from the 1940s into the 1980s. The title of Bowers' memoir references becoming pimp to the stars. It began when Walter Pidgeon first performed oral sex on him at his Wiltshire Avenue gas station in 1946. Bowers goes on to claim that he procured for and/or had sex with a dizzying array of glitterati: George Cukor, Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, J. Edgar Hoover, Charles Laughton, Laurence Olivier, Randolph Scott, Cole Porter, Tyrone Powers—even Bob Hope and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor! He also located female partners for Vivien Leigh and Lauren Bacall, claims to have a three-way with Ava Gardner and Lana Turner, and alleges to have supplied Katharine Hepburn with around 150 female partners. In his telling, Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’ famed romance was a sham designed to keep her lesbianism and his homosexuality out of the limelight. (Bowers claims to have had sex with Tracy on several occasions.) 

Numerous individuals appear on screen to claim that Bowers was practically a one-man social worker for gays and lesbians. To talking heads such as Stephen Fry and Peter Bart, he was little short of heroic. For his part, Bowers claims never to have made a dime for his services, which is not quite true as several left him money and houses when they died.

Here’s where things get–pardon the wordplay–tricky. Bowers claims to have waited until his principals were dead to write his book and be in the documentary. That’s either noble or a good way of making sure no one would refute what he said. Whatever else Bowers was or wasn’t, it’s impossible not to notice that he is a name-dropper. It often feels as if he’s trying to one-up himself as he catalogues conquests and services rendered. He claims, for example, to have been initiated into gay sex by a priest when he was barely pubescent and that there was “nothing wrong with” what the priest did. Give Bowers credit; he’s unabashed about sex. He goes on, though, to say that in essence, he did all the priests in the parish.

Did this happen? Damned if I know or care. There is, however, a Scotty-as-Zelig pall over this film. It certainly doesn’t help his credibility that Bowers appears a tad unhinged in the film. He is a hoarder whose various homes and garages are falling apart and stuffed to the gills with trash, treasures, and cats. His properties are so much on the filthy side that he feeds the skunks that come to visit in the evening. Somewhere along the line Scotty acquired a wife, Lois, but we learn almost nothing about her or their relationship.

Was all of Hollywood gay? The film’s most convincing parts are those that remind us of how different the times were. It is fairly well established that actresses such as Tallulah Bankhead, Billie Burke, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo either had same-sex flings or were exclusively lesbian. For the next generation, production codes, decency crusaders, and contract morality clauses practically guaranteed that any sort of sexuality, including marital, was veiled in chastity. Bowers also tells of how men coming back from World War II were used to each other’s companionship, some of which expressed itself sexually. Was all of this a perfect libidinal storm?

Maybe. We know from Justin Spring’s superb study Secret Historian that a thriving subterranean gay subculture was there for the taking by those in the know. Spring’s subject, Samuel Steward (1909-93), led a triple life: as Professor Steward, as tattoo artist/pornographer Phil Sparrow, and as gay pulp fiction writer Phil Andros. Steward also claims to have had sex with more men than Wilt Chamberlain had female conquests (allegedly 20,000!). By the way, both Steward and Bowers were major informants for Alfred Kinsey, whom both portray  as one weird dude.

Far be it from me, a straight guy who has only once been to Hollywood, to say what did or didn’t happen there. Hollywood has long been a world of glitz, glamour, kitsch, and baubles. Recent revelations suggest that it’s also filled with predators, plus those who might best be classified as sexually opportunistic. The Secret History of Hollywood often has the feel of tabloid sensationalism the likes of which is often called “dish.” The thing about dish is that it’s hard to resist!

If you pinned me to the wall and forced me to say how much of The Secret History is true, I’d probably waffle and say half of it. But even if Scotty Bowers is the biggest load of crap since Moo Doo, his tale fascinates. I did, however, wish director Matt Tynauer had researched more thoroughly and probed more deeply. It would have, in my estimation, made Bowers more credible and less like a dotty old hoarder telling dirty stories.

Rob Weir


Green Book Better Than I Expected

Green Book (2018)
Director Peter Farrelly
Universal Pictures, 130 minutes, PG-13 (F-bombs, N-word)

Green Book took home 4 Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali) and Best Picture. Was it the best film or 2018? Good heavens no! It wouldn’t have made my top ten. Blackklansman was far superior. But Green Book was far better than I expected.

Green Book is based upon a true story. In 1962 jazz great Don Shirley (1927-2013) embarked upon a tour that took him to the Midwest and into the Deep South. The second part of this was both intentional and problematic. Shirley wanted to visit the South in reaction to an infamous 1956 incident in which crooner Nat King Cole was brutally beaten by white racists in Birmingham, Alabama. 

I will remind younger readers that in 1962, the Civil Rights Act that desegregated all public facilities lay 2 years into the future.The film’s title alludes to a travel guide published for African Americans that listed hotels and eateries that served people of color. (These were decidedly not the posh establishments to which Shirley was accustomed.) For the tour, Shirley hired a white Italian-American driver, Frank “Tony the Lip” Vallelonga (1930-2013), a bouncer at the Copacabana nightclub in New York. Vallelonga needed the work while the club was being renovated, plus he could provide “muscle” if needed.

Green Book is a classic road film that pairs two opposites. Dr. Shirley* lives above Carnegie Hall, is cultured, multilingual, erudite, a musical genius, sheltered, and stuffy; Tony the Lip (Viggo Mortensen) is barely literate, knows little about the world outside of New York City, smokes like a chimney, eats like a wallowing hog, is street smart, and presents as a low-level wise guy. I often use the phrase, “You can write the rest of the story.” That's certainly true in this case because you’ve seen dozens of tales in which two people who seem to have nothing in common learn from each other, bridge their differences, and become friends. Just fill in a few details here and there: family dynamics, character revelations, ugly incidents, rescues, and (of course) reconciliation.

Need I tell you that there is an entire genre of Hollywood films that couple a black character and a white one? Green Book flirts with cliché in its mix of humorous and poignant cultural disconnections. Director Peter Farrelly plays close to the formula, a strategy that led a few critics to call his film Driving Mr. Daisy (though technically it should have been Mr. Daisy Drives). There is plenty within this movie to ruffle contemporary feathers, including the charge that this is another White Savior feel-good film whose target audience is white liberals.

That is precisely the critique of Shirley’s surviving family members, several of whom dispute the film’s central friendship and claim that Vallelonga was an employee and nothing more. I am tempted to call sour grapes on that one; Vallelonga’s son was one of the scriptwriters and in a position to have observed that friendship firsthand. A more substantive gripe is that Shirley often appears as a chameleon that smiled through discrimination and was largely ignorant of how bad things were in the South. In life, Shirley was quite aware of the civil rights movement and participated in it. He did, after all, choose to go to the South because of what happened to Nat King Cole.

Vallelonga wasn’t entirely as how he appears onscreen either. He was indeed a bouncer in 1962, but he wasn’t an ignorant goomba; he merely played that role. The historical Vallelonga acted in 21 films. Some pretty good ones, in fact: The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon, Raging Bull, Good Fellas, and Donnie Brasco ....

Given that the only two men who knew exactly what happened on that trip are no longer with us, all is open for speculation. To judge the film on its own merits, Ali and Mortensen have real chemistry. So much so, that their screen bond makes the unlikely seem possible. They also cover script holes and directorial missteps. It isn’t until after the credits roll that it occurred to me that a moment of defiance in Birmingham reminded me of Sally Field confronting the bosses in Norma Rae. Or that I had been watching History Lite.

Green Book is no masterpiece, but it’s well worth watching.  Given the tenor of our own times, maybe we need to learn lessons from the Jim Crow era all over again.

Rob Weir

* Shirley was often addressed as “Dr. Shirley” on the basis of several honorary degrees. He obtained a B.A. in music from Catholic University, but had no formal graduate-level training.


(I Am Too) Educated (to Believe This Book)

Educated: A Memoir  (2018)
By Tara Westover
Random House, 334 pages.

This review will make me unpopular in some circles. High schools and colleges across America have assigned Tara Westover's blockbuster Educated, which has been touted as proof that the mind can overcome any obstacle. Westover (b. 1986) has become the Jill Ker-Conway (1934-2018) for a new generation. This should stop. Educated is, depending on your slant, either a deeply misunderstood or a distressingly deceptive book.

First let's look at three other books. The Road from Coorain (1989) is Ker-Conway's autobiography of how education took her from an isolated Australian sheep station to Harvard. Kristin Hannah's The Great Alone (2018) is a novel about a girl who grows up in an abusive survivalist home in Alaska. Finally, there is Tim O’Brien’s The Things We Carried (1990), a semi-autobiographical account of his Vietnam War experiences in which he alters so many details that he too calls his account a work of fiction.

The skinny on Westover's book is that she grew up in isolation like Ker-Conway and endured an abusive survivalist family like that in Hannah's novel. Although Westover had almost no formal education, she studied on the sly, matriculated at Brigham Young University (2008), got a Masters degree from Cambridge University (2009), became a fellow at Harvard (2010), and returned to England for a Ph.D. in history at Cambridge (2014). Remarkable story, yes? If only she had the wisdom to follow O'Brien's lead and admit that hers is more novel than memoir.

To be sure, memoirs differ from autobiographies. The first tend to be linear, meticulously researched, and assume a you-can-look-it-up factual tone. By contrast, memoirs are, as the term suggests, memory pieces that are often episodic and impressionistic. I cannot pretend to know what Ms Westover's experiences were like and how they shaped her memories. I can, however, critique a work that violates physical laws and is deeply flawed within its own logic system.

Westover issued a disclaimer that hers is not a book about Mormonism. Oh, but it is. It's about a sectarian branch toward which mainstream officials turned a blind eye. It's about an institution that aided Westover financially, but whose spiritual counseling failed her physical and emotional needs. It's also a collection of seriously weird beliefs, such as plural marriage in heaven. (Is a Muslim jihadist's dream that 72 virgins await martyrs any more loony than a Mormon man's belief he will rule 10 wives after death?) Patriarchy is a pillar of Mormonism and you cannot read this book critically without admitting this.      

There are similarities between Hannah's novel and Westover's memoir. In both, an iron-willed patriarch rules the roost through psychological terror. Both fathers think the government is out to get them, both convert their homes into compounds, and both prepare their families for an impending black helicopter apocalypse. In each case, minimal contact with the outside world is the stimulus for a change in the narrator's life. But what does it tell us when Hannah’s "novel" is more believable than Westover’s “memoir?”

By any measure Westover's childhood was awful. She was the youngest of 7 and came of age in the shadow of the Bannock Mountains near Clifton, Idaho (population 259). Her parents–whose names are changed to Gene and Faye–divided reality into angels, saints, and sinners. Women were put on earth to bear children, help their husbands, and subordinate desires to male commands. Tara, though theoretically being home schooled, spent most days listening to her father’s apocalyptic sermons, working in his salvage yard, and assisting her midwife mother–a role Gene chose for Faye–concoct homeopathic recipes whose preparations border on the cabalistic.  

Gene is a survivalist obsessed by the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff. He views “the government” as an evil entity in cahoots with the Illuminati. Consequently, children are home-birthed, which is why Tara has no birth certificate, and why Westovers don't go to public school or hospitals. Gene readies his family for the “End Days.” Tara grew up packing survival kits, watching her father bury fuel tanks on the property, and believing the abuse she suffers at the hands of her sadistic brother Shawn is normal.

What is "normal" in such a world? Tara's life was an endless cycle of hard work, violence, denial, unhinged fanaticism, and a dress code the Amish would find excessive. Tara often thought that maybe she deserved to have Shawn choke her and plunge her head into the toilet.

It would be wise to assert that "reality" is elusive in such a context. Those who have grown up with trauma–including this reviewer–would be the first to agree with O'Brien that the lines between what really happened and what it felt like are blurry. Westover describes as factual numerous things that simply could not happen as she tells it. A person (Shawn) does not fall from a platform suspended 12 feet in the air onto rebar and concrete, punch a hole in his skull, and live to tell the tale. Nor does someone accidentally set themselves on fire (Gene), endure the liquefaction of an ear, lips, and upper torso, and get wrapped in salve bandages then live a (semi) functional life. There are numerous incidents in which machines tear out chunks of flesh and car wrecks that leave "brains oozing out," and just get patched up. (Note to Westover: The brain is an organ, not a gelatinous mass. Blood and fluid ooze, but not brains.)

These exaggerations could be forgiven as a small girl's trauma, but they are not labeled as such. Much of the book reads like a histrionic adventure tale in which characters cheat death at every turn, not as metaphors or a child's POV. We quickly surmise that Gene is a bat-shit crazy tyrant, that Faye is a religiously unbalanced enabler, Shawn a sadistic thug, and other family members poisoned by drinking sectarian Kool-aid. Westover changes the names of the book's bad actors, including that of Shawn, her older sister, and various in-laws. She also paraphrases emails, letters, journal entries, and conversations for which she has the actual words. An asterisk directs us to a footnote claiming that she preserved the essence of what was said. Was she being coy, or were these things suggested by the publisher to insulate her from potential lawsuits? Disclosures are warranted. *    

How do you keep them down on the junkyard once they've seen the spires of Cambridge? To my mind, the last parts of the book are among the book's saddest. Despite her academic achievement, Westover repeatedly returns to Idaho, where she tortures herself by falling back into old routines. We recognize early on that the entire community is toxic, yet Tara returns like a moth to the flame. If half of what she says is factually true, the government ought to investigate this malicious Idaho cult.

Westover claims that the disconnect between family and schooling left her with a DuBois-like duality: "At best I was two people, a fractured mind…. You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it education." Nice words, but we learn surprisingly little about how she transformed herself. Given that Westover passes off various improbable things as factual, it's a bit late in the game to ask readers to muse upon various meanings of "education."

This book should not be used in classrooms. It is too easy to fall into an uncritical lull and take things at face value. More importantly, Educated has been hailed as triumphant. It's not. Westover left Idaho, but she's still there mentally. It is remarkable that a person with Westover's background made it to Cambridge. But another reading of the book is that Westover needs an intervention–even if a lot of the stuff in the book was as imaginary as Kristin Hannah's novel, or as metaphorical as Tim O'Brien's.

Rob Weir

* None of this worked. Family names have been published and Tara has been sued.



Photograph too Languid for its Own Good

Photograph (2019)
Directed by Ritesh Batra
Amazon Studios, 108 minutes, Not-rated
In Hindi and English

Director Ritesh Batra attracted attention for his delightful 2013 film The Lunchbox. It garnered so much renown that he got to direct The Sense of an Ending, a 2017 adaptation of an acclaimed Julian Barnes novel. If, however, you plan to see his new film, Photograph, set your personal shutter to a slow speed.

Our protagonist Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a street photographer who poses his subjects in front of Mumbai’s Gates of India, a famous city landmark.* Rafi scrapes by and carries most of his belongings, including a portable printer, in his backpack. He shares a squalid and allegedly haunted hovel with four other men and his only real indulgence is a once-a-month kalfi, a frozen dessert that’s like a cross between ice cream and a popsicle. Indeed, one wonders how he can afford the expensive Nikon that he uses in his work. Poverty is just one of his problems. His dadi (grandmother) is relentlessly pressuring him to marry and settle down. She’s so tenacious that, though she lives in a remote village, she is known to Rafi’s friends and uncle, who also pester him about marriage and making his dadi happy.

Rafi recalls an enigmatic young woman whose picture he took, but who had to dash off before her picture was developed. Imagine his surprise when he finds her image on a poster outside an accounting school as its star student. He learns that her name is Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) and concocts a scheme to pass her off as his girlfriend to get his grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar) off his back. Perhaps because in her own way Miloni is as morose as Rafi, she agrees. If this is a love story–and that’s up for grabs–it’s certainly an unconventional one. Rafi is dark-skinned, Miloni of fair complexion. He is an impoverished Hindu who is streetwise, and she a sheltered middle-class Muslim whose parents employ a beloved house servant. There is also an age discrepancy.

Let's cut to the chase, which is something Photograph takes its time in doing. The strictures of Indian society are such that all relationships must play out according to social norms. Don’t expect fireworks in relationships or in any other way. In one scene, Rafi and Miloni are in a rundown movie house where a Bollywood film is being shown. Miloni is so distressed that she runs out. Rafi pursues her and the two share their dislike for the Bollywood genre** and the sameness of story arcs. This is reflexive filmmaking from Batra, whose reputation was built upon not making formulaic Bollywood films. This is to be applauded, but Batra goes too far in the other direction. The line between languid and somnambulant is porous and is often transgressed in a film that spotlights two characters defined by their inaction. The only break in the pacing is a scene that makes no sense. I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say that a splash of magical realism in a film with two characters trapped within the routinized and quotidian seems misplaced.

There is also the issue that Photograph is not a comedy, a drama, or a recognizable romance. Was this deliberate on Batra’s part? Perhaps, but the film has the feel of painting one’s self into a corner. Apparently distributors were also confused. Photograph gets tagged as a “love letter to Mumbai.” Huh? It is quite a stretch to infer that from what’s on the screen, most of which is literally or figuratively interior. Whatever Photograph might be, though, it’s certainly not a travelogue.

Both Siddiqui and Malhotra are fine actors that wring as much as they can from a thin script that calls each to be passive. If you think the film’s deliberate pacing is a refreshing change from Bollywood and Hollywood histrionics, this film is for you. I liked parts of it, but overall Photograph is underexposed.

Rob Weir

* The Gates of India were built in 1911 to commemorate a royal visit during the days of British colonialism. They are impressive and Indians like to pose before it, an oddity in that the Gates are practically modern in such an ancient land.

** This is an inside joke on Malhotra’s part as she rose to cinematic fame for her dancing in Bollywood films. Bollywood films nearly always feature singing, dancing, and a formulaic chaste romance.


Sleeping at Last, Molly Thomas. Rachael Sage, SUSTO and More

Sleeping at Last, The Spring

New Age music–now generally called ambient music–has taken hits from critics who dismiss it as elevator or fern bar music. Often that's warranted, but when done right there's something about it that reaches deep into one's emotional core. Seeping at Last, the handle of Chicago composer/producer/musician Ryan O'Neal, decidedly does it right. His original composition The Spring evokes adjectives such as contemplative and pretty in some very good ways. This project began as the score for a 2016 film fin support of Charitywater.org. I gave a plug for it when just a few tracks were released, but now that I have all 13 tracks in hand, I want to give it a rave. It is, save one selection, an instrumental album but one that will make you revel in the spring, appreciate the very life force of water, and astonish with its crystalline beauty. Rain-like piano and museful strings (Anya and Sharon Gerber) frame "Atlantic" and then send us metaphorically coursing downstream and into mysterious depths. The cello in "Transformations" is so gorgeous it aches; it's simply a work of rare beauty. If you need to get out of your own head, try "Insteadof Myself" and disappear down a swirling, magical hole. The keys and jumping string bounce with what is at once joyous, yet urgent.  And, yes, the title track captures spring's essence, even though it means water's source, not the season. But you can be forgiven for conflating the two given the composition's opening fragility and the radiant burst into which it evolves. Objectively, the plinky piano keys are overused on the album, but I was so nonetheless deeply moved by it. ★★★★ 

Molly Thomas and the Rare Birds, Honey's Fury

 If you've ever seen Todd Snider's band and were dazzled by his fiddler and backup singer, chances are good it was Molly Thomas. Thomas is also a crackerjack songwriter, acoustic guitarist, and lead vocalist. Her latest project, Honey's Fury, finds her fronting a dynamic quartet that includes one-time Wet Willie lead guitarist Rick Hirsch. Think a country-flavored rock vibe and a voice that's somewhere between Patty Griffin and Emmylou Harris and you're in Molly's wheelhouse. As you will hear on "The Boatman," she can sing it soft or bold. On "Calling My Name, " she soars through a big arrangement like a fearless bird, and the surf isn't the only thing thundering on "The Ocean." On the latter she sings, I was born in a little town east of the Biloxi wind and all one can say is that though it may be the case that the ocean is in my veins, the currents have carried her far. There aren't many videos yet available from the new album, but check around and you'll find samples from the rest of the album. I particularly admire Thomas' ability to shift moods, as she does on "Tumbleweed," which truly could be one of Emmylou's songs with its folky ambience that gives Thomas quiet spaces to air her voice. And, man, does she ever air it! She also gets swampy and bluesy on a cover "I Wanna Live," a piece that flashes "Danger!" at every turn. The album title comes from the enigmatic trippiness of "Calling My Name," which would have been at home at the Fillmore West circa 1968. From where I sit, Molly Thomas left it all on the studio floor when she made Honey's Fury.  ★★★★

Rachael Sage, PseudoMyopia

Some singers possess an innate sense of how to construct grab-you-by-the-earbuds songs. Rachel Sage is one of them. She doesn’t have a big voice, but she more than compensates through her command of how to work her way through intriguing mixes. On “Alive,” she lulls us into a middle groove and then punches out the It’s good to be alive refrain with such panache that it snaps us to attention. Some have compared her to Carole King, but I thought of Sarah McClachlan when I heard “Spark.” Listen to how Sage uses the piano cadences to build to the repeating lines that begin Hold me like a candle/Shine me like a knife. The EP’s theme is vision, as in both perspectives and in sight; Sage is legally blind without lenses. Sage is nothing if not adventuresome and quirky. “Olivia” is a strong woman inspired by a Law & Order character. The arrangement of this one is ever-so-slightly off-kilter and is a sound envelop that features everything from bouncing cello to piano cascades and sprays of strings. For my taste, Sage swallows a bit too much air on “Myopia,” but she redeems herself with a redux of her 1998 “Sistersong.” True to form, it’s a wee bit offbeat, opening like the prelude to a jingle and venturing off into accented vocals and dramatic instrumentation that evokes a scene from a musical. ★★★★

SUSTO, Ever Since I Lost My Mind

SUSTO [sic] is a five-piece Charleston, SC-based indie rock band captained by Justin Osborne. It has been around since 2013, but almost broke up when Osborne considered becoming an anthropologist. A study tour to Cuba changed his mind; Osborne hung out with musicians and began to explore new ways of making connections. Susto is, by the way, a Spanish word that's a bit hard to translate exactly. It's a scare or something that appears suddenly and unexpectedly, or–as the band's Website puts it–a kind of "spiritual panic attack." This makes the title of SUSTO's new recording a bit of double wordplay. The band's material is equally elusive to pin down. "Esta Bien" finds them in full Caribbean mode, with Osborne toggling between Spanish and English like a folk crooner, "Homeboy" sports a galloping acoustic intro that delivers us unto a mix of crashing power chords, electric surf guitar, and a splash of psychedelic lead. But what do we do with "If I Was," a bit folk ornamented with crystalline electric lead and bass? Or "Last Century," with its buzzy mix that feels like The Police on 'roids? If you're not perplexed and intrigued yet, try "Weather Balloons," a hopeful little love song that gathers force and repeats its reminder: I'm not dead yet. ★★★★
In Brief:

Whenever I get free EPs of back pages material, it generally means performers are about to drop a new release. Yet insofar as I can tell, this isn't the case of Toad the Wet Sprocket. No matter, their 5-track Something Old Something New is a reminder that they are one of the better jam bands. Check out a few tracks from Constellation (2013), their most recent release. You can hear the title track and "California Wasted." For my money, though, their 1991 song "All I Want" makes me hope the band will indeed release a new record soon. For those that don't know, the unusual band name was lifted from a Monty Python sketch.

I also got a Wilco concert sampler titled 12-12-11 that is four songs from its album The Whole Love (2011): "Born Alone," "I Might," "One Sunday Morning," and "Rising Red Lung." I offer this Noise Trade release for the many of you who are fans. My confession is that Wilco has always underwhelmed me.


Where the Crawdads Sing is Best When It's Wild

Where the Crawdads Sing (2018)
By Delia Owens
G. P. Putnam and Sons, 384 pages.

Where the Crawdads Sing was among the top-selling novels of 2018, helped enormously by an endorsement from actress Reese Witherspoon, who has secured the right to make a film adaptation. You can also find effusive, even worshipful praise from those who post reviews to Amazon and Good Reads. Does it live up to its hype? It depends upon which part of the book one means.

The bulk of the story takes place between 1952-1969. It centers on Katherine “Kya” Clark, whom we first meet at age 6. She lives in the wetlands of coastal North Carolina and hails from what is derisively called poor white trash. When Kya observes her mother walking down the dirt track in her “fake alligator shoes” carrying a case, Kya quickly surmises that she might not be coming back. For the next 4 years she witnesses her older siblings leave home, including Jodie to whom she is closest. Poverty can grind you down, and pa has become an abusive alcoholic who disappears for long stretches until one day he stops coming home at all. From this point on Kya is on her own.

This is the first of several improbable things a reader must accept. Locals whisper about “Marsh Girl,” who occasionally comes to town (the fictional Barkley Cove) to buy supplies, but few ever venture to the ramshackle cabin where she lives. (You’d need a boat or an exceedingly rugged vehicle to get there.) The school truant officer manages to track her down and forces her to attend one day of school, where other pupils make fun of her. This will be her only formal education; Kya is swamp smart and knows how to hide.

How does she survive? That’s where improbable thing number two comes into play. Kya digs mussels and fishes from the small boat her father left, and sells them to “Jumpin’,” a black man who operates a fuel, fish, and bait shop in the bayou. Also, he, his wife Mabel, and a deep-in-the-woods black church supply the charity that white Christians only think about for an hour on Sundays. Plus Kya comes to know the marsh in all its rhythms, mysteries, and abundance.

The only one to breach her watery fortress signals in ways only one versed in nature would know: by leaving rare shells and feathers by an old stump Kya passes on her travels. He is Tate Walker, a boy her own age who loves the marsh almost as much as Kya, and will eventually teach her to read. In one of the book’s least believable passages, Tate will also explain menstruation to Kya, a device we are supposed to believe because Tate harbors dreams of becoming a marine biologist. (Huh?)

Despite credulity issues, these sections of the book are so beautifully evocative that we can conjure mental images of the marsh and metaphorically lick the saltwater from the pages. Owens wrote three non-fiction books on African wildlife before penning Crawdads, her debut novel, and possesses a gift for making us feel both the wonders and terrors of nature. It’s when she takes us beyond childhood that things become problematic. As Kya and Tate get older, Crawdads drifts toward contrivance and the cheap sentimentality of a YA novel. When Tate goes off to college and stops coming around, isn’t he just like the teens on the beach that make fun of her? Or worse, just the latest to abandon her?

By the time she 23, Kya is deep into poetry, but is also a self-trained evolutionary biologist familiar with John Maynard Smith’s “sneaky fuckers” study of how the male of a species often assumes a subordinate role to mate with a female. (It often goes badly. I’d say ask a male praying mantis, except you can’t for various reasons!) Kya is also recognized as a budding ethnologist for her keen observations and beautiful and exacting illustrations of swamp ecology. She has even been out of the marsh to meet with a publisher. Still, she’s at least 50% feral/socially inept, so how does she negotiate the attention shown her by the studly Chase Andrews, a former star high school quarterback who comes from the closest thing Barkley Cove has to a bourgeoisie: one that owns a Western Auto store.

When Chase is found dead at the base of a tower, Kya is charged with his murder, though there are no footprints and she has an airtight alibi. Owens goes full Harper Lee for courtroom scenes that feature a deus ex machina resolution. The central mystery isn’t hard to unravel if you’ve paid attention to the book’s internal themes and the trial serves to make us begin to see the various ways in which the book’s internal logic is 21st century, not that of the 1950s and 1960s. Take the book’s race relations. How likely is it that a black community would reach out to a white girl during the age of Jim Crow? Could Kya become an ethnologist without training or a powerful mentor/sponsor? There is also the matter of a murder investigation that's more CSI than what was done in he 1960s. Nor is it feasible that a district attorney would try a white girl when there was no physical evidence–not even in 1960s North Carolina.

Owens does give us a few twists here and there: revelations about Kya’s family, a nice play on “broken token” legends, and an alter ego reveal. Still, after a while the flashback/flash forward/flash sideways structure wears thin, as do simplistic good/bad characterizations. If the last few post-1969 chapters feel like tack-ons to get us to a resolution, that’s because they are.

The phrase “where the crawdads* sing” references a place where the “critters” (Kya’s phrase) remain in an Edenic wild space. It’s also a metaphor for how I felt about the novel. To invoke an old rock song, Kya was born to be wild. When Owens tames her, even ever so slightly, both Kya and the marsh become more ordinary and the fireflies dim. Read the novel for its elegant prose, but be skeptical of Ms. Witherspoon’s gushing adulation.

Rob Weir

* If you don’t know, a crawdad–also called a crayfish or crawfish–is a crustacean that looks like a shrimp crossed with a miniature lobster. They are quite tasty.