Women with Amazing Voices

To repeat an old rant, too many Nashville-based female singers are like Lego pieces: unsnap one and pop another into place. As a rule they are young, small-voiced, whispery-toned sopranos—pretty to hear, but with all the distinctiveness of a block of clapboard houses painted white. Here's a June 2018 edition of Women with Amazing Voices—the ones that will make you want to stuff those Lego pieces back in the box and hide them in the closet.

Ellen Starski, The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants

Ellen Starski has a unique voice you'll either love or find odd. Put me firmly in the first camp. Its nasal, but expressive; dramatic, but controlled. The latter quality is one I really admire. "Daughter of the Sea" is a perfect example. This song has theatrical qualities with its bouncy, edgy strings, but it's deliberately paced and the tension comes from small shifts in Starski's voice, not flashy outbursts. It's also typical in that most of the songs are about loss, family, and coming to grips with the ways of adult life. "Ode to Nanny and Cookie" is about her grandmothers; the tone is somber and wrapped in moody repeated guitar pulses. "Miss You Mary" is homage to her mother and she wrenches emotion from lines such as I was looking for a place to bury the past with you. A different kind of yearning emerges in "Missing You," Glimpses of you still surface on my skin/I shower and the world comes crashing in…. Starski lists influences such as Leonard Cohen, Aimee Mann, and Sarah McLachlan, but there's also some old-time country in it that, to me, evoked Kitty Wells. Check out songs such as "Honey, I'm Not Him." When she sings I told you once don't make me tell you again/You better stay away from my man it's way more ominous than you'd expect. It also has Appalachian seasonings that reflect the northwest Pennsylvania coal country from which she hails. "Taken By the Breeze" also has an old-time flair, though its catchiness is enhanced with just a touch of mariachi brass that takes us south of the mountains. Ms. Starski also has a footlights-quality to parts of her repertoire. "Chasin' the Sun" feels like a string band vaudeville song, and she also engages in moody spoken word forays such as "Slip of Paper" and the title track, one that is completely silent for thirty seconds before Starski recites a rhythmic poem to flute and snare drum accompaniment. I always appreciate musicians who take chances and Starski's recording ranks high among my 2018 favorites.  ★★★★★

Gretchen Peters, Sad Songs Make Me Happy

Perhaps the name Gretchen Peters gives you pause, but I’ll bet you know her music. She has a dozen records of her own, including the newly released Dancing with the Beast, but she is best known as a songwriter; she even has a niche in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Her “Independence Day”—a hit for Martina McBride—ranks # 50 of the Top 100 greatest country songs of all time, but you’ve not heard it the way it should be sung until you’ve heard Peters perform it. Luckily you can; NoiseTrade has released it on a compilation of Peters’ back catalogue material. Take the collection title seriously; Peters has an affinity for tough songs. “Independence Day,” for example, is based on the infamous 1977 Francine Hughes case, and involves an eight-year-old girl who is at the fair the day her mother sets fire to the home of her abusive husband while he and she are in it.* A tragedy? Not from Peters’ perspective!  Disappearing Act” (from her new album) is about mortality, and "Blackbird" is another murder ballad.  “On a Bus to St. Cloud,” a hit for Trisha Yearwood, is a sad song of missing a lost love; and “When All You Got is a Hammer” is about an Iraq War vet who comes home with PTSD and the deck stacked against him. When he chillingly strikes back Peters sings, When all you got is a hammer/Everything looks like a nail. There are several tender moments on this collection, including the lovely “The Way You Move Me” and her Peters' manifesto of things of value in “The Answer.” Mostly, though, this is an album about when life isn’t exactly as imagines, like the harried woman in “Five Minutes,” or the woman aching for “The Matador,” but fearing his rage and not sure who I was cheering for… I loved the fighter and the bull. A final word: Although Ms. Peters’ music is often labeled country, that's an inaccurate descriptor. Her voice is like a huskier version of Emmylou Harris’ and like Harris, the music transgresses folk, pop, country, and Americana borders. Quite a lot, in fact, is piano-based—more like a rawhide tough Sara Bareilles than a CMT cutout. ★★★★★ 

*For those needing further proof Sean Hannity is an idiot, he has used "Independence Day" as a theme for his radio show under the mistaken impression it's a patriotic song!

Angela Josephine, Daylight

This album has been dubbed a combination "folk-opera and personal exploration" and that's an excellent description. It's deeply spiritual in a dark and honest way—musings filled with doubt, yearning, and surrender to the reality there are mysteries we cannot answer. In her stunning eight-minute finale "Face to the Wind," Angelina Josephine asks do you know the way of darkness? Her revelation isn't what you expect, nor is her insistence: I'm taking the cross in this way/there's no other way… In it we also hear some of the instruments she has mastered: piano, guitar, mandolin, dulcimers….  Ms. Josephine's voice is soulful, emotive, and adaptable. She's Grace Slick-like in the way she works the band and trippy grooves of "Got to Believe," which is another song that doesn't play out to usual scripts. She takes to task a man with no one to hold/just a prayer/and a Bible/and what you've been told. And what do we do with the refrain of the ambience-dripped, feedback-enhanced, echoic "River Rising" with its refrain: O sister glory be/Glory be our mother/O sister glory be/The father, son, the lover. The title track is the album's most cheerful, one that unfolds to scampering of mando notes, but Josephine mostly walks on the mysterious and dark side. "Red Roses," for example, is a (sort of) love song but one so moody it could be French—or Leonard Cohen! Josephine is a talented singer, musician, poet, and thinker. She recorded this album in a barn in her Michigan Upper Peninsula homeland and those old beams sparked a lot of serious contemplation. ★★★★

Kris Angelis, Photobooth

Florida-born Kris Angelis now resides in Los Angeles, where she's an actress and singer/songwriter. She has just dropped a single titled "Photobooth" and has released a five-song NoiseTrade EP to mark this. Like much of her music over the past 5-plus years, "Photobooth" is upbeat, a giddy romance unfolding behind a photo booth curtain. Angelis has a small voice, but it's sweet and she can kick it up to drop into danceable arrangements. She draws comparisons to Brandi Carlile and Rachel Platten, though I think her voice is cleaner than Platten's. Check out "Heartbreak is Contagious," her warning she doesn't want to be the rebound girl. Much of it is just guitar and voice, but Angelis gives lots of bounce to the song to make it sound bigger than it is. That's the same approach we hear in the piano-shaped "Prove Me Wrong," the joyous "Roll the Dice," and the indie energy of "A Billion Hearts." Perhaps you've seen Angelis on TV; now give her a listen. ★★★★



On Chesil Beach Exudes Quiet Tragedy

Directed by Dominic Cooke
Bleecker Street Media, 110 minutes, R (some nudity, sexual situations)

Two things are obvious in watching On Chesil Beach: Saoirse Ronan is one helluva of an actress and Ian McEwan says more in a novella than lesser writers manage to utter in their doorstop tomes. This scant story manages to tear at our heartstrings through a slow simmer rather than a raging boil. It is a tragic tale that relies on two of the saddest scenarios imaginable. What if you met the right person, but at the wrong time? What if a couple was perfect for each other—except for one thing about which neither knew anything at all?

Florence Ponting (Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) meet at Oxford and are immediately drawn to each other because they are unlike their peers. She is the haute bourgeoisie offspring of a tyrannical industrial titan father and a toffee-nosed mother, with only younger sister Violet (Emily Watson) to lend support. She is both terrified of and resents her father—and the film hints there might be something more sinister in the deep background—but she is like him in one respect: she is driven. Florence is an aspiring classical violinist with an ear for perfection.  

Edward couldn’t be more different, starting with the fact that he likes rock n’ roll. His father is a schoolmaster and his mother (Anna-Marie Duff) is brain-damaged from a freak accident, a condition sometimes made manifest by walking about topless and smeared with pigment as she dabbles in painting and collage. And you can forget basic housekeeping. Unlike Florence, Edward has no one for emotional support. He is as shy as Florence is driven, but both are oddballs when they find each other at Oxford—he because he has to reinvent himself as a sophisticate without any guidance; she because she’s bored by pretense and is far more sensitive than her peers.

Here’s where timing enters into the equation. It’s 1962 when they graduate and marry. The film’s major action—such as it is—takes place on the film’s namesake Dorset beach where the newlyweds have gone to honeymoon. “English” and “beach” are pretty much an oxymoron. Director Dominic Cooke uses the idyllic isolation of Chesil Cove, its walking-challenged pebbled beaches, an abandoned seaward-facing fishing boat, and the slate gray of the English Channel and its skies to suggest that Florence and Edward now face a blank slate future that lacks clear direction. Everything about the honeymoon is a disaster—starting with the fact that the marriage will be immediately annulled, as neither has the slightest idea of how to consummate it.

The tragedy is palpable. As we see in flashbacks, Florence and Edward truly care for each other. Theirs is a 1962 misfortune, with Florence unsure of what it might mean to be a woman as well as a brilliant musician, and Edward trapped by 1950s misinformation on how to be a man. They are, literally, out of place out of time—too young to be married, and premature insofar as what lurks on the horizon: the sexual frankness of the later 1960s. The story does get ragged toward the end, as the script—also penned by McEwan—departs from the novella’s sequencing and gives us rather maudlin and less convincing vignettes from 1975 and 2007. But we get the point; destiny gets in the way of what should have been destined.

By now you’re probably thinking that this movie sounds more like a play. You are right to a point; On Chesil Beach requires patience. It is not about action; it is about bruised interiors, damaged psyches, and unfortunate circumstance. Such a film requires top-drawer acting and gets it. Howle hits most of the right notes as a man-shaped boy handed a set list of expectations for being a grown-up, but not the wisdom to evaluate what makes sense versus what is rubbish. Ronan is even more spectacular; she is, at turns, as delicate as a spring flower and precociously independent, even when the latter means being emotionally distant. Her performance during the seduction-gone-wrong scene practically personifies the death of innocence.

On Chesil Beach won’t give you adrenaline-rush thrills. It goes one step further; it will break your heart.

Rob Weir


Bring Me Back a Good (if not convincing) Mystery

By B. A. Paris
St. Martin's Press, 304 pages

Bring Me Back is a mystery that will keep you engrossed, even when you can't stand the protagonist, and even though a central reveal comes too early. Overall it's a readable and clever novel, even when it's not very convincing.

It was gutsy of Ms. Paris to cast Finn McQuaid as her lead, as he's the kind of jerk you'd avoid in real-life if you had an ounce of commonsense. Finn is vain, furtive, quick-tempered, and self-centered. He's also financially set thanks to an old friend, Harry, who helped him get his feet on the ground after a testosterone-fueled assault by bringing Finn into his high-powered London investment firm. The book is set between the years 2002 and 2016, which also tells us that Finn lined his nest during the global recession. As we know, profit-takers during those years are unlikely candidates for sainthood.

You'd better have a good tale if you want readers to connect with an egoist such as Finn. It's here that Paris casts her finest spell. Not much actually happens in Bring Me Back, but the novel is a bit like the old Alfred Hitchcock film Gaslight in that it sucks us into a psychological whirlpool. It's also like Hitchcock in that the more you suspend belief, the better you'll enjoy the spin.

Paris leads with intrigue: A British couple heading home from a French vacation makes a rest stop. When the male driver returns from the toilet, his female companion has disappeared without a trace. We soon learn that the couple is Finn and his girlfriend, Layla Gray. The book goes back and forth between time and point of view, and we immediately learn that Finn is an unreliable narrator. He is quite naturally the prime suspect in Layla's disappearance. Though he's cleared of wrong-doing, he informs us that he told both French and English authorities the truth, "just not the whole truth."    

We also learn that Finn met Layla in the Underground—he an upscale Yuppie on his way to a party, and she a Scottish country bumpkin in London for the first time with no clue that she'd never find a youth hostel bed on New Year's Eve. Layla ends up staying at the posh flat Finn shares with Harry and before you can say, "Holy plot device," Finn has dumped his girlfriend for Layla. Harry is baffled as Layla is everything Finn is not: sweet, vulnerable, reckless, non-calculating, and naïve is ways that blur the line between inexperience and mental instability. The last trait surfaces anew when she and Finn move to a country cottage, but Layla begins to act oddly. She claims she longs for London because Devon reminds her too much of the Isle of Lewis, where she grew up. It also makes her miss her sister, Ellen, who stayed on Lewis to care for their father in his final days, even though he was an abusive alcoholic lout. But the trip to France was not an engagement trip, as Finn told police. Was the purpose something more sinister? 

Twelve years pass. Layla has been declared legally dead, Finn now lives a quiet life in the Cotswolds, and he is affianced to Ellen, Layla's sister. She is Layla's opposite—calm, sophisticated, sensible, demure…. But the very announcement of impending nuptials sets off a string of bizarre consequences that begin when Ellen receives in the mail the missing piece of a Russian doll set she lost as a child. Only Layla knew about this. Other Russian dolls appear, with Finn doing his best to snatch them away before Ellen discovers them. There are reports of Ellen sightings and Finn begins to get emails with information that only Layla knew. Is she back? Is this a sick joke? Why doesn't she show herself? These questions haunt Finn. He becomes more and more agitated and irrational—which doesn't make him any more likable.

As I suggested earlier, much of Bring Me Back is more or less a crib of Gaslight, with the gender roles reversed. Although I unraveled a few rather obvious clues early on, I give Paris credit in that I did not anticipate the mystery's resolution. Nor did I particularly buy it once I finished the novel and thought about it. But perhaps this is the classic definition of a good summer read—one that keeps you swirling in the whirlpool until you cling to a branch, pull yourself out, and discover that the churning water was only two feet deep.

Thanks to St. Martin's Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this novel.

Rob Weir



The Breadwinner Far More than a YA Film

Directed by Nora Twomey
Written by Anita Dorn and Deborah Ellis
A24 Films, 94 minutes, PG-13

There are those who argue that the Taliban must be part of any permanent peace settlement to end the war in Afghanistan. Very few of those raised voices come from women.

The Breadwinner did scant business in North American markets, though it gained an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. I certainly understand the war-weariness of the film-going public, but imagine what Afghans must feel.

I highly recommend watching The Breadwinner to gain insight into why sex and gender matter in Afghanistan. The subject matter is distressing, but the film is superb, and its animated format allows the squeamish to consider the violence inherent in the Taliban worldview without being bombarded with gory imagery. In fact, one of the film’s many virtues is that, by cartooning the violence, viewers are forced to confront ideological brutality rather than getting sidetracked. Let’s give this variety of fanaticism a name: misogyny.

We are taken to a marketplace where eleven-year-old Parvana sits with her father, Nurullah. By most measures, Nurullah would be a hero. He was a teacher who gave up his job to liberate Afghanistan from Soviet rule (1979–89). In this struggle he lost his oldest son to a bomb explosion and his own leg. Under Taliban rule (1996–2001), however, Nurullah is a worthless person, and is forced to peddle scant goods—including a hand-embroidered costume that was supposed to be for his eldest daughter’s wedding. He also has to hold his tongue from the insults of gun toting young Taliban punks who fancy themselves the purifiers of Islam. One day, Nurullah's not obsequious enough and he’s dragged off to prison.

Big problem. Women are not allowed to be in public without an adult male escort and there is now none in Nurullah’s household. How is his wife, Fateema, supposed to provide food or haul water for herself, her two daughters, or her infant son? She is beaten and threatened with prison for even raising such a question. The answer is always the same: find a male relative and stay out of sight.

Parvana comes to the rescue by cutting her hair, donning boys’ clothing, and passing as Aatish, Nurullah’s nephew. You can probably write the script from here—with harrowing escapes from being exposed as a central theme. Add to this threats and insults when she/he shows up at the prison seeking information on “Uncle” Nurullah. Parvana has an even more dangerous secret: she’s literate—a big no-no for Taliban misogynists. But as Aatish, she makes some money reading and writing for the large numbers of illiterate people, including Razaq, who may or may not see through Parvana’s disguise. Can she trust him as a potential benefactor?

Such a charade cannot last; they have an obvious shelf life. But Parvana means “butterfly” and Aatish translates as “fire.” The names are metaphors for both personal transformation and for the conflagration that will bring down the Taliban. Interspersed is Parvana’s serial storytelling to her baby brother of a young man’s encounters with the evil Elephant King.

The Elephant King folk tale has obvious parallels and, I suspect, that it, the film’s cartoon-like look, and the fact that the movie was adapted from Deborah Ellis’ YA graphic novel have led quite a few people to assume that The Breadwinner is a kids’ film. Perhaps, but I’d suggest that it’s deeper than that. The Breadwinner is ultimately a triumphant (of sorts) film about a tragedy. The script, direction, and imagery of the film do indeed cast an adolescent vibe, but as I suggested earlier, this is a deliberate softening of bloody detail in the service of focusing on the mindset behind the horror.

The rise of ISIS has shifted attention from the Taliban’s brutality, though insofar as the two groups view women, both are misogynist monsters. But don’t take my word for it­—ask the women in the post-Taliban parliament. Ask female professors, social workers, and school children. Ask Malala Yousafzai. And if the U.S. government agrees to a future government that includes the Taliban, ask why the hell we ever sent troops to Afghanistan.

Congratulations to all associated with The Breadwinner. It looks like a children’s film, but it’s really a testament to how you can slay dragons with a feather instead of an AK-47.

Rob Weir


From the Land of the Moon Trite and Sexist

Directed by Nicole Garcia
IFC Films, 120 minutes, R (nudity, sexuality)
In French with subtitles

From the Land of the Moon was nominated for eight César awards and won none, thereby proving that sanity prevails in the land of fromage and croissant. Even though Marion Cotillard was cast in the lead role of Gabrielle, the best that can be said of the film is that Cotillard's appearance is akin to placing an elegant beret atop a cheap wig.  The film garnered middling reviews and the only thing that kept it from being savaged is that a woman, Nicole Garcia, directed it.

Think I'm kidding? Imagine if a man directed a film with these themes. Gabrielle is a sexually precocious teenager who tries and fails to seduce one of her married male teachers. She's also incorrigible, which leads her mother, Adèle (Brigitte Roüan), to arrange a hasty marriage to a Spanish laborer, José (Alex Brendemühl), whom Gabrielle finds boring and physically ugly. José agrees not to have sex with Gabrielle because, after all, the arrangement is financial insofar as he's concerned—not to mention that Gabrielle is obnoxious and mean-spirited. José does, however, prosper and he's a decent man who is at least willing to keep Gabrielle in material luxury.

But wait, we have a reason for Gabrielle's unpleasantness. The French title for this film is Mai de pierres, roughly "stone sickness." Gabrielle's libidinous desires are not so much a matter of frustrated sexual awakening as the fact that her body is riddled with kidney stones that occasionally cause her to double over in agony. So it's off to a posh sanitarium in the Alps to take a cure—not that the state of medicine is very advanced during this time, which is right after World War Two and in the midst of France's disastrous attempt to reassert control over Indochina. Gabrielle spends her days taking various water cures and throwing wobblies, until she mellows a bit in the presence of a kind nurse, Jeannine (Victoria DuBois), and when she helps care for and develops a deep lust for a handsome amputee André (Louis Garrel). Or at least that what's we are led to imagine, because we see things through Gabrielle's thoughts and not all of them are reliable.  

This could have been a film about female desire, or mental illness, or perhaps even France's fall from geopolitical relevance. One could have, for example, equated André's missing leg and feverish weakness with the dismembering of France's prewar colonial might, with Gabrielle representative of a population weighed down (stone-like) by sclerotic leaders blind to new realities. Instead it's just a big strip tease for a final reveal for characters about whom we've long since ceased to care. Not even Cotillard can redeem a role that's essentially that of a mimsy mooncalf.

There are but two reasons to consider this film. The first is its beautiful glimpses of the Alps in their niveous winter splendor and again in their verdant summer clothes. I'd suggest downloading a good travelogue instead. The second reason would be to open a contentious dialogue about double standards in contemporary filmmaking. Is a sexist film any less so if a woman directs? I'll skip that debate and simply declare From the Land of the Moon unworthy of further analysis.

Rob Weir


Carmanah, Buffalo Tom, Polly Woods, Taylor Leonhrdt, and More

Carmanah, Speak in Rhythms

Ready for some rock and soul? Carmanah is another amazing Canadian band, a quintet hailing from Victoria, BC. The amazing Laura Mina Mitic, a mite with a mighty voice that she’s not afraid to air, fronts the band. As the album title suggests, this is a record that emphasizes rhythm. “Send It To Me” opens to claps and stomps, settles into a funky groove and fuzzy electric guitar behind the beats, and lets Mitic wail voodoo soul-style of letting the Devil bring on hellfire heat. Band members are also eco activists, sensibilities you’ll pick up in songs such as “Roots” and “Water Falling.” It’s testament to band’s versatility how different these two songs are. The first uses a finger-snapping opening for a piece that layers guitars, moves to a big swell, backs off, and repeats—a perfect mood setter for a song that celebrates being in wild spaces. The second unfolds to something akin to cool jazz, segues to more rock flavored cadences, and lets Mitic bring on the soul. Rather have it soft? Carmanaha can do that. Check out “Another Morning” with its melodic acoustic guitar, gentler vocals, and tight harmonies. This is definitely a band to put on your watch-for list. ★★★★

Buffalo Tom, Quiet and Peace

If you share my view that rock and roll is best when it’s plebeian and loud, you’ll probably also share my love of Boston’s Buffalo Tom. (The name is an amalgam of Buffalo Springfield, a band these old UMass friends liked back in the 1980s, and drummer Tom Maginnis’ first name.) There’s a groove, timing, and synchronicity that longtime bands possess that you can’t teach. Although Maginnis, guitarist/vocalist Bill Janovitz, and bass player Chris Colburn have done other things in their lives, they’ve been playing music since 1986—even when they were technically on hiatus. Quiet and Peace is their ninth album—a mature effort that, despite the fact its content has the usual rock n’ roll dilemmas—exudes contentment around the edges. “All Be Gone” is a passage of time song that burns high octane, but it’s also about Janovitz missing tranquil days floating in a boat with his daughter. Several songs lament time wasted on things that mattered more than they should have: “Overtime” and “Roman Cars,” the latter pulsing with hints of New Wave rock. I particularly liked the yearning and spotted attraction of “Freckles,” which reminded me of a rocked out Richard Shindell song. Solid stuff from a solid band—and that makes them solid with me. ★★★★

Polly Woods Ordinaire, Polly Woods Ordinaire

I wish I could tell you something about Polly Woods Ordinaire, but there's scarcely a scrap of info out there. The name is lifted from an 18th century Virginia log cabin that was an inn operated by a widow into the 1850s, the "ordinary" signaling that it was a no-frills concern. It's now a tourist attraction of sorts off the Blue Ridge Parkway. I suspect, however, that this is a project led by Michigander Lucas Taylor. Whoever it might be, this is a terrific EP with folk rock/progresive bluegrass/mountain/blues grooves. There's always something going on in the music—in a good way. Even though there are not many instruments playing at any one time, the music feels big, even epic—like a community harmony is about to break out. The male vocals are as clean and smooth as the opening track "Clear Blue Skies." The other three tracks, "Colorado Mountain Pines," Hands," and "Howling at the Moon" are equally delightful."  ★★★★  

Update: Members of Carmanah seem to be connected with this project somehow. Why the mystery? Damned if I know! 

Taylor Leonhardt, River House

This young singer/songwriter from Raleigh, North Carolina, has just released her first full-length album. Her songs are personal and sometimes spiritual, but not of the stick-faith-in-your-face variety—more like being humble in contemplation of things bigger than one's own ambitions. A good sample of this is "Lay My Head Down," a piano-based song that, in my opinion, ought to lose the percussion track. I really like Ms. Leonhardt's voice. She tempers her high timbres and whispery tones with a quality that reminded me—despite their very different repertoires—of young Nanci Griffith. There are tender songs such as "When You Open Your Mouth," whose melody is reminiscent of Cheryl Wheeler's "Arrow." "Surprising Me" has a simple but effective piano hook," and "Today If You Hear Him" is another contemplative, quiet song. Leonhardt tries on a lot of different hats; you will hear splashes of everything from banjo to brass. I liked this record, but it's also a blender mix of indie, folk, and pop that's missing an ingredient or two. When we get to the end we think, "Ah, what a pleasant recording." In a perfect world that would be enough; in this one, it lacks a signature identity. I kept wondering what all of this would sound like with a producer such as Daniel Lanois (or a less expensive one in the same creative vein). I suspect that Ms. Leonhardt will need to pick a direction in the near future and, in my view, a bit of backcountry would be a good way to go. ★★★½

Kate Tucker, Practical Sadness/Sampler

Remember how Los Angeles used to be the music production capital of the land? That role has been taken over by Nashville and I’m starting to think that maybe that American music needs to get out more. Akron-born Kate Tucker has been around since 2007, often with the Seattle-based quintet The Sons of Sweden. She long ago moved to Nashville and is the kind of singer the industry likes: female and small-voiced. The challenge for each of these women is to establish an identity independent from the studio. I enjoy Kate Tucker, but not when the music features Nashville session players that drown out her mellifluous tones. On Tucker’s single from her new album, “It’s True,” she displays superb timing that gives accented heft to her voice. I also like the cool guitar riff on “In Your Arms,” though it points to a problem: a tendency to lose the singer in overly processed arrangements. This happens a lot these days; studio musicians grab the glory and female performers are interchangeable snap-ins. Check out back catalog material like “Blue Hotel” and “Let Me Go” and you’ll hear what I mean. From a musical standpoint, I’m more impressed by simpler tracks such “Where You Are (I am Already Gone),“First toLeave,” and the bubbly early-60s pop evocations of “You Belong to Love.” I think Tucker would be best served by traveling with just a good lead guitarist who knows how to shape a song instead of playing to formula. ★★★ 1/2

Society of Broken Souls, Midnight and the Pale

This is a tough review to write. I admire everything about the values of Dennis James and Laura Shapter, who bill themselves Society of Broken Souls. As their handle suggests, the duo is steeped in a narrative tradition that looks at the downside of life in an enough-with-rainbows-and-unicorns kind of way. Theirs is an often-personal look at the scars one accumulates through life stripped of magical thinking. As Shapter puts it in "Witness:" I don't need a hero and I don't need a hand/I   don’t need someone to rescue me from the places that I land/And I don’t need your pity, sure as hell don’t need your scorn/I just need someone to walk by me when I walk through the storm. Their music is frequently dark in tone, a combination of Shapter's acoustic guitar and James' brighter, even crystalline amped down electric guitar. Don't expect a lot of upbeat material. "Sunflower Blues" is about a person who would put the rain back in the clouds if you could; and the slow waltz tempo "Pretty" is a litany of all the messages society sends to young girls that mess them up as adults. That one would be destined for wide circulation were it not for my misgiving that you'll have little idea what they're singing if you don't have a lyrics sheet in hand. Shapter and James are so intent upon being serious that their voices often tail off and neither articulates consistently. Of the two, James is by far the stronger singer, as you can hear on "April's Moon." They are good songwriters, I get what they're driving at, and admire it, but its impact is diminished if we literally can't hear it. ★★★ 

Short Takes:

Now that Ali Akbar Khan is gone, who is the master of the sarod, that multi-stringed lute that is a staple of Hindustani music? How about his son, Alam Khan? His new album, Immersion advances such a claim. It features classic meditative ragas and occasional flight into something more modern and adventurous. In case you’re wondering, the sarod is enough like a sitar that non-aficionados confuse them, but its sound has richer overtones, different string tensions, and fewer melody strings. Partake of this slowly to appreciate its hypnotic qualities. Sample here.

 I don’t know if Sammy Strittmater would be comfortable being grouped with Alam Khan, but Get Out of the City shares trance-like qualities with Khan’s music. The Texas-based Strittmayer plays everything except bass on this record and his songs mostly address coming, leaving, and leaping into the unknown, but it’s the gentle spirit of his voice and dreamy instrumentation that resonate most deeply. His music has been labeled soft rock and Zen-like; at the risk of evoking an unpopular term, it struck me as popped-up ambient and New Age—in a good way. It is the kind you can put on your phone, pop in the earbuds, and simply chill. Try “Indigo Bunting,” “We Are the Evening Tide,” and the title track. One small slip: 17 tracks are half again too many. We want to vegetate, but not take root. ★★★

I tried to pass on Catherine Bent, but her publicist insisted I'd love Ideal. The idea was for Bent to use her cello to play choro, an upbeat Brazilian instrumental style that emphasizes bright melodies, improv, syncopation, and percussiveness. Maybe fans of meandering jazz will appreciate this, but I found very little spark or innovation on this record. In the age of players such as Natalie Haas, Gideon Freudman, Tristan Clarridge, Ben Sollee, Rushad Eggleston, and the incomparable Yo-Yo Ma, you need to do more than a bit of backbeat polka to impress.Click here for a sample. Call this less than Ideal. ★  


New England Fashion an Amusing Concept!

This might sound odd from a guy whose idea of fashion is a clean T-shirt, but one of my favorite features in the paper is its periodic look at “local fashion.” The quotation marks are necessary because New Englanders don’t really do fashion. But that doesn’t prevent some folks from trying. I love the fashion section because it’s so damned funny.

Weather conspires against high fashion. In Massachusetts, there are just 98 days of full sunshine per year, and more than a third of the time Mr. Sol fails to appear at all. Imagine the statistics for northern Vermont or Down East Maine. We get enough snow, ice, rain, and cold to make skinny fashion models reach for long underwear, pork rinds, hot coffee, and the “Help Wanted” ads. New England fashion pretty much gravitates between styles labeled “prep,” “classic,” “hunting and fishing,” and “Igloowear.”

Here are some things that make for New England fashion amusement:

1. Uggs are rather universally panned these days. I don’t find them offensive, but they seem pretty dumb up these parts. We call untreated suede “bedroom slippers,” and know better than to wear them on slushy streets. We also wonder why anyone would wear them in warm weather.
2. Short dresses with down jackets make even less sense. Replace the rule of thumb with the rule of knee: If your knees turn red when you go outside, put on long pants! The male equivalent is the idea that a hoodie is outerwear. I don’t know whether to laugh or scowl when I see some young guy shivering in 10-degree weather. Hoodies are a layer, dude! (Move the calendar to June. Observe the same feckless youth sweltering in his hoodie.)

3. Sneakers: No more than two primary colors under any circumstance. Avoid all hues that look like something went wrong in the chemistry lab.

4. Long shorts are a contradiction in terms—especially if, like me, you’re short. It’s embarrassing when people come up to you and ask how you manage to walk without knees. NBA players are even worse; their ‘shorts’ make them look as if 80% of their height is from the waist up.

5. Clam diggers are for people who can’t decide between jeans and shorts. For the record, they have nothing to do with hunting mollusks; actual clam diggers wear wicked tall rubber boots. As fashion, Grace Kelly introduced clam diggers. She would have looked just as glamorous wearing the aforementioned rubber boots.

6. When I see ripped jeans I think, “Sucker!” Practical New Englanders either patch ripped jeans, or call them “rags.” If you must have a pair, don’t pay some fashion label $100; buy a pair of $30 Lees from Target, an exacto knife, and make your own.

7. On most men, moccasin style shoes say “geezer.” Or “banker on holiday.”

8. I am a proud Scot. Scots have a quirky sense of humor. Plaid is the best joke Scots have ever played on the world. There are–maybe­–two plaids that look halfway attractive. Chances are they are not in an L.L. Bean catalog near you.

9. There are two worse patterns than plaid, one of which is madras. I think it comes from the Hindi words that means, “getting sick from Indian food that’s off.” The worst of all, though, is camouflage, which is French for “monkey butt ugly.” Do you ever have the urge to come up to some camo-clad mall rat and say, “Despite your best efforts to hide, I saw you behind that rack of fuchsia towels?”

10. Pastels look good in Florida. In New England they make you look like a lost tourist. 

11. Hey guys, WTF with the sport jacket and an untucked shirt hanging a foot below the jacket hem. It makes you look like either: (a) a person who needs to get up 10 minutes earlier to finish dressing, (b) a slob, (c) a person who needs to ask his mom what goes together, or (d) all of the above.

12. It’s hard to avoid logos like the Nike swoosh, Lacoste alligators, or designer labels, but steer clear of what I call billboardware—the stuff that blasts the brand name and logo all over the article of clothing. You are, in essence, paying big bucks to become a walking advertisement. Especially avoid clothing that plasters its name across your rear end, or anything filled with so many logos it makes you look like a NASCAR driver or a Tour de France biker. Here’s the difference: those companies sponsor the celebrities, whereas you pay the companies for the privilege of looking dopey.
13. If you’re a normal person, avoid things in catalogs that say slimming. Yeah—they take a 100-poung woman or a ripped 160-pound guy, stick ‘em in Spandex and they instantly look to be not an ounce over 95 or 157. You will look like meat being stuffed into a sausage skin.

14. Mullet dresses. Just no. No mullet anything for anybody except hockey players missing at least 9 teeth. 

Not Ok.