1/23/19

Zoe Speaks:January 2019 Album of the Month


Zoe Speaks
Wings
★★★★★


This one made it to me at the end of the summer, but got thrown into an "Unknown" MP3 file because it wasn't coded properly. Let me correct this oversight  (not mine) by starting the year off right and declaring their album Wings as my favorite album of the month.

The band's name derives from the fact that this is a family band in all those 21st century ways. It is anchored by two award-winning singer-songwriters, Mitch Barnette and Carla Gover, who began as a husband/wife duo, got divorced, sorted out some stuff, and rekindled their musical partnership. The current project includes one of their daughters, the band's (semi-) namesake Zoey, a wonderful fiddler and harmony singer who also dabbles in other instruments. There's also her fiancé Arlo Barrett, who plays guitar and everything else under the sun, plus standup bass player Owen Reynolds.

Wings is a magical blend of folk, Americana, country, gospel-influences, and old-time mountain music that comes at you with flavorings from lots of people you know, though their sound is uniquely their own. I don't think there's song on the album that I found less than top drawer and several that were so sweet they made me weep. Most of the latter are those in which Ms. Gover is in the lead. "Wings of a Dove" is one such offering. There's a small catch in Gover's voice, lovely backing harmonies, and a gentle sway that's indicative of how Zoey Speaks knocks you over with quiet power. Also in that serene yet expressive mode is "Cheat the Blues" with its expert phrasing and its invitation to "take your shoes off" and get back to the things that matter. When she wishes, though, Gover can go full cowgirl, as on "Give Me Some Sugar," which is equal parts Dolly Parton and Patsy Montana. "There's a Hole in Your Soul's Supposed to Be" has a gospel feel, which Gover picked up from her grandmother who used to sing a cappella hymns. She even nails a traditional children's song, "Paper of Pins," as if she's the offspring of Jean Ritchie. Or maybe it's John Hartford, whose style is evoked in the banjo-led and mandolin-enhanced "That's What Dreamers Do." If all this isn't enough, Gover is also a flatfoot dancer.

Barnette is a fine singer in his own right. He's usually front and center when the band veers in unexpected directions. "The Earth Has Had Enough" is self explanatory in theme and in its folk activist sentiments, but the tune is adorned with cadences that evoke reggae. "Black Feather" has a pastoral bluegrass feel, courtesy of gliding flute accompaniment. He dusts off his pained vocals for "Bluebird," an acoustic mountain blues song about plans gone wrong. I also enjoyed his self-deprecating humor. "One Foot," is a slice of Steve Goodman-like wry commentary on a total screw-up who vows to do better. Barnette throws us a curve by shifting into storyteller mode; his spoke word observations about a documentary on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina serve to take us to the song's punch line: "When you don't know what to do, you do what you can."

I'd be remiss were I not also to say that these folks are also involved in all manner of good deeds in Kentucky–from work with cultural groups to working in schools. My discovery of this gem of an album gives truth to the old proverb "better late than never." Like that old saw from Chaucer, Zoe Speaks gives us things that are both time-tested and timeless.

Rob Weir
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1/21/19

Ansel Adams Show at MFA is Glorious!


Ansel Adams in Our Time
Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Through February 24, 2019



Ansel Adams (1902-1984) is probably the most famous American photographer not named Dorothea Lange. Is there a dorm in any college in North America that doesn’t sport at least one poster of one of his Yosemite Half Dome shots? You know Adams’ work. Or at least you think you do.

An exhibition at Boston’s MFA focuses on Ansel Adams, his predecessors, and contemporary photographers inspired by him. It was instructive to see the work of earlier artists, especially Eadward Muybridge and Timothy O’Sullivan. In like fashion, more recent shutterbugs such as Binh Danh, Mark Klett, Catharine Opie, and Victoria Samburnaris have created some interesting offshoots that owe a debt to Adams. But the overwhelming feeling one gets upon seeing the MFA’s high quality prints can be summed by saying, he was Ansel Adams and they were/are not.

I mean no disrespect to anyone who has ever clicked a shutter; it’s simply the case that Adams was to the camera what Segovia was to Spanish guitar. I had the experience of walking into the first gallery and putting my own camera back into its bag. It took me a solid 30 minutes before I overcame the feeling that trying to capture anything I saw would amount to sacrilege. What an amazing body of work from a guy who started with a Brownie box camera.

Adams quickly ditched the Brownie and worked with 8 x 10 full frames, Hasslebads, various 4 x 5s, and an array of 35mm cameras. He was a legendary workhorse—perhaps a holdover from being a hyperactive child—who was known to spend weeks in the darkroom to get a single image that pleased him. Remember, in those days that meant using physical tools to dodge and burn small sections of an image. Speaking of work, the MFA has some home movie footage of Adams and associates hauling heavy equipment through the snow so that he could perch precariously on a ridge and get the shots of Yosemite he imagined. He met his wife, Virginia Best, on an outing to Yosemite, but one is tempted to engage in cheap psychology and assert that the park was actually the love of his life. He certainly spent much of his time shooting it, working with (or in opposition to) the National Park Service (NPS), and writing about Yosemite’s glories. He was a member of the Sierra Club and was an environmentalist long before that term came into vogue.


There are certain Adams images that have been endlessly reproduced, such as his Half Dome at Yosemite shots. Others in this category include images he took of the Manzanar Relocation Camp, his portrait of Orville Cox and Georgia O’Keeffe (1937), “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” (1941), “The Tetons and the Snake River” (1942), and “Evening, McDonald Lake, Glacier National Park” (1942). When you see these printed in large formats, you feel as if you are really seeing these for the first time. Take “Moonrise,” for instance. We have long known that it is a masterwork in tonality–and Adams pioneered a zone system for getting those tones–but we also see in much greater detail that Hernandez, New Mexico, is a windblown collection of hardscrabble farming and poverty.


Adams intended us to see the injustices of Manzanar and the despair of Hernandez. When he was four, an earthquake shook his parents home in the San Francisco Bay. Adams was thrown to the ground and broke his nose. As he joked thereafter, from that point on he, like his nose, leaned to the left. We seldom see Adams’ more political wok. The MFA has an Adams image of a political campaign handbill juxtaposed with a circus poster, a wry reminder that during and after the Great Depression, he was leery of mainstream politicians. Later in his life, Adams took photographs of freeways and interstate highways. These images are at once eye-popping in their geometric symmetry, we also see how all of this was out of sync with Adams’ desire to preserve mature. He often criticized the NPS for what he called its “resortism” approach to national parks.


If I had to pick a single Adams nature picture as my favorite, it would be “The Tetons and the Snake River,” not one of his Yosemite images. Apparently others think so as well, as its one of the 150 images aboard the Voyager space probe. It sent me on a journey of my own as I stood before it. I think it’s as close to a perfect shot of natural beauty and awe as humankind can render on film. I literally gasped when I saw it.

Move heaven and earth to see this show before it closes on February 24. By the way, I too started with a Brownie camera. He's Ansel Adams and I'm not!

Rob Weir
 

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1/18/19

Salif Keita, Dearling, Pierce Pettis



Salif Keita, Un Autre Blanc

There are few world music stars whose luster matches that of Mali's Selif Keita. If you've not heard him, you should and you'd better hurry; Un Autre Blanc is allegedly the final record the 69-yearold Keita will make. That would surely be a personal decision, as his voice is as strong as ever. As you can hear on "WereWere," Keita is a dramatic force whose vocals cut like a knife. Or check out "Lerou Lerou," which opens with a swaying tune behind steady beats before Keita is again the storm that ruptures the calm. On "Tonton," Keita is more subdued, though the song builds in a way that's influenced by house music and would certainly be at home in a dance club. The Afro Pop master is magical on "Gnamale," which opens with kora setting the melodic structure for spirited guest performance group singing from Lady Smith Black Mambazo. This one goes back and forth between soft (Ladysmith) and hard (Keita). What a record! If you hear another other worldly female vocals soaring Keita's female response singers, it belongs to still another Afro Pop idol: Angelique Kidjo. The record is dedicated to the albino rights movement. (I'll bet you didn't know that the United Nations recognizes June 13 at Albinism Awareness Day.) If anyone needs another reminder of the idiocy of racism, in West Africa, those born with light skin or are stricken with albinism face horrendous discrimination. You can think about this, but you really should appreciate Keita now. He is truly a global treasure. ★★★★

Dearling, Silver and Gold

Dearling is a Colorado-born and based duo of Dave Preston and Rachel James, plus the brotherly pair of Joel and Noah Matthews. I'm not usually wild about self-descriptions, but Dearling's fits: "Sounds, textures, and feelings that the West inspires." Add eclectic to the mix as Preston and James count among their influences this mixed bunch: Kelly Clarkson, Fleetwood Mac, Emmylou Harris, Chris Stapleton, Jake Shimabukuro, and Justin Timberlake. You can find some Fleetwood Mac covers on YouTube, but Dearling isn't a tribute band. The title song of their new EP is a Nashville-style country weepy about a war widow: There's no halo/No white glow/Just another human hand…. By contrast, there's some scorching electric guitar in "What I Don't Need," but the vocals have a decided pop flair. "Real Love" is a slow folk song with Preston singing lead and James harmony. "Champion" has ringing tones that build and segue to enhance the emotive power for a song about a man pledging to be your last stand/I'll be your champion. As of this writing, there are no YouTube clips of their new material, but you can sample some past music by clicking here.  ★★★

 Pierce Pettis, Father's Son

The human voice changes as it ages, which creates challenges for singer songwriters. Some, such as Judy Collins and Joan Baez, adapt and continue to sound glorious. Others–Pete Seeger springs to mind–continued to perform even though their vocal chords weren't up to the task. Pierce Pettis has been a roots folk/bluegrass troubadour for 40 years, but it saddens me to say that his voice is shot. Father's Son is his first new album in almost a decade and he is still capable of writing a fine song and churning out a cool turn of phrase. His new record centers on family and deep connections. It's also about trails he's traveled. On "TheAdventures of Me (and this Old Guitar") he sings, Oceans of gasoline/Million miles in my ear… and therein lie several tales. Pettis dusts off covers of emotional songs such as the love song "Very Same Moon" and Jesse Winchester's "A Showman's Life," one of the better reflections of a musician wondering if the rigor and loneliness are worthwhile. He also enlists such top-drawer backing talent as Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Ruth Moody (backing vocals), Reese Wynans (organ, piano), Gerry West (bass), and many others. At the end of the day, though, we hear a creaky, quavering voice that strains both high and low. It may be time for Pettis to concentrate on writing and curtail public performance. 

1/16/19

If Beale Stret Could Talk Says Plenty


If Beale Street Could Talk (2019)
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Annapurna Pictures, 119 minutes, R (brief nudity, language)
★★★★

There are two things to know about this film off the bat. First, it’s being billed as a timeless love story. That’s only sort of true. It’s faithfully based on a 1974 James Baldwin novel of the same name, and Baldwin was not the sort to deliver fluff. Nor is Barry Jenkins, the director who gave us the magnificent and Academy Award-wining film Moonlight (2016). Second, the film is actually set in Harlem, not Memphis. Baldwin’s title is an oblique reference to a W. C. Handy blues composition from 1916. If you know anything about the blues, it’s that tragedy and circumstance threaten everything in their path.

We do get a love story, one between Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) and Clementine “Tish” Rivers  (Kiki Layne). They have known each other since they were infants and suddenly come to grips with that giddy moment in which familiarity blossoms into something much deeper. James and Layne are adorable as a couple. In fact, Jenkins’ treatment of those moments is one of the better treatments of those magic moments when love and passion shut out the rest of the world and give way to a universe of two. The first part of the film plays like romance pictures such as Say Anything, Splendor in the Grass, When Harry Met Sally, or The Way We Were.

Alas, a universe of two faced long odds for a black couple in the early 1970s. Fonny is a struggling sculptor and Tish a student. Their love is strong–the sort that leads to spontaneous yelps of joy–but where will such a couple live if they wish more than basement hovel? How will they negotiate a world in which a white man feels it’s his right to proposition a black woman whenever he feels a desire for­–as the expression of the time put it–a bit of the strange? What does one do about racist cops such as Officer Bell (Ed Skrein) who are just waiting for an excuse to administer a beating (or worse)? Indeed, how do they overcome internal obstacles such as Fonny’s evangelical mother (Aunjanue Ellis), or pay for a lawyer if you need an advocate for a crime you did not commit? The last of these is critical when Fonny is accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman.

If Beale Street Could Talk has already won Golden Globe honors for Best Motion Picture Drama and it is certain to garner Academy Award nominations. Is it worthy? Yes, but perhaps not in categories one might expect. As noted, James and Layne make a cute, cuddly couple, but their performances don’t stretch either actor. They mostly do as their roles demand and are intoxicated with each other. James also does a wonderful job of showing how a man can be pushed to his limits. His tongue bends to his cheek in moments where we see him struggle to contain his rage.

In an unusual twist, Jenkins gives the juicier parts to actors in supporting roles. You’ll probably want to strangle the sanctimonious Ellis when she’s at her righteous worst, just as you’ll thrill to the put-downs from Tish’s sassy sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris). If I’m handing out the Oscar hardware, though, it goes to Regina King, who plays Tish’s mother Sharon Rivers. Hers is a performance that walks a tightrope between fierce determination and world-weary resignation. Also affecting is Colman Domingo as Tish’s father, Joseph. He is man trying to do right by his daughters no matter the risk, and he knows to back off when his wife arches her eyebrow or delivers a sharp rebuke. His laugh is infectious, and he’s streetwise in ways Fonny is not. I would imagine both Rivers and Domingo will get supporting actor nods, and I’d give another to composer Nicholas Britell for a score that enhances drama when needed, but gets out of the way when the screen action requires no help.

James Baldwin died in 1987, but had long before grown suspicious of whether black folks could trust whites. Beale Street isn’t cynical about that possibility, but it is leery of it. Credit goes to Jenkins for letting such questions linger rather than launching into a sermon. There is Officer Bell looming over matters, but also moments of hope such as Fonny’s encounters with a friendly waiter, Petrocito (Diego Luna) that seems like a genuine friendship. We also meet Levy (Dave Franco), a Jewish landlord drawn to people in love no matter their race, ethnicity, or religion. Is cross-racial trust real or naïve?

Is is Beale Street a lock for a Best Picture Oscar? It certainly wouldn’t grieve me if it won, but it would not get my vote. It’s a very good film, but not a masterpiece like Moonlight. It’s very easy to draw parallels between this film, the morning headlines, and Black Lives Matter. If we literally take race out of the (motion) picture, however, Beale Street is a romantic drama cut from the same cloth as lots of tales in which some terrible injustice separates young lovers. You know­, like Romeo and Juliet. I don’t mean to sound the slightest bit cynical; I liked this film very much and couldn’t possibly admire James Baldwin or Barry Jenkins more than I already do. That said, Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman is among the films that are more Oscar worthy for the big awards. But by all means see If Beale Street Could Talk. Its tragic core reminds us of how far we’ve come and how much road remains before our feet.

Rob Weir

1/14/19

Shoplifters: A Film that Will Steal Your Heart


Shoplifters (2018)
Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
Magnolia Pictures, 121 minutes, (Rated R for brief nudity and sexual situations)
In Japanese with subtitles
★★★★

Shoplifters is a classic "small" film, but this one captured the Palme d'Or at Cannes. In a quiet and unpretentious way, director Hirokazu Kore-eda raises socially contentious questions whose answers are ambiguous.

One of these is the split between absolute and situational ethics. Should we always adhere to a "thou shalt not steal" ethos, or are there situations in which it's justifiable? It's easy to assert the first, but if your family was desperate, would you steal to help? If you answer "yes" to that, you face the central problem of situational ethics. Where is the border between moral and immoral? Is it okay to steal from a corporate giant such as Walmart, but wrong to filch from a mom and pop store?

Let's up the ante. What would you do if you found a cut, bruised, and weeping five-year-old in a dumpster? No one has reported her missing, though there is a nearby apartment from which you've heard shouts, slaps, and screams. The little girl slides into the rhythms of your family. Would you be tempted to "adopt" her as your own? How about a boy you find abandoned in a car? Or a grandmother whose biological family wants her out of the way? All of this is fodder for the bigger question of what makes a family. As Nobuyu, the surrogate female head of household rhetorically asks at a key moment in the film, "Giving birth automatically makes you a mother?"

Throw in some hand-to-mouth poverty and you've got quite a rice pot full of sticky ethical conundrums. The film's very title tells you that the "family" relies upon unorthodox ways to make ends meet. Most visitors to Japan see a neat and prosperous nation, but this film's principals are squatting in a section of Tokyo analogous to U.S. swamp poverty. Their hovel­–just a few rooms in which everything from cooking to sleeping to sex occur–is chock a block with things useful and not: cooking pots, baskets, noodle bowls, scavenged junk, and pilfered items awaiting black market sales. Space is so cramped that when bedrolls pads are laid out, all six sleep in a big lump.

The occupants are:

·      Osamu Shibata (Lily Frank), an inept construction worker and perhaps not overly bright paterfamilias
·      Osamu's wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), who toils in a laundry
·      12-year-old Shota (Kairi Jō), who has learned his "father's" shoplifting skills and hand signals
·      5-year-old Yuri, posing as "Lin," who is learning the family trade from her "brother"
·      Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), the "big sister" role model, though she earns money in an R-rated peep show/sex club by displaying her beautiful face and ample cleavage
·      Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), an elderly woman who extorts money from her biological family under surprising pretenses

Can such a unit bond? One of the film's subthemes concerns itself with whether Shota can bring himself to call Osamu "dad." Shota is an intelligent lad and he's pretty aware that shoplifting may be Osamu's greatest talent, just as he's cognizant that he and Nobuyo really care about him. But can a "father" sanction teaching a 5-year-old to steal? And, of course, there's the whole child snatching issue. Or, is it really "rescuing" unwanted and kids? Credit goes to Hirokazu for giving a new twist to the presumption that biology and parenthood are synonymous. He forces us to consider whether a child is an object that can be "owned."

Surrender to this film's Japanese aesthetics. In Western films, one usually gets to know characters early on, but their motives are suspect. A lot of Japanese cinema is the opposite. In Shoplifting we know the motive (survival) from the start, but it takes time to figure out how everyone is connected. This means it's "slow" film by Western standards–more atmosphere than action. In many cases, though, the film's mundaneness is a virtue. It is rare to see screen families portraying everyday life, especially if it centers on creative foraging such as that in Shoplifting. The film's pacing is difficult at first, but the slow-to-reveal back-stories somehow makes us care more deeply about each.

Even if you don't speak a word of Japanese you can tell you are witnessing fine performances. Kirin Kiki is superb as a chameleon who is the affectionate grandmother to the Shibata clan, but a calculating grifter when dealing with her son and his second wife. Hers is the sort of performance that would gain a best supporting actress nomination were she acting in English. It's also hard to take your eyes off Kairi Jō (Shota). He is a beautiful child with eyes that shine with fierceness and determination.

For me, though, Sakura Ando was the most memorable of all. In the film (though less so off-screen), she bore a physical resemblance to Sandra Oh. Ando's performance was subtle, but she conveyed a lot of information through a crinkly smile or a taut sad face. Hers is further proof that you need not wail like an arena rock star to get a point across.

I don't know if Shoplifters will be nominated for a best foreign film Oscar. It's certainly worthy of consideration. I highly recommend you seek out this film. I suspect it will be a while before it shows up online and it's a movie you'd not wish to miss.

Rob Weir
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1/11/19

Bury the Lead: A New Joe Gunther Mystery

Archer Mayor (2018)
Bury the Lead
Minotaur/St. Martin's, 304 pages.
★★★ ½

Archer Mayor is employed as a death examiner for the Vermont Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. I guess some people like to bring their work home with them. In 1988, Mayor published the first of his Joe Gunther detective novels and he hasn't slowed down; Bury the Lead is the 29th book in the series. Faithful readers have come to know many of the characters in Bury the Lead, but don't despair if you're a newbie. Mayor is the sort of writer who'd rather you got lost in the story rather than in dwelling in the past, so he drops plenty of hints to allow readers to fill in the blanks. 

Gunther is the head field officer for the fictitious Vermont Bureau of Investigation (VMI), and his girlfriend Beverly Hillstrom is actually Mayor's alter ego, a medical examiner whose autopsy reports help unravel a grisly tale of murder, revenge, and double-cross. Joe and his associate Samantha ("Sam") are called upon to solve the murder of a young woman dumped atop Bromley Mountain. It's pretty cut-and-dried. A stolen truck is caught on the resort's camera with a bundle in the back and one angle is good enough to make a positive ID. In very little time, Joe and Sam have a suspect in jail: Mick Durocher, a local guy with a spotty employment record and a drinking problem. Durocher quickly admits to the murder. Case solved, right?

Of course not. Down in White River another detective, Lester Spinney is investigating some prankish pyrotechnics at a warehouse owned by GreenField, a food distributor. It has the earmarks of devilment and disruption at the hands of a disgruntled employee. Because, by owner Robert Beaupré Sr.'s admission, his firm specializes in giving second chances to a lot of marginal folks, the list of suspects is long. When the pranks grow deadly, urgency increases, and suspicion deepens when Durocher's name appears as an ex-employee and he's cooling his heels in prison. Moreover, Gunther doesn't trust Durcoher's confession to the murder of a woman identified as Teri Parker. She was known to be a part-time hooker, but not the sort who'd take up with someone like Mick. There also seems to be something about the Beaupré family–Robert Sr. and his sons Robert Jr. and Dennis—that's out of whack with GreenField's reputation as a progressive company.    

Mayor introduces several subplots, one involving Gunther's longtime associate Willy Kunkle, Sam's husband, who is out of commission with complications from having been shot. (This occurred in a previous Mayor novel.) Kunkle's pain sends him into a downward spiral of OxyContin and alcohol abuse that must be sorted out. Another thread involves Beverly's 24-year-old daughter Rachel, who has just landed her first professional job as a photographer and writer for a Brattleboro newspaper. Before the final reveal we are also taken to Massachusetts, inside a Springfield (Vermont) clinic, and to the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, which is treating an Ebola case. Not to mention that the novel's body count surpasses Vermont's yearly murder rate. (Fourteen in 2016, the most recent report.)

Too much? Yes, I think so. Mayor has so many irons in the fire because he is trying to incorporate recent news stories to make the book more timely, weave in background material for newer readers, and toss chew bones to longtime readers who already know most of the characters. Indeed, a few of the side tales could be viewed as padding. This is especially noticeable when a major reveal occurs when there's still about 20 percent of the novel left. And, if you know Vermont, his characters sure do a lot of hard driving.

What Mayor does well is show us the not-so- pretty side to Vermont's outward beauty. He takes us into trailer parks, dilapidated apartment buildings, and into towns–White River Junction especially–whose profile isn't the stuff of Chamber of Commerce boosterism. Another such locale is Fitchburg, just across the Massachusetts line. Mayor expertly captures its postindustrial seediness. He's also a good storyteller, even when he's guilty of interjecting improbable elements into a narrative that occasionally feels more like a news headline culling than a plausible Vermont tale.

If you're a fan of the Joe Gunther series, you will devour Bury the Lead as if it's the latest installment of a favorite soap opera. If, like me, you are a casual reader of Archer Mayor, you will find it a perfectly acceptable way to wile away a few winter evenings. Hey, not everything has to be War and Peace.

 Rob Weir
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1/9/19

Cody Jackson, Dave Burchfield, Rachel Baiman: Recent Releases



Cody Jackson, Where the River Meets the Sky (EP)

Isn't Cody Jackson a great name for a musician from British Columbia? The talent matches the handle. As heard on his new 5-song EP, Jackson sports a big voice that often calls to mind the husk in Richard Shindell's timbre. "Where the River Meets the Sky" isn't a good song; it's a great one. When Jackson airs it out, you can conjure big mountains, vast horizons, and cold rivers bending beyond the eye's vanishing point. The album version has added reverb, but I've seen videos of Jackson doing this one justice solo, and the fact that he plays an Epiphone dreadnaught further endears him to me. (It was my first guitar.) I also admire Jackson's ability with the pen. Who hasn't had a relationship that could be described as "Right Place, Wrong Time?" In spirited bursts and stops, Jackson proceeds to sing: We started out as two unknowns/A king and queen of different roads. That line alone tells you things probably won't go well. Ditto a line from "Unchanging:" I know I'm free of sin/But my actions speak differently. My second favorite song (after the title track) is "Cherished One," which is sparse yet powerful. Jackson builds the song through the use of ever-so-slight catches in his voice that dial drama up a notch without venturing into overkill territory. As a musician, singer, and songwriter Jackson is both expressive and impressive. ★★★★

Dave Burchfield, Beginnings

Dave Burchfield took a six-year hiatus from music that he thought would be permanent, but he's back with a band and a new EP that's ironically titled Beginnings. This is bluegrass from the folk end of the spectrum. He often takes his time laying out his tune and his light voice can sometimes get lost even though the melodies are generally quiet. Still, it's nice to welcome him back onto the trail. Sample "Arkansas" with its spare but pretty melody. "Have Tried" is also a good one, a waltz about that age-old dilemma: is this relationship working or not? ★★★



Rachel Baiman, Thanksgiving  (EP) 

Rachel Baiman sings, plays banjo, saws a mean fiddle, and can pick it on the guitar. You can sample her country, bluegrass, and old time music wares on her new EP Thanksgiving. Baiman has been clearly influenced by the late John Hartford. You can hear this on "Tent City," whose melody lines evoke "Gentle on My Mind." She also does a cover of "Madison, Tennessee," which isn't one of Hartford's but was penned by the John Hartford String Band. There's a fine video of her singing this one with Molly Tuttle and if you're not impressed by Tuttle's cross picking, there's no pleasing you. I will caution that Baiman's voice is nasal and deliberately muddy at times. This might not be everyone's taste, but she sure can play. ★★★
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