8/16/19

Soulsha, Tall Pines, Lucy Isabel, Moken and More



Soulsha, Carry It On

Score one for boldness. Soulsha is a band that blends Scottish grooves with funk and uses melody to serve rhythm. It is the brainchild of Elias Alexander (vocals, fiddle, Highland pipes) and Neil Pearlman (keys, accordion), both of whom are American but are well versed in Scottish and world music. As Alexander tells it, they had their minds blown during a trip to New Orleans and decided to form a Scottish funk fusion band. Their 8- sometimes 9-piece band includes Senegalese percussion artist Lamine Touré, a kit drummer, a saxophonist, a trumpet player, guitars, and electric bass. The sometimes-9th member is none other than Galen Fraser, the son of Alasdair Fraser. Don't be fooled by track titles such as "Isle of Skye Reel" or "A'Ghirian," though. In each case you'll get blasts of brass, chunky bass lines, and talking drums to go with the bagpipes and fiddle. The band's normal MO is to lay down an accented funk groove and use it as the springboard for launching into energetic reels. As you'll quickly surmise, the reel is usually the Celtic club of choice for high energy stimuli; this is a jump-up-and-down-and-sweat kind of band. Check out the live performance of the aptly named "Rhythm's in the Melody." You'd not be wrong to think that Soulsha's also a rave band. Another in this spirit is "Fetchal (Let'sDance)." Listen to the inflections in Alexander's vocals on the title track and you'll think Paul Simon's Graceland album. It's not all gyration and jive. The most "Scottish" track is "Standing in the Water," with its grand and sweeping melody. "Beautiful Line" uses echo vocal effects, but it too ratchets down the pace. For the most part, though, Touré, kit drummer Chris Southiere, and the rhythm section (Jake Galloway and Dylan Sherry) place their beats and pulses front and center, a flip of the usual Western pattern of melody first. Soulsha isn't the first band to fuse Celtic and African music­–Baka Beyond has been around since 1992 and the Afro Celt Sound System since 1995–but they are certainly a ray of light on the musical horizon. If you speak no Scots Gaelic, Soulsha is a play on the Gaelic soillse, which means, well, ray of light. ★★★★

The Tall Pines, Love is the Reason

With a name like The Tall Pines, you're probably thinking Appalachian bluegrass. If so, you are not even in the same ballpark. This power duo of Connie Lynn Petruk and Christmas Davies–yeah, that's his name–like to get down in the mud. Petruk's voice is sometimes compared to that of Bobbie Gentry and when they describe their own music as "shack-shakin,' foot-stompin' folk rock," they are not engaging in PR hyperbole.  They have recently dropped a new album titled Skeletons of Soul and have released a short NoiseTrade sampler of back material as an appetizer. "Boogie Pt. 1" is swamp rock with Davies putting on his best Dr. John growl. Petruk is a real force of nature. "Give It All You Got" is more than a song title. It's full of grit and soul and Petruka doesn't believe in letting any air linger in her lungs. She goes badass country rock in "Dirty Cousin," and gets retro in "Howl Me Your Heartache." The latter begins introspective, builds the pain, and takes you lower than low down. And, yeah, she howls! ★★★★

Lucy Isabel, Rambling Stranger

Lucy Isabel's 3rd release, Rambling Stranger, is aptly named. She's a Nashville artist by way of New Jersey and Yale–not your usual career arc. Her new songs often express dislocation. It opens with "How It Goes," a song so good I sort of wish she had saved it for mid-release as it's hard to get back to the energy and dynamism of this track. John Prentice kicks it off with booming, bold electric guitar (with a touch of slide). Then come the percussion, the bass groove, and Isabel's voice. When she croons, You want to be free/To be lonely with me you almost think that that the cur slipped out as the guitar wailed. Isabel changes the mood with the Appalachian influenced "Something New," but it too has a there/not there theme. In this case, she films herself against the off-season Jersey shore to enhance the mood of feeling split between homes past and the present. She gives us more desolation in "Lucky Stars." This stripped down song lets us hear the lovely ornaments in Isabel's voice. We also hear its expressiveness when she sings: I slept with my guitar/In my arms last night/ 'Cause I didn't to think/I was alone…. "Little Bird" is another (semi) sad song done in a quasi-bluegrass style. In this case, it's a tale of needing to leave the cage and spread her wings. Another one to explore is "False Prophet." No, it's not political, rather another song about disconnection: The way you look at me/It's clear to me/You don't understand. This one has a don't-piss-off-a-songwriter feel to it. Ms. Isabel is the real deal, so check her out. ★★★★

Moken, Missing Chapters

Moken Nunga is a Cameroonian immigrant now based in Atlanta after a stint in Detroit. Missing Chapters is a natural sequel to his 2016 release Chapters of My Life. He is hard to classify–the sort of artist to whom you're likely to gravitate instantly or not at all. His is the Africa-meets-the-West style that defines highlife music, but he crosses many other stylistic borders as well. His musical influences include African lions such as Francis Beby and Miriam Makeba, but also Western legends such as James Brown, Nat King Cole, and Van Morrison. The biggest influence of all is Nina Simone and this is evident in Moken's vocal technique of switching between his resonant baritone and falsetto tones. "Yen nin" translates as "look for life," and it's a dance tempo blend of highlife and Afropop whose melody lines are backed by saxophone, groove guitar, and thick bass lines. It contrasts with "Your Son is Rising," which has the sleepy feel of a Bayou ballad crossed with a gospel shout, and a crooner's sentimentality. We get a splash of Borderlands corrido in "Tequila Song " and the fiddle parts of "Mi Amor" work off the persistent percussion foundation to create something akin to an Afropop Roma mash. The song that will probably grab the most is "Machine Man." I am one of many who likes to quote one it's lines:  I became a machine, but with a human heart. In the video Moken sets the song in the broken streets of Detroit and lets that backdrop provide its own social commentary as Moken assumes the persona of a shaman singing the blues. The open question is whether Moken will be your cup of tea. In my view, he overdoes the deep-to-falsetto effect. I could also do with less melodrama. It raises the question of whether he crosses the line between musician and performance artist. But you should decide for yourself. Moken Nunga intrigues me, but to reiterate my first point, he is acquired taste. ★★★    


Short Takes


Let's hear it for World Peace, a new collection from the good folks at Putumayo World Music. It is exactly as advertised. Keb' Mo' gets the ball rolling with "Wake Up Everybody," and ain't it the truth? Jackson Browne weighs in with his Caribbean-flavored "It Is One," and Nina Simone (1933-2003) never let anyone off the hook. Her "IWish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" is a reminder of what an enormous talent she was and how sad it is that this song could have been written yesterday. Other artists include: India Arie, Richard Bona, and David Broza and Wycleaf Jean.

I love living where I do, though it must be said that most of my town's street buskers are pretty terrible. When I was in Ontario recently I heard Luke Prosser singing on the street. He and a traveling buddy caught my ear and Luke sent me this link to his Mercy and Forgiveness CD. In my view, Prosser is more dynamic live, but for those looking for some for some good Christian music, this one is an honest telling of fall and redemption. https://lukeprosser.bandcamp.com/releases

Speaking of Christian music, I know a lot of people who won't go anywhere near it but think nothing of listening to Buddhist chants, Indian ragas, or Sufi praise music. If you've not heard Christian music lately, your POV is frozen in time. Jacob Everett Wallace is a Texas-based pastor, small business owner, and singer songwriter and the man has a great voice and writes meaningful songs. Sample his new EP Arrows and you'll see what I mean. No matter what you think, a song like "Human Condition" makes you think when he sings, We know what we want, but we don't know who we are. Jimmy Carter once (sort of) said the same thing. Wallace calls his style acoustic indie-rock. It sounds like folk to me, but no matter the label, material such as "Cold War" and "Skelton Army" unsettle complacency (in a good way).

Rob Weir






8/14/19

Revisiting Niagara


Niagara (1953)
Directed by Henry Hathaway
20th Century Fox, 88 minutes, Not-rated (Bad acting warning)
★★

You have to do it. You'll hate yourself afterward, but you still have to do it. Everyone does. What, you ask? See the 1953 Marilyn Monroe vehicle Niagara right after you get back from visiting Niagara Falls. It was box office boffo back in '53, but it sure looks like buffoonery in the present.

The set up is simple enough. A wholesome Midwestern couple, Ray and Polly Cutler, come to Niagara Falls for a delayed honeymoon. It's the '50s and Ray (Max Showalter) was too busy with his job with Quaker Oats to get away with the missus (Jean Peters) after the wedding, but that's all to the good as he's such a clever lad that he's won a slogan contest and some dosh to finance the trip. The destination has as much to do with Ray's hope of seeing Mr. Kettering, a company big shot over on the U.S. side, than of taking in the view.

The Cutlers arrive at the rustic cabins overlooking the falls, but the couple in their unit hasn't yet checked out. Rose Loomis (Marilyn Monroe) pleads that her husband is ill and the Cutlers valiantly agree to take another cabin. George Loomis (Joseph Cotten) is indeed sick–of both life and his wife's philandering. He's a Korean vet suffering from PTSD and while the cat was away at war, the mouse sure did play. Rose is younger, more vivacious, and more than a little on the slutty side. It might be more accurate to say that she was the cat, one playing with George and trying to lure him into a trap wherein Patrick, her boyfriend du jour, would kill him and toss his body over the falls. When the Rainbow Tower Carillon chimed the song "Kisses," Rose would know the plan had succeeded. In the meantime she spends her time squeezing into tight dresses and driving both George and the local teenagers crazy. (Why the "kids," as Rose calls them, hold their record hops at a local motor court is never explained.) Rose is your basic femme fatale, but with a wiggle and a bump.

You don't need me to tell you that there's no film if the murder scheme goes exactly as planned. Queue some scenes along the falls, in the tower, and on the river. My first thought was of how different this film would have been had Alfred Hitchcock directed it. Instead it was Henry Hathaway, whose métier was Westerns. Niagara thus has the disjointed feel of a B-Western in which the plot hardly matters as the audience is just waiting for the shoot-out. Replace the corral with Niagara's churning foam and this film is essentially a watery Western.

Hathaway tried to add noir elements in scenes inside the Rainbow Carillon and by making Joseph Cotten sullen and dark, but he's just not up to the task. I'm sure Cotten must have thought dozens of times, "Toto, I've a feeling this isn't an Orson Welles film anymore." Cotten's talents were wasted in this film, as were those of Jean Peters who was known for being a film siren in her own right, though in this film she's done up more like Ginger on Gilligan's Island. Peters could actually act, though, which is far more than can be said for Monroe. In this film, Monroe played to every stereotype you've ever associated with her. Her attempts to be dramatic were risible and the best that can be said is that she's as good as Showalter, who plays a gee-whiz kid who's around 30 going on 12. The Ketterings (Don Wilson and Lurene Tuttle) are also more over the top than, well, a barrel over Niagara.

Niagara's real standout is, of course, the falls. They looked a bit differently in 1953. They were higher as there was less rock debris at the base, you could get much closer to them, and they appeared even more powerful as there wasn't much surrounding them. The US/Canada border was pretty much an open one and there was very little development on either side. Nor did you have to wait in a long line to pay $20 to park your car; there was plenty of on-street parking. The film's final dramatic scenes above the falls play out a little bit like Lillian Gish leaping onto ice floes in Way Down East, but if you've been to Niagara you can generate your own adrenaline during the film's climax.

As movies go, Niagara is a small cask of hogwash tumbling over the precipice. Somehow it seemed so much better when I saw it on TV as a child, but maybe that's because Monroe and the 1950s seemed more plausible back then. Objectively, this is a really dumb film. But if you go to Niagara Falls, you'll want to watch it. Go ahead. It's okay. The guilt passes quickly. Then you can laugh about it.

Rob Weir

8/12/19

The Warehouse an Imaginable Dystopia


The Warehouse (August 2019)
By Rob Hart
Crown Publishers, 368 pages
★★★★

Remember how we were told the movie The Circle wasn’t about Google, though it was? Rob Hart’s new novel The Warehouse isn’t about Amazon, but of course it is–with a bit of Apple mashed into the batter. Picture a not-so-distant future in which climate change has drowned the coastline, blazing sun has parched much of the land, water and food are in short supply, economic downturn has produced high unemployment rates, and gun violence and marauding gangs plague the cities. (How sad that it takes so little imagination to conjure such scenarios.)

Amidst this bleak landscape stands a beacon, Cloud, a company that’s also a way of life. Those who secure employment at Cloud leave the outside world behind and move onto a Cloud campus where they work, eat, play, and bed in a carbon-neutral climate-controlled environment. Cloud uses its army of drones and driverless trucks to provide its residents and the outside world with all the material goods it demands. Yeah, like I said: Amazon/not Amazon.

To those on the outside and many on the inside, Cloud is Utopia. Its founder, Gibson Wells, appears a benefactor. He’s the star of his own videocasts, which play incessantly inside the campus, even when you’re enjoying a yummy Cloud Burger, touted by all as the best burger ever. Think of Wells as possessing the folksiness of Walmart founder Sam Walton, the omnipresence of 1984’s Big Brother, the business acumen of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and the tech savvy of Apple’s Steve Jobs. Think especially of Jobs, as “Gib” is dying of pancreatic cancer, which not coincidentally is what killed Jobs. You’ll think of Jobs again when you consider that every employee of Cloud wears a CloudBand on their wrist, which monitors work productivity, keeps track of earned credits in this moneyless enclave, reminds each employee of when to wake up, and is the key in and out of cell-like dorm rooms. You need your CloudBand even to use the bathroom. But it’s okay, because Gib assures everyone he’s trying to improve the world through Cloud, and that things are way better there than on the outside. He’s probably right about the latter.

As you might expect, Utopia has some holes in its fabric. It is highly stratified, which one can tell by the color of the shirt one wears: red for the “pickers and placers” that work in the warehouse preparing goods for shipment, green for food and cleaning service personnel, yellow for customer service representatives, brown for tech support, blue for security, and white for managers. The reds are the lowest on the food chain; they are little more than flesh-and-blood robots who rush pell-mell to scale warehouse racks, grab a product, and run it to a conveyor belt to be shipped to customers. Missing quotas is not to be taken lightly, as it could send you back outside.

Oddly, red is the shirt Paxton hoped to secure. He worked as a prison guard on the outside after his invention of the Perfect Egg was stolen by Cloud and wrecked his business. So, of course, he finishes orientation and finds blue security shirts in his room. Another new recruit, Zinnia, hopes for brown shirts, but gets a picker’s red instead. Her official story is that she had been a teacher in Detroit until education went entirely online and a single teacher could serve millions. That’s her cover; she’s actually a corporate spy trying to find Cloud’s vulnerabilities.

The Warehouse is a pas de trois between Gib, Paxton, and Zinnia. The book is a pastiche of various books, movies, and ideas. Cloud’s control over workers owes similarities to efficiency theorist Frederick Winslow Taylor as filtered through Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, and a careful reader will find echoes of everything from 1984, Animal Farm, and Lord of the Flies to Soylent Green, Mad Max, and Blade Runner. The Warehouse lacks originality, but it compensates through a clever and compelling rearranging of its various blocks. About the time you think you know where it’s headed, author Rob Hart veers in a slightly different direction. The same can be said of his characters and their motives. Hart keeps us just unbalanced enough to make us doubt whether they will do as we suspect. That’s a good thing because often they don’t!

Let me give Hart another shout out for introducing secondary characters that have just enough depth to advance the plot in feasible ways. There is also moral ambiguity within The Warehouse that lends verisimilitude to the beat-the-clock drama that sets up the conclusion. If you think of the very world Hart constructs, who would be most likely to be correct: those resigned to the status quo, the skeptics, the starry-eyed converts, or the saboteurs? If you guessed “yes,” ask Amazon to ship you a copy of The Warehouse. 

Rob Weir

8/9/19

Marianne and Leonard: An Unconventional Love


Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love (2019)
Directed by Nick Broomfield
Roadside Attractions, 102 minutes, R (for drugs, brief nudity, sexual frankness)
★★★★

What is love? Is it gazing into the eyes of another and seeing no others? Is it a fever that never breaks? Lifelong faithfulness? Continuous mutual commitment? A partnership of equals? Two horses pulling the same cart? Fireworks, roses, and chocolates?

If you think love is contained by any of the above, you might wish to steer clear of Marianne and Leonard, the new documentary about the relationship between Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen. Theirs was an unconventional love that was more akin to the yearning of a poet for a muse that one doesn't always wish to find.

It began in 1960, when Cohen was an unknown writer fleeing Montreal's frigid winters for the sun-kissed Greek isle of Hydra. There he met Marianne Ihlen, an about-to-be divorced mother of a young son. Cohen was Jewish, dark, and brooding; she was Norwegian, blonde, and free-spirited. If you'd like to extrapolate this into a yin/yang sort of thing, you wouldn't be far from the mark.

This documentary is from director Nick Broomfield, who also gave us Kurt and Courtney (1998), so you know he doesn't shy from uncomfortable material. The relationship between Ihlen and Cohen was not always healthy or happy. If you know Cohen's song "So Long Marianne," you already know a lot about the arc of their time together and apart. The muse thing didn't always go as planned. Cohen's desire to be a Canadian lion of letters was dealt a rude blow when all but a few reviewers trashed Beautiful Losers, the novel he wrote on Hydra. One critic called it "verbal masturbation" and Canadians seldom talk like that! Even before this, though, Cohen exhibited symptoms consistent with bipolar disorder. When he was in Hydra, he thought he should be in Montreal; when in Montreal, his thoughts drifted to Hydra. His relationship with Ihlen was like this as well. He yearned deepest for Marianne when she was absent; when she went to him, fire turned to ice.

Retsina, drugs, and free love didn't help mood swings. Neither was faithful and Broomfield reminds us that he too was one of Marianne's lovers. One also gets the sense that Ihlen wasn't always a good mother. Still, it is fair to comment–as so many feminist historians have–that the Sixties' emphasis on free love was often a trap for women. The pill and sexual openness brought with them the expectation that women should yield to male desire. To put it another way, the veil of sexual mystery was lifted and revealed a wall of patriarchy.

It's also fair to observe that Cohen, even when depressed on Hydra, was a better person before his poetry and songs brought him fame. With it came egoism; as Cohen's star ascended, Ihlen's waned. Nonetheless, it never burned out completely, no matter who was with whom. Their love was genuine and literally followed them from Hydra to the grave. Though they had not been together for decades, Cohen pledged his love to Marianne as she lay dying and he was destined to follow three months later.

Bloomfield's film makes excellent use of available footage, especially that from Cohen's 1976 Bird on a Wire tour, where see him musing on Marianne when he's so high that his eyes look like two dark saucers tucked under his brow. We also see snippets from other interviews, including his surprisingly nonchalant response to leaving a Buddhist monastery after three years (1994-97) to discover he had been embezzled and is broke. His comeback was astounding, as was his reinvention in the early 21st century as a behatted, suited, cool septuagenarian who often looked–can you believe it–happy!

Alas, we have less of Marianne in the film. Though she gets top billing, the film should more accurately be called Leonard and a Dash of Marianne. She flits in and out of Cohen's orbit like a Nordic Tinkerbell. I longed to know what she thought of Cohen's other muse, Suzanne Elrod, or of his conquests of everyone from Joni Mitchell to Rebecca De Mornay. Did she care about his legion of one-night stands? One can't fault Bloomfield for not having material that doesn't exist, but a bit more critical analysis might have served to underscore the depth of the Ihlen/Cohen devotion to each other. Most of the talking heads, especially Judy Collins (wearing a horrifying wig!) address Cohen's magnetism and brilliance, not his melancholy. This isn't a hagiography, but it does sometimes lean in that direction.

Whatever its shortcomings, Marianne and Leonard is a film that makes you walk away feeling perplexed. It also sticks with you and, in my case, I liked it the more I (if I might) mused upon it. It is as I posed at the start of my review: a love story. It might not make you comfortable, but I have always maintained that a relationship only needs to make sense to those who are in it.

Rob Weir

8/7/19

Gunsmoke and Horseshit: How Mass Murder Became Boring






 Gilroy. El Paso. Dayton. Queue the tears. The roses. Hollow prayers. Teddy bears. Political doublespeak. And horseshit. Lots of horseshit. Almost as much horseshit as the tonnage of guns and ammo in the Misguided States of America.

Is there any point to writing about mass murder these days? It might sound callous, but mass murder has become mind numbingly boring. We know several things that surpass the likelihood of the sun rising: that not a damn thing will change and that tomorrow somewhere else will break out the tears, roses, prayers, and Teddy bears. And through their anguish, the survivors will have to endure the indignity of doublespeak and horseshit.

If Columbine didn't move the needle and if gun-toting monsters create forums and Websites claiming Sandy Hook was faked, you know that taking out a few Texans at Walmart or some angry white dude in Ohio –and aren't they always white dudes?–who slew his sister and anyone else in the way won't change things. Where will it be tomorrow? A ballpark? The White House? Disneyworld? Another synagogue? Another Sunday school class?  A mosque? Spin the wheel. Which state gets its 30 minutes of shame, blame, and infamy?

I'm sick of it. We all know the answer. It's what's it's always been. Take. Away. The guns. That's what they did in Scotland. That's what is happening in New Zealand. But we also know what will be said instead. Check your favorite phrase from the list below:

·      This was the action of a lone mentally deranged gunman.
·      If we had concealed carry laws, someone would have taken out the gunman.
·      The majority of gun owners are law-abiding and it's not fair to lump them with murders.
·      If we banned guns we wouldn't stop murders.
·      If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns. (Well, yeah!)
·      We don't want a nanny state.
·      The 2nd Amendment gives me the right to bear arms.
·      This is no time to politicize gun violence. (And when would be the time?)

Any one of these is child's play to demolish. Try to make it harder for mentally ill people to get guns and the N.R.A. throws a wobbly. Maybe we should just compile a list of all the deranged people in the nation and give each a small tactical nuclear weapon. Or would that be redundant? Do we even want to discuss why it's nearly always white men who are so bat shit crazy and why they think it's okay to take others with them down the exit ramp?

Hey Colorado, Ohio, and Texas are concealed carry states. What happened? Couldn't anyone get their gun out of the pants they were busy crapping? Concealed carry is an even bigger load of horseshit than the idea that armed teachers will protect students from angry white boys.

How can I chastise law-abiding gun owners? Easy: On both the levels of complicity and and of the greater public good. There are all manner of things we can't do because community good tops individual rights. Maybe you could safely operate a car at 100 mph. Try telling that to the cop who pulls you over. Maybe you can do a controlled burn of the woods behind your house. Then, again, maybe you can't. Hey, why not legalize heroin? Maybe your kid needs a beating. Don't try it in public and don't leave any marks. Who says you need auto insurance to be on the road? Yada, yada, yada… But the thing is, if you think guns are sacred you are complicit in an uncivil attack on the very ideals of public safety and the greater public good. You are saying, "My right matters more than the welfare of others."  

You are right that nothing can make us completely safe. But you don't have to be a math major to compute the odds. A run-around appeal to 100% safety just marks you as foolish, stupid, selfish, or all three. It's this simple: Nowhere else has mass shootings of this magnitude. There are many dangerous places in the world–Brazil, Syria, and certain provinces of Mexico–but for all of Trump's rage over criminal Mexicans, its 29,000 homicides aren't a patch on our 40,000. But even were ours lower, shouldn't we compare ourselves to the safest nations, not the least? 

As for the rest, yes it's time for a nanny state. We clearly cannot police ourselves. We can't even agree that no one needs a military assault rifle to shoot Bambi. So let the government step in. Get rid of all the guns. All of them. The Second Amendment does not impress me. It never meant what you thought it did anyhow, but we have the capacity to alter the Constitution so let's repeal the damn thing. You know, like we did the 18th. Change the Constitution. Like we did when we decided that slavery was not humane or that women should have the right to vote. The "original intent" of the Founders is just another bucket of horseshit for the pile. The Founders knew they weren't creating a perfect union or a perfect document. That's why they created provisos for changing the Constitution and it's why we've done so 27 times.

I'd like to politicize the hell out of guns. Declare the NRA a terrorist organization. After all, white males have killed more Americans than Al Qaida ever did. Suspend Mitch McConnell over a fiery spit until he reveals how he's been bought and sold by the gun lobby. Make pro-gun Bernie Sanders feel the heat as well.

Of course, none of this will happen. The roses, Teddy bears, and tombstone industry will continue to thrive. But shall we? Or will the methane of all the horseshit raise the global temperature, melt the ice caps, and wash us away in a Biblical-style flood? Don't bet against the Last American firing his AK-47 into the sky before he sinks to perdition. 

8/5/19

Her Smell a Mess that Sometimes Intrigues



Her Smell (2018/19)
Directed by Alex Ross Perry
Gunpowder and Sky, 135 minutes, R (language, drug use, adult situations)
★★★


The most accurate way to describe Her Smell is to call it a mess. It's often an intriguing and interesting mess, but it is nonetheless a shambles of a film kept together by music and decent acting.

It's the waning days of punk rock, but the female trio Something She can still command a good-sized audience through the charisma of lead singer and guitarist Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss). That is, when she's not too stoned, pissed off, psychotic, or all three to arrive on time, if at all. She's become an addicted flake who pays more attention to her charlatan shaman Ya-ema (Eka Darville) than to band mates Ali (Gayle Rankin) and Mari (Agyness Deyn). Nor does she give a damn that her tempestuous and  behavior is bankrupting her manager Howard (Eric Stoltz) and breaking the heart of her mother Ania (Virginia Madsen). To top it off, she has an infant daughter, Tama, to her ex-husband Danny (Dan Stevens), formerly known as "Dirtbag Danny" but now trying to find stability via sobriety, a new wife, and acting as Tama's only sane caregiver.

Think of Becky as a wigged out self-destructive prima donna. She gets away with a lot because she's the kind of electric personality who can show up two hours late for a gig, sing a song or two, toss her guitar onto the stage, strut off into the wings, and listen to the wild applause of adoring acolytes. Yeah, this kind of shit went down a storm during punk rock's heyday! Then tastes changed, audiences began to notice that their heroes and sheroes were seriously screwed up, and that a lot of them were terrible musicians. The last isn't true of Becky or her band, but when a drugged out Becky commanders a studio where Howard hopes to record a new band, even she notices that The Akergirls have a sweeter, more melodic sound that—in her words—is "what young people are listening to." (Cara Delevigne is a "member" of the Akergirls.) In other words, there are increasingly fewer reasons to put up with Becky.

This is a film about addiction, ego, and wicked bad behavior. It's not structured enough to be a slice of musical history and, at times, it hardly seems structured at all. This is partly deliberate and partially a result of a hodgepodge script. Director Alex Ross Perry opts for a cinéma vérité approach that is effectively jarring in spotlighting how an addicted person's world is a manic series of scattershot bang-bang disconnected episodes that never cohere. Becky's tantrums and narcissism sometimes reminded me of Madonna's Truth or Dare, though Madonna would never be as unorchestrated as Becky. If you're not prepared for this kind of filmmaking, much of Her Smell might seem like anime with live actors. Objectively, it is hard to watch at times, though overall I think the shaky camera documentary approach lent an air of verisimilitude.

In films such as this, though, you know that resolutions are limited: early death, getting clean, or hovering between addiction and sobriety. Was it a mistake to interject a backstory of a daughter? I'd yield to anyone who accused Perry of stitching into a rough-edged film elements of sentimentality and conventionality. One could certainly argue that this is a forced fit. There are also parts that are just plain dumb, especially those involving Becky's shaman. Okay, there are some weird mystics out there, but this character is badly developed and seems more of a cartoon than someone anybody would follow.

Moss is pretty good as Becky, even when she seems to be channeling Courtney Love. Deyn and Rankin are also solid as her band mates. They strike the right balance between concern and screw-you anger toward Becky. Moss provides her own voice in some of the songs–though the band Bully did much of the soundtrack–and though Moss probably won't headline a club near you, she's credible as a snarling punk rocker. She also does a sensitive piano-backed cover of Bryan Adams' "Heaven." We're not talking Lady Gaga here, but Moss is certainly proving that her chops and range are broad and diverse.

Is this movie worth a look? If you can get past the fact that there are more holes in the script than in Becky Something's stage fishnet stockings, yes. But take me to heart. Overall the film is a bit like DYI punk rock. That is to say that at times it's pure shite, but when it rings true, Her Smell rocks you.  

Rob Weir


8/2/19

Renoir and Ida O'Keeffe at the Clark

Renoir: The Body, The Senses (through September 22, 2019)
Ida O'Keeffe: Escaping Georgia's Shadow (through October 6, 2019)
Clark Institute of Art
Williamstown, MA 



This summer's blockbuster exhibit at the Clark is devoted to Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). In Renoir's lifetime he was heralded but his star faded to the point that, in 1986, one critic proclaimed him the "worst artist to ever achieve canonical status." I wouldn't go that far, but I confess that I'm more in second camp than the first. He's not my least favorite Impressionist–a category I reserve for Mary Cassatt–but I generally spend my time in Impressionist galleries gazing at the work of those I find more interesting (Pissarro, Monet, Manet, Morisot, Sisley).

The Clark's core collection features a lot of Impressionist works, so you go with what you've got and build on it. It's Renoir show dwells upon his nudes and how his attention to color, form, and texture impacted subsequent artists. His admirers were many and varied, among them Picasso, Maillol, Léger, and Matisse. Selections of their work are displayed as well so that one can make comparisons. Did this change my mind about Renoir?    

Not really. I get what art historians have said about Renoir's cheerful palette, one that's heavy on pastels and soft lines. At the end of the day, though, there's a reason why his work found favor with the tastemakers of his day when critics savaged many of his contemporaries. Renoir simply didn't spill much bathwater, even when painting nudes. His fleshy puffball bodies stand solidly within a canon forged by past masters such as Titian, Ruben, and Tintoretto. Some have called Renoir's work innocent in a prelapsarian fashion, though today some of the bodies he painted look pretty young and might ruffle contemporary feathers. I'm not going there other than to say that it's usually unfair to pass ex post facto judgment on cultural value systems. For me, Renoir's faces are more problematic than his bodies; they often appear vacant and/or insipid.

Picasso
Mostly The Body, The Senses underwhelmed me because I found the work of Renoir's admirers far more interesting than his own. There is a telling remark is one of the panels in which Renoir is quoted as saying that he did not see his work as a radical departure as it was always his intent to fit within the sweep of Western European painting. He largely succeeded, which begs the question of whom do we find more appealing, those who long to conform (Renoir) or those who spit in the eye of convention (Manet, Picasso, Lautrec). My vote goes to the rebels. 

Ida and Georgia at Peace

For me, the Clark's best current exhibit is one devoted to Ida Ten Eyck O'Keeffe (1889-1961). If that last name tempts you to wonder if she was related to Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), the answer is yes; she was one of Georgia's sisters and to say that there was family drama involved would be an understatement.

Let's start with why we know Georgia's name, but not Ida's. It's not because Ida was trying to piggyback on her older sister. She was a serious artist in her own right who apprenticed with a printmaker before obtaining an MFA at Columbia. Another sister, Anita, also trained as an artist. Here's where it gets ugly. Georgia was fiercely protective of her own artistic reputation and didn't like family competition. Anita faithfully gave up her art career at Georgia's insistence, but Ida did not. Georgia at first supported Ida, but things eventually soured and Georgia did little to help and quite a lot to discourage. (It probably didn't help matters that Georgia's husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, tried to seduce Ida. She rebuffed him, but one wonders if this got back to Georgia.)
 

The real question is how Ida's work stacks up. She's not another Georgia and her work is best approached on its own merits. The Clark showcases several aspects of her work. She was assuredly an observant modernist with an eye for reducing objects to geometric forms and sharp angles. I particularly liked her series of paintings depicting the solidity of Highland Light in North Truro (Cape Cod). Note how the lighthouse beam captures a fish as if it is being beamed aboard. She captures similar abstracted magic of a harbor scene in which bridge, sails, and cables are reduced to straight lines and bathed in somber light.  



Ida also painted buildings differently. Compare, for instance, how Ida rendered a Missouri limekiln as if it were a Spanish cathedral. It evokes the rooted-earth and reduce-to-basic shapes style of someone such as Charles Sheeler or Charles Demuth. If you know Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings of New Mexico adobe churches you can see how Ida tracked differently. There is also Star Gazing in Texas, which shows Ida at home with the proletarian art of the Great Depression. She's more Grant Wood than Georgia O'Keeffe in this iteration.


 Is Ida O'Keeffe an underappreciated great artist? That might be a bit much to claim, but she's intriguing and one wonders what her reputation would have been without all the family sturm und drang. She once proclaimed that she too would have been famous if she had a Stieglitz backing her. Was this a passive aggressive backslap at her headstrong and ego-fragile sister? Perhaps. Georgia invested a lot of energy is creating a Stieglitz-free niche for herself once she began spending more time in New Mexico than in New York, but it was her New York reputation that gave her the space and money to break out. Could she have done so without Stieglitz? As they say, families are complicated!

Rob Weir