2019 Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts

It is often the case that the animated shorts are among the more interesting Oscar nominations. I wouldn't say that's the case this year, but there are certainly a few that deserve to be seen. The Academy has made a big deal out of the fact that there are more Asians, Asian Americans, and women represented. It might want to pay more attention to quality rather than ticking PC boxes; none of the 2019 films are path breaking.

As is customary, the five nominees are packaged with a few also-rans for theater release. If you poke about you can also see most of them online. My order of preference:

Late Afternoon, Directed by Louise Bagnall, 10 minutes (Ireland)

My favorite is this poignant little film from Ireland. An old woman—who bears the director's first name of Louise, though Bagnall is not elderly—sits in an arm chair as her daughter wraps her belongings for what we infer is a move to assisted living. As she sips a cup of tea, her biscuit breaks off and falls into the cup. This is the device through which Louise accesses youthful memories and flies through time, her red tresses flowing behind her. Bagnall uses watercolor imagery and leading lines to take us back and forward chronologically. Her film is sweet, poignant, and moving. ★★★★

Animal Behaviour, Directed by David Fine, Alison Snowden, 14 minutes (Canada)

Objectively speaking, the device of animals in a therapy session has been done before—many times. Nor is the straight cartoon animation likely to impress Oscar voters. That said, this one is the most fun of all the nominees. The shrink in command of this gaggle of emotionally wrought critters is Dr. Clement, a pit bull in touch with his inner Shih Tzu. All is fine until the session is forced to confront the gorilla in the room. Delightful chaos ensues. ★★★ ½

One Small Step, Directed by Andrew Chesworth, Bobby Ponitllas, 8 minutes (US/China)

This one is also sweet, though most of the buzz has been over the fact that it's thought to be the first American/Chinese joint animated venture. Luna is an Asian girl being raised by a single-parent dad. She dreams of being an astronaut; her cobbler father is content to play shoemaker to she who years for the stars. Do dreams come true? Exactly as we would have them play out? This one also tugs at the heart strings.★★★

Weekends, Directed by Trevor Jimenez, 16 minutes, (USA/Canada)

This is probably the dark horse candidate to win as it sports the most creative use of animation: shake effects applied to sketchy drawings that evoke atmosphere rather than aiming for realism. It features a little boy from a broken family who shuffles back and forth between his mother and his samurai-loving father. He is also a vivid dreamer. This one has attracted notice because several of its reviewers haven't done their homework and have tried to connect it to US policies on immigrants. Not only is that a stretch, it ignores the fact that the "space needle" seen in backdrops is from Toronto, not Seattle. Canadians have appropriately cried foul over such ethnocentric assumptions. ★★★

Bao, Directed by Domee Shi, 8 minutes, (USA)

Here's the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar and it's a piece of sentimental rubbish! Why is it favored? Two words: Disney/Pixar. An empty nester woman makes the film's namesake steamed dumpling, when one of them pops to life. She raises the little bao to fill the space in her heart vacated by her absent son. Oh, for Pete's sake! What a bunch of essentialist twaddle. Not to mention that we've seen this sort of dough figure (pun intended) animation from Pixar over and over and over. You might also recognize that this film is a boring and insipid spin on Pinocchio. Hand me the Pepto-Bismol.


Wishing Box, Directed by Wenli Zhang, 6 minutes (USA)

Speaking of derivative, Wishing Box is a swashbuckling take on King Midas. A disappointed pirate opens a treasure chest and finds it empty. His pet monkey, however, manages to pull all manner of things from the box, especially bananas. If only the pirate could get the monkey to shift his focus from fruit to doubloons…  This is slight, but funny enough to keep your interest. (It is technically a 2017 film.) ★★★

Tweet-Tweet, Directed by Zhanna Bekmambetova, 11 minutes, (Russia)

Call this one the we-wuz-robbed pick. This Russian film has a precious animated sparrow as its only recognizable character, but more is afoot (another pun) than cuddly cuteness. Our little bird on a clothesline sees only pins, snow, and a pair of legs and shoes that balance upon the rope. Those legs and feet change and we soon learn that this is not the sort of rope we had imagined. Had this been a nominee, it would have been my choice as best in show. Note: The director's father, Timur, is also a noted name in film. ★★★★


Turner and Constable at the Clark a Mild Disappointment

Turner and Constable
Clark Museum of Art  (Williamstown, MA)
Through March 10, 2019

John Constable

JMW Turner
Few 18th century British artists have gained as much fame–much of it posthumous–as John Constable and J.M.W. Turner. They are displayed side by side in a current exhibit at the Clark Museum of Art. Alas, the artists' reputations exceed the merits of the show.


Of the two, John Constable (1776-1837) was the more conventional in both his painting and in his private life. (He did go through a reckless spending spree around the time his beloved wife Maria died in 1828.) Constable is known for his genre landscapes and dramatic skies. Depending on how you feel about depictions of wind in the trees, Constable is either the master of that technique or Marcel Marceau with a paintbrush.

I confess that Constable is not among my favorite artists. Too much of his work is of grand houses in sylvan settings that look like treatments for a Downton Abbey spinoff. Constable also romanticized the British countryside. For me, his watercolors are more inspiring that his oils. In the Clark show, his small studies and downsized oils intrigue more than his larger canvases.

J(oseph) M(allard) William Turner (1775-1851) was, simply, a weird individual who was short on social graces. Call him the enfant terrible of his generation. His mother was mentally ill and many have speculated that "William," his chosen name of address, may have inherited some of her instability. He was a loner who never married, though he did father two children by his housekeeper. Turner was constantly short of money and often lived amidst hand-to-mouth grime. He also shocked his contemporaries with his crude behavior.

There was no doubting his talent and he gained entry into the Royal Academy of Arts, his personal quirks notwithstanding. If you see a conventional-looking Turner, chances are good it was painted for a Royal Academy show. My favorite works of his are his moody oils and his loose and gauzy watercolors. Turner's signature works often sport low contrast tones that jump to life because of a splash of contrasting hue–a red smudge or bright side lighting in a dark room, for instance. Turner may have been mad or eccentric, but he left behind an astonishing number off canvasses.

That last remark is the foundation for my summary of the Clark show: too many Constables and not enough Turners. The lack of Turners makes the overall show feel as if it is cut from the same monochromatic cloth. The opening display is an unintended metaphor for the show's deficiencies. The first is a beach scene from Constable titled "Yarmouth Jetty." (See above) It is splendid in all the ways Constable tends to be. As is often the case, he violated the rule of thirds by making a dramatic sky dominate two-thirds of the frame. Sailing ships lean into the picture and the red-capped draughtsman draws the eye to the left foreground. 

Contrast this with a Turner beach scene, "View off Margate, Evening." (See above). The two approaches to ships on the horizon couldn't be more different. Notice the red and black tones in the lower right that look as if Turner was attacking his canvas rather than painting it. Notice also the orange sail leaning right and wispy figures on the beach leaning left. On the other side of the canvas we see what appears to be a cargo ship, but you have to look closely or you might see it as a ghost image. Turner laid on paint thickly in some parts of the image and barely skimmed the surface with color on other parts. Constable pictures always look complete; Turner's look as if he has just stepped back to contemplate what comes next. They also move, whereas most Constables are more static.


Would that there were more side-by-side moments in the Clark show. It's a small exhibit that takes up just two rooms and oddly enough, it makes the absence of diversity more noticeable. It's as if one could exit after seeing the first two paintings, as they vividly highlight the differences between Constable and Turner. I will credit the Clark for choosing some smaller Constables to contemplate. I was drawn to his "Sketch for the Opening of Waterloo Bridge," probably because its energy and disorder reminded me more of Turner. Even then, I preferred Turner's "Tummel Bridge, Perthshire." Okay, I admit that might be personal, as I've crossed that Scottish bridge. (I assume/hope it has had structural improvements since Turner visited in 1801!)

I would not call the current Clark exhibit a failure. It's more like a much anticipated restaurant meal that turns out to fine, but not special.

Rob Weir


Steve Winston, Steven Kellogg, RAM7, Timo Brandt, Sunset Avenue Sessions

Steve Winston, Unresolved

I wondered what happened to Steve Winston. I really liked his 2014 album Grayling, but then he dropped out of sight. Unresolved is a perfect title for his comeback project. It turns out he had some serious family issues to deal with and some­–like the loss of one’s parents–are not the kind that are easily fixed. He almost lost his grandson as well, so when he sings of him, the sun lights up like the Fourth of July, it’s easy to embrace his relief and joy. Flutes and strings that supplement his sensitive piano adorn this song, and it’s ultimately a very emotional song that’s honest and moving. There are lighthearted moments as well, such as his purposeful take on Neil Young on “Maidens.” It's at once a tribute–it seriously could have come from Young’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere–but it’s also tongue in cheek. On the country rock “Talk of the Town,” Winston uses a catchy little melody, but the song is really about rumors and how it leads to sniping at each other. It too is very Neil Young-like. Welcome back, Steve. ★★★★

Steven Kellogg, Objects on the Mirror

Another Steve I wondered about is Steven Kellogg, who got his musical start in a rock band–Steven Kellogg and the Sixers–right here in Northampton, MA where I live. Kellogg is mainly a solo folk artist on the country end of the scale these days. (He has also done a TED talk!) On “High Highs, Low Lows,” we hear some spit and husk in his throat in a song that takes down fairy tales. In its place we explore life’s peaks and pits. I can easily imagine this one being picked up by a CMT star with a whiskey-soaked voice. But Kellogg is actually a pretty happy guy these days. “Love of My Life” is about his wife, his high school squeeze. “Symphony of Joy” celebrates her and their four daughters. Here’s another thing about Kellogg. He enjoys performing before military troops. He’s a poster child for progressives who don’t concede family values and Americanism to the right. ★★★★

RAM7, August 1791

If August 1791 rings no bells, you’re not Haitian. That was the year thathe George Washington of Haiti, Toussaint L’Overture, launched a rebellion against France that was ultimately the world’s first successful nationalist slave rebellion. RAM7 is a band that honors the multiple threads that are woven into modern-day Haiti: West African, French, Creole, Christian, and vodou. It’s a post-punk-meets-funk outfit in part, but also one that combines history, ceremonies, and the creative energies of an eight-member ensemble. Richard and Chenel Morse are the paternal and maternal center of RAM7. Drums and clicking percussion frame big band style brass on “Dawomen Dakò," which is a ceremonial song but one with the pulse of rock n’ roll and the vocal treatments of African music. “St Jak” is also ceremonial, but its slow build makes it feel like a gentle pop-rock ballad.  Toussaint is honored on “Badji Feray O,” which is something between funk, reggae, and folk. Not much of this album would qualify as traditional music, but it’s a really fine introduction to Haiti’s multi-hued creative talents. You’ll even hear a few blasts from the rara, a strident one-note horn often used to announce street parades. ★★★★

Timo Brandt, Grounded

Let’s stay abroad for a moment. Timo Brandt is a German folk singer who sings in English. In his case, “grounded” means the music of the 1990s that shaped him: David Gray, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, and a hot of other Anglophones. Like most folk singers, he tries to strike universal chords whenever he can. On “Solid Ground” he asks a poignant question: They say you as young as you feel/And they say you have to find yourself/But what if are getting older/And still not the one you try to be? I always like people willing to be self-deprecating. Brandt puts a sunny indie pop slant to “Thanks, I’m Fine” and sings of how people tell him his songs are too slow and melancholy. I suppose one could say that, but I really like the way he compliments his light tenor with bright acoustic tuning that manages to communicate emotion without banging us over the head with them. Besides, I’m not sure what’s melancholic about a sweet song like the title track, which says that love is the thing that truly grounds us. Beats the hell out of angst and anger, yeah? If you’re wondering, I doubt you’d ever know this guy was German if I hadn’t told you. ★★★★

Jesse Terry, Lizanne Knott, and Michael Logen, Sunset Avenue Sessions

 Jesse Terry is a fine songwriter in his own right, but he’s also a chameleon who covers songs written by friends and strangers he admires. You’ll find treatments  of Johnny Cash (“Ring of Fire”) and Buffalo Springfield (“For What It’s Worth”) on   Sunset Avenue Sessions, plus some Terry originals that will immediately put you in mind of others. “Dance in Our Old Shoes” has Paul Simon’s pawmarks all over it, and John Lennon’s ghost haunts “Kaleidoscope (The latter is on a promo sampler, but not the CD.) Lizanne Knott was once a rocker, but she’s now Nashville. “Why You Wanna Break My Heart” is smoky and evocative of something a small jazz combo might bust out around midnight. She goes mountain chanteuse on “Wildflowers.” Michael Logen is also a Nashville staple from the Americana stable. His “Already Home” unfolds to a steady foot tap that’s the pad from which he launches the falsetto built into the swelling refrain. “Ocean Floor” is quiet and introspective. These three artists harmonize with each other nicely (as does Dar Williams on Terry’s “Stargazer”). When you add up the covers and the previously recorded material, this album won’t win originality awards, but its gentle spirit might help you get through the winter more easily. ★★★

Rob Weir


Love and Ruin Worthwhile, but Flat

By Paula McLain
Penguin Random House, 432 pages

Novelist Paula McLain has been on a quest to write about intrepid women. For Circling the Sun, her subject was Beryl Markham; in The Paris Wife, it was Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife (1921-27), who introduced the then little-known writer to important literary figures. Love and Ruin could be considered a sequel to Love and Ruin, except Hemingway had a second marriage to Pauline Pfeiffer (1927-40) before he hooked up with Martha Gellhorn, his third wife (1940-45) and the main subject of McLain’s latest novel.

 Hemingway was a difficult man: reckless, egoistic, bullying, and demanding. He was sometimes referred to as a man’s man and was most comfortable in the company of fawning comrades. He was also insecure in many ways and whenever he shed one wife, he quickly remarried. (When he divorced Gellhorn in 1945, he married correspondent Mary Welsh the next year and stayed with her until his suicide in 1961.)

McLain’s take on “Marty” Gellhorn is that “Papa” Hemingway didn’t like competition! He was already famous when he met Gellhorn in 1937 and convinced her to travel to Spain to report on the Spanish Civil War. This took some finagling, as Gellhorn was a relative unknown at the time. She soon proved her mettle as correspondent and mistress. Both she and Hemingway ran on adrenaline, and one might conclude that in Hemingway’s case, a mistress fit him better. Although Hemingway initially encouraged Gellhorn’s writing, he tried to make her into a doting wife who’d play hostess at his Finca Vigia homestead in Cuba, where he entertained drinking buddies and hangers-on. In McLain’s telling, Gellhorn simply wasn’t cut from domestic cloth. Although she was with Hemingway when he completed his masterpiece, For Whom the Bell Tolls, he became increasingly jealous of Gellhorn’s assignments during World War II. (He was also an alcoholic and irresponsible with money.)

Gellhorn is the heroine of Love and Ruin, but an imperfect one. It took her a few years to realize that she could not have it all: marriage, career, domesticity, and respect. We see her struggle to be taken seriously on her own terms, not as Ernest Hemingway’s wife. McLain's Gellhorn seesaws between conformity in one moment and a lioness on the hunt for what she wants the next. This made her as complicated and contradictory as Hemingway. It also made it impossible to sustain her marriage. For his part, it’s hard to determine which flowed more freely in Hemingway, testosterone or booze. Like Gellhorn, McLain shows him as a volatile mix of fragility and fierce independence. Mostly, though, Hemingway’s ego only allowed women to shine in his reflected glow.

McLain’s sprawling novel takes us from Key West and Cuba to Madrid, Finland, and Germany. In some ways, it’s about two people seeking unconditional love who spend much of their time setting conditions. The relationship only worked when Papa and Marty were in the midst of danger and on the move. The title says it all: love and ruin. No one will ever write a book about either figure titled Stasis and Happiness.

I am a big fan of McLain’s novels and love the idea that she puts strong women at the center of her tales. Yet despite the fact that Love and Ruin features two powerful and fascinating characters, it’s not up to McLain’s usual standards. It’s a good book and worth a read, but it feels flat in ways that are hard to describe. Perhaps the very thought of a sustainable relationship between these two individuals is so absurd that that we feel what must happen long before McLain describes it. How does one explain abortive domesticity without taming two individuals whose very natures rebel against that ideal? Would we believe it were we treated to moments of mundane wedded bliss? McLain gives us a woman who ultimately refused to be either a goddess or a victim, but once we know this, the rest of the story is telegraphed.

I seldom feel this way about historical figures, but for once I favor a film over a novel. The 2012 movie Hemingway & Gellhorn–with Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman in the title roles­–tells the same story as McLain’s book, but we have visuals to flesh out the details and provide a dramatic backdrop. I wouldn’t call Love and Ruin a misstep–McLain is too good a writer–but I did find it less than the sum of its parts.

Rob Weir


The Witch Elm Worthwhile but not a Tana French Gem

The Witch Elm (2108)
By Tana French
Penguin/Random House, 528 pages.

Toby Hennessy has it all: education, supportive parents, charm, good looks, a cool PR job with an avant-garde Dublin art gallery, snarky BFFs, and a sweet girlfriend named Melissa who adores him. He's an only child, but his first cousins Susannah and Leon are like siblings to him. Maybe. Everyone loves Toby. Maybe. But one night he is beaten by burglars and suffers some pretty major physical injuries, including a concussion that leaves big memory gaps. Doctors tell him that he'll recover most of his memory. Maybe.

The Witch Elm is about lots of maybes, as in possible scenarios based upon what is remembered and forgotten. One thing that's for sure is that Toby isn't going to work soon. But being the lucky guy he is, he can get away from the bad vibes of his burgled apartment by retreating to Ivy Hall, a grand-if-dowdy suburban family home occupied by his beloved uncle Hugo. Hugo is the prototype of an eccentric bachelor, and he certainly indulged Toby, Su, and Leon as kids and adolescents. The sad note is that Hugo is dying of cancer, so Toby and Melissa settle in to help him, mostly with meals and his genealogy studies as he's a resourceful old coot otherwise.

Things get hairy when one of Su's kids finds a human skull while climbing in the giant wych elm* in the walled-in yard. Detectives soon discover an entire skeleton inside a hollow section of the tree. No such luck that it's ancient; it belongs to an old friend of Toby's named Dominic. How can that be? Dominic allegedly committed suicide by throwing himself into the sea a decade earlier, and Toby went to his memorial service. What ensues is like Edgar Allen Poe's "The Telltale Heart" crossed with The Girl on the Train.

Tana French is (rightly) famous for her Irish detective novels, but The Witch Elm focuses on those caught up in the middle of what might be a murder investigation. Toby's memory is muddled, but he remembers liking Dominic, though they weren't "friend friends," as he relates to investigator Mike Rafferty. He was just another spirited guy in the pack of young adults who hung out at Hugo's house. Except Toby's benign view of Dominic doesn't match that of Su, Leon, Toby's friends, or others who all say he was an absolute monster. How can Toby's memory be so different? Was he oblivious? Is his concussion rearranging reality? Or is it PTSD for his own misdeeds? Rafferty regards Toby as a suspect, but he's pretty sure he could never do anything like this. But there are those memory gaps…. Maybe he should consider that he is a murderer.

The Witch Elm is loosely based on a real (unsolved) case from England in 1944, but it's really a mind game novel. What it does well is precisely what Poe did: put us inside the terrified mind of a suspect. It is not, however, up to the quality of Ms. French's prior novels. In my view, she tried too hard to write a book relevant to #MeToo sensibilities. It may even be a backdoor slam on men. I don't know about Irish law, but in the United States, the any charges secured by of her hawkshaw Rafferty would be tossed as entrapment. Rafferty comes off as a Machiavellian bully who force-fits his inferences, but most of her male characters are loutish and crude.

The last quarter of the book seems a parallel force-fit. Melissa seems too to be true, as if French was using her as an archetype for female goodness. I give French credit for tossing a curve that I did not anticipate, but that twist ultimately rests upon acceptance of gender essentialism that I found more troubling than a skeleton in a tree.

The good news is that even a lackluster Tana French novel is smart, lively, provocative, and well paced. Like several of her other books, French probes the darker side of privilege to remind us that the label "lucky" is one too cavalierly applied. Nonetheless, The Witch Elm is a bit like its namesake tree–a rarity. In this case, it's a novel that's merely okay rather than spectacular.

Rob Weir

* The witch elm–also called a Scots elm–has nothing to do with black magic. The Old English word wych or wice means flexible in a springy sort of way. French uses it to suggest memory is elastic. 


Tattooist of Auschwitz a Great Tale/Middling Novel

By Heather Morris
HarperCollins, 288 pages.

Heather Morris has written a novel about one of the most improbable love stories imaginable. Ludwig "Lale" Sokolov fell in love with Gita Furman at first sight. That's an old story, but Lale was tattooing Gita the time. Okay, so maybe that's a modern love story, but this one begins in 1942 and Lale, a Slovakian Jew, was a tätowierer at Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the very worst of the Nazi concentration/death camps. He was the one who burned Gita's camp number into her arm.

Morris tells her tale from Lale's point of view. He, like the reader, is aware that survival in such a house of horrors is something of a crapshoot, but he does his best to improve his odds. The Nazis find him useful, as he is multilingual. As it transpires, he's also crafty. Once he gains access to some of the camp's areas off-limits to most prisoners, he is able to secret away jewels. These he trades with Polish day workers for all manner of goods, including food. He is so good at this that even a few SS guards call upon him to procure items. He also cultivates friendships with the Roma housed in Auschwitz, and with many of the some 300,000 Hungarian Jews that passed through. In today's terms, we might call Lale a "fixer" who makes sure that Gita, her friends, and as many others as possible don't starve or succumb to diseases. He also carries on a carnal love affair with Gita in the camp, a very dangerous thing indeed. He vows they will marry when they leave the camp, a pledge Gita and almost everyone else finds unlikely. To stay alive, Lale must walk a tightrope between doing just enough for others so that they know him to be a good person and don't expose him, yet not so much that his smuggling is exposed. He also needs to avoid the monstrous Dr. Joseph Mengele as much as he possibly can and play a subservient role when he cannot.

Although the Lale/Gita love story is compelling, in many ways Lale's networks are more so.  World War II narratives often shortchange the Roma (aka/ "gypsies," a now problematic term), but some 23,000 perished during the war, as did an estimated 2 million non-Jewish Poles. Morris gives us a sense of how each group was treated in the camp. To some extent, the Nazis were less brutal to the educated Lale than to Roma and Poles. To be blunt about it, a good tätowierer was harder to replace, though Mengele did castrate one of Lale's colleagues. We also gain insight into how camp networks developed and functioned.

This is not Hogan's Heroes, though. It's not even Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful. Auschwitz is presented as it was: a den of monstrosity and torture. One of the raps against the novel is that Morris did not make Auschwitz-Birkenau worse than she did. I'd call that fair criticism. In fact, it would be easy to read this novel and dismiss it as too rosy, a love-conquers-all tale that just happens to be set in Auschwitz. Except…

Except that it's actually a memoir/novel hybrid. It is based on interviews Morris held with Ludwig "Lale" Eisenberg, the model for Sokolov. She spoke with him numerous times before his death in 2006, and he told her of things of which he had never spoken until after Gita's death in 2003. Why the delay? More than a million people died at Auschwitz. It was the very epicenter of Hitler's "Final Solution" and the site where nearly a tenth of all wartime Jewish casualties occurred. Holocaust scholars speak of "survivor's guilt," a form of PTSD that affected those lucky enough to be liberated. In Eisenberg's case, he also feared being seen as a collaborator on par with the hated kapo, Jews who were the equivalent of slave drivers who did a lot of the Nazis' dirty work in exchange for privileges such as better food and housing. Some would say Eisenberg was on that level.

It is easy to find factual flaws in Morris's novel. One scene has him smuggling penicillin to save Gita and that almost certainly could not have occurred. There are numerous other details that Holocaust experts call into question. I'll leave it to them to debate whether these were misremembered 50+ years later or were deliberately altered by Eisenberg. As a novelist, Morris should be given a degree of artistic license. Her goal, after all, is to make the reader care about her characters. She certainly does that with Lale, though Gita is less developed and often comes across as a damsel-in-distress awaiting rescue. That too may be correct, but many of Morris' female characters lack agency. In fact, sometimes it seems as if the only people in the camp who had free will (as opposed to acting with brute force) were Mengele and Lale.

It's problematic for any reviewer to criticize a book on the Holocaust. Let me simply say that I can't tell you how much of this novel is factual and how much is the product of Morris' imagination. I can say, though, that The Tattooist of Auschwitz began life as a screenplay that didn't fly. Morris then launched a Kickstarter campaign that helped her convert it into a novel. It is her first work of fiction. In that regard, the book is better imagined than written, and even then the arc is episodic rather than linear. Much of the prose is flat in the way that screenplays set scenes and it's up to the actors to infuse the dialogue with drama and color. In this case, the reader is called upon to inhabit the words.

My ultimate take is that this is a tremendous story that is competently but prosaically told. It will inform you and make you imagine what you would do under similar circumstances. I won't say there is much literary magic sprinkled upon the pages, but there's enough to keep us turning them.

Rob Weir



Fox & Bones, Kitka, Bearfoot, Zak Trojano: New Releases

Fox and Bones, Better Land

Combine the leave-it-on-the-stage hard work of Ellis Paul, add a female voice, and mix with pop- and country-tinged folk and you’ve got an idea of what Fox and Bones sounds like. This delightful Oregon-based duo of Sarah Vitort (“Fox”) and Scott Gilmore (“Bones”) serves up music that’s optimistic, harmonically simpatico, and catchy. It seems these days that any man/woman duo draws immediate comparisons to the (now defunct) Civil Wars, which is a shame as it’s hard for most female singers to match Joy Williams. It also pigeonholes bands in inaccurate ways. Ignore those comparisons, Fox and Bones shines with its own light. The title track is a slice of hope for our troubled times. It manages to be deeply emotional and make a joyful noise despite being just two voices and a resonant guitar. “Little Animal” is a hand-clap, thick bass line treat with the wonderful line: Everything has already been said/Well, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The YouTube video of the song is silly, yet strangely compelling. “Welcome Home” tells of one who had lost his way, but landed well and recounts that journey in an honest warts-and-all fashion. Fox and Bones also have a new single, “Love Me Like a River,” and it’s both mysterious and come-hither carnal. This is definitely an act to catch. ★★★★

Kitka, Evening Star/Wintersongs

From Oakland comes a remarkable collection of women who sing in 18 different languages and carry endorsements from everyone from David Crosby to Garrison Keillor. Those 18 languages, by the way, include Ladino and medieval Galician. Maybe you didn’t know anyone spoke Galician in the Middle Ages. Kitka delight in teaching as well enrapturing us. Summer Burke of the Guardian said it well, “Even God stops to listen when Kitka … opens its collective mouth.” Kita truly is a collective–nine voices at last count–performing mostly a cappella music inspired by Eastern European traditions, especially those of Bulgaria. Their repertoire sometimes seems like choral singing. At the other end of the scale are ancient songs that skirt the edges of dissonance and could have been the soundtrack for creation. I listened to 22 tracks from two albums, each of them a jewel. See what you think of “Momci Koledarci,” with keening and drone from Kitka adding depth to a Bulgarian young people’s ensemble. Go with Kitka on the road as they sing one of their winter songs, “Ščo v pana khazjajna.” Their voices linger in the air like falling snow on “Alilo.” I have no idea what the lyrics to any of these might mean. I don’t need to. I agree with Summer Burke. ★★★★★

Bearfoot, Strong Water

Is there’s any doubt that bluegrass music is hotter than a banjo in a bonfire, consider that bands form in places where Kentucky-style bluegrass wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell. Like Alaska for instance, which is where Bearfoot started playing even before several of its members headed off to Eastern Tennessee State University to study. Fiddler Angela Oudean joined Bearfoot when she was just 16 and now might be the only person in the country with a BS in sociology and a minor in bluegrass! Bearfoot’s blend of grass seed contains alt.country, swing, folk, Cajun, and–courtesy of guest singer Megan McCormick–a bit of blues. “Firefly” sounds like a Heather Maloney song until Oudean turns it loose. Youthful exuberance meets breakneck playing on “Derailed;” Poison Drips” has the taste of a sweet mountain song, its title notwithstanding. I reckon the “Tuscarora” ridges look mighty puny to native Alaskans, but they give the weathered Appalachians a loving treatment. Good stuff from a rising band. ★★★★

Zak Trojano, Wolf Trees

The first time I heard Zak Trojano he washed over me in the way opening acts often do. What a difference a few years can make. The phrase, “he plays a wicked guitar” can be overused, but it fits Trojano like fingerpicks, which is what he wears when he showcases acoustic lap guitar and dark voice on “99 Ways.” His songwriting skills have also sharpened, as you’ll hear on “Kid’s Got Heart.” If you like acoustic guitar that booms and rings with dark tones, “Nowhere Shuffle” is for you. With the release of Wolf Trees Zak Trojano has come into his own. Don’t take my word for it; Chris Smither hangs out with Trojano. ★★★★