Claudia Schmidt's New Whirled Order Makes Old Ideas New Again

New Whirled Order
Red House Records 275
 * * * *

The youth of every generation tend to believe that what’s hot is “new.” Is Claudia Schmidt’s new album folk music, jazz, or spoken word? Yes, yes, and yes. Schmidt isn’t trying to be cool–she just is. That’s the way she’s been doing things long before today’s young whipperhipsters were even born. Call New Whirled Order a mature album whose direct antecedents are a mélange of 1950s modal jazz, the ethos of Beat poetry, and the Folk Revival’s unleashing of singer-songwriters and its recovery of forgotten instruments.  Schmidt’s opening track, “Already,” highlights the way one can integrate dulcimer, accordion, percussion, and guitar, and her scale-smashing vocals occupy the space you might expect a rhythm section to appear*

Schmidt’s folk material tends toward poignant themes such as “Sea of Forgiveness,” with a lone oboe adding wistful notes to the mix, or “Jane’s Gone,” a lullaby-like lilt dedicated to her recently deceased mother. But this album’s overall tone is joyful, not melancholic. The themes in “Coward in the Face of Love” are serious, but the melody is bouncy, the hooks memorable, and Schmidt’s soaring notes are evocative of Motown. For comic relief, Schmidt offers “Strong Woman Has a Bad Day Polka,” a song indicative of her penchant for turning prosaic observations into offbeat humor. This time Betsy Dorris’ oboe sounds like it swallowed a piccolo.

Schmidt exercises her jazz muse on “Dawn Star,” whose melody she co-wrote with guitarist Dean Magraw. The lyrics are poetic and sung with a soulful coolness evocative of Chet Baker. By contrast, “Sometime Ago” is piano-based cool jazz with scat interludes–more in the Helen Morrill tradition with Ella Fitzgerald breakouts. Want more jazzy departures? I was surprised to find that “Nothing” was one of hers and not something from Leonard Cohen’s backlist. Then there is pure poetry–her paean to the unspoken in “Longing,” which is bookended by dulcimer/guitar instrumentation and Schmidt’s angelic warbles. Schmidt takes us across styles and across time, so what better way to end than with a round– also dedicated to her mother–in which Sally Rogers, Howie Bursen, and Jeff Davis add their voices. What a perfect title–New Whirled Order draws upon musical ideas so old they’re new again.  

Rob Weir

 * The YouTube version of "Already" lacks the accordion of the studio version, but this is a high-quality video that proves Claudia is even more dynamic live.


Aurélie Dorzée Fills the Empty Spaces

Horror Vacui
* * *

To say that Belgian chanteuse/violinist Aurélie Dorzée is somewhat unorthodox is akin to saying that Cirque du Soliel is a tad daring, and the circus analogy doesn’t end there. Her latest, Horror Vacui, takes its title from Italian art critic Mario Praz and translates “fear of the empty,” a term he coined to describe how Victorians filled every space in their homes. It’s a double pun for Dorzée, who neither leaves silences on her album, nor fills them with what you’d expect. She describes her material as “experimental folk,” though such a label is merely a convenient handle for an uncategorizable blend of minimalist sounds. She often merely plucks the violin strings and fills the spaces with vocal scales, keening, and primal screams. Her parents were in the theatre, and the overall feel of the album is often dramatic, but in the twisted way that an existential circus might present itself. (Think one of Cirque’s jongleur-based performances.)

Her violin playing is what one might get via a mash of classical training, Roma abandon, and the darkness of Scandinavian industrial rock. When she mixes vocals, even wilder combinations suggest themselves. “Le Roi et la Marionette,” for instance–the title is lifted from an Urbain Du Roure novel–evokes the smoky cafe melancholia of Edith Piaf, but also the whimsical theatrics of Yoko Ono. Even the titles are off-kilter: the album’s most conventionally lyrical tune is called “Son sexe végétal” (“His Sex Plant”) and the buzzy Breton-like “Celle Qui a Vent dans La Tête,” which translates (roughly) as “She Who has an Empty Head.”   In many ways, though, the title track encapsulates the album’s feel. Dorzée’s violin is  haunting in both the distinctiveness of the tune and in the foreboding ambiance it conjures. I cannot promise you’ll like this album–only that you’ll not hear its like elsewhere.   

Rob Weir

Think I'm kidding about her oddness. Check out this.  This one is pretty wild as well.


Two from the Sea on DVD

ALL IS LOST (2013)
Director: J. C. Chandor
Lionsgate, PG-13 , 105 mins.
* *
Director: Paul Greenglass
Columbia, PG-13, 134 minutes

Two sea tales and two very different results, starting with the fact that the longer of the two seems to speed by in a flash and the shorter one feels like an eternity.

Things go bad--including the script.
All is Lost is set in the Strait of Malacca (between Malaysia and Sumatra) and it’s hard not think of Flight 370, which disappeared just after flying across it. One of the things we’ve learned thus far is that the Indian Ocean is filled with floating junk piles, including shipping containers like the one that pierces the hull of the 39-foot yacht Robert Redford is sailing solo in All is Lost. We don’t know his character’s name, or why he’s alone in the middle of watery nowhere­—just two of several mysteries in this nearly silent film. (After all, how much dialogue can we expect from a loner alone?) All is Lost is ultimately a disaster film in which everything that can go wrong does, and our protagonist puts himself on a crash course on survival. The film’s one big issue is to force us consider what we would do if we were alone and concluded that our situation was hopeless. The movie is beautifully filmed and the building terror is palpable, but it’s ultimately a one-trick pony whose theme is: just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it does. Its ambiguous ending notwithstanding, All is Lost is ultimately pretty boring once you get the point that the ocean is way bigger than we.

Surprisingly subtle.
Who would have thought that Tom Hanks would out act Robert Redford? He does in the taut drama Captain Phillips, in which he plays the titular character. Okay, so the real Rich Phillips is from Underhill, Vermont, and Hanks' accent won't make you forget Meryl Streep, but he does a superb job commanding the Maersk Alabama that, in 2009, became the first American commercial vessel to be hijacked in nearly 200 years when a small band of Somali pirates boarded it as it rounded the Horn of Africa. The film is really a psychological cat-and-mouse game between Phillips and the four Somalis holding him hostage for ransom. It is a remarkably balanced look at the differences between First and Third World problems. The Somalis are pirates and capable of violence, but the film shows us that they are also desperately poor men doing the bidding of powerful warlords who prey on captives and captors alike, and that container ships are sitting ducks because the firms that own them are too cheap to arm them or pay for security details. As Phillips puts it in an exchange with pirate captain Abdul Muse (Barkhad Abdi), “We all have bosses,” a statement at once meant to moralize and sympathize. As Phillips and Muse learn, they’re not all that different—each of them seeking honor, each seeking to protect his crew, each longing to get to America, and each not entirely the master of his own fate. Phillips knows that once the US Navy arrives on the scene that Muse and his men—one a humble pilot, one just a boy, and the other perhaps a psycho—can’t win, but Muse knows that he can’t go back empty-handed. It’s a classic Mexican standoff and we sit on the edges of our seats to see if any of it will (or even can) end well. I suppose the film could be criticized as a two-hour striptease, but it’s so well done it doesn’t feel manipulative. It would come close to topping my list for the most surprisingly good film of 2013—one I admit to avoiding in the cinema because the previews led me to believe it would be lame. It’s not. Rent this one—it’s not Citizen Kane, but it’s far from being McHale’s Navy. And it’s not white hats versus black hats either.

Rob Weir