Whiskey Kiss: December 2016 Album of the Month

Most of us get a bit nostalgic in late December. I can't think of many better ways to ring out the old year than with the new-spin-on-old-styles magic of Phoenix-based Whiskey Kiss. Their latest CD is titled Retro Revamped and it's true to its title. Think a mix of rockabilly, skiffle, vintage pop/rock, Chicago blues, and surf guitar. Vocalist Niki White anchors the band. Whether intentionally or not, her vocals are a go-to-hell rejoinder to air-swallowing little-girl-voiced singers everywhere. To say that Ms. White has a big voice is understatement akin to suggesting that the Grand Canyon seems rather large. Retro Revamped is a record that sweats, grunts, and bristles with tension–much of it sexual in nature. I like to think of it as Patsy Cline on an extended Bad Girl Road Trip. If you think I exaggerate, check out the bump-and-grind tempo of songs like "Vixen." (The title alone tells ya' something!) And when she sings, "I Got a New Man," her excitement has nothing to do with the dude's conversational prowess.

This isn't to suggest that Ms. White is a libertine; she's actually married to lead guitarist Nick White. (Yeah, Nick and Niki!) He's quite a treat in is right. He wails away on "I Wanna Know" as if acid rock was invented a decade earlier than it was, channels Carl Perkins on "Can't Catch Me," updates skiffle on "Something on a Record," and wields a spooky surf guitar on "Why Ya' Do" and "Cat Scratch." The latter two songs are also emblematic of the musical synergy between Nick and Niki. In the first song, the guitar sets the mood for vocals colored with growls and squeals; the second is a let-'er-rip number in which guitar notes ring, fingers snap in time to Michael Robinson's high hat percussion, Tommy Collins' bass comes out thick and low, and Bruce Legge's horns blare. But listen to White's vocals and you'll know instantly that she's more wildcat than hepcat.

As noted, the arrangements throughout are simultaneously retro and fresh. "I Wanna Know" is evocative of early Motown–right down to soulful background vocals from Taryn Lewis and Katie Moore–yet somehow it's different. Ditto "All You Need," which is strongly reminiscent of "Johnny B. Goode," yet sounds more countrified. I also enjoyed the high drama of "Cold Cold Man," a done-me-wrong song with ringing chords, quick sprays of notes, defiant bass, and mournful vocals that bathe the song in a deeper sorrow. Add Niki White to the list of vocalists you need to hear before the snows melt. Let's put it this way–she and Whiskey Kiss have shared a stage with Wanda Jackson. They're just that damn good! 

Rob Weir

PS: There's another band called Whiskey Kiss that has a high profile on the Web. This review references the Phoenix-based rockabilly quintet, not the four-piece Hattiesburg, Mississippi rock n' roll cover band. 

The cover band has loads of videos on YouTube, but this band hasn't yet posted any. You can catch an inkling of what they're like by clicking on the video section of their Website. 


Jackie: Great Performances and Conflicted Views

JACKIE  (2016)
Directed by Pablo Larraín
Fox Searchlight, 99 minutes, R (language, violent images)

Are you hearing impaired? If so, wait for Jackie to get picked up by Netflix and turn on the subtitles. Natalie Portman has been praised for her performance as Jacquelyn Kennedy and it's clear that she spent time preparing for the role: right down to trying to channel Jackie's affected whispery voice, which is hard on weak ears.

The sound is one of several things that makes Jackie an uneven film rather than triumph it could have been. An awful musical soundtrack also encumbers it. The music, composed by Mica Levi, is overwrought, over loud, and over done. Perhaps Chilean director Pablo Larrín was worried that he might not come across clearly enough in his English-language debut and instructed Levi to telegraph what we were supposed to feel. It's either that, or that Levi is a lousy composer. My third nitpick with the sound is that Portman's accent is inconsistent–not quite Southampton, New York, from which she hailed; not quite the affected tones of the socialite she was raised to be; and not quite the accented Continental French soft vowels she picked up at the Sorbonne. Now and then we also hear echoes of a failed Bostonian accent--for mysterious and nonsensical reasons. (Don't believe reviews pronouncing her accent "perfect.")

Now let's get to the better stuff. This is not a Jackie Kennedy biopic; it centers on a four snippets of her life: a 1962 televised tour of the White House she hosted; the buildup and immediate aftermath of the assassination of her husband; her conversation with journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup), with whom she spoke in Hyannis Port a week after John Kennedy's funeral; and the 1967 re-internment of two children she lost in 1955 and 1956 (miscarriage and still birth). Ms. Portman is superb in capturing Jackie Kennedy's steely resolve. Portman is especially skillful at both walking and drawing the lines–a woman in deep shock, but also so angry that she wasn't about to change her blood-soaked pink suit for the benefit of appearances. "Let them see what they've done," she icily insists. In similar fashion, she was ready to do her duty, but not to be orchestrated by Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) or Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson (John Carroll Lynch, Beth Grant). And he called the shots to White, not vice versa: "Oh, and I don't smoke," she tells him as she puffs her way through the Life Magazine interview. Right after telling him, "You know I'll never let you publish that," when she temporarily loses her cool. We also see her vulnerable side around her children Caroline and John, her wavering faith discussions with Father Richard McSorley (John Hurt), and even a soft side in her affection for her social secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig). In other words, Portman dances on the lip of an oozing volcano and manages to do so with grace.

Don't be surprised, though, if it's Sarsgaard who carries off an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in a few months. He doesn't look much like Bobby Kennedy, but he sure does nail his mannerisms–his fierce loyalty to family, his penchant for insider power games, and even his tendency to bully–as when he orders President Johnson to sit down and announces that he will decide when to inform Jackie of a piece of disturbing news. John Hurt is also terrific in his small pastoral role.

Is this a good film? I suspect I'm in the same boat as anyone old enough to remember Jack and Jackie Kennedy: conflicted. It certainly brought back boyhood memories and trauma. I'm even prepared to say that Portman has done Jackie as well as anyone has done. And yet–she's not Jackie. She's an admirable simulacrum, but an obvious substitute all the same. It raises a question of whether it was necessary to work so hard on Jackie's vocal tones. Why not make it screen friendlier? In the end, Jackie's greatest accomplishment lies in showing her role in cementing the image of the JFK White House as Camelot. White complained at the time that the metaphor was overdrawn. Guess who got the last word? That part rings very true. Does the rest? Like I said, I'm conflicted. But this also makes me think I'm in the presence of a so-so film, not a great one. Great movies are transcendent; they don't invite questions such as mine.

Rob Weir


The Underground Railroad not Perfect, but May Be a Work of Genius

By Colson Whitehead
Doubleday, 320 pages

The Underground Railroad is an inventive work of fiction that blends elements of science fiction, horror, fantasy, and appropriated history. Please note the words "inventive" and "fiction." No one should read (or assign) this novel as if Colson Whitehead has written historical fiction, that strange hybrid genre that blends facts with invented dialogue and/or characters. His intent, in fact, is often quite the opposite; he wants to de-romanticize the way we think of the Underground Railroad by placing it outside of customary historical interpretation.

Many Northerners in the post-slavery era wish to assuage their consciences with the belief that their ancestors helped escaped slaves make their way to freedom. Hundreds of strange niches in old houses have been ahistorically labeled as hiding spots, though few of them actually were. Nor do they wish to ask the question of why escaped slaves would need hide in a cubby in, say, Amherst, Massachusetts. Sure–various fugitive slave laws meant there were slave catchers trying to reclaim human property, but their very ability to do so in the "free" North presupposes a social milieu in which many Northerners were in complicit in turning in runaways and comfortable in their racist skins. Racism was the norm in both North and South, and even many abolitionists assumed white superiority. 

Whitehead tells the story of Cora, a slave to a cruel Georgia master. She's headstrong and a bit damaged from the fact that she was left behind as a toddler when her own her mother ran away. Cesar, another slave, eventually convinces her to seek out the Underground Railroad. Up to this point, you could find parallels to Cora and Cesar in a history text, but it's also here that Colson veers us towards metaphor and imagination. He depicts the Underground Railroad as if it were a physical network of rails, steam locomotives, conductors, stations, and transport cars–something akin to an elaborate subway system crisscrossing the Deep South. It was no such thing. The actual Underground Railroad operated almost entirely in North and not at all in the Deep South–a runaway usually had to get north of the Mason-Dixon Line before having a prayer of linking with it.

Whitehead asserts that Gulliver's Travels was among his inspirations; he wanted to place Cora in different places to emphasize to "reboot" (his word) the story upon each border crossing. This makes things very interesting indeed. As a black writer, Whitehead's avenue toward appropriating (re-appropriating?) history is to collapse time. It is important that we see Cora's plight as a metaphor for a broader racist past and present. Hers is not a personal story; Cora merely floats on a surging river of cruelty, injustice, and inhumanity. Old Man River, if you will, keeps rolling along, so why be constrained by chronological time when Truth is unbound by clock or calendar?

The railroad first takes Cora and Cesar to South Carolina, depicted as semi-enlightened on the surface. They live in a biracial, if not entirely equal, community where they are surrounded by wonders and oddities: a skyscraper, a living history museum and, ultimately, a nefarious eugenics experiment. There were no skyscrapers until the 1880s–roughly 50 years after the novel's setting. (Whitehead never pins down the date. Why would he?) But to get back to the rivers of time notion, if Cora's job of play-acting a professional black person in the Museum of Wonder's "Scenes from Darkest Africa" and "Life on a Slave Ship" strikes you as implausible, check out depictions of African Americans at the 1893 World's Fair, the real-life saga of Ota Benga, or mock slave sales at Colonial Williamsburg from the 1990s into this century. Eugenics also developed later, but Whitehead sounds a futuristic bell to alert us to horrors such as the 20th century Tuskegee syphilis experiments. 

Whitehead also messes with time when Cora reaches North Carolina–with backward-looking echoes of white retribution after Nat Turner's Rebellion (which was actually in Virginia) and nods to the future when lynching was commonplace. North Carolina never outlawed black people as depicted in the book, but Whitehead suggests dreams of doing occupied many white minds, hence an avenue of butchered black corpses ironically labeled the "Freedom Trial." (Is this also a subtle dig at self-righteous Boston?)

Similar weird twists occur as Cora makes her way to Tennessee and then Indiana, all the way being pursued by Ridgeway, a relentless slave catcher straight out The Fugitive. Some of the things you read happened; others are metaphors. (The runaway slave advertisements are real.) Like the role of Mann in the John Singleton film Rosewood, Whitehead mixes history and fantasy because he wants to make a bigger point. Point made and taken, Mr. Whitehead. I won't condescend and declare this book a masterpiece–anyone taking as many chances as Whitehead is prone to a few head-scratching leaps of logic (and tonal changes). So, not a perfect book, but an important one, and quite possibly a work of genius.

Rob Weir



Geometry for Massachusetts Drivers

Outsiders often think that the Bruins and the Patriots represent the numbers one and two contact sports in Massachusetts. Not so–it's driving and politics--in that order. It may not be our fault in driving; though non-charitable folks call us "Massholes. "I blame it on poor geometry teaching.

Consider this a Public Service Announcement. Those of you who live in other common-sense-challenged areas–like Connecticut, New Jersey, and Wyoming–can adapt this PSA for local use.

1. The octagon. It looks like the figure to the left and it is always red in color. In usually contains the letters S-T-O-P, which means you are expected to come to a complete halt, as in the tires must stop rotating altogether. In theory, you are supposed to remain still for three seconds. Now comes the tricky part. You are not allowed to continue until no other cars impede your progress. Any vehicle standing to your right has priority over you. Please dispense with the notion that you can go whenever you think the odds are in your favor.   

 2. Angles: The illustration below is very useful in comprehending the concept of allowing your vehicle to change its direction left or right, which is generally expressed as making a turn. To execute a turn, however, one needs a complete understanding of 90-degree angles. Assume you are driving along the bottom x-axis from where it says 45 on the right.  To execute proper 90-degree right turn at the small square,  you need to perform an L-like maneuver. Anything less than this–especially those that create a 45-degree V-like angle is called a veer. The veer—exemplified by the line connecting 45 to 45–is very dangerous, especially if there is another car at the corner where you wish to execute a turn. The veer runs the risk of removing the front part of the other vehicle. Most car owners object strenuously when a complete stranger violently severs the front end of their car.

3. Shortest distance between two points: A popular folk saying holds that "the shortest distance between two points is a straight line." This isn't  always the case. As this illustration shows, for a hiker on the round earth or a tennis player seeking to back pedal on a lob, the shortest distance might involve the use of a bisecting angle. Mostly, though, you should forget you ever heard anything about the shortest distance. The shortest distance isn't necessarily the safest distance.

Let's assume you're driving and you see a squiggly sign like this one. Some drivers think this indicates that there is a snake in the road and immediately speed up, as they hate reptiles. This is an incorrect reading of the sign, which actually means that the road itself is non-linear. The correct response is to reduce your speed so that your car will remain safely stay on your side of the road.

Under no circumstance are you allowed to come to any of the curves and bisect them by going straight because it's the "shortest" distance. That's actually illegal. If you are still struggling with the concept, imagine the times in which you have to make several turns because there are annoying buildings in your way. You don't like this, but you know it's much safer to go around the block rather than trying to thread your car though someone's front door, dodge potential objects in the living room, drive through the kitchen, and exit through the back door. You know this from all those pictures in the paper of those who unsuccessfully tried this maneuver. Now imagine landscape as a flat, green version of annoying buildings and avoid driving on it. One final reminder: The squiggles indicate that executing the curve might be difficult, so reduce your speed. A good rule to follow is to make sure that, at all times, that all four of those rubber round things near the undercarriage of your car remain in complete contact with the road at all time. These are called "tires" and road contact with two or three out of four is insufficient. 

4. Narrow roads. Observe this symbol very carefully. You will see that it is wider at the bottom and narrow at the top. No—this is neither a minimalist milk bottle from Picasso nor a trompe l'oeil wine bottle. The picture indicates that the current wide road surface on which you are traveling is about to become much narrower—perhaps even just a single lane in width. You should slow down when you see this symbol as it's another situation in which you could remove another car's front section, thereby distressing the driver of said vehicle. It's also a very bad time to send a text, look for something in your glove box, or decide to floss your teeth.

5. Left arrows versus straight and left arrows. These two shapes confuse loads of Massachusetts drivers. This is higher geometric thinking, so read carefully. The first arrow means that you must turn left, as in immediately. It does not mean that you can turn right as long as you intend to make a left hand turn at some point in the next five miles. If you make a right hand turn at said sign in order to hasten your journey to the place where you will make a left and mangle another's vehicle, you will not be able to tell Mr. Policeman that you thought it was okay since you were making a left in about 30 yards. The policeman will then glare at you and ask, "What part of 'only' did you not understand?" as he writes the ticket and the other driver calls a lawyer.

The second sign advises you to travel in a straight direction and then turn left when you come to the lane dedicated to that purpose. The difference between the two figures is subtle, but crucial. The easiest way to distinguish between them is to note that there is but one line in the first figure, but there are two in the second. In which lane would you wish to be if you intended to go straight? If you guessed the right lane, well done!

6. Upside down isosceles triangle. This is called a "yield sign." In this context, yield means that cars coming from directions in which there is no upside down triangle possess the right-of-way. Yielding also implies that you must wait until they have vacated the space before you proceed. Contrary to popular practice, yielding is not a motorized guessing game. "I sure did think I could make it," is another utterance that will make Mr. Policeman very angry with you. He will also quite gruff if you take the position that you had plenty of time to pull out, as evidenced by the fact that the opposing vehicle missed you with centimeters to spare when he slammed on his brakes.

Here are a few more, listed by right/wrong interpretations.

Correct: "There is a bumpy road surface ahead. I guess I should reduce my speed in the interest of safety."

Wrong: "Hey Marge, why the hell is there a brassiere sign along the highway?"

Correct: "This area is prone to rock slides, so I guess I should be alert."

Wrong: "Damn, I sure could go for a bowl of Cap'n Crunch cereal right now."


Right: "Under certain conditions this road surface might cause my vehicle to slide. I must be careful in cold and wet conditions."

Wrong: "Oooeee, Earle. They want us to spin out and do donuts on this road!"

This is a sign for a rotary. We'll be here all week if I try to explain a rotary and what those curving arrows mean. It's simply too complex for most Massachusetts drivers. My best advice is that you whenever you see said sign, you interpret it to mean, "Oh my God! I must get off of this road immediately!" You should turn off before you reach a rotary, even if it means doing a U-turn and heading back in the direction from which you just came. Seek alternative routes. This is higher-level math and it's best to admit that you're no Einstein.


Meek Men, Lydia Loveless, Communist Daughter, Seth Walker, North of Here

See if you can wrap your brain around this one. The Meek Men are a Swedish songwriting duo (Jonas Lundberg, Kenneth Holmstrong) who sing in English and orchestrate a band of other Swedish musicians who back them. Lundberg is also a therapist and drama teacher. Holmstrom once toured with legendary Detroit rocker Sixto Rodriguez (Searching for Sugarman), but the duo's music is mostly soft rock with echoes of bluegrass, Irish music, country, and acid folk. The lyrics are poetic and their album Dumdedum is centered on the idea–in their words–that "the difference between a good life and a good lie is a single letter." Got that? You should, because even on the rare occasion in which this album doesn't work musically, the lyrics are more literate than most of what comes from native English speakers. The vocals remind me of a smoother version of Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), but the music comes at you from various angles: "I See the Horizon" has a Maritime/Canadian Celtic vibe; "Dodo Birdies Song" is a country/James Taylor-like hybrid; "How Do You Do" is light jazz rock; and "Hooke's Law" is where Garmarna meets Celtic and country. Quite a few of the songs call into the question the value of participating in the rat race. The album's nonsense title comes from a line in the equally oddly titled "Dodo Birdies Song" and is a metaphor for foolish pursuits: On your mark get born, get ready/Young man Ho-hum, we'll see you when you're done. "Diggin'" is a list of futile searches: for a counter-revolution…writing on the wall…a mental constitution…for the meaning of it all…. And it all comes down to the command to Keep on diggin' until I get a bigger hole. "Humble R U" is a takedown of egotism and faux compassion; "Carousel" asks of life: … who wrote the script? Who set the harmony? "Another Kind of Spring" uses the passage of the seasons to ask the rhetorical question: We had a higher vision, didn't we? But if this sounds like Scandinavian angst, that's not quite accurate. There are several quiet and tender songs, but mostly the Meek Men seek poignancy by hitting us with feathers instead of bricks. It's an accomplished album musically with loads of instruments, including accordion, dobro, guitars, fiddles, mandolin, pedal steel, saxophone, and penny whistle. Even if you find the voclasa bit too subdued for your tastes, Dumdedum remains one of the year's smartest albums.

Are you a fan of Patty Griffin? If so, you'll also enjoy Lydia Loveless, a self-described "alt.country" singer from Columbus, Ohio. Her newest album, Real, is much like Griffin in that Loveless obliterates the lines between country music, folk, pop, and rock. Also like Griffin, Loveless has a "small" voice, but empowers it through no-holds-barred power that creates the effect of beauty with heft. Part of that heft comes from a dynamite band—Ben Lamb, Todd May, Nick German, Jay Gasper, Nate Holman–that creates a rich, full sound. Check out the jangly guitar stew of "Same to You" and the deliberate scratch-the-chords frame for "Longer." In the latter, Ms. Loveless' vocals are at once dancey, strong, and gorgeous. It's simply a fabulous song–like everything else on the album.

I recently stumbled upon a St. Paul, MN-based indie rock band called Communist Daughter. With a handle like that you might expect didactic politics, but the name was actually lifted from a lyric by the high-energy punk band Neutral Milk Hotel and is used more ironically than ideologically. The band's material is actually very personal–a reflection of founding member/vocalist/acoustic guitarist's Johnny Solomon's travails. His was not, until recently, an enviable bio: divorce, addiction (booze, meth), bipolar disorder, and a stint in jail. The songs I sampled generally take introspective themes and wrap them in sounds that are somewhere between folk and trippy acid rock. The tune of "' "Not the Kid" has echoes of the Kinks' "Lola," but "Speed of Sound" is as moody as Snow Patrol. Song lyrics often allude to isolation and struggle. "Speed of Time" opens with: Man I hate this town/So I'm looking for the only way out/And the life I wanted years ago is maybe/not the life I found. "Soundtrack for the End" is a breakup song with the clever line: …we took six of one/And nothing from the dozen. Solomon is now married to vocalist Molly Moore, with whom he harmonizes beautifully. Good band and hopefully we'll hear more from them in the future. Check out their Introducing Communist Daughter sampler on Noisetrade.

Seth Walker is an electric blues artist you should get to know if you're not already familiar with his work. First of all, the dude has one of the best record label names going: The Royal Potato family. Second, he mixes gritty nothing-but-back-luck songs with catchy, sunny ones that are miles smarter than most of the syrup one tastes on pop radio. Third, he's really, really good. His newest album is titled Gotta Get Back from which I was sent two sample tracks: "Dreamer," a sweet, hopeful song about imagining the potential of a new relationship; and "Home Again," with its sharp hooks and a tune that's so memorable that you'll not think of it as just another road song. These two inspired me to listen to material from his backlist. One of my favorites is the misery-loves-company "Grab Ahold." He sings, "Grab ahold of me… and we'll both go down together," the irony enhanced by the tune's faintly gospel feel. I really enjoyed "Rewind," a rockabilly/light soul mash with the ambience of a Sam Cooke selection. One of the many joys of listening to Walker is that he doesn't dwell in any one place for long. "Wait a Minute" has a reggae-like back kick to it; "More Days Like This" is a finger-snapping tribute to the moment when you're so much in love that you want to freeze time. And so it goes. Check him out, folks.

Remember those youthful days of hanging out with others and imagining what your life will be like in the future? That's the vibe of North of Here, four friends from Alberta whose May Hay While the Sun Shines has an innocence that is easier to grasp visually and aurally than to describe. Their song "Let It Burn (RedCoals)" was a major nostalgia trip, as it's about sitting around a campfire musing and conversing–exactly what I used to do with a couple of high school buddies with whom I recently reconnected. North of Here is a bluegrass ensemble, but the of the sort that owes more debt to performers such as Fleet Foxes than to Ralph Stanley. And you'll definitely hear Milk Carton Kids squared in the amazing four-part harmonies of songs like "Don't LookAbove." The instrumentation tends to build around Ian St. Arnaud's mandolin. This is a young band–so young they joke about the challenges of emerging facial hair–and at present they are more sweet than accomplished. But they are also irresistibly precious and I can't help imagining what they'll be like in just a few years if they keep the friendship fires kindled. My goodness—those harmonies….  

Rob Weir 


Manchester by the Sea a Superb Adult Drama

Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Roadside Attractions, 137 minutes, R (language, suggestive sexuality)

 Manchester by the Sea is centered on a searing question: Can you contemplate being accessory an unintentional deed for which you can never forgive yourself? The film has garnered lots of early praise, and Casey Affleck has emerged as the odds-on favorite for Best Actor for his lead as Lee Chandler, the person who must answer the above question.

We first meet Lee in Quincy, Massachusetts, where he works as janitor for an apartment complex. It's a shitty job-often literally so–but he usually doesn't mind as he's done the above deed and he's now as hollow as a chocolate Easter bunny. He'd probably while away the rest of his life in affectless aimlessness, but for the phone call that lands him north to the twee North Shore town of Manchester-by-the-Sea. (The hyphens have been removed for the film–presumably to make it friendlier for posters.) Lee's beloved brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), a fisherman, has just died and, to Lee's chagrin, Joe has appointed him as guardian of his sixteen-year-old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee loves his nephew, but he also feels deep in his soul that he's not fit to be a surrogate dad. But if not Lee, who? Joe and his alcoholic wife, Elise (Gretchen Moll), divorced years ago and she left the area. Perhaps family friend and fellow fisherman George (C. J. Wilson), but he and his wife are getting on in years and watching their own children move out. Then there's Patrick himself to consider. He's a strapping good-looking guy who loves the water and is pretty content being a high school hockey hunk over whom girls swoon. He's also salty-tongued and headstrong ; he flat out refuses to move to Minnesota to be with another relative, or to sell his father's in-need-of-major-repairs boat.

One reason to see this film is to experience Manchester-by-the-Sea by as we seldom see it. It's generally considered a snooty, wealthy town. And so it is–for the resort and second-home set; if you're a local or a lobsterman, not so much.  Director and scriptwriter Kenneth Lonergan leaves the high rollers in the background and refracts this film in hues of blue-collar. As we learn in various flashback sequences, the lives of the working-class Chandlers hasn't been the stuff invoked by picture postcards and sprawling houses overlooking the bay. Some of the misfortune has been of their own making, but lots has simply been from the bad hands they've been dealt. As if Lee doesn't have enough on his plate, his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) reappears, as does Elise and her serious Christian second husband (Matthew Broderick).

This has the makings of a tense drama, which is exactly what Manchester by the Sea is. Affleck and Hedges are both terrific and I can see why Affleck and Oscar are mentioned in the same breath. We (too) often honor histrionic performances from actors portraying someone plagued by extraordinary circumstance (physical challenges, gender confusion, looming death), but Affleck has a much harder role. How does one "show" us anything about a man so dispirited that he yearns for emotionless anonymity? How does that actor make us care about someone from whom being "ordinary" would pass as ambition? Hedges also hits a lot of the right notes, especially when he's being a typical teen with emotions that are a bundle of contradictions that come out in unexpected ways. Outwardly he's no more broken up by his father's death than over being unable to work out the logistics of having sex with the flirty Sylvie (Kara Hayward), or being annoyed by the offbeat drumming in the really bad garage band in which he and Sylvie play. (The band scenes will take you back to your own teen days and make you cringe!) But watch for the subtle ways in which Hedges releases emotions. In real life, Hedges is just 19; his future looks very promising.

Whatever problems this film has are small and are mostly script-related. Hedges is very good, but sometimes his role makes him seem more on the cusp of 35 than 17. Michelle Williams' performance has also been praised, but I'd call it typical Hollywood in that her role in underwritten and is more of a cameo than anything deserving of a Best Supporting Actress nod. Hyper-masculinity is one of this film's subthemes, so don't expect a lot of screen time for Moll or Hayward either. The argument that a male-centered worldview resonates with blue-collar life will not go down well with those critical of how Hollywood pushes women to the margins. One could also make a good case that the film is overlong for one in which more is left unsaid than is vocalized.

I'll grant that it's not a perfect film by any means. Still, I give it huge props for sticking to character and avoiding clichéd transformations. My guess is that this film will open strongly and taper off fast–in part because of my last point. I overheard a woman say to her friend as they exited the theater, "I guess we should have gone to the comedy instead." This film won't please those seeking miracles and nostrums. In other words, many will eschew it for exactly the reasons I admired it.

Rob Weir


Seasonal Sports News: For What It's Worth


The Nation Boring Association

I keep trying to love the National Basketball Association, but I fail–and it's not because my favorite team, the Boston Celtics, has about as much chance of winning the NBA title as Hillary Clinton has of being tapped Miss Congeniality. There are two reasons why I find today's NBA unbelievably dull. It starts with poor fundamentals. In my youth, I could shoot a 20-foot jumper better than a lot of today's pros and that's not hyperbole. But the bigger reason why the product is dull is the same reason why the Celtics are unlikely to see Round Three of the playoffs; somewhere along the line, the NBA stopped being a team game.

It used to be that a team that had only a superstar was too weak to win titles; now a team that lacks a superstar has no chance. Today's NBA is built around players like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Russell Westbrook. No rap on them; they are thoroughbreds who would have been great in any era. But now they can win games entirely on their own because their opponents are average or mediocre. That didn't used to be the case. Michael Jordan was perhaps the best of all time. But everyone knew how to beat the Bulls in Jordan's early days in Chicago–acknowledge that you couldn't stop him, but you could shut down the stiffs around him. Make Michael sweat to get 35, and make sure no one else got more than 12. Scottie Pippen made Jordan a champion; he cleared the boards and passed the ball to guys like John Paxson, Steve Kerr, and Horace Grant who scored consistently enough that Jordan didn't have to carry the team on his own.

Remember the Celtics Big Three–Robert Parrish, Kevin McHale, and Larry Bird? How many teams thought if they contained those guys they'd win? And how many of them left the Garden with an "L" because Danny Ainge or Dennis Johnson or Tiny Archibald or Reggie Lewis or Chris Ford torched their pack-it-in defense? Remember Kareem Abdul Jabaar's great Lakers' teams? Sure—Magic Johnson arrived on the scene and redefined the guard position, but even if Kareem and Magic were off, there were superb players around them that could fill the hoop: Charlie Scott, Michael Cooper, Norm Nixon, Jamaal Wilkes…. (Cooper, in my estimation, was enormously underrated.)

Some recent clubs still play team basketball, like the Tim Duncan-era San Antonio Spurs or Golden State when Curry stops trying to do it all. But the diminution of talent is pretty obvious across the NBA. One-and-done college players fill rosters simply because they have "NBA bodies," not because they would recognize a trap defense if it came with steel-sprung teeth. Put it this way: LeBron should not be able to defeat a team single-handedly.

This brings me to the Celtics and why the current get-younger plan won't yield a championship. Put bluntly, the Celtics are run-of-the-mill– a roster of guys who can score but can't defend, and vice versa. I love the offense of Isaiah Thomas, but he's a short guy in a tall forest–officially 5'9" but 5'7" is closer to the truth– and can't stop taller opponents. He's also the best the C's have on offer. The only player who has the potential both to score and play D is the maddeningly inconsistent Avery Bradley. Maybe Kelly Olynyk, if he got more minutes, but those are currently being consumed by Amir Johnson (clunk!) and Al Horford, who needs to start living up to his rebounding hype or will turn out to be a very bad signing. Why have a scorer like Gerald Green if you don't intend to play him? Will Jaylen Brown be the answer? Not for several years, if at all, and he will need to get much stronger to be more than just a bit player—like Marcus Smart, the last savior with more sins than redemptive power.

Time to stop the youth movement. The Celtics no longer stink, but they are miles from scaring anyone. Were it my team, I'd package some guys–say Smart, Jerebko, Johnson, and a number one pick–and go get that guy: the superstar that can dominate all by himself. (DeMarcus Cousins?) PS—release James Young: NBA body, high school understanding of the game.  

Bowl Games

Just a matter of time till there is one!
What a joke! There are 36 of them in the next several weeks, not counting the national championship. You don't even have to have a winning record to go to a bowl: North Texas (5-7) will face off against Army in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, and Hawaii (6-7) is in the Hawaii Bowl. Mighty Boston College (6-6) will meet Maryland (also 6-6) in the Quicken Loan Bowl, thereby assuring the one of them will leave with a sub .500 record. (Two of BC's wins came at the expense of UMass–one of the weakest programs in America–and Wagner, who was so bad that UMass blew them out.) And the Quicken Loan Bowl? Who the hell wants a trophy with that name sitting around the den? But wait, it gets worse. There's the Belk Bowl, named after a department store chain; the Dollar General Bowl, which honors a store selling things most people would send to the landfill; the Russell Athletic Bowl–will players compete in gym shorts?–and the Foster Farms Bowl. My favorite is the TaxSlayer Bowl. Can you imagine the pride swelling in papa's breast when a decade from now when he tells his son, "Daddy was the third-string linebacker on a team that went to the TaxSlayer Bowl." Priceless!


Complete list of poor owners
The Cubs win the World Series and immediately raise ticket prices by 20%. That pretty much defines "gauche." How about a steep discount for longtime season ticket holders who suffered through decades of mediocrity rooting for terrible teams owned by some of the richest tightwads in America?

Can we eliminate the farce of salary caps and revenue sharing? My continuing mantra re: "small-market" teams is: "No po' boys own MLB teams." So here's what some of those alleged "small-market" teams have spent by the first week of December. The Braves shelled out $5 million per for the so-so Sean Rodriguez; $7 million for Charlie Morton, a bad pitcher with a 46-71 lifetime record; $600,000 for Jakob Lindgren, a minor leaguer who will miss all of next season; and a whopping $12.5 million for Bartolo Colon, who is believed to be at least 106. The Twins plopped down $8 mil plus for a catcher (Jason Castro); Oakland over $5.5 mil for the immortal Matt Joyce; and the Marlins $11 million for Edinson Volquez, a pitcher who usually manages to disappoint. Let's not even get into bigger-market teams, like the Jays paying over $6 mil per for Steve Pearce, who has been released more often than a trout in a fish-for-fun pond; or the Rangers paying 39-year-old Carlos Beltran $16 million. 

Whatever salary problems baseball might have are the result of profligate spending by playboy owners and has nothing to do with the size of the market. Let's face it—those with enough cash to own a baseball franchise aren't locals in the first place–they can live wherever the hell they wish.
Red Sox get Chris Sale. This makes them odds-on favorites to get to the World Series next year. That may or may not happen, but one thing that must: Sox fans need to STFU  about how the Yankess used to "buy" World Series' teams. The Red Sox are the new Evil Empire. (They, the Yankees and the Dodgers always were the Axis of Evil for anyone outside of Boston, New York, or LA.) Sorry, but the plea that the Sox "traded" for Sale rather than acquiring him as a free agent is the lamest thing I've heard in years. The Yankees used to trade with their top prospects as well–plus the current Sox roster contains numerous former free agents.Unless the Yankees do something quite silly, their payroll will be far less than that of the 2017 Red Sox–and that's including $26 million for A-Rod and Brian McCann, who aren't on the team any more. So own it, Sox fans--you are the Evil Empire II. 
But don't count your chickens before they hatch. Price, Sale, and Porcello sound like the next coming of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz, but remember: the Braves won exactly one World Series with those guys!


Wintersong: Rani Arbo and daisy mayhem

Signature Sounds
* * * *

Only a group as fabulous as like Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem [sic] could make me come within a country mile of a holiday album, a genre of music I would gladly ban. Luckily, Ms. Arbo and her band don't stray into musical swamp of "Jingle Bells," "Rudolph," and plastic holly. The best December albums are generally those in the vein of this album's title: Wintersong. Christmas is part of the end-of-the-calendar lock-down that becomes palpable around December 1, but it's not the whole story. Call this one an album for those who want to embrace the whole winter package, including Christmas.

There are, indeed, Christmas songs on this album, but not the sort you'll hear assaulting your ears at a mall all-too-near you. Instead, Arbo et. al. draw from decidedly non-conventional sources: poets, rock composers, Cajun songs, and the ever-popular traditional well. It opens with a fine Christmas song, Jesse Winchester's "Let's Make a BabyKing," presented in a bluesy, gospel wrapper. It—like other offerings on this album–is also a challenge to live up to the promise of what Jesus' birth is supposed to symbolize: Once upon a Christmas morning /There was a pretty little baby boy/Seems like I remember sadness /Mingling with the joy. The same sentiments come across in their cover of Ron Sexsmith's "Maybe This Christmas," a call to make love and forgiveness more than (dare I say it?) a trite slogan in a rote-memory falala carol. These are indicative of the album's bittersweet offerings, including three inspired by poets. "Ring Out, Wild Bells" reworks Tennyson's verses in a ring-out-the old-ring-in-the-new fashion whose laconic café-style vocals and dark mood could have been plucked from June Tabor's repertoire. "Christmas Bells" is an antiwar offering inspired by a Longfellow poem," and "Christmas Carol" another poignant piece–it's based on the namesake G. K. Chesterton poem, and offered as an old-time song whose tune is faintly reminiscent of "Shady Grove."

There is plenty of light to counter the darker side of winter. daisy mayhem gives us a cover of Quaker songwriter Sydney Carter's "Julian of Norwich" and its promise of renewal: All shall be well again, I know. "Hot Buttered Rum," a Red Clay Ramblers' staple, is a winter love song: You're my sweet maple sugar, honey/Hot buttered rum. Sweetness (with a little edge) comes through on the home-for-the-holidays "2000 Miles," a Chrissie Hynde cover; and it's hard to top the Cajuns when it comes to joy, hence a frenzied fiddle and dancing vocal take on Michael Doucet's "Bonne Annee." Arbo also dusts off the scratchy fiddle on Bessie Jones' "Yonder Comes Day," a slice of back porch soul. Others in the happy mode include "Children Go Where I Send Thee," a traditional cumulative song in the vein of "Twelve Days of Christmas," and "Singing in the Land," collected by Ruth Crawford Seeger, and performed with Appalachian-style close harmony singing.

Bottom line: If you're contemplating a jump into the icy Connecticut River rather than hearing about mama kissing Santa Claus again, try this CD instead. It just might get you through to spring when all shall be well again.

Rob Weir

Those living near Northampton, MA can hear Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem perform this album at the Parlor Room on December 18 at 7 pm.


Cassie & Maggie MacDonald; The Outside Track; John McSherry: Celtic Treaures

Alison Krauss is a little bit Celtic and a whole lot of country/bluegrass. Reverse that formula and you have Cassie and Maggie MacDonald, whose latest CD The Willow Collection, is a prefect blend of old songs filtered through the verve and energy of Celtic music. The sisters hail from Nova Scotia, a place where there are more MacDonalds than U.S. Route 1, but whereas the latter is junk food flavored with salt and fat, the MacDonald sisters' repertoire is a thoughtful blend of tradition and just the right amount of sweetness. Their intent is to pay homage to the willow's flexibility and explore the various ways in which the Scottish tradition has been bent and twisted–from Scotland and Cape Breton to Appalachia and the Ozarks. Take the old saw, "Salley Gardens." The MacDonalds present it as a tender instrumental but it's just the soft teaser for what comes next. I first heard the "Salley Gardens Set" while working out on an elliptical machine and tried to keep up with Cassie's thumping feet and gathering pace. I couldn't. She wields a fiddle that weeps one moment and sizzles the next. The same suck-it-up pace enlivens the Appalachian standard "Hangman," and the only thing more impressive than the instrumentation­–Cassie on fiddle and Maggie on guitar–is the tight vocal harmony work.  Or consider the song "Let No Man Steal Your Thyme." It's been done a million times, but if you think there's nothing left to say, you're wrong. Cassie's fiddle is percussive, Maggie's guitar has grit, the vocals are emotively pained, and the mood stark. The effect is to add a note of haunted anxiety to an old ballad whose central metaphor is a warning to young women not to surrender their virginity to smooth-tongued false lovers.  Every old song on this album bops and weaves: "Seileach" is a Gaelic song with a modern backswing, "Blue Willow" sashays, and "Nobleman's Wedding" could be music for a pogo stick. This album is, simply, so good that I got off the exercise machines and found a quiet space where I could just listen and marvel. Kudos also for enlisting the aid of stalwarts such as Dave Gunning, Andrew Sneddon, Kris MacFarlane, and Alex Meade.

Note" No videos are yet available for this brand new record, but check out their energy in this one from their Website.

The Outside Track is a pan-Celtic quartet* that's the non-American Cherish the Ladies. Fiddler Mairi Rankin hails from Cape Breton, flautist Teresa Horgan is from Cork, Ireland; clarsach artist Ailie Robertson is from Edinburgh, Scotland; and accordion player/lead vocalist Fiona Black is from the Scottish Highlands but lives in Ireland. Their latest collection, Light up the Dark, is surely the antidote for the murk of the shorter days that have descended upon us. The Canadian side comes through not just in Ms. Rankin's fiery fiddling, but also on song offerings such "Canadee-i-o" and "Peter's Dream." The first is a traditional English/Canadian song about a familiar theme: a young woman who accompanies her sailor boy lover to sea by disguising herself as a lad. This one has a neat twist, though. When the sailor proves untrue and places the young woman's life in danger, the captain rescues her. She promptly marries him upon reaching Canada. The second song comes from Canadian songwriter Lennie Gallant and is a musing on the death of small-time fishing and makes a nice companion piece to farming woes in "Trouble in the Fields." Ms. Black is a fine singer, a needed skill when covering songs recorded by others. "I'm Gonna Set You Free" comes from Irish writer John Spillane, but was a hit for The Black Keys;" and "Do You Love an Apple?" was a Bothy Band staple that Black has the wisdom to slow down and transform into a torchy ballad. Perhaps her greatest moxie is tackling "Get Me Through December," a song from Canadian Fred Lavery, but made famous by Alison Krauss (her second invocation for those keeping score!)
            The Outside Track mixes songs with exciting instrumental sets. "Hurry Up and Wait" is a Rankin tour-de-force with bow bouncing off the strings and the tune gathering pace like a runaway locomotive. "Glorious Eh" is lighter in tone, but Horgan's flute and Black's accordion provide ever-increasing heft, piece-by-piece. Another intriguing set is "Jiggery-Polka-Ry," which is just what it implies, a mash jig/polka. Through small but steady pace changes the set transforms our mental images from individuals engaging in slow solo dance to one of couples swirling in abandonment. Smart stuff from four exceeding talented musicians.  (* The band is now all-female and is currently four members, not five as the album cover suggests.)

If the name John McSherry doesn't ring immediate bells, check the credits on just about anything Irish in the past 20 years. A two-time All-Ireland champion on Uilleann pipes by the time he was 14, McSherry was a co-founder of Irish super-group Lúnasa and has performed with such luminaries as Clannad, Coolfin, The Corrs, and Sinéad O'Connor. On his new instrumental release, The Seven Suns, McSherry seeks to invoke ancient Ireland in both, as he puts it, its "mundane and mystical" aspects. That's ambitious for instruments as humble as the penny whistle or as dry and buzzy as the Uilleann pipes. If you get the CD, McSherry provides detailed notes of what inspired each piece. "The Dance of the Síog," for instance, imagines ancient supernatural beings frolicking upon fairy mounds. Do you hear this, or is it just an amazing set of slip jigs? (For the uninitiated, regular jigs are usually in 6/8 and a slip jig in 9/8.) Does it matter? If I hadn't read that "The Atlantean" pays homage to legendary remnants from the Lost Continent said to be the brains behind Northern Europe's megalith-building boom. When I first heard Séan Ó Graham's strong percussion and McSherry's accented whistle notes, my mental image was of a gristmill, so my vision was several hundred tons of stone off. No matter—it's a great tune. In like fashion, "Sunset Land" is a solid set of tunes, even if it doesn't make you think of Egypt/Ireland links, snowflakes darting in the winter air, or the unlikely origins of chess! A few of the tunes really do conjure mystery from the mists. "Carrowmore" reflects upon a County Sligo megalithic site that dates to 4000 BC and poignancy comes from the fact that we know next to nothing about its builders or inhabitants.  I also enjoyed "Sunrise at Bealtáine," which is a joyous dance tune and how I imagine the ancients really would have reacted to the spring equinox rather than New Age musings on the first light. Another favorite is "The Golden Mean," a musical look at the legend that fairies often kidnapped harpers and pipers. McSherry better hope that's a myth!

Rob Weir


Arrival: Proocative, Smart (overly?) Compex

ARRIVAL  (2016)
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Paramount, 116 minutes, PG-13
* * * * ½

What if they came? What if one day a dozen 1,500-foot-high clam shell-shaped alien vessels were parked at various sites across the globe–many of them in nations that didn't like each other very much? Could Planet Earth cooperate with itself long enough to figure out what the travelers want? What would be priority number one: attempts to communicate, or reflexive military maneuvers? Good questions, but these are just the tip of the spaceship in this smart movie whose only real flaw is that it raises script complications that are hard to resolve clearly.

Okay–so a sci-fi film based on the premise that humankind might not be a welcoming species is a genre staple. So too is one in which a few intrepid scientists try to keep the dogs of war at bay because they detect no indication of hostile intent. In this case, our clear thinkers are Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist, and Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a Department of Defense scientist. And, yes, it's another movie in which it never occurs to leaders that maybe it's not a good idea to piss off visitors whose technology is rather obviously superior to that of Earthlings. Is there any reason to see still another First Contact movie, especially one centered on a beat-the-clock scenario? (Banks and Donnelly need to crack the communication code before China and Russia launch preemptive strikes against ships on their soil.) Add American exceptionalism to the clichéd parts of the film. Why is it only American scientists—not one in Pakistan or Somalia, for instance–who think they should be sure before raising the specter of an intergalactic war? 

You should see this film because everything else about it is fresh, smart, and provocative. Although it's often beautiful to watch, Arrival is much more than easy-to-digest eye candy. It asks a lot of other questions that stretch the boundaries of the sci-fi genre. Think of the long human quest to understand other species on Earth. How would we communicate with aliens about whom we know nothing? How would we ask non-humanoid aliens this simple question: "What is your purpose?" What does the word "weapon" mean? These aliens don't communicate by speech; they spray a sort of squid ink that forms symbols that must be decoded and many of them seem to be metaphors that add another level of complexity. I like this. Most sci-fi films resolve the communication conundrum by postulating some sort of direct communication becomes possible–either in language (Babel fish anyone?) or via common understanding of universals principles of mathematics or physics (Close Encounters). Here's a question for you: Universal for whom? Einstein tried to tell us that time is relative, and Arrival dares push this a step further and presents us with aliens not subject to human limitations of time and physics. Perhaps, on an empathic level some of us get that. Toss in a little bit of Kurt Vonnegut; Louise Banks seems to be unstuck in time. So much so that her most vivid memories are of things that haven't yet happened to her! She's not a space/time traveler in any sort of 2001 Space Child sort of way–more like a person who dips in and out of an incomplete not-always-linear dream. Why not? If time is relative and humans can have flashbacks, why not flash-forwards?

The best way to view Arrival is to suspend judgment and don't assume that what you see is what is happening in the conventional sense. (It's akin to Interstellar in that regard.) Surrender to the likelihood that at some point you'll be a bit lost because the film paints itself into an intellectual corner and tinkers with space, time, and reality until some of the logic frays at the edges. Look up the term "zero sum game, as it factors into the movie, though more as an idea than as a clearly defined reciprocity principle.

You can enjoy Arrival on less lofty levels as well. It's gorgeous to behold and the use of stark contrasts makes it more so. The alien ship in the U.S. hovers over Montana, whose rolling landscape and majestic mountains are the painterly counterpoint to the dark, barren interior of the alien ship and the bland khaki/camo of military personnel and their encampment. Ms. Adams herself is a comely contrast to the gigantic heptapod aliens. Pay close attention to the frenzied patterns sprayed by the aliens during a key late moment in the film; in two fantastic pieces of closing sequences cinematography, you will find echoes of these patterns. You'll also discover that some of the film's sentimentality isn't as simple as you first thought.

You can also enjoy very fine performances from Adams and Renner. Adams is more than pulchritudinous; she's also a serious actress. In Arrival she strikes the proper balance between terror and fascination, fragility and competency, intuition and deduction, and vulnerability and sophistication. Renner triumphs by playing against macho stereotypes. Enjoy it also because it's no E.T. offering easy-to-swallow palliatives and warm, fuzzy worldviews. It is unsettling, but not a Doomsday message; it messes with our heads. And it's way better than most of what else is on cinematic offer at present. Whatever "present" might mean!

Rob Weir