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