Rad Trads, Alex Fry, Brotherly, Ferdinand the Bull

Rad Trads, On Tap

If you like your music big and robust, the Rad Trads are for you. This Brooklyn-based quintet has been billed as "The Band meets Miles Davis." The vibe is much more Band than Miles, but Davis gets tossed at them because two Rad Trad members—Patrick Sargent and Michael Fatum—air it out on sax and trumpet respectively. If you're a concert hound, you may have seen these folks open for acts such as Buddy Guy, Lake Street Dive, and The Lone Bellow, but they are worthy of headlining on their own. Take a listen to tracks such as "Wishing Well" or GoodLuck Unto 'Ya" and you'll start thinking of Levon Helm, though "My Place" is more like funk rock. My favorite track is "Thumbtack," with an opening early 60s feel and drum sticks banging on rims. It doesn't stay in that groove; the horns make sure of that. The  overall vibe is NOLA rock. But maybe we ought to call this mélange rock, as the Rad Trads serve up everything from soul to jazz to psychedelia. ★★★★

Alex Fry, Taste of Eden

Alex Fry has bounced from LA to New York and back to her home turf in Arkansas. Taste of Eden is a collection of songs that document her journeys, as well as stuff such as love, loss, and feminism. Of the last of these, check out, "Superhero Girl" with its declaration, "I'm going to save the world."  Fry calls herself an indie artist. In her case, it's the pop end of that spectrum. At her finest, her tones are vaguely reminiscent of a young Nanci Griffith. You'll hear traces of this in her piano-based "Anchor," a fragile, pretty song. "Fool" is more soulful, though the project's dominant mood is, as noted, indie pop. For my money, her lovely voice showcases best on quiet material. ★★★

Brotherly, The Bound

First things first: Don't confuse this Nashville-based ensemble with a British duo of the same name. Brotherly is Dale and DJ Liscomb, siblings that drifted apart after their father's death, but reconnected years later. They are sometimes compared to Weezer, though their vocals are stronger and the music generally has more distinct melodies. "Bound Stripped Down but Not Out" probes some of the dark times each has had: "We slip/We fall/I'm down." This is a song that begins as quiet as a museful folk song but builds with increasingly heavier bass lines and fuzzed out guitar. That's also the formula on "I Don't Want to Know," which gets rock out noisy. "My God" also features crunch chords, though this one could be toned down a bit, as the lyrics are lost in the mix. I listened to it several times and am still not entirely sure what it's about. But we sure can hear the brotherly bond on The Bound. ★★★

NOTE: The link to the EP is above. The Liscombs might consider choosing a band name. It's quite a slog to find them online as Brotherly, and the way things work these days, if you're not online.... 

Ferdinand the Bull, Painting Over Pictures

Perhaps some of you grew up with the children's book or cartoons devoted to Ferdinand the Bull, the horned bovine who'd rather pick flowers than fight. Now that you're older, you can enjoy an indie band of that name that's been around since 2013? FTB has a new recording, Painting Over Pictures, the band's most ambitious project to date. This Pennsylvania-bred, Midwest-based quartet is built around the lyrics, lead vocals, and acoustic guitar of Nick Snyder, and the mandolin, electric guitar, and harmonies of Bryce Radideau. The new record also tosses in some cello, percussion, and even some horns. FTB is sometimes compared to Arcade Fire or the Avett Brothers, though Iron and Wine is probably a better fit. Call it a mix of indie and contemporary folk. Give a listen to  "4:30 am,"  "New England," and "Susannah." I picked these three to see if you agree with my assessment. I saw a short set of FTB and have listened to the new record and back catalogue stuff. I like this band, but a lot of their repertoire is hard to replicate on stage. ★★★  (Compare the last song to this version.)

Rob Weir


The Leisure Seeker Flawed, but Well Acted Film of Memory Loss

The Leisure Seeker (2017)
Directed by Paolo Virzi
Sony Picture Classics, 112 minutes, R (language, elder sex)

The Leisure Seeker is a comedy/romance/drama constructed around a road trip by a couple that knows that the Golden Years are about to become Lights Out for Eternity. It follows the sojourn of John and Ella Spencer (Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren) as they wend their way from suburban Boston to Key West in a 1975 Winnebago long ago christened the “Leisure Seeker” by the couple’s now adult children, Will (Christian McKay) and Jane (Janel Moloney).

Director Paolo Virzi has a tough balancing act. How does one make a film about elderly people, especially when one of them (John) has Alzheimer’s, yet keep it lighthearted enough to interest an audience, but serious enough to not be insulting? It may not be possible to do so, but give Virzi credit for striking quite a few correct notes amidst the discordant ones.

Give this one some time, as it doesn’t start well. John and Ella essentially run away from home, as Will discovers when he drops by their house, wonders where they’ve gone, discovers the Leisure Seeker is gone, and freaks out. Cut to John and Ella on the road with John at the wheel. John may not have all his marbles, but after a few minor mishaps, he’s on autopilot. We learn that he was once a brilliant literature professor who adored Hemingway and that Ella was the dutiful faculty wife. She knows that his memory is on the cusp on the road to no return, so why not head for the Florida Keys to see Papa Hemingway’s home and give the old boy a late-in-life thrill? Along the way they can drive through Ella’s native South Carolina.

The early parts of the film have the feel of a geriatric caper film, but eventually it turns more poignant. Not much in this film would work were lesser actors in the lead roles. Sutherland masterfully portrays dementia as akin to a failing light bulb; that is, he blinks in and out. There are moments in which Ella wakes up, her husband is lucid, and memories flow. Then the light wobbles and fades. Ella has issues of her own; she’s very sick, hides her illness beneath a too-young-for-her wig, and she continues to play her role as John’s booster—though he doesn’t really require it—because it’s what she knows. Together Sutherland and Mirren show a side of older folks that’s seldom depicted well—an age-burnished affection made manifest by mutual respect, mannered interactions, and even physical attraction. Credit Virzi also with delving into their challenges: incontinence, blurted out secrets, a pharmacy of pills to swallow, blathering on in front of people who don’t care, and wondering if it’s time to pack it in.

It must also be said that at times the script has more holes than the Leisure Seeker’s exhaust system. We have, for instance, the clichéd sibling rivalry. Will is the son who never really got his act together, but he lives in the same town and bears the brunt of eldercare. Jane, by contrast, is the calm golden girl who followed in her father’s footsteps and is now also a literature professor. Will wants to kibosh the road trip and spends much of the film screaming at his mother to tell him where they are; Jane tells him to chill and let them have their last fling. It apparently never occurs to either of them that they know the license number and could simply ask the police to look for a rusty Winnebago with Massachusetts plates! Moreover, in road trip films the central issue is always whether or not the destination is achieved, a yes/no situation that invariably leads to padding material to stretch it to movie length. You can probably predict that some of this falls considerably shy of poignant and also occasionally stretches credulity as well as time. Cameo appearances by Dick Gregory and Dana Ivey are only loosely stitched to the film’s fabric. Of course, there is also the issue that a film seeking to be three things—comedy, romance, and drama—usually ends up having an identity crisis.

Still, it is a genuine pleasure to see two amazing actors transcend script issues. Sutherland is convincing in his portraying Alzheimer’s on the verge of when the on-off button will fail to bring light. As one whose mother made this tragic descent, I can attest that Sutherland stirred my helplessness as an observer. Mirren is equal parts determination, frustration, and resignation. Her occasional anger also rings realistic. Call it inappropriate, but it's often infuriating to be around those who forget something as soon as you say it. If you’re wondering, Mirren's South Carolina accent is better than that of a Charleston native! I could have done with about half of McKay’s histrionics, though.

Is this a good film? Objectively, it’s only half good and part are rather lame. But if you have dealt with memory loss in any form, you’ll see plenty that you recognize. It’s also nice to see older people that have agency and, yes, even sex on occasion.

Rob Weir



Martha Scanlan Reverb(erates)

Martha Scanlan, The River and the Light; Sampler

Beautiful voice, reverb guitar, rivers, and the Montana landscape. Rinse and repeat. Scanlan’s fourth album is an intriguing mix of fragility and muscularity. We hear her delicate voice and think of a little bird, but then there are those big ringing guitar tones. From the moment you hear the first notes of “Brother Was Dying,” from her new (and fourth) album you’ll know why she’s shared stages with everyone from Levon Helm to Emmylou Harris. Longtime sidekick Jon Neufeld makes some serious resonant noise with his archtop guitar and Scanlan lays out the life cycles from birth to death and revival. Tellingly, “Revival” is the final track (or at least it was on my advance download). Both songs remind me of an earlier song of hers, “Shape of Things Gone Missing, Shape of Things to Come,” which tells you that Ms Scanlan accepts the fluidity of existence. This includes her personal journey. Scanlan is Montana-rooted, Minnesota-born, and spent some time in the smaller mountains of Appalachia. She pays homage to the last of these in “West Virginia Rain.” Most of her songs are deeply introspective, but “Las Cruces” has a nice kick to it that is reminiscent of how Joni Mitchell shaped songs in her folk phase. The only downside to her new record is that the lyrics are hard to make on amidst all the grounding chords and reverb, but, at the risk of cheap wordplay, when she and Neufeld play “Only a River,” the intro to “Blue Eyed Angel,” we feel washed down.  ★★★★


Eleanor Oliphant is a Completely Fine Novel

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
By Gail Honeyman
Penguin Books, 352 pages.

Thirty-year-old Eleanor Oliphant is fine with being on her own. She’s fine with having been shuttled between various foster homes as a child, with having a tyrannical mother, and a meddlesome council caseworker. She's totally fine with a lifestyle that revolves around vodka and crossword puzzles, living in a Glasgow apartment appointed with thrift store furnishings, and with being thought “mental” by her work mates. For the most part, other people annoy her, so she’s "completely fine" in her own world.

We all know, of course, that more often than not, when someone claims to be fine, they are anything but. Gail Honeyman’s novel is told in Eleanor’s voice and orchestrated in three connected movements: “Good Days,” “Bad Days,” and a new round of “Good Days.” The first chunk of the book is devoted to Eleanor’s worldview and it’s a hoot. With the possible exceptions of Richard Russo’s Straight Man and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, I can’t recall laughing aloud more than I did while reading Eleanor Oliphant.

Two themes emerge very quickly. First, we suspect Eleanor’s colleagues might be right, but we know for certain that she is incredibly smart—perhaps gifted—and possesses an enormous vocabulary. In her world, a sausage is “mechanically recovered meat,” duffel coats are “surely the preserve of children and small bears,” and social worker house visits take place to “make sure I’m not storing my own urine in demijohns or kidnapping magpies and sewing them into pillowcases.”

We also know that Eleanor is socially and culturally inept. She simply disregards filters. When asked is she’d care for a cigarette, Eleanor is not the sort to say, "No thank you.” Instead she replies,

I thoroughly research all activities before commencement, and smoking did not in the end seem to me to be a viable or sensible pastime. It’s financially rebarbative too.

Her first attempt at a makeover results in telling the clerk, “I look like a small Madagascan primate, or perhaps a North American raccoon.” As you might imagine, she also finds MacDonald’s an insipid place. You must read chapter 14 to appreciate Eleanor’s take down of Mickey D's. Here’s a small sample:

Naturally, I had been about to pour [coffee] all over myself but, just in time, had read the warning printed on the cup, alerting me to the fact hot liquids can cause injury. A lucky escape, Eleanor!

Add MacDonald’s to the list of things about which Eleanor knows nothing, one that also includes dancing, cell phones, how to deal with emergencies, music, small talk, and correct social etiquette for most occasions. In fact, she believes the animal world is a better guide for behavior: “If I am ever unsure as to the correct course of action, I’ll think, ‘What would a ferret do?’”

Eleanor’s regimented world is challenged when an elderly man (Sammy) collapses in public and she and a coworker named Raymond come to his aid, he willingly and Eleanor reluctantly. She can’t bear the thought of taking Sammy up on his offer to consider herself a member of his family, but Raymond persists and Eleanor must attempt to deal with this, as well as a visit to Raymond’s mother. It’s all very disruptive of her grand plan: to convince a musician whose looks she fancies to fall in love with her. Mind, they’ve never actually met, but Eleanor has a detailed scheme and she knows it’s a sound one.

I give away nothing when I say that a lot of Eleanor’s veneer of “fine” is as patchy as the eczema on her hands. Honeyman skillfully leads us from light to dark. She does so in ways far smarter than what I call Pity That Affliction books and movies. It is no small feat to keep readers laughing, even when not-so-funny things occur, but Ms Honeyman sticks her landings. In good novelistic tradition, she slowly pulls back the curtain on Eleanor’s life, but avoids venturing into the miraculous. Eleanor, like any adult, changes but not into Cinderella. Do you know anyone who ever did? Special kudos go to Honeyman for making Eleanor a fully realized character on all levels, one who is more than the sum of her sorrows.

My one negative critique is that Honeyman overwrote the concluding section of the novel. She introduces a final twist in Eleanor’s personality profile but by then, it’s an unneeded element that is too cursorily sprung upon us. It’s also one used by other writers, most notably Roddy Doyle. This aside, Eleanor Oliphant is a terrific novel. Honeyman deftly mines Scottish humor and sprinkles its dust upon her unforgettable protagonist before taking us into the dark parts of the cave. Amazingly, this is Honeyman’s first novel. Well done, lass!

Rob Weir



Why Marbury v Madison is a BFD!

John Marshall
 Root for the guy on the left! 

Matt Whitaker

These days it's nearly impossible to discuss politics dispassionately. Trumpinistas have bunkered down, determined to defend their champion no matter the cost. It's a waste of breath to engage them; nothing will sway their blind faith. Yet it's no picnic talking to Democrats either, many of whom think Trump's removal is imminent. But here's something all Americans should discuss:

Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker thinks Marbury v Madison was a bad decision that should be overturned.

Not too many Americans will get juiced over an 1803 SCOUTS case, but a call to overturn Marbury v. Madison may be the single most dangerous idea to come out of the Trump administration. Marbury is the very foundation of the Supreme Court. It created the concept of judicial review. If it is overturned, the POTUS would be transformed into a veritable dictatorship.
Those who think all contentious matters can be resolved by determining the "original intent" of the Founders believe in a fairy tale. The U.S. Constitution is a remarkable document, but the Founders were not akin to Moses receiving divine laws from a Supreme Being. Pardon the wordplay jump, but the Supreme Court was one of thse areas where the Founders hid their lack of clarity behind unclear language. If you read Article III, you will immediately notice that the details of the Supreme Court's intended role are incredibly vague.

No one quite knew what the SCOTUS was supposed to do. The election of 1800 changed that. Our Founders didn't really believe in mass democracy. The first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, were really chosen by an internal Congressional caucus. Thomas Jefferson, however, felt that he was shortchanged in 1796 and that he, not Adams, should have been appointed. (The two were friends, but political rivals.) In 1800, Jefferson stood for president against the caucus choice, Adams, and won a bitterly contested election. This caused a constitutional crisis. Could power actually be transferred from one faction to another without a revolution?

The answer was yes, but Adams wanted to make sure he left office with Federalists (his faction) in command of the federal bureaucracy. He made a series of late placements—nicknamed the Midnight Appointments—before he left office. Jefferson couldn't do much about that. Article II gave Adams that right and, pursuant to Article I, the Senate had approved each appointment.

All except that of poor William Marbury. Legend holds that his appointment as a justice of the peace got lost in Adams' desk. That may not have happened, but a JP did need an official commission to assume his duties, and Marbury's had not yet been delivered. Upon taking office, Jefferson refused—through new Secretary of State James Madison, the principal writer of the Constitution—to deliver Marbury's commission. Marbury promptly sued and his case ended up at the Supreme Court, where Marbury v. Madison was argued on February 11, 1803. There were essentially three issues: Should Marbury be appointed as a JP? Did the law give him an avenue to advance his right? Could the Supreme Court appoint him to his position over the president's objection?

Remember—no one knew what power the SCOTUS actually had. Had Chief Justice Marshall not been so canny, the SCOTUS you know would not exist. Marshall earned his fame in one of the most Solomon-like judgments in U.S. history. He ruled that it was very clear that President Adams intended that Marbury should become a JP; his signature and seal were on the appointment document. Marbury had both a moral right to the job and the right to sue.

Marshall then wrote that Marbury had availed himself of his legal recourse. He famously declared that the United States was "a government of laws," and that law was on Marbury's side. This also relieved Marshall of the task of handing Marbury his appointment. To simplify, Marshall took the view that the law gave Marbury his right, not any individual.

That was savvy, but it was nothing compared to what came next. Marshall referenced the Constitution's vague language and ruled that the SCOTUS could not be the body to decide Marbury's case. Today we might say that the Court refused to rule on the matter. But what Marshall really said was that though Marbury was morally and legally deserving of becoming a JP, the Supreme Court lacked authority to appoint him. Marshall recognized there was no way the SCOTUS could force Jefferson's hand, so he kicked the case back to Congress under Article I, not Article III.  

By not ruling, Marshall asserted the Court's very right to judicial review. That is, his decision clarified that the Court's very reason for existence was to determine whether certain actions or lower court rulings were or were not "constitutional." Marshall accused Jefferson of violating the Constitution, but also implied that it was the job of Congress to initiate any legal action against the president; Article I, Section 2 clearly states it is up to the House of Representatives to determine whether the president should be impeached and that under Section 3, the Senate was the sole court with the power to try articles of impeachment.

There was no way that a divided Congress—Federalists and Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, two parties that no longer exist—was going to impeach Jefferson and remove him from office over a justice of the peace appointment. William Marbury never became a JP, but he did subsequently have a lucrative career in banking. Today we recall his name as the plaintiff in the case that made—and that's not too strong a word—the Supreme Court. We should rightly think of SCOTUS as having been created in 1803, not 1789.

Footnote, those Democratic supporters who think last week's victory in the House of Representatives will usher in President Trump's impeachment are likely to be as disappointed as William Marbury. Unless there is a smoking gun somewhere—highly imaginable given Trump's propensity for lying—today's Congress is even more divided than that of 1803 and impeachment efforts will nowhere .  Article II, Section 4 reads: "The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." If you think Marbury is complex, try figuring out what this means!

No matter your politics, though, you should pray that Whitaker does not prevail. His is the path for creating a dictatorship.

Rob Weir


Three Identical Strangers a Manipulative Documentary

Three Identical Strangers (2018)
Directed by Tim Wardle
Neon Films, 96 minutes, PG-13

In the 1980s, TV schlock journalist Geraldo Rivera hosted several sensationalist "news" specials, most infamously the opening of Al Capone's safe and a purser's safe salvaged from the Titanic before international laws were passed to forbid such desecrations. In each case, Rivera oversaw a breathless vicarious strip tease that went on for two hours and revealed: nothing! Rivera soon became a national joke and those shows are now considered mindless detritus.

I mention this because watching Three Identical Strangers is much the same in feel. It has been praised to the skies, but don't believe a word of the hype; this is a failed documentary that manipulates subjects, viewers, and history.

Director Tim Wardle has intriguing material, but ultimately he misses the real story by miles. He follows the saga of Eddy Galland, Robert Shafron, and David Kellerman, three young men on the cusp of 20 trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Individual plans are interrupted when Robert ("Bobby") shows up for his first day of classes at Sullivan Community College and everyone seems to know him. Bobby knew that he was adopted, but this was his first inkling that he had a twin (Eddy)—or so he thought. Newspaper coverage reached David Kellerman, who also turned out to be a blood brother. The triplets united and became instant media sensations. Soon the lads dressed alike, were guest on talk shows, and were seldom out of camera range. They were, in journalistic terms, human-interest stories. In psychological terms, though, their individuality was sacrificed for an orchestrated collective mind.

All of this satisfied public longing for heartwarming tales. The boys hammed it up for the salivating masses and played the part of living carbon copies. Under the public gaze they moved alike, had similar likes, similar experiences, the same haircuts, and similar dislikes. They finished each other's sentences and enjoyed confounding those who tried to tell them apart. But then—if we are to believe this documentary's arc—the tale turned darker. Who was their mother? Why were the boys separated at birth? Why were they never told they were triplets? Why was each placed in a home that had, two years earlier, adopted daughters? Most intriguing, why were their adoptive families so different? One was raised in a blue-collar home, one in a middle-class family, and one in a professional household of substantial means.

Wardle—working from revelations unearthed by New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright in 1995—takes us down what we are intended to see as a dark cave. The boys were all placed by the Louise Wise Agency, a Jewish adoption network, shortly after their births in 1961. The placement families were not random; they were arranged by a team headed by Dr. Peter Neubauer (1913-2008), a famed Austrian-born Freudian psychiatrist. Neubauer hoped to crack psychology's toughest nut: nature versus nurture. He also hoped to shed light on what is sometimes shorthanded as the life chances conundrum: the degree to which social class determines a child's future. Queue some horrendous stereotypical music that's heavy on ominous tones. Were the lads in fact lab rats? Was any of this ethical? Is this, as one of triplets says, "Nazi shit?"

Spoiler: the answers are yes, yes, and no. Shame on Wardle for making a Geraldo Rivera-like film that seeks to villainize Neubauer and wrench cheap emotions from viewers that hide the fact that his inferences are a combination of anachronism and manufactured drama. As in the case of several current movements, Wardle condemns the past through the values of the present. None of what Neubauer did would be approved today—a major reason why his study was not published and his research notes are closed—but his inquiry was cutting edge stuff in 1961. Indeed, Freudian psychiatry was all the rage then, but is now decidedly out of fashion. Still, none of what he did was Josef Mengele stuff; Neubauer was also Jewish and he and his family fled Austria when the Germans invaded it. Ethics should not be viewed as on par with the laws of gravity; they are infinitely more malleable and changeable.

Again, Wardle missed the real stories. There's a great tale to tell about how coverage of the triplets presaged reality TV. There's another to be told about how post-Watergate journalistic practices declined by blurring the line between news reporting and paparazzi stalking. He even misses the fact that his subjects didn't fit the life chances mold! Toward the end of the film we learn that both differences and darker back stories were undersold for the sake of mirror-like sameness and easy-to-digest uplift, but Wardle's treatment of this is the film coda equivalent of a drive by shooting. Nature or nurture? Wardle makes an attempt to resolve this, but it feels like Geraldo opening a safe. Think of the multiple meanings of "safe," because this is a film for 2018 that imposes itself upon 196os and 1980s.

Rob Weir


Samite and the Music of Reslience


Samite Mulondo has touched hearts and souls since he came to the United States as a Ugandan refugee in 1987. In his earlier career he was a vocalist first and an instrumentalist second. These days he largely reverses that formula. Samite still has a voice that's like buttery caramel, but he has also mastered various types of flutes, the kalimba, hand percussion, and the litungu, a handheld harp that looks as if it's crossed with a banjo and a kora.

Samite's latest album is titled Resilience. It is the soundtrack to a one-man show he has launched in which he tells his personal story as a way of advancing the organization he founded with his late wife: Musicians for World Harmony. He believes that music is a balm for a troubled world filled with war, poverty, and preventable diseases such as AIDS, hence he devotes much of his time to working with school groups and building community.

All of this is deeply admirable, but for now the central question is how the project stands up musically. That question is a bit tricky and often depends on how you feel about the overall vibe of Samite's current sound. It is a blend of World Beat, folk, Afro pop, and New Age. The latter is a problematic term. It is generally viewed as easy listening that's a relaxing sound that's not quite pop and not quite light jazz. At its best, new Age is soothing and meditative; at its worst, critics trash it as California-style elevator music. No fear of the latter from Samite, but the new album is far more interesting when it is at its most African in feel. The title track, for instance, opens with Samite playing a resonant metal flute. The melody invokes mystical Celtic New Age until Samite begins to sing, accompanied by looped vocals. In other words, this track is a musical hybrid. The same is true of the 7-minute "The Search," which is quiet and contemplative. Both are lovely tracks, but I prefer the pastoral feel of "Mayengo," which is cut from similar cloth, but is bolstered by ringing flute notes and African-style guitar rhythms.

Samite switches to the litungu on "Waterfall." It provides us with cascading notes, but he uses a heavy thumb to provide a thrum that frames his voice and makes the composition flow. "In the Moment" is in the same vein. In each case, the composition could be labeled New Age, but the guitars render problematic such a designation. "Space" sounds as if it must be New Age, but Samite's skillful use of the flute—including chopped notes in the transitions—takes us to new places. Ditto the use of the litungu on "In the Moment." "Ntinda" employs a cappella call-and-response vocal that cuts away to joyous guitar and flute. Ultimately, though, resilience is indeed the album's theme. Samite challenges us to remember that change often comes through quiet determination—the velvet glove, not the iron fist. 

Rob Weir


Less is Funny and Poignant

Less (2017)
By Andrew Sean Greer
Little, Brown, and Company, 263 pages.

Arthur Less is about to turn 50. He has seen so many friends die of AIDS that he thinks maybe he's "the first homosexual ever to grow old."

Less was once the lover of Robert Brownburn, a poet who won every literary award under the sun, but Arthur hasn't made literary waves since his first novel induced a few soggy feet, and his publisher rejected the first draft of his new book. For years he's been puttering about in writers' limbo: writing reviews, conducting interviews, and publishing in obscure journals. When his name comes up in literature circles, the descriptor "minor figure" is usually attached. To make matters worse, the circle has just been completed. In his halcyon youth, Less was Robert's younger partner, but Arthur has just found out that his own junior part-time lover, Freddy, is getting married to an even younger man. Less is invited to the wedding, but the very thought induces existential dread. To top it off, Robert is dying.

So how does the first gay man to grow old manage a midlife crisis? Arthur is looking for a way to back out of Freddy's wedding when he learns that he's up for a writing prize he's never heard of—in Italy. That sparks a bigger idea. Arthur looks over all of the conference invitations and offers he's had in the past few years and decides to accept all of them! What better way to avoid Freddy's wedding than to plead that you're out of town and out of the country? Thus begins a sojourn that will take Arthur Less to New York, Mexico, Paris, Italy, Berlin, Morocco, India, and Japan.

Andrew Sean Greer's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is at turns, funny, poignant, sad, and reflective. Everywhere Arthur goes he's asked to comment upon the excitement of having lived with a literary giant like Robert. The truth is that Robert was often a huge pain in the ass, but Less can't shake the question posed by a Mexico City panelist: "What is it like to go on, knowing you are not a genius?"  As it happens, this is exactly the question that torments Arthur. Later in the novel he describes himself as "like a person with no skin."

Greer's novel is essentially that of a gay man who runs away from home and goes to conferences instead of joining the circus. In all such set ups, the central question is whether one is running from or to something. That's also a fine device for mixing humor and poignancy. For instance, Less arrives in Italy to find himself competing for a prize with several other authors he thinks are much more serious and accomplished than he. One, in fact, tells Less that his first novel was an uneven but promising effort, but that he's among those who denounce Arthur as "an assimilationist," which seems to mean he has lived a relatively conventional life. Arthur is told, "It's not that you're a bad writer, it's that you're a bad gay." Against all odds, Less wins the prize—only to find out it was conferred by a jury of high school students!

To the degree Arthur's world tour has a high point, it occurs in the short course he teaches to university students in Berlin. It's a riot to read. Arthur fancies himself fluent in German, but in truth he's good enough to be a male version of Mrs. Malaprop.* His students dub him Peter Pan. That's not because Less is fey, but because his students are utterly charmed by his manic energy, his mangling of German, and his creative teaching methods. He leads them through a course titled "Read Like a Vampire," whose major aim is to make students fall in love with words. (One exercise involves taking scissors to passages from James Joyce and reassembling them into new ones.)

The thing about midlife crises, though, is that are usually about acceptance, not unearthing a hidden self or new vocation. Greer hews to that path and it's among the things he does very well. He is to be congratulated for writing something more than a gay novel; it's a clever story with a central character who simply happens to be gay. Greer is under no illusion that his book will reverse the Othering of homosexuals. Some, in fact, might find Greer to be a "bad gay." His characters are not soapbox activists, bathhouse cruisers, clothes horses—the fate of Arthur's one suit is another amusing side story—or any other fill-in-the-blank stereotype of gay men. They are mostly like Arthur Less: individuals wrestling with the same anxiety, self-esteem, and reputational issues as the rest of humanity.  

This is a skillfully written book. Those who read this blog know that I am often critical of projects that seek but fail to blend comedy and seriousness. Greer succeeds by going small rather than resorting to forced weightiness or contrived drama. To reiterate an earlier point, Arthur Less isn't defined by being gay; he simply is gay. Why load down something as serious as midlife crisis with faux mitigating circumstances when it is universal and sufficiently burdensome no matter who is shouldering it?

I really liked this book. Is it Pulitzer Prize worthy? I think I might have gravitated to either George Saunders or Jesmyn Ward, but that may be the wrong way to look at it. It's ironic that Greer won the Pulitzer, as Less lampoons literature prizes. In fact, one character advises Arthur to "never win" such a prize because he will end up spending his time speaking about that book rather than writing the next one. Let's hope Greer takes his own advice. We can debate whether Less deserved a Pulitzer, but there's no debating the fact that Andrew Sean Greer is worth reading.

Rob Weir

* The term malaprop derives from Mrs. Malaprop, a vocabulary-challenged character in Richard Sheridan's 1775 play The Rivals.


Mink's Miracle Medicine is Melissa Wright's Voice!

Mink’s Miracle Medicine, House of Candles; Pyramid Theories

Mink’s Miracle Medicine (M3) is the unlikely Harper’s Ferry-based duo of Melissa Wright and Daniel Zezeski, unlikely because it’s a pairing of a guitarist and a drummer—not your usual touring ensemble. M3’s music gets labeled folk rock, folk, country, punk, and indie. If you asked me which one, I’d just say “yes” and make sure to add retro to the list. But before I go any further, let me tell you that if you’ve not heard Melissa Wright, you are missing one of the great young singers of our time.

Mink’s Miracle Medicine—the name derives from a patent medicine—has two EPs to date. House of Candles was released in 2017, and we can hear that this duo hit the ground running. Wright, whom some might know from her work with the Bumper Jacksons, might just be Patsy Cline’s lost granddaughter. “The Nashville Song” is a cut-the-glitz-and-bring-on-the-tears country song about a young woman who dreams of being an Opry star and sets out for Nashville with just one dress, pocket change, and the “car her daddy gave her just for being born.” That won’t go well, but Ms Wright sings the hell out of this song. If you want another weepy, try “Somebody Else By Your Name.” The title says it all, and it even has a walking bass line. Wright’s robust voice makes even a potentially corny/old school country breakup song like “I’m Keeping Your Shirt” sound as if there’s a rip in the time continuum and the late 1950s walked in. “Graves Street” is another in the way-back vein—back before the Grand Ole Opry got slicker than a flattop haircut.

Their new album, Pyramid Theories, is equally wonderful, though it has a slightly different feel. As well it might, given its odd genesis. The duo’s van broke down in Pittsburgh and stranded them for a few days. The road often induces conversations that are more riff than structure, and being stuck with nothing but time on your hands ratchets the weirdness bolt. The title track began in discussions of Erich von Daniken’s aliens-built-the-pyramids theory, ventured into Roman architecture, and mutated into a quasi-hippie folk rock/country song about concentric time. Huh? Give it a listen. Some critics have compared M3 to Fleetwood Mac, a parallel I think is a stretch, but I can sort of hear it in Matt Schmelfenig’s fuzzy bass, a faintly 80s’ melody, and the way in which the vocals sometimes break into a rapid 1-2-3-4 staccato. “Page of Me” returns to more C &W themes, this one a relationship on the cusp of disintegration and the clarity that comes when “… I understand I’ve got to write my own damn book.” You might hear echoes of Jackson Brown in the folk rock “Now I Understand the Blues,” though it has another great country line: “I only need myself/When I’m crying alone in my bedroom.” And despite the fact that some hipsters claim M3 mines 90s grrl groups, I hear the ‘40s and ‘50s in “Born Again,” which has the out-on-the-trail riffs—but not the melody—of an old Roy Rogers chestnut. By the way, the song has nothing to do with evangelical preaching; it’s about trying to find a place so remote you reset and reinvent. Mink’s Miracle Medicine delights in keeping us on our toes and confounding categories.  ★★★★★

Rob Weir


The Great Alone a Page-Turning Thrill

The Great Alone  (2018)
By Kristin Hannah
St. Martin’s Press, 440 pages

Did you ever contemplate dropping out of the rat race? Maybe move somewhere remote where politics, creed, and race don’t matter? A place where you survive by your wits and the occasional help of the handful of neighbors who live nearby, but not too close? And wouldn’t be nice if there were eagles and orcas, plus all the moose, halibut, and salmon you can cram into your larder? Be careful what you wish for!

Kristin Hanna’s latest novel, The Great Alone, is set in exactly such a place; her fictional town of Kaneq, Alaska, is based on the Kenai Peninsula town of Seldovia, population 30. We first meet her fictional pivots, the Albright family, in Seattle, where daughter Leonora ("Leni”) is 13. The year is 1974; Leni’s mother, Cora, is an attractive chain-smoking semi-hippie with few skills other than packing up the household on a regular basis to move on. That's not hard; the Albrights are poor as church mice because paterfamilias Ernt can’t keep a job. He’s both a Vietnam vet and a former POW suffering from PTSD at a time in which the condition is barely discussed, let alone understood. Ernt is a powder keg with a short fuse, one prone to anger and bad choices that make life tough on everyone.

Cora and Leni hold out hope that a windfall will help Ernt; he inherits a piece of land in Alaska when a Vietnam War buddy dies. If you’re really not fit for society, Kaneq is the place to be. If you need an "urban" experience, you’d have to take a boat across Kachemak Bay to Homer (population 3,900) because it would nearly impossible to drive there. The Albrights pack their Salvation Army castoff possessions into a beat-up VW van and commence to homesteading. That’s the right word; neighbors will give you a leg up to get you started, but they’ll also remind you that there are a thousand ways to die in Alaska, among them carnivorous bears, falling into frigid waters, disappearing under winter ice, exposure, and injuring yourself in a place where no help is available. And there’s always danger from going whacko during the long winter when perpetual darkness can last more than two months. If you need more details, read the Robert Service (1874-1958) poem “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” from whence Hannah borrowed his description of Alaska: the Great Alone.

Hannah’s Alaska is alone, but not quite. There aren’t a lot of people in Kaneq, but it’s a colorful and diverse lot. With the exception of Tom Walker and his clan, whose Alaska roots are generations deep, most of them are refugees from civilization just like Ernt. The town matriarch is Large Marge, a plus-sized African American woman who chucked her life as a lawyer in Chicago to run what can charitably called the general store. The other extreme is Mad Earl, a survivalist whose conspiracy theories would make a schizophrenic blush. His Kaneq is where the resistance will begin when society collapses, which he and devotee Ernt reference with the shorthand WTSHTF (When The Shit Hits The Fan). And it looks to them like Tom Walker’s plans to fix up the town and attract more summer tourists is exactly the thing that will start the blades to rotate.

Hannah’s novel is astonishing in its sprawl. She makes us feel both Alaska’s lure and its terrors. Along the way she probes topics such as madness, paranoia, class envy, blinding jealousy, forbidden love, enabling behavior, domestic violence, reinvention, and kindness. Her tale is one of life stripped to its basics. It unfolds in two and a half acts: 1974, 1978, and a 1986 addendum. Hannah isn’t always a great stylist and, frankly, her resolution seems schmaltzy and contrived. She is, however, a fantastic storyteller.

This book has already been optioned for a film, but you should read it now, as I’m pretty certain Hollywood will strip some of the nuances and quiet terrors that emerge in the book. This is a 440-page novel, but I zipped through it in just three sittings. Call it a page-turner, but it’s certainly not one cut from ordinary cloth.

Rob Weir



Beyond Artistic Racism: What's Up with the Obama Portraits

I recently commented on the powerful portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama that grace the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. They were painted, respectively, by Los Angeles-based artist Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977) and Baltimore's (by way of Georgia) Amy Sherald (b. 1973). Both were controversial. Some have found the president's portrait too informal and wonder why he sits amidst a sea of foliage. The hard right also claims that Kehinde Wiley advocates race war. Sherald gets off easier; critics merely say her image doesn't look like Michelle Obama and that Sherald has little talent for capturing likenesses.

As is generally the case in art, such statements reflect personal preference. and bias. Self-appointed guardians of taste have denounced virtually every 'new' style of art—including that of the Impressionists—as the work of talentless and crass poseurs seeking to destroy all that is established and sublime.

Sherald has talent galore. Artists often have different intentions that go beyond simple representationalism. Sherald insists her major goal was to present Michelle Obama as an archetype of the modern woman: intelligent, confident, and compassionate. She also snuck in some hidden meaning. The patterns in the First Lady's dress both invoke the bold geometric shapes inherent in African design and the African American piecework found in the quilts of Gee's Bend. There's also a lot of blue in the composition, which evokes struggle and activism in East Africa. Her nail polish is the color of a lily, sacred in Egypt and parts of East Africa.

As for Wiley, those who think paintbrushes are swords, accuse Wiley of reverse racism and advocating violence. It might help if the Fox News "experts" took an Art 101 course. Wiley depictions such as a contemporary black man wielding a scimitar, or a black woman holding the severed head of a white woman are political, but not in asserted ways. First, they are takeoffs on classic art, a favorite theme of Wiley's. His blue jean clad warrior is his remake of The Charging Chasseur (1812), an iconic work by Thédore Gėricault that hangs in the Louvre. Does he want you to imagine strong black men as dashing Hussars? Of course he does. Does he want black women to relieve white women of their heads? Ridiculous! These are spins on centuries of depictions of the Biblical legend of Judith and Holofernes. Wiley wouldn't mind at all, though, if you made  associations between slave mistresses and their mistreatment of female servants—especially those their white husbands coerced into sexual congress. 

Let's take a deeper look at the Barack Obama portrait. The president—who negotiated with Wiley and insisted upon a more relaxed bearing—isn't sitting in a garden. It's actually a wallpaper backdrop. This is also a very old art convention; itinerant Chinese and Tibetan artists to this day travel with backdrops. Why not? Would you rather a blank wall? Have you ever noticed that most portraits have backgrounds, even if they are splotches of contrasting color? The textured wallpaper device, though, is often found in African and African-American art. For the most part, it denotes that the person sitting in front of it is a person of power and/or high status. You can find many examples of chiefs, "big men," and important people sitting amidst elaborate designs. Wiley simply does this more often. He has even painted himself this way.

Wiley 'selfie'
Power and visible status symbols are integral to art more because of sociology than artistic invention—and in the West, not just Africa. You used to be able to know at a glance if a person was of noble birth; only European aristocrats were allowed to wear purple. If you've ever been to Amsterdam, you might wonder what's up with all those wall-to-wall images of men wearing stiff collars. They were, of course, Dutch burghers and they were posed showing off their status symbols: medals and sashes showing they held office, a quill denoting they were literate, serious faces to suggest gravitas, even finger gestures that the knowing could decode. The Jean de Bray image below is typical.

The Founding Fathers were men of the people, right? Hardly! Lots of them distrusted commoners intensely, which is why we have archaic stuff like the Electoral College and indirect representative democracy. Some of them literally wore their status upon their heads in the form of powdered wigs, as we see in this portrait of presidents 2 through 4: Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. Puritan ministers also wore powdered wigs; British barristers still do. The idea of wearing someone else's hair has long been a status symbol, one that goes back at least as far as the ancient Egyptians. And, for the record, Britain's Queen Elizabeth I was as bald as a billiard ball.

How many status symbols make their way into official portraits and photos? I've seen scores of images of Elizabeth II with a crown, but I've yet to see her wearing a ball cap turned backwards. That's what makes Wiley's self-portrait so deliciously subversive! Oh, by the way, here's a shot of some members of the Vatican's College of Cardinals. Do you think it looks this way because they all coincidentally love the color red?  Maybe status is an ego thing, but how many ways does it make its way into how people present? Croziers and castles, jewels and jubilation, furs and fancy threads, tattoos and thrones, Rolexes and royal yachts….

So black folks are getting into the act? About time! I'm thinking of buying me some fancy wallpaper too. Any budding artists out there who want to elevate my status?  

Rob Weir


Newpoli Pushes the Borders of Italian Music

Newpoli, Mediterraneo

Newpoli is based in Greater Boston, where it has won numerous accolades, but there’s a reason why this band has been nominated for traditional music awards in Italy. This is high-octane Italian music that blurs the line between folk, pop, and classical. On Mediterraneo, their new album, they tear down a few more barriers. Newpoli specializes in southern taranta music—lively 6/8 dance tunes—popular in Naples and Sicily. Naples has long been a busy port city where cultures meet and blend. You’ll hear this all over the album. Na Voce Sola, for instance, has swirling, rhythmic grooves and Romani-like vocal and melody lines. Appropriately for a themed album on migration, So’ emigrant is an album highlight, a dramatic track with North African influences. Listen well and you’ll pick out some Turkish affinity. The classical training of several ensemble members is evident in the title track and elsewhere, including its mélange of instruments. Tempos are often set by hand drums and an Italian guitar called the chittara battente, a cross between a bouzouki and a Baroque guitar. You’ll also hear violin, viola, and numerous blown instruments—from bagpipes and recorders to handheld ocarinas. And let’s not overlook the grace, power, and energy of vocalists Carmen Marsico and Angela Rossi, who are just one co-conspirator short of making them an Italian version of Vartinna. My favorite track is Pizzicadegli Ucci, a piece that will make you want to garland the donkey, decorate the cart, and dance until you drop. At nearly ten-minutes in length, it’s very likely you will give out before the band.