Echo in the Canyon a Musical Treat

Echo in the Canyon (2019)
Directed by Andrew Slater
Greenwich Entertainment, 82 minutes, PG-13.

I was misty-eyed by the time the credits rolled for Echo in the Canyon. I confess that I mourned for my lost youth, but that’s not the only reason.

Echo in the Canyoncaptures an extraordinary moment (1965-1967) in which dozens of musicians occupied Laurel Canyon and evolved a subculture that was part of Los Angeles yet separate from Lala Land’s skin-deep glitz. Laurel Canyon’s winding roads and steep hillsides made it a vest pocket retreat in which neighbors showed up at each other’s doors, guitars at hand, and “invented” folk rock. It’s certainly open for debate as to whether it was a literal invention, but it’s safe to say the Laurel Canyon sound was unique: jangly electric guitars sharing space with acoustic instruments, three-part harmonies adding depth to folk melodies, and Folk Revival seriousness giving way to a sense of playfulness. I suppose this was destined to happen when the “neighbors” formed such now-iconic groups as The Association, The Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds, The Mamas and the Papas, and The Mothers of Invention. Call Laurel Canyon LA’s answer to the Bay Area’s hippie scene that gave birth to acid rock and 1967’s Summer of Love.

Echo in the Canyongoes a step beyond a simple retelling of the past. It also appends rehearsal and concert footage from a 2015 (and beyond) project spearheaded by Jakob Dylan. To commemorate the 50thanniversary of Laurel Canyon’s initial flowering, Dylan assembled a new generation of talent­–Fiona Apple, Beck, Jade Castrinos, Norah Jones, Cat Power, Regina Spektor–to recreate the Canyon vibe. Dylan does so in ways that simultaneously evoke the music of the past yet give it small interpretative tweaks that make the golden oldies sound fresh. 

Viewers will instantly notice that Jakob isn’t exactly a chip off the old block. Maybe he’s not a poet laureate, but he’s a much better singer and musician than his old man. He’s also a better human being who lacks his father’s tempestuous ego. There is simpatico energy between Jakob and the musicians with whom he shares the stage, as well as mutual respect for both those who went before him and peers bringing their own ideas to the project.

Normally I find that films that are half documentary and half in the present lose coherence and are merely half good. Add producer to Dylan fils’ virtues. There is a lot of ground to cover yet the film manages to strike a then/now balance in a concise 82 minutes.  

The history part of the film is a mix of stock footage and interviews. Among the talking heads–in both senses of the noun–are legends such as producer Lou Adler, Eric Clapton, David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Graham Nash, Michelle Phillips, Ringo Starr, John Sebastian, Steve Stills, Brian Wilson, and Tom Petty. Petty’s presence is poignant given that he died in 2017 and the footage on screen is his last recorded interview. Yes, there’s a lot of shared admiration and retelling of old war stories, but mostly the talk is about music. McGuinn, for example, gives a cogent lesson in musical cross-fertilization. He acknowledges the influence of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, but also demonstrates how The Beatles took one of his licks and tweaked it. Ringo appears to say that Sgt. Pepper probably wouldn’t have sounded as it did had The Byrds never recorded, or if Brian Wilson (Beach Boys) had never imagined the Pet Sounds album. 

David Crosby is especially candid and insightful. In the midst of a flurry of speculation about why Buffalo Springfield broke up, Crosby flicks aside all the “creative disagreement” niceties for this tidbit: “I got kicked out of the band because I was an asshole.” Michelle Phillips is equally forthcoming about her promiscuity, and Brian Wilson reveals that he went to four different studios to get the–if you will–correct vibe for the various parts of “Good Vibrations.” As for why those vibrations eventually hummed discordantly and the Canyon scene began to fall apart, again all manner of theories abound: the life cycle of groups, acid rock’s shift to individual virtuosity, infighting…. Once gain Crosby cuts through a lot of pomposity and puts forth a simpler explanation, one involving what happens when you give a bunch of kids millions of dollars to play with. With a twinkle in his eye he notes, “Before you know it it’s bring out the smoke machines and sing the hits.” In other words, creativity and community gave way to the very L.A. commercialism from which they tried to hide in Laurel Canyon.

Things seemed to have gone much smoother for the latter day concerts. Jade is a revelation; she comes off as an enraptured 21stcentury hippie chick–in a good way. Her infectious smile is a perfect counter to Apple’s serious demeanor. It might also surprise that BobDylan gets only an oblique nod. Fair enough; he wasn’t a West Coast guy. Nor are The Doors mentioned, perhaps because they were a rock band, not a folkrock ensemble. Curiously conspicuous by her absence is the Queen of Laurel Canyon: Joni Mitchell. Too mercurial and difficult? 

Nitpickers will find openings. Some have dismissed the film as romantic, others that it’s little more than an exercise in nostalgia. But let me circle back to my moist eyes. Yeah, I wish I was young again, but it also had a lot to do with the fact that the music is just so damn good it hurts. It’s those gorgeous melodies, jangly guitars, textures, hooks, riffs, and ineffable qualities that seep into our DNA. Above all, Laurel Canyoncaptures the hopes of a generation before it was expelled from the Garden. 

Rob Weir


Karen Jonas, John Westmoreland, Makru, and More

Karen Jonas, Lucky Revisited

Every now and then you run across a recording that's so audacious that all you can do is applaud its chutzpa. Such a work is the 4th release from Karen Jonas. This album is sass, poise, and one helluva voice. Jonas gives us stripped down versions of songs from her back pages, some new material, and an unapologetic turn-back-the-calendar approach to country music before it became slick and safe. Her new version of "Lucky" is honed to a dangerous edge. Jonas sings it as if it's part of the soundtrack of a gritty film noir film set in a dusty Texas town filled with desperate people. She positively eviscerates the Golden Fifties myth in "Butter." She frames her video with an old-style TV screen and melts the song in suggestive nastiness whose sugary sprinkles are like a diaphanous dress waiting to be unzipped. Hers is a feminist country music, even when it evokes the past. It doesn't get any more throwback stylistically than "Ophelia" but then again, few past country stars could have gotten away with a lyric such as when a man calls you a whore, go on and the find the closest door…walk out. Want an old-time weepy? "Country Songs" is about a girl who hated country music until she came of age and had her heart broken: So thank you for teaching me to sing country songs/For making me so sad I want to sing along. She completes her stroll through yesteryear with two excellent covers–one of Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," and Hank Williams' "Lovesick Blues." ★★★★

John Westmoreland, Cast Fire

Some music grabs you with memorable melody lines, others with lyrical grace or pulsing energy. John Westmoreland–known for his guitar work with Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba–stirs your soul. That's exactly where he's aiming with Cast Fire, an album full of "grief singing," vocal stylizations borrowed from Karelia. Don't think depressing; think honorific and contemplative. "The Sparrow" was inspired by being part of a song/prayer circle attending to a dying man. A small bird glided into the room, perched upon a lampshade, and just as gracefully departed. Westmoreland's guitar is at once suggestive of a slow flamenco and of feathery flight. He allows his bright notes to ring and frame his expressive baritone voice. "Thomas" honors his departed grandfather and is a meditation on life, death, and the soul. If the music sounds Baroque, it's because Westmoreland synchs his nylon-stringed Guild with a torban, a Ukrainian lute/psaltery combination. "Open Your Eyes" also evokes an ancient music feel, this time induced by guitar arpeggios, hand percussion, violin, and bansuri, a wooden flute from India. Everything on this album is designed to induce inner thought. The gorgeous notes and fretwork of "Land of the Living" takes you to one part of the human experience, "All Saints Day" to another. You might notice that Westmoreland's videos feature a lot of free-style interpretive dance. His music encourages personal journeys. He takes one of how own on an innovative cover of "All Along the Watchtower." Maybe you'll do your own dance to the jazzy but moody instrumental "Waltz in A Minor." Don't flee from lamentation; remember that laments come from the living. They express sorrow and regret, but are also cathartic and cleansing. ★★★★

Makrú, Tu Mission

Makrú is a global kitchen sink band from California that plays a mash of ska, regaae, flamenca, cumbia, rumba, and jazz. This befits a group whose members were born in Colombia, El Salvador, Spain, Turkey, and the United States. If you think of the Spanish-speaking world as branching south and west from Spain into Latin America, you get an idea of the multiple influences Makrú put into play. On "Cloud," we hear a soft Caribbean-like melody filtered through a reggae pulse and faintly Middle Eastern undertones. It, as much of the album, is anchored by the vocals and vihuela (Mexican guitar/timple blend) of Colombia's Jenny Rodríquez, and the cájon (box drum) and vocals of El Salvador-born Raúl Vargas. The instrumental "Where You Wanna Be" is a pastiche that moves from jazzy to dance hall and back to jazz in a start/stop arrangement in which Haluk Kecelioglu spins out oud (Turkish lute) notes like a mandolin player. Vargas takes the lead vocals on the titletrack and it too takes twisty turns. It opens with the wistfulness of an island ballad, but evolves into something akin to a Mexican corrido. I have no Spanish so I can't comment on the song lyrics, but I do know that Makrú band members are associated with social activism. I like the eclectic approach of the band, as well as its tendency to blend traditional styles with the urgency of pop music and the contemplativeness of jazz. ★★★★

Short Takes

The NoiseTrade sampler of Nicole Boggs and the Reel, Live at Oceanway serves up soul fused with hard-edged rock. Boggs belts out the self-descriptive “Life of the Party,” and laments looking for love in all the wrong places on “Fool for a Fool” and “Sleeping with the Enemy.” If you think Lake Street Dive’s Rachael Price has a big voice, listen to Boggs.

NoiseTrade recently paired with Paste Magazine and has begun to make past performances available through the latter's Daytrotter Sessions. British folk rockers Mumford and Sons now play large venues. We hear them in a quieter, less glitzy mode on a seven-track August 30, 2013 stopover in Troy, Ohio, where they jammed with a handful of friends in an empty high school auditorium. One of the selections is a cover of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice It's Alright," but by far the stellar track is a sensitive rendition of "Like a Hurricane."

Garrett Dutton goes by the handle of G. Love and generally fronts a trio called Special Sauce. Check out a solo performance titled G. Love Live at Daytrotter. He's from Philadelphia, but this four-song acoustic country blues set sounds more bayou than Schuylkill Expressway. My favorite track was "Rainbow," in which he gives an acoustic slide a fine workout. I also enjoyed the hard driving, good summer fun "Soulbbq" and "Diggin Roots," which he recently recorded with Keb' Mo'. 

A final blast from the past comes from Daytrotter's sampler of a Bon Iver concert from July 21, 2008. Back then they had just one album, For Emma, Forever Ago. (The band would go on to win a Grammy in 2012.) For those who don't know, Bon Iver is the brainchild of Justin Vernon, and the name a phonetic spelling of the French bon l'hiver, or "good winter." Vernon hails from Wisconsin, where they know about winter. Bon Iver is often billed as an indie rock band, though folk with some rock would be a better description. Listen to "re: Stacks" [sic] to hear the band's soft side, and "Creature Free" for its now-trademark combo of soft, pause, speed up, flirt with havoc, and return to soft. Vernon's falsetto lead is featured on all tracks, the other two being "Flume" and "Lamp Sum."

Rob Weir


Invictus Video Review: Good Sports Flick

Invictus (2009)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Warner Brothers, 133 minutes, PG-13
In English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu, Maori

I got psyched for the women's World Cup soccer final by watching a film about rugby. Huh? Not the same, I know, but I watched Invictus, which I had never seen, partly because of the controversy stirred up by conservatives because of Megan Rapinoe's strident anti-Trump remarks. I notice that the right never goes into a tizzy when one of its own such as Tom Brady, Dale Earnhardt Jr., John Rocker, Curt Schilling, or Tim Tebow spout their views, but never mind. Let me address something that Invictus does well. It puts to rest the naïve belief that sports should be politics-free. They never have been.  Take a look at controversy and tragedy at the Olympic games in 1932, 1968, 1972, 1980, and 1984. Even in a good year, the Olympics does a better job at flaming nationalism than of celebrating athletic excellence.

Soccer and rugby long ago gave up the pretense that sports exist independent of politics.  Director Clint Eastwood takes us to the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which was held in South Africa less than 5 years after Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) was released from his apartheid jail cell after 27 years, and just one after he was elected South Africa's first black president. His nation's rugby team, the Springboks, was a source of pride for whites, but Mandela noticed that the black majority rooted for whomever was playing the Springboks. To their eyes, the very name and color of the jersey represented decades of apartheid. Mandela, though, resisted calls for a new name and jersey, as he knew his job was to represent all South Africans, plus he needed to attract foreign investment for South Africa's fragile democracy. The last thing he needed was a flight of white money with the World Cup coming to Johannesburg. His task was to make the Springboks a symbol of national pride. The problem, though, was simple: the Springboks sucked! So how to meld a team and get everyone to root for it, especially when the squad had but one black player, Chester Williams (McNeil Hendriks)?

Mandela decided that the racial healing began with team captain François Pienaar (Matt Damon), who was sired in a racist Afrikaner* home. In not-entirely-accurate scenes Pienaar buys into the new South Africa, comes to admire Mandela's struggle, and whips the squad into shape. Pienaar's transformation was capped by a visit  to Robbens Island where Mandela was jailed for nearly three decades, and the Springboks–at Mandela's suggestion–began to capture black support by conducting clinics in the townships to which they were confined and still concentrated.

You can look it up, so no need to worry about spoilers. In the 1995 tournament, South Africa shockingly defeated heavily favored Australia and eventually won the Cup by upsetting the New Zealand All Blacks in the final. This was especially shocking given that the All Blacks featured Jonah Lomu, an explosive giant (6'5", 276 pounds) and the most dominating athlete of my lifetime (with the possible exception of Secretariat!).

I liked the film, though I certainly recognize its limitations. In feel it's a bit like Chariots of Fire, which is to say that drama and over-the-top melodrama occupy adjacent stadium seats. Invictus had generally good reviews when it debuted a decade ago, with a few naysayers finding it too "manly" in a thudding, muddy, spit-blood kind of way. Rugby is a much tougher sport than gridiron football–no padding-–but it's not quite as bone crunching as viewed on the screen. You might also wonder why we see Damon bruised and sliced during a game, but looking spit-polish fine the next day. (Did he bathe in Arnica to get rid of his bruises?) You could also be (rightfully) skeptical as to whether Mandela spent his entire first year in office fixating on the Springboks. In sum, this is a rather typical sports film–insert any sport here–with an arc of demoralization followed by team bonding, hard work, and glorious triumph. You could even call this an Eastwood family vanity pic; Scott Eastwood played one of the Springboks and his brother Kyle composed and/or co-arranged the music.

Nonetheless, it's a highly entertaining movie even though ten years later we know that much of the South African dream died when Mandela passed in 2013. Do I even need to tell you that Morgan Freeman was superb as Mandela? He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, though he didn't win. The surprise is how good Damon was; for a dude from Boston, he sports an excellent Afrikaans accent. His acting is subtle, not a histrionic Hollywood star turn. Kudos to both Eastwood and Damon for making us see the latter as a rugby player, not a celebrity hunk. 

If you're wondering about the film's title, it is that of a poem by William Earnest Henley (1849-1903) that Mandela often recited in confinement. [Follow the links for further details.] The movie is based on a book written by John Carlin, who writes about the connections between–what else?–sports and politics.

Rob Weir

*Afrikaner references the 17th century white Dutch who colonized South Africa. The English took over "Cape" colony in the 19th century. Afrikaners fled to the interior, formed the Orange Free State, and eventually melded with French, Germans, and Swedes, all of whom spoke a variant of Dutch called Afrikaans. The Union of South Africa was formed in 1910 and absorbed the Orange Free State, which precipitated the Boer Wars–Boer a word for Dutch farmers–that ended in defeat of the Boers. They, however, came to dominate the Union and, in 1948, put apartheid into place, a system akin to segregation in the US but much more brutal.


Local Strangers, Kristina Murray, VanWyk, Rupa Marya, Noaccordion

The Local Strangers, Complete Catalog

If you're unaware of the Seattle-based Local Strangers fronted by Aubrey Zoli and Matt Hart, you’ve got a treat in store. They are often classified as Americana, which in their case means they’re a bit of everything. TLS has released their back catalogue material. There's lots to sample and if you don’t find something to love, you just don’t like music. “Hunted by Ghosts” has a sufficiently spooky feel with a melody that's sort of string band-meets-small combo. The operative phrase is “sort of,” because Zoli and Hart run the acoustic gamut; when they meld with their touring band, they also tilt the rock and folk rock machines. “Devil and a Stiff Drink” is a "sort of" country rock badass song, but “Mr. Blackberry” is a handclap ditty that could be something from the 1940s filtered through electric noise that skirts cacophony. Zoli is bold and in command on “Chasethe Battle,” which evokes the pretty to let-‘er-rip style of Maura Kennedy. On “Uptown,” Hart takes the lead on an impressive song that’s and indie rock/folk hybrid. Listen to the white keys on that one. What else? How about the harmonies and folk gospel feel of “Daniel,” a community sing-along in real time?  The acid surf guitar intro to “Red Dress” also sounds like it’s borrowed from another time, though its chorus is now. “Always Me” is a shitkicker, but there's also the emotional “Letter to My Love,” complete with cello and horns. This is a wonderful ensemble and Audrey Zoli is the real deal. ★★★★
Kristina Murray, Southern Ambrosia

Kristina Murray writes new songs in classic country and Southern rock style. Her alto, slightly nasal voice is evocative of Nanci Griffith, as is her flair for pastoral tracks such as “Strong Blood” and “Pink Azaleas,” the last a collection of nostalgic childhood memories. She can also spin a good story, as she does in “Ballad of Angel and Donnie,” which was inspired by reading of the meth bust of two folks living on the razor’s edge. The project’s attention-grabber, “Made in America,” features cool guitar hooks and is about another life-on-the-margins character that grew up fighting, drinking, praying, and scrapping by. ★★★

VanWyck, An Average Woman

This one is tough to evaluate. Christien VanWyck is a Dutch singer whose 11-track An Average Woman is so moody that I immediately thought of Leonard Cohen. When I sought information on her, it turned out everyone else has also made the Cohen (and Laura Marling) connection. The multiple threads of the title track lie with hearing of a teen girl’s suicide, discussing acceptance with a therapist friend, and reading a novel about a girl’s disappearance and her parents’ inability to describe her to the police because she was so “average.” It's also an ironic opener, as most of the album spotlights strong women. For instance, if you know Titian’s masterpiece “The Rape of Europa,” you can imagine VanWyck’s take on “Europa Escapes.” But the rub is that each track track on this album has the same pace: slow. “Europa Escapes” at least has some reverb guitar, but that's as close as we get to a pace change. I admired VanWyck’s lyrics and voice, but the arrangements make it difficult to differentiate one song from another. You know–a lot like Leonard Cohen’s early work. Try tracks such as the echoing “Red River Girl,” the soulful “Don't Talk to the Captain,” and her amazing small voice catch in “By the Oak Tree.”  I yearned for more moments such as these. ★★½

Rupa and the April Fishes, Growing Upward

If this band name perplexes you, Rupa Marya fronts a six-piece band and April Fishes is a translation of the French les poissons d'avril, a French April 1 prank of sticking paper fish on the back of unsuspecting victims. Rupa is a Bay Area fireball who sings in English, French, Spanish, and Hindi. Her eclectic band is often dubbed "global alternative" as it's a mix of jazz, rock, and chanson, with splashes of reggae and punk. I've heard this band and admire much of what they do, but was underwhelmed by Growing Upward. "Where You From" is emblematic; the recording balance isn't loud but still feels overstuffed. Ditto "Water Song," which as so much drone-like ambience that it flattens Marya's vocals. "Yelamu (We Are Still Here)" throws everything but the kitchen sink at you: chants, background lead vocals, trumpet, snippets of a newscast, and Guillermo Gomez Peña reading a human rights declaration. Nice idea, but it gets in its own way. This album is much stronger when it keeps things simple, as in the Caribbean-meets-Cajun "Ena Mena Deeka," which is like a washboard song without the namesake percussion. "Frontline" is also a good song. It has oomph of R and B and sexy trumpet that supplements Rupa's swaying rhythms. Throughout the album I wanted more Rupa and less of the mess. ★★

Noaccordion, Surrender

An old joke holds there is no form of music that can't be improved by the deletion of an accordion. Polka, Celtic, and Cajun bands would disagree. So would Onah Indigo, the Bay Area performance artist who spearheads the Noaccordion project. "Project" is indeed the best way to describe Indigo's vision. The "no" part of her music reminded me of Japanese "noh" theater in that it is grounded, minimalist, and exotic to those who've never before encountered it. Indigo's "Surrender" evolved from Indigo's recovery from intense back pain. The squeezebox can be hard on backs, and apparently she had plenty of time to think. Noaccordion–and Indigo does play one, as well as keys–is performance art merged with bold experimentation and musical pastiche. "Goodness RiseAgain" features trumpet, plus the reggae/funk vocals of Spencer Garret Burton; yet in "Grow" we hear Indigo reaching into operatic range. In "Another Way," heavy drone-like bass sets a Gothic foundation for accordion parading as fiddle. "Quick Time" is ironically named. It would invoke descriptors such as funereal and elegiac were it not for the beat box percussion. "Lessons" has been labeled "glitch hop," and that's a pretty good handle. The final track, "Allies," is piano, bass, bang-the-can percussion, and buried wraithlike vocals, but also makes us feel that Indigo has found simpatico peeps. This project strikes me as a more successful venture onto turf upon which Rupa Marya stumbled. I warn you, though, that Noaccordion is not for everyone. It's decidedly a walk on the unorthodox side. Check out the official video for "Trouble" (not on the album) and you'll see what I mean. ★★★½

Rob Weir


Suffering of Strangers Appeals Only to Series Fans

The Suffering of Strangers  (2017 UK/2018 North America)
By Caro Ramsay
Black Thorn, 257 pages.

The problem with a series is that if you show up late, it's hard to catch up. The Suffering of Strangers is book nine of Scottish fiction writer Caro Ramsay's Costello and Colin Anderson series. If you are addicted to Ms Ramsay's "tartan noir"* detective novels, you will probably devour it with gusto. If not, you'll probably share my judgment that it's more mess than mystery. My late-to-the-table status notwithstanding, this is simply not a very well written book.

In The Suffering of Strangers we find that Freddie (a woman) Costello is now a Detective Inspector (DI) and Colin Anderson a Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) who has been promoted to the Cold Case Unit, which investigates unsolved cases. Each will be drawn into a distressing incident in which 6-week old Sholto Chisholm has gone missing in an unusual way: when his mother Roberta ducked into a store for just a moment, Sholto** was gone but a Down syndrome baby sits in his place in a nearly identical car seat.

Costello is reluctant to get involved as she's still licking her wounds from botching a previous case–presumably described in book eight of the series. She's also angrier than usual as Archie Walker–her superior and covert lover–seems to be cavorting with a younger woman. Anderson, however, sees similarities between Sholto's switcheroo and other missing child cases. Even worse, as the investigation unfolds, several women go missing in ways that suggest the pattern of a serial rapist whose unsolved crimes gback at least 20 years and ravaged Colin's university flame, Sally Logan.

This novel is overpopulated with characters. Again, I presume that much of the detective force has been introduced in earlier novels, but be wary of reviews that say this book works as a standalone novel. It does not. I had to make lists of characters and relationships to keep them straight. This is problematic on several levels. First, my list was much longer than it needed be. Ramsay drops names in ways that give a new reader few clues as to whether the character in question is relevant, or just police station wallpaper. The same is true of past and pending cases mentioned. Second, Ramsay complicates matters by introducing new characters whose relationships to the story are murky. There is, for instance, a child support services caseworker named Deliana Despande. "Dali" ticks some boxes in that she's of Southeast Asian descent, non-white, and obese, but none of these portrayals are flattering. She seems to be in the novel to bond with DI Costello, whom most of her colleagues find cold and domineering. In truth, Dali doesn't need to be in such an already overstuffed book.

Colin is tasked with reconnecting with Sally and her now-husband Andrew Braithwaite, who was also one of Colin's university friends. This is also awkward because Colin hasn't seen either of them in many years; he is married with two children, but still carries a romanticized torch for Sally. At this juncture, the novel begins to unravel. In a short spate of time we hear of several woman who have disappeared, including one who vanishes just out of sight of the now ubiquitous CCTV security cameras and a drone. Toss in a young caseworker who screwed up when one of the missing women crawled out a bathroom window, a subplot involving Walker's goddaughter, several detectives who may or may not be withholding investigative details in hope of an advancement scoop, a legend of an underground city, some stumbling around in a subterranean car park, a yoga studio, a baby-selling network, a rooftop, and some high-powered water jets.

Ramsay brings all of this to a conclusion through logic-defying subterfuge. If that's not enough–and believe me, it is–Ramsay tacks on a cloudburst of coincidences that revolve around Anderson. This book has more contrivances than a Rube Goldberg machine. If only it had Goldberg's humor, his sense of irony, and his devotion to making his contraptions do just one thing.

Rob Weir

*American crime writer James Ellroy coined this wonderful term.

** This name sounds odd to North American ears, but not those in Scotland. It was the first name of the 8th century chieftain who sired the Douglas clan. It comes from a Gaelic word that means fruitful.


2018 Star is Born is Dreck

A Star is Born (2018)
Directed by Bradley Cooper
Warner Brothers, 136 minutes, R (nudity, language, drugs, drinking)

Lady Gaga sing sings. Yeah, yeah. Blah, blah. My one line review of this third remake is:  A Star is Born, but this viewer is bored. This is easily the worst of the four versions of this film, and it has my vote for one of the fattest turkeys of 2018. I'm glad I didn't fall prey to the Oscar hype and see this one in the cinema. I lasted just 90 minutes into the DVD before bailing. I knew how it would end because, after all, it's A Star is Born and I've seen the other three films (made in 1937, 1954, and 1976).

Here's the problem. In previous versions in which Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland, and Barbara Streisand starred, each could sing. Lady Gaga is a great singer too, but the other three could also act and Gaga cannot. Gaga plays Ally Campano and is discovered singing Edith Piaf in a drag bar. She is, apparently, the resident straight chick and only one who doesn't require a molded silicon breastform. We know this because we see her naked several times. Insofar as I can determine, nudity is the only new wrinkle Gaga brings to a movie that is now officially as overdone as a Lady Gaga pop song.

For those who just beamed down to this planet, Bradley Cooper's role is to play a drunken, world-weary musical idol: Jackson Maine, a country megastar. He discovers Ally (Gaga) in the aforementioned drag bar, is wowed by her voice, smitten by her down-to-earth demeanor, and astounded by her songwriting ability. How he can draw the last conclusion from the few bars she tunelessly vocalizes in a convenience store parking lot is up for grabs, as is any explanation of how she gets to take her gay friend Ramon (Anthony Ramos) with her on the private plane "Jack" sends to fly her to his gig in Houston. Equally mysterious is what useful role Andrew Dice Clay plays in this film as Ally's father. (In my opinion, Clay has always been a waste of planetary space.)

You know the rest. Jack's star will dim and Ally's will rise. A producer named Rez (Rafi Gavron) takes charge of Ally and repackages her as a pop tart and it's on to a Saturday Night Live gig and three Grammy nominations. Gaga is, of course, in her milieu and she proves she really can sing pop. Duh! What a stretch. This might have been a wise course of action, though, as she is truly awful in non-singing roles. You can see her smile and moon as if she is following commands from the side of the set. This is the extent of her acting range. Jack hates Ally's new direction, but he is sinking both professionally and personally, so queue a marriage troubled from the start, public embarrassment, and a tragic ending. To reiterate, it is A Star is Born, so the tragic ending is chiseled in concrete.

To the degree there is anything redeeming about this film, it's Cooper. He can sing and the clips of him lost in melodic rapture on the stage are slick, but engrossing. He's good enough that I partially forgive him for ripping off Jeff Bridges' Bad Blake mannerisms in Crazy Heart (2009), with a small nod to Robert Duval in Tender Mercies (1983). He does, however, spend too much time acting like a boozed, coked puppy dog waiting for Ally to get him out of the shelter. Moreover, the relationship between he and his older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott) is underwritten and seems as if it's tacked on either to get Elliott into the film or to introduce a dysfunctional family theme to explain why Jack is an addictive personality. Queue some psych 101 on that one.

I could go on, but I'd recommend instead that you see the 1976 Streisand version. It's also over the top and slogs through some cheap sentimentality—did I mention it's a remake of A Star is Born?–but you will immediately see the difference between a star who can dominate the screen (Streisand) and one who can't (Gaga). I'll leave it to others to argue which of the two is a better singer because the true answer is Judy Garland. But for sure no one will confuse Gaga's screen chops with the Stanislavski Method.

Can we just put Star is Born remakes to bed? Please. Enough. The 2018 Star is Born is surely not the brightest thing in the cinematic sky.

Rob Weir

Postscript: I don't deny that Lady Gaga has a great voice. She did a nice pop standard collaboration with crooner Tony Bennett. This does not mean, however, that she can sing anything. There is a difference between hitting the notes and making an audience believe in a song. At the end of the day, she's mostly a pop star. As for covering Edith Piaf, please don't.


New England Visionary Artists Museum a Unique Marvel

New England Visionary Artists Museum/Anchor House of Artists
518 Pleasant Street
Northampton, MA
 {Click on image for full size} 

I've driven by it a million times. So have you if ever gotten on or off Exit 8 of I-91. Maybe we shouldn't have rolled our eyes when our mothers told us not to judge a book by its cover. One of the coolest and most unique art museums in all of New England sits in an old factory building hard by a car wash and gas station and across from a bowling alley and rotary. I'm talking about the New England Visionary Artists Museum (NEVAM).

From the outside it looks like it might be little more than an artist's atelier with pretensions of grandeur. That's another book/cover scenario; NEVAM is capacious–more than 4,000 square feet–and stocked with namesake visionary art. Call it art with a mission. NEVAM director Michael Tillyer, a superb artist in his own right, started NEVAM in a 500 square foot space that quadrupled in size when it transitioned to the Anchor House of Artists in 1997. NEVAM not only displays Tillyer's art and that of guest artists, it's also an art therapy safe space for artists struggling with mental illness. Think art in its most inclusive definition. Tillyer greets guests and tells of three individuals who are no longer with us: Genevieve Mae Burnett (1945-2015), Mary Dunn (1956-2005), and Deborah Sklar (1964-2013). Each was (among other things) a painter, a poet, and journal writer; each also battled demons ranging from schizophrenia to hallucinations and hearing voices. 

You've no doubt heard that there is a thin line between genius and madness. Tillyer realized that most treatment modalities for those with mental illness emphasize manual and vocational skills. These don't address the need for creative people to express their need to make art. Anchor House is a subsidized safe space for artists wrestling with their inner demons–a sort of hands-on art therapy workshop. NEVAM features their work and also serves as a gallery and performing arts venue for artists whose work is offbeat and quirky. (Note: There are other Anchor Houses across the nation and most are associated with religious groups. I don't know if NEVAM is linked to these or not.) 

A stroll through NEVAM will expose you to marvels you won't see in many other galleries. If you get there before July 27, you can see the work of guest artist Amy Johnquest, who bears the nickname "The Banner Queen" for her retro carnival-style posters. These are evocative, clever, and often screamingly funny. A dancing pachyderm in a living room is titled "There is No Elephant." (Get it?) It graces the wall with other "attractions" such as Art Monkey and Dancing Disco Dan the Accordion Man.

Johnquest also displays works from her "Altered Ancestors" series. These are essentially collages in which old photos are shot through with painted-on electricity. It's as if a bunch of staid Victorians were hooked up to electrostatic generators. She also has some works that explore her fascination with faith and belief.

She's not the only artist at NEVAM with a slanted view on things. Tillyer and his friend Mark Brown have numerous paintings and masks, though it's their wooden sculptures that truly catch the eye: broom-headed figures, a flame-haired wooden figure with a hula hoop, assemblages made from castoff tools, and an adorable wooden pooch. 

NEVAM is filled with objects and creations that are at once familiar, yet exotic and offbeat: a pet nut and bolt, a painting that unabashedly tells us it's covering a hole in the wall, an old metal lawn chair fashioned into an alien, mixed media collages that skirt the border between humorous and grotesque, and postcards designed to merge two things that are harmonious in design yet incongruous in reality (like the sweep of old Yankee Stadium flowing into a curved bridge or John Singleton Copley's famed Watson and the Shark with Watson about to fall into Monet's water lily pond at Giverny rather than becoming a shark's lunch.

Much of what you see at NEVAM is surreal and perhaps vaguely unsettling, but its allure and magic is undeniable. Get thee to NEVAM. The experience is akin to grabbing hold of Alice's hand the moment she slipped down the rabbit hole and emerged in Wonderland.

Rob Weir  


Obit is a Life-Affirming Documentary (Really!)

Obit (2016)
Directed by Vanessa Gould
Kino Lorber, 93 minutes, Not rated.

Telling readers that an underappreciated documentary about New York Times obituary writers is so uplifting that they should see it as soon as possible is an invitation to instant skepticism. Isn’t death the ultimate bummer? Who would want to delve into such a morbid subject?

Before you yield to your skepticism, consider an observation made by one of the Times’ obituary writers: There are few things more full of life than an obituary. If you reflect, that’s true. A typical obituary has passing mentions of funeral services and the date and time of death, but most of it is devoted to what the person did while alive. A good obit is revelatory and filled with action and vitality. Former Times obits editor Alden Whitman (1913-90) pioneered this style of obituary, which should never be confused with boilerplate funeral home releases. Great obits require great writers, the sort who can sum up a person’s life in an engaging manner in roughly 500 words. The Times has numerous such scribblers. Its current chief is Biff Grimes, who is an accomplished food writer, and the staff includes polished wordsmiths the likes of Jack Kadden, Margalit Fox, William McDonald, Bruce Weber, and Peter Keepnews. (Is Keepnews a perfect name for a journalist or what?)

We are taken inside the Times to see how the process works. Like any other news story, it begins with an editorial meeting in which decisions are made about how many words to give the famous and near famous, and whether or not an obit should be written at all about intriguing but not-famous individuals. Does Manson Whitlock, the last person in New York to repair typewriters, warrant an obit? (Yes, he did.) How about William P. Wilson, the media consultant that convinced John Kennedy to wear makeup before his 1960 TV debate against Nixon. (Yes again.) Or Dick Rich, an advertising writer who wrote iconic catch phrases for Alka-Seltzer and Benson & Hedges cigarettes? (Yes a third time!) The toughest obits to write occur when someone like Michael Jackson dies decades before the subject is expected to do so. Such a passing involves quick scrambling and a beat-the-clock deadline as intense as the proverbial late-breaking news story.

Perhaps you are perplexed by my remark about death before expected. You may have heard that lots of papers have on-file obituaries for famous people. That’s true in the case of the Times and, as it turns out, they have quite a few for the near famous as well–if they can find them. That’s the job of Jeff Roth, the keeper of the “morgue,” a messy repository of files that predate digitization stuffed into (or on top of) file drawers. Why not digitize them? No one has the time for that! Roth is intriguing in his own right. He’s a cross between the droll humor of Bill Murray, the abrasiveness of Jimmy Breslin, and the hard-broiled approach of a detective writer such as Mickey Spillane. He pulled out one file of an aviatrix that was written 80 years before she finally died. Obviously a bit of updating was needed!

It is also instructive to see people like Fox, Weber, or Paul Vitello at work. Journalists often have a reputation for detached cynicism, but even though deadline-driven obit writers have the unenviable task of fact checking with survivors by phone, Times personnel does so with respect. This is particularly true of Vitello, who is also a Times religion columnist.

Obit is fascinating on many levels. Director Vanessa Gould assembled a film about death that is fast-paced, energizing, and life affirming. It is marred only by the musical choices of Joel Goodman, too much of which is "docu-generic." That’s my term for the enervating neutral music you hear in documentaries with background music you’re not really supposed to hear but do because it’s so cloying. The person who came up with that concept does not deserve an obit.

Rob Weir


Woman at War a Small Jewel of a Film

Woman at War (Kona fer i stríö) (2018 film/2019 US release)
Directed by Benedikt Erlingsson
Magnolia Pictures, 101 minutes, Not-rated.
In Icelandic, Spanish, French, English with subtitles.

Woman at War was Iceland’s foreign film entry for the Oscars. It didn’t make the final cut and I suspect that was for two reasons. First, it is a hard to pigeonhole film. It gets called a comedy drama, but its humor is not the sort that Hollywood likes. Instead of broad and obvious, it is understated and offbeat. Second, Hollywood liberalism is always tempered by kowtowing to the moneyed interests that bankroll big budget movies. Woman at War takes on corporations­–and it does on what Hollywood would call a starvation diet of just $3 million. Woman at War is about an eco-activist who battles Iceland’s aluminum industry.

This is also the sort of quirky film that makes independent film such a creative delight–even when they go over the top. Director Benedikt Erlingsson mostly (but not always) strikes a balance between silliness and seriousness. The woman at the film's center is 47-year-old Halla (Halldóra Geirharòsdóttir), independent and single by choice, and a respected choral director who wears her politics on her sleeve. She rides her bike all over Reykjavik rather than owning a car, and her apartment walls are lined with posters of people such as Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. What only her innermost co-conspirators know is that she is also  “Mountain Woman,” an eco-activist who wages war against companies that are not carbon-neutral. In her mind, Iceland’s biggest polluter is Rio Tinto, an aluminum company owned by an English/Australian consortium. Halla wants to bring them down–literally. She shoots tipped arrows across their power lines to bring power and production to a halt. Although it’s not easy to do so, Halla evades would-be captors through a combination of intimate knowledge of Iceland’s southern highlands, commando-style survivalist techniques, help from a farmer, and unexpected luck.

Erlingsson–who also co-wrote the script–tempers his drama with farce. This is Geirharòsdóttir's show, but the secondary characters are a collection of oddballs: a willful farmer who might be Halla's distant cousin, a nervous Parliamentary insider/conspirator, bumbling pursuers, a Spanish tourist (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada), and Halla’s flaky ashram-bound twin sister Asa (also played by Geirharòsdóttir).

There is also a subplot involving a forgotten application. Four years earlier, Halla sought to adopt a Ukrainian refugee and suddenly an adorable five-year-old orphan girl awaits a surrogate mother. Halla’s triple life­–choral director, outlaw, soon-to-be mother–frame the film’s most unusual feature. Erlingsson alerts us that his tale is more fable than reality by inserting musicians directly into key shots. Depending upon what’s at stake, it’s either a sousaphone-led Icelandic band evocative of the off-kilter sounds of Gogol Bordello, or a female trio of a cappella Ukrainian singers in full traditional costume. If that’s not enough disruption of reality for you, the Spanish tourist is a Falstaff figure with a gift for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A film with this many twisted irons in the fire is bound to get in its own way at times. Woman at War is far from a perfect film. It is, at times, too silly and/or too sentimental. It also relies on some obvious sight gags, and you’ll have to make up your own mind whether the comedy serves or derails the film’s core environmental message. In my mind, though, this is a film with both wit and heart. Geirharòsdóttir is terrific as Halla/Asa, even if the latter character is something of a cartoon figure. She has a wonderfully plastic face that makes her physically convincing as a radiant singer, a determined outlaw, a yoga junkie, or a woman whose soft features are fading as she approaches 50. 

You could also use Woman at War to write a real-life script of the myriad ways in which big companies–and the politicians who let them get away with malfeasance–seek to sway public opinion by discrediting anyone who challenges their dark, cozy deals. A sort of side joke is that Iceland is already among the greenest nations on earth. It hasn’t burned coal since the 1980s and 100% of all consumer electricity comes from hydro (74%) or geothermal (26%) sources. 

I highly recommend this film. Surrender to its jarring surface devices and admire its inventiveness, its soul, and how it makes you think without beating you over the head with its message. If that doesn’t convince you, try this: You won’t forget how deliciously weird it is.

Rob Weir


Zappa Autobiography is Problematic

The Real Frank Zappa Book  (1990)
By Frank Zappa and Peter Occhiogrosso
Poseidon Press, 352 pages.

I don't read many music biographies because most have the same arc: a misunderstood childhood, teen struggles, solace in music, discovery, and rise to the top. Then it's either addiction and early death, or a lifesaving intervention and late-in-life bliss. So when I ran across a free copy of Frank Zappa's book–which I had never before read–I figured it had to be different. It was, but not in a good way.

Let's get this out of the way. Zappa (1955-93) was a brilliant artist in several genres: rock, jazz, orchestral, and experimental music. If you poke around on YouTube you can find his first TV appearance. It was on the old Steve Allen Show and Zappa played–are you ready?–a suite for bicycle spokes and handlebars. Most people know him as the frontman for The Mothers of Invention (MOI), a band with more quirks and weirdness than Madonna, Lady Gaga, KISS, and Alice Cooper could collectively rival. The MOI wasn't the sort of band one "liked" in a traditional fashion; one experienced the Mothers and then endlessly contemplated and discussed what it all might have meant. That band and all of Zappa's other projects, no matter the genre, was highly experimental. Think elements of beebop merged with whatever Zappa's mind thought fit into a sound swirl that might or might not have a melody.

Alas his book, published three years before he died of prostate cancer, is a lot like his music, which is to say chaotic and a product of vision that is often too personal to make sense to anyone but Zappa himself. Other parts are rants–against incompetent producers, censorship, and overall stupidity, for example–and still other passages are rather complex musings on composition. It is decidely not about the MOI to which he gives scant and scattered discussion. (The book's chronological development is, at best, loose.) Zappa's prose stretches the definition of free form. There are lots of passages in Zappa use italics for no discernible reason, and still others in which he uses BOLD type, again not necessarily for any grammatical or dramatic effect. The entire of the book reads as if it went from Zappa's head to the page. Check out his song lyrics and you can tell they are also more catarsis than contemplation. Wanted: A good editor.

What you do get is the impression that Zappa was a complex man. He was, for instance, simultaneously anti-drug, anti-censorship, and pro pornography. One can only imagine what he would think of today's trigger warnings and push to set limits on public speech. If you think Zappa was a 60s' Flower Child, think again. He hated most things about the counterculture, especially drugs and heavy drinking; Zappa routinely fired band members who used drugs. He lived amongst rich celebrities in Laurel Canyon, but he was a family man with four children, only one of whom (Moon) is not now in the music business. He called his political views "practical conservatism;" a better label would be libertarianism. Some of the chapter titles are almost self-explanatory: "How Weird Am I, Reallly?" (very!), "All About Music," "Send in the Clowns" (his rant against music as a business). I applauded the chapter titled "America Drinks and Goes Marching," in which he skewers what we might call empty-headed good ole boy flag-waving culture. There is also "Church and State," the separation of which he thought all conservatives should support. (Cancel the Fox retrsopective.)

I think you get the picture. If you come across this book anywhere, the best way to approach it it is to open it randomly and read. If it makes no sense, open to somewhere else. Repeat. In an odd way, such a strategy unveils the layers of Zappa's genius. His was a mind that never stopped, so don't try to keep up. The book as literature is rubbish. The book as insight is undoubtedly in the mind of the beholder.

Rob Weir