February 2021 Album of the Month : The Rheingans Sisters




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The Rheingans Sisters–Rowan and Anna–have been turning heads in the United Kingdom for a few years now. Receiver, their fourth album, shows why. Give it time before you draw any conclusions. In an age in which way too many musicians opt for artifice-driven theatrics, The Rheingans are the polar opposite. Theirs is the kind of music in which nothing much happens–just everything.


I was shattered by “TheYellow of the Flowers.” It has a drone fiddle, brief adornments from the lead fiddle, and voices. The sisters are from Derbyshire, England, though Anna now lives in Toulouse, where she studied French music. She was struck by the mundanity of things viewed from her city window, but the yellow of the flowers seemed to “shout life and vitality.” This is a song about hope amidst despair and, if you’d like, is also evocative of spring. What is indisputable is that it is eye-moistening beautiful.


The Rheingans feature a pan-European style of folk music. It often sounds minimalist, but that is deceptive. In addition to fiddles, they also play banjo and viola, as well as several unorthodox instruments. “After the Bell Rang” might sound as if there is a Hindi beat to it, but the percussion is actually a Basque txun txun, a stringed instrument that looks a bit like a dulcimer but is plucked or beaten with a mallet. That leaves a hand free to blow a three-holed flute. This song also has a tomorrow-will-be-brighter message. Here and elsewhere on the album you will hear what sounds like vibes. It’s actually a bell tree, a conical stack of chimes played with either a soft or hard mallet.


You’ll also hear Scandinavian music the likes of which one might expect from Norway’s Annbjørg Lien. “Orogen” evokes halling tunes–energetic dances–but the Rheingans give it a gathering pace treatment, adding dollops of background lilting for texture. If you’d prefer something icy and forlorn, try Östbjörka.” Or maybe you’d prefer something French, such as “Moustiques dans les mûres” or “Insomnia,” the latter of which is anything but. It’s actually a set of bourrées, double-time dances that migrated from France to the UK. You can cool down with “Waltz from Lozère” a slow tempo sashay.


At times, The Rheingans drift into experimental territory. “From Up Here” has gorgeous fiddle passages, but its unhurried tempo and droning atmospherics skirt the borders of trance. “Lament for Lost Sleep” uses piercing flute as counterpoint to drone, which serves to lay the composition in the seam between sleepy and melancholy. But make no mistake, whatever The Rheingans Sisters do, they want to hold your hold your attention so that you can focus on subtle and sublime small shifts. “The Photograph” is banjo and voice and “One More Banjo” is good picking, but just as advertised. I am tempted to say that the album’s summative track is the almost-languid “The Bones of the World.” As noted in the lede, it’s seemingly about little–just the spiny structure that holds up the entire planet.


Rob Weir


Postscript: My version of Receiver came as an MP3. You might wish to get–in the jargony parlance of the day–physical product. The CD comes with a 48-page booklet that includes pinhole solargraph photos from Pierre-Olivier Boulant. I’ve seen some of his work online and it’s both enigmatic and impressive.


Rocket Man a Decent but Middling Look at Elton John




Directed by Dexter Fletcher

Paramount, 122 minutes, R (language, sexual situations, disco dancing)



I didn’t see Rocket Man in the theater, so I might as well get my confession out of the way: I’ve never been a fan of Elton John’s music. He hit it big when acid rock gave way to soft rock and then yielded to disco. I hated disco and was not a fan of glam either, a genre think of as musical cosplay. I didn’t even know many of the film’s songs that were apparently big hits. In short, Rocket Man was pretty low on my must-see list.


I recently caught it on video and enjoyed it more than I thought I would, though the film has some issues, which is why I’ve assigned a middling three stars. Those who adore his music will probably overlook these and rate it a star higher. First off, though, credit goes to John for acting as executive producer for a biopic that presents him as a talented performer, but flawed individual. We all are, of course, but John admits he has an addictive personality. The film probes quite a few of them: egoism, booze, pills, cocaine, psychedelics, sex, shopping….


Like most biopics, Rocket Man’s attempt to cram a life into two hours is difficult. But my first beef with the film is that it squanders exposition time with too many big production numbers. At times it’s difficult to know if this is Elton’s story or Fame-Meets-La La Land. It’s one of those films in which instead of outbursts of anger or pain, we get a close-up, a song, and a pull-back to club or concert scenes. I suppose this makes sense for a performer as flamboyant as John, but it seemed overdone.  


Speaking of flamboyance, though, Rocket Man sure has a flashy opening. We see Elton (Tayron Egerton) walking down a hallway. He is backlit and dressed in an orange-sequined devil suit that’s straight of Dante (except for the sequins). There’s a scowl of disgust on his face and we learn why: he’s on his way to day one of group therapy for his various substance addictions. This provides the springboard for telling his story via short montage-style flashbacks.


We meet Elton –born Reginald Dwight­– as a boy in 1950s Middlesex. Postwar England was a dire place, so we can well imagine the appeal of American rock n’ roll, which he discovered through his father’s record collection. That is, when his old man Stanley (Stephen Mackintosh) allowed him to touch them. (Some within the LGBTQ community have taken umbrage with the cliché of distant father = misunderstood gay son. Elton’s step-sons also dispute the film’s depiction of Stanley.) But young Reg was a star pupil at the Royal Academy of Music, where talent is a must for entrance. At age 15 he began playing clubs and the song “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” is used to show him catching fire in that scene. Soon, he was backing visiting American acts such as Patti LaBelle and the Isley Brothers. (The name “Elton” was lifted from the nickname given to the saxophone in the Isleys’ band.) He also met lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), his longtime musical partner and best friend.


Rocket Man follows familiar arcs. There is the initial signing and recording –with DJM Records in this case– followed by a tour to America that makes Elton too big to keep down on the small record farm. The real devil comes in the guise of studio executive John Reid (Richard Madden), who has sex with Elton, signs him, is his entrée into LA debauchery, and then screws him in non-sexual ways. Hits follow, but Elton descends into bad decision-making, a brief marriage to Renate Blauel, drugs, an LA mansion, male lovers, burning bridges until no one stands on the other side, and then rehab, comeback, and belated happiness. (Yeah, I too have seen this before.)


This is another film in which women barely appear. The actress playing Blauel isn’t even credited and those depicting Elton’s mother and grandmother (Bryce Dallas Howard and Gemma Jones) are reoccurring cameos. On the relationship side of things, the central one is Elton’s friendship with Bernie, and Jamie Bell is endearing in the role. Rocket Man is mainly filled with Elton John’s songs and Egerton is up to the task of singing them. (“I’m Gonna Love Me Again” won the film’s only Oscar.) I suppose that’s what Elton fans would want but, if so, why attempt a total sweep of a life few would care about without the hits? For the record, though (pun intended), my favorite has always been “Your Song,” a melodic and sweet offering that needs no pyrotechnics.


Rob Weir




The Exiles: Good but Not Transcedent



By Cristina Baker Kline

HarperCollins, 384 pages.



In her latest work, Christina Baker Kline returns to a subject that has interested her in the past: orphans. It is set in the 1840s, the height of British imperialism and a time in which the slightest infraction led draconian judges to impose exile sentences to ill-begotten colonies. Said judges were seldom moved by the age or circumstances of the accused.


Evangeline is an intelligent preacher’s daughter who became a governess when her father died when she was still a minor. How many Victorian novels involve rakish sons of privilege ruining a trusting female? So too this one, whose only twist is that a stepson is the culprit. In the eyes of English law, Evangeline’s word is no good when leveled against a prominent family, so it’s exile to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania).  


Aboard the transport ship she meets pickpocket Hazel Ferguson, the daughter of an absent alcoholic mother. Her skills as an herbalist and midwife also make her suspicious in the eyes of the ship’s crew, though physician Dr. Caleb Dunne is impressed by her. Also on board is salty-tongued Olive, who is with child. It is implied that she was a prostitute. Post for present status scarcely matters; all the women are viewed as disposable trash. Moreover, a long ocean journey exposed females to danger of physical assault.


On the other side of the world, an Aborigine named Matthinna, is taken from her homeland on Flanders Island for no good reason other than that Sir John Franklin of Arctic exploration infamy and his wife wish to undertake a social experiment they believe will fail. They seize a child to see if they can civilize it. The lighter-skinned Matthinna is chosen because she’s not “too” black as to be irredeemable. She too is bound for Van Diemen’s Land, where Franklin is governor.


One of the more fascinating details of the novel involves the little-known aftermath for those exiled from England. Did you know exiles were jailed when they went ashore? They had to earn their way to freedom (of a sort) in a place where European men vastly outnumbered women. And remember the time period. The idea of a woman earning her own bread was not impossible, just mostly so.


For a time, Matthinna fares better. She lives amidst luxury, though she’d rather be with her own people. She is smart enough to know that her ticket home is compliance. Rechristened as Mary, she excels in her studies and deportment. But she still a “black,” as Europeans reference Aboriginals– when they’re being semi-polite. The Franklins use Mary as a French-speaking trained monkey at parties. For Mary, the calculus is simple: Will she play out the game or succumb to hubris?


As you might anticipate, the worlds of the ship’s European white girls and that of Matthinna, will collide. The Exiles is a test of the reach of women’s networks under unusual circumstances. The immigrant story is often told in triumphant tones. The usual arc is that the first generation struggles but works hard to leave a solid bequest for their children. Kline knows it’s messier than that. What do words such as success, acceptance, and freedom mean?


Kline does her homework but it’s not quite enough to push this novel over the fence that divides good from extraordinary. Several slips mar an otherwise noble effort. First, she builds sympathy for her characters by placing them in her peril’s way. That’s effective, but she often resorts to melodramatic moments of double Kleenex sentimentality. Kline also breaks historical character in places. This introduces anachronistic contaminants in which characters act as if they are plucked from the 21st century not the 19th.


This is related to another picked nit. Exiles is an odd mix of imagination and convention. The central protagonists are so compelling that we come to expect much of them. Their flights, though, sometimes thud where they should soar and vice versa. I wonder if Kline realized this as well. Is this why she introduces a vendetta coda set 20 years in the future? It fleshes out several characters, but the device isn’t done with enough nuance to make readers unaware of the author’s intervention.  


If these critiques suggest that I lamented reading Exiles, that’s not so. I admire Kline’s work and you will find a glowing review of A Piece of the World in this blog’s archives. It is merely the case that Exiles never surmounted the aforementioned fence. Kline tells her story well, which is a good reason to read it. That it could have been more is a reason not to re-read it.


Rob Weir



All the Devils are Here a Middling Louise Penny Effort




By Louise Penny

Minotaur Nooks, 448 pages.



If you are a Louise Penny fan, a new Armand Gamache novel is a call for celebration. In all candor, All the Devils are Here is worth reading, but is not Penny’s strongest offering. The title comes from Shakespeare: “Hell is empty, all the devils are here.”


Here, in this case, is Paris. Unlike most Gamache tales, the Quebec village of Three Pines gets only passing mention in the 16th book in the series. Armand and his wife Reine-Marie are in the City of Lights to visit their son Daniel and his family; and daughter Annie, who is about to have her second child with Jean Guy, Gamache’s former second in command at the Sûreté du Quebec. Paris is also home to Stephen Horowitz, Gamache’s godfather and the man who helped raise him when his parents died in a car crash when Armand was just nine. Thus, Armand knows Paris very well and he and Reine-Marie maintain a small apartment there.


Stephen, a very rich investor, is 93 and slowing down, but his mind is still sharp. Why though, would someone deliberately run him over in a Paris crosswalk. That’s a question Gamache wants answered and he enlists the services of an old friend, Claude Dussault, who is now prefect of police for all of Paris.


Readers of Penny’s previous novel know that Jean-Guy left Quebec to stop dodging bullets and take a job with an engineering film in Paris. That company, GHS, factors into All the Devils. So do many other things: the Rodin museum, venture capitalism, security forces, the Eiffel tower, rare earth minerals, a Patagonian disappearance, corporate politics, magnetic coins, and France’s shameful past treatment of Jews. On the micro level, Gamache wrestles with the unknown cause of Daniel’s estrangement from him, and with issues such as childhood trauma and the past bleeding into the present.


There are lots of characters in All the Devils – perhaps too many – and that also goes for all the irons in the fire. As in previous books, there is suspicion of malfeasance in high places. It is to Penny’s credit that we do not know until the end which ones are real and which ones are red herrings. Gamache comes to distrust everyone – including Daniel – but he has many from whom to choose, especially after he visits Stephen’s apartment and finds the corpse of a man later identified as Alexander Plessner. Among the many dodgy characters are Irene Fontaine, Jean-Guy’s resentful underling at GHS; Eugenie Roquebrune, its CEO; security guard Xavier Loiselle; Alain Pinot, another corporate bigwig; and perhaps even the Paris police and Dussault himself. At times the novel reminded me of a scene from I Claudius in which Herod tells Claudius, “Trust no one, little marmoset.”


Gamache has much to unravel, including what the mysterious letters AFP mean. (There are numerous possibilities, including that they mean nothing important at all!) There is also the matter of why Stephen, who had a luxurious art-filled apartment, was spending a king’s ransom to stay at a hotel near where he lived.


So many threads, and there is the sense that Penny got a bit lost in them. When the beat-the-clock resolution and aftermath come, both feel forced and tacked on. Maybe it’s Paris and all of its visual and visceral distractions.  Book # 17 is due this year and I, for one, hope it’s set in Three Pines amidst familiar faces and places. Perhaps fewer devils will make for a tidier mystery.


Rob Weir



Tenet is Junk Science



TENET  (20200)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Warner Brothers, 150 minutes, PG-13 (fake physics)


On the website RogerEbert.com, Brian Tallerico nailed it when he called Tenet a film “crafted for YouTube explainer video culture.” Another way to say this is that it is a pretentious video game tricked out to look more profound than it is. Still another is to call it a James Bond movie marred by pseudo physics.


The intellectual bankruptcy of Tenet is masked by its biggest bit of chicanery: all of the explanations for important plot pivots come in machine gun-like verbal bursts that are too fast to deconstruct. And who in their right mind wants to stop and rewind a film that’s already an hour longer than it needs to be? By now you can probably tell that I hated Tenet. Were it not for its shimmery exteriors and its superb performances from John David Washington and Kenneth Branagh, I would have given this bloated waste of time zero stars.


In brief, which is more than can be said of the film, Washington is “The Protagonist,” a spy/secret agent charged by his boss (Martin Donovan) with saving the world. OK, hero territory, but with a twist. Humanity’s Armageddon-triggering event has already happened. Huh? It seems that the present has been invaded by those from the future who wish to alter the past. But they already have. Double huh? If this premise is true, then none of the other stuff in Tenet matters a fig, so roll the credits already.


Instead, we have subplots involving international arms dealers, characters meeting themselves inside of temporal inversions, and a sappy bit of nonsense involving The Protagonist trying to save a woman named Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) from her cruel husband, Andre Sator (Branagh), the arms dealer linchpin of the story, (Or not, if all this has already happened.) At one point, The Protagonist hands over the piece needed to complete a Doomsday Machine because Sator threatens to kill Kat and her son if he doesn’t get what he wants. Moral dilemma test time: Would you save the kid or the mother if by doing so meant that the madcap father will now destroy the world?


If only that were but the only thing that made no sense. There is, for instance, a weapon that looks as if a demented five-year-old assembled a tinker toy from random steel lugnuts and washers. There is also an idiotic ending that’s a mere baby step above “it was all a dream.” To follow any of the movie involves asking who is temporally inverted and who isn’t. A better question to ask is: Who cares?


 I will say this for Tenet: it looks good. How can you go wrong with a visual travelogue that takes us from Kiev to Denmark, Norway, Estonia, India, Siberia, and –best of all –the Amalfi coast? A few good performances also make the film semi-bearable. Washington – I had no idea he was once a pro gridiron player – is a nice combination of smarts, charm, and intensity. Branagh once again proves that no one does accents as convincingly as he; this time he’s Russian. Dimple Kampedia and Robert Pattinson are also decent as arms dealer Priya and agent Neil, respectively, though both roles are mere contrivances. Speaking of which, the rail-thin Debicki appears to have been cast for no better reason than looking good when diving from a yacht into the Gulf of Salerno.


Tenet has been $100 million bomb for Warner Brothers, which sank way too much money into production and distribution. As for Director Christopher Nolan, let’s just say that Tenet is no Dunkirk or Memento. It’s not even Inception II, though some explainers have cast it in that light. But who knows, maybe the explainers are from the future and are just trying to offload a toxic turkey.


Rob Weir


Never Rarely Sometimes Always a Gem



Directed by Eliza Hittman

Focus Features, 101 minutes, PG-13

★★★★ ½


What do you do if you’re an unpopular small-town girl from a dysfunctional family and find yourself pregnant at age 17? That’s the dilemma facing Autumn Callahan (Sidney Flanigan). You might try the local pregnancy center, but only if you can stomach the patronizing faux concern of its staff or the anti-abortion video they ask you to watch. You might also consider a termination, but if you’re 17 and live in Pennsylvania, that requires parental consent and who wants to fight such a battle with an ineffectual mother and her jerk of a partner?


Never Rarely Sometimes Never is a quiet but deeply moving look inside the world of a not-a-kid but not-quite-an-adult from Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. The film’s town, Ellensboro, is fictional though its profile is similar to that of Sunbury: small (<10,000), along the Susquehanna River, overwhelmingly white, conservative, paternal, played out, and inhabited by just enough shady characters to intensify whatever attitude comes naturally to an adolescent.


Autumn knows she can’t be a mom or carry a child to term in a community in which some already think she’s a “slut” and don’t even know about her condition. Internet research suggests she needs to go to New York to deal with her pregnancy. The film thus evolves into a road trip for Autumn and her sole support: her 18-year-old cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder). This entails a 175-mile bus ride to New York and entering a city they know mostly in the abstract. Their ignorance and youthful nonchalance might be good things–too much information could have driven them despair.


To say things don’t go in-and-out smoothly is an understatement, but full credit to director Eliza Hittman for keeping the focus on Autumn’s choices rather than turning the movie into a hokey run-from-danger potboiler. There is uncertainty–is the young man they meet on the bus trustworthy? –but the worries remain psychological rather than physical. Add a bad Ellensboro misreading of Autumn’s condition and the need to be in New York for two days to the list of things Autumn and Skylar need to figure out.


Almost no one saw this movie in a theatre, though it garnered praise and prizes at Sundance and other indie film festivals. Blame COVID as one reason why it quickly went to video-on-demand, though I can’t help but think that its subject matter, lack of recognizable stars, slow pacing, and hot-button politics would have deterred wide distribution in the best of times. That’s a crying shame, as this is a very good movie. Watch for Flanigan and Ryder in the future, as both show promise, especially in their ability to dribble out emotion rather than resorting to histrionic floods.


They also know how to get inside the logic systems of the liminal not kid/not adult world I mentioned above. There are several scenes that might make you wonder why they did illogical A rather than rational B. Remind yourself that they are still tethered to what they were, not what they are becoming. Autumn is stoic and brave, but she’s also teen-like in her sullenness, her devotion to her phone, her weak interpersonal skills, and even her working-class semi-Goth style. And know this: The film’s title references response prompts to intake questions at Planned Parenthood clinics. These include questions such as: Has anyone harmed or threatened you? Has anyone ever forced you to have sex? Have you ever had unprotected sex?


Unless you can answer “never” to queries such as these, be wary of judging Autumn. Perhaps it would be better to redirect sanctimony toward those who condemn or condone without walking in her shoes. Among the many virtues of an interior film such as this is that it forces us to imagine rather than offering bromides or laurels.


Rob Weir


Piranesi a Unique Mindbending Tale





By Susanna Clarke

Bloomsbury Publishing, 272 pages.



Piranesi may not be the most literary novel I’ve read this year, but it’s certainly the most fascinating. Explaining why without giving an aerial tour of the entire book is difficult; Piranesi is that unique.


Most of the book is set in an alternate universe, but of what sort? Another dimension? A different planet? Mind castles? An underworld? A post-apocalyptic city? A wormhole? It consists of clouds, birds, fish, monumental buildings, and water. Clarke describes it as, “where architecture and oceans were muddled together.” The ocean sustains and endangers; that is, it provides food and makeshift clothing and tools, but walls cannot contain it. Piranesi is both the narrator and chronicler of a world he calls “The House,” that is apparently occupied by just two people: Piranesi and an older man he calls “The Other.” One of his tasks is to keep track of the ocean tides, lest he or The Other be swept away by periodic surges that drown the halls.


When I use the term “halls,” think something akin to where Pompeii and Versailles meet M. C. Escher and ancient Crete’s minotaur maze. Or, at least, that’s what it conjured for me. In other words, it’s vast, enigmatic, and parts of it are in ruin. Some might know that Piranesi is also the surname of an 18th-century Italian archaeologist and artist best known for his 16 “imaginary prisons,” engravings that were Escher before Escher.


Our Piranesi spends 11 years investigating The House one hall at a time and recording observations in journals. His explorations tell him that great civilizations once thrived­–their statues occupy marble niches and artifacts strew the halls–but insofar as he can tell, it was a long time ago, as he finds the remains of just 13 other individuals. They are the ones whose bones Piranesi has collected and whom he has given names such as Biscuit-Box Man, Fish Leather Man, Concealed Person, and Folded-Up Child.


Piranesi’s relationship with The Other is essentially that of servant to master. He is allowed to speak with the brusque Other only briefly and at specified times. Piranesi, though, is content. Plus, he is aiding The Other in the search for a “Great and Secret Knowledge.” Piranesi is essentially Robinson Crusoe, if the latter had little desire for the company of others. Piranesi needs The Other for occasional supplies and food items, but where he gets things that don’t seem to be in any of the halls mildly perplexes Piranesi.


One day, Piranesi briefly spies another person he calls “16.” (Also the number of the other Piranesi’s prisons.) He does not approach him because The Other has warned that “16” is dangerous and will make him insane. Piranesi does, however, expand his exploration of The House, discovers other journals, and finds messages that baffle and intrigue. At this point, things take an ominous turn. Before the book concludes, the novel veers into subjects such as rituals, magical incantations, transgressive behavior, pseudo-science, and the biographies and fates of the 13 whose bones Piranesi lovingly tends. There are other issues and mysteries as well, but to enumerate them would reveal too much.


Piranesi is, to evoke Monty Python, a “now for something completely different” novel. Clarke’s is one of the more creative mash-ups I’ve encountered in some time. Her novel is evocative of Neal Gaiman’s Neverwhere as filtered through Greek mythology, Plato, C. S. Lewis, Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung. It dislocates readers and sends them down the same twisty paths as its central character. After all, we are reminded, Piranesi is “a name associated with labyrinths.” In this case, we also relate it to child-like innocence. Add John Milton to the list of inspirations. In case you can’t recall why that name is famous, he wrote Paradise Lost.


Rob Weir