Musaner Misses the Mark but DeLeon is on Target

Musaner; DeLeon
Once Upon a Time; Tremor Fantasma
Lucent Music; Tremor Fantasma

Jazz has become the masala of music. It spices everything from rock and folk music to Celtic and Country. In fact, we’re so used to hearing it mixed with other things that it can sound uninspired on its own, a problem that plagues a new release from the Armenian jazz ensemble Musaner.

I had high hopes that I would hear some intriguing experimental fusion music from an 11-member ensemble led by classically trained pianist Ara Sarkissian, a man of Armenian ancestry born in Cyprus, sired in Lebanon, and now in Boston. What we get instead is pretty tame stuff that would be pleasant if heard in a late-hours café, but is tepid stripped of context. Many of the titles belie what we hear. “A Ride Through the Mountains” sounds like an unfocused Paul Winter composition, with clarinetist Todd Brunet in the Winter role. There are intriguing piano and sax notes interspersed throughout, but they are cool in both senses of the word: impressive, but also unapproachable. The title track is the album's strongest track. It too is cool in that it has a wintry feel enhanced by Sarkissian’s icy-but-light keyboard fingering. But at 9:13 it’s way too long to sustain the feeling and it has an improvised middle section that comes off as a force fit. You’d probably expect tracks such as “Overnight Train” or “Strewn by the Wind” to pick up the pace, but they don’t. In fact, the saxes in the latter composition hardly stir let alone blow hard. In all, a languid release and not what one would expect from such a large ensemble.

 DeLeon’s Tremor Fantasma is more properly a world music/rock release than jazz, though there are jazzy riffs throughout–as well as smatterings of many other things. Multiple influences are precisely what one would expect from a group specializing in Sephardic music. Unlike Musaner, DeLeon front man Dan Saks freely mixes the musical influences of peripatetic Jews. “Barminian,” for example, is a Turkish folk song redone in mariachi style. If you can picture a group of Turks with accordions and oversized guitars singing in Ladino in a Oaxaca plaza, that’s the effect! Saks repeats this throughout, with Greek and Spanish songs given a Latin flavor in Mexico, where he went to make this record. But it’s not really “Mexican” either; a song such as “Buena Semana” sounds like it should be, but only if we call it Mexico by way of Jamaica. DeLeon use an unorthodox combination of instruments: banjos and guitars, but also trumpets, glockenspiel, and “junk” drums, the latter basically anything that can be thumped, banged, clapped, or crashed together. It is often compared to Balkan Beat Box or Gogol Bordello, not because it’s a sound-alike, but because the ensemble is often irreverent, innovative, and delightfully unpretentious. Check out “Ya Ribon Alam,” which is haunting in the way that a pop anthem set in an echoing cathedral might be. It also has more life in its first 30 seconds than in the entire of Musaner’s latest. Tremor Fantasma makes the earth move. 


Mario Testino Exhibit at MFA Misfires

Bold, or clichéd? 

Mario Testino Photographs
Museum of Fine Arts (Boston)
Through June 16

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is a national treasure. It’s less pretentious and more accessible than the Met, the Getty, or the Smithsonian; yet more cerebral than peers in cities such as Atlanta, Houston, Milwaukee, or Philadelphia. I adore the MFA, am an active member, and have been attending exhibits there for over 30 years. But even the greats misfire. I will not mince words: the current exhibit featuring the work of Peruvian fashion photographer Mario Testino is the single worst thing I’ve ever seen at the MFA.

Testino made his reputation doing glamour shots for magazines such as Vogue and Vanity Fair, as well as filming in official capacity for some of the highest profile designers on the planet. Like many fashion photographers his stock-in-trade is the high contrast glossy, especially those oozing attitude. Testino is a first-rate technician who occasionally snaps a stunning image, but that’s as far as I’m willing to go. Frankly, I’m not sure why subjects are anxious to have their images captured by Testino unless they are more interested in notoriety than flattery.

I liken most of Testino’s photos to the more unwatchable films of Quentin Tarantino. In each case there is a sense of failed ironic detachment–we’re supposed to be looking at something else, but what we really see is the creator enamored of his own supposed cleverness. Testino seeks to shock, but we see the contrivance in each pose. Quite a few of his images are soft porn, the grabbed crotch being a favorite ploy. There is often a lot of flesh exposed in his shots, but mostly in a slutty “white trash” sort of way. Put another way, he’s no Robert Mapplethorpe! He’s no better in manipulating fear. The MFA choice–for obvious reasons­–was to spotlight an image of Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady exchanging toothy snarls with a Doberman pincher. Does this horrify? Does it impress as unique? Is there an older contrivance in all of journalism than the man-bites-dog trope? He’s also been the go-to shutterbug for Brady’s supermodel wife, Giselle Bundchen, whom he alternatively presents as akin to a high-priced hooker, or as an anatomical freak whose legs attach in unnatural ways. Both, of course, are forms of objectification.    

One might call the MFA show the beautiful and the damned. The latter category is reserved for his portraits of British royalty. Were she alive, I’m sure that Queen Victoria would proclaim, “We are not amused.” In his royalty shots Testino feminizes most of men and masculinizes the women. Prince William looks like the biggest toff in British history–quite a statement, but not the kind the Windsors are likely to sanction. Ten minutes in this gallery will make you wonder why on the earth the British public countenance the use of public monies to pump up these pimps; fifteen will make you think guillotine!

Testino’s photos are ultimately a form of self-serving decadence–devoid of content and, more distressing still, utterly without character. In fact, they are not even about their subjects; they are look-at-me images that focus on the man behind the lens, not who’s in front of it. Ego and art are a delicate balance. Andy Warhol, for instance, was also a pompous twit, but he knew when to draw attention away from himself–even if he had to bore us in order to do so. (Think some of Warhol’s tedious films, or his endless reproduction of iconic images such as Marilyn Monroe or Campbell’s soup.) Would that Testino could fake detachment as well as Warhol.

Those planning a trip to the MFA should skip this exhibit and head instead for the delightful exhibit titled “The Age of the Postcard.” It is a dizzying display in miniature of 400 cards (mostly from Europe) spanning the years 1890 to 1930. That’s where you’ll find unalloyed whimsy, the protean rhythms of daily life, and intriguing caricatures of famous people. It also possesses a quality sorely missing in Testino’s photographs: humanity.
-Rob Weir



American Rust a Tough But Honest Read

By Philipp Meyer
Random House 978-0385527521
* * * *

In 1980, Emily and I drove through the British Midlands, making our way through the jobless devastation of Birmingham, Leeds, Wolverhampton, Stoke-upon-Trent, and other non-garden spots.  It was mile upon relentless mile of wasteland: abandoned mills, dire housing developments, decay, decadence, drugs, and hooliganism. It also occurred to me, and I said so at the time, that I was glimpsing America’s future. That wasn’t prescient, merely observant–deindustrialization had already begun to exact its toll, especially in places such as our birth-state of Pennsylvania. Although the term is older, the Associated Press began referring to the “Rust Belt” in 1982, and it was soon part of the everyday lexicon.

The fictional town of Buell, Pennsylvania–modeled loosely Charleroi, located on the Monongahela River 20 miles south of Pittsburgh–is the setting for Philipp Meyer’s debut novel American Rust. Although his book is character-driven, he does for the Rust Belt what Steinbeck did for the Dust Bowl. Meyer presents the “Mon Valley” as the corroded resting place of the American Dream. The Mon Valley has its wooded charms, but it’s never been synonymous with the adjective “bucolic.” But at least its towns and cities once hummed with life, courtesy of the smokestack industries (steel, coal, glass, railroads) that pumped black ash into the air and greenbacks into workers’ pockets. By the late 1980s, though, the Mon Valley looked like the British Midlands only worse. (In case you haven’t noticed, there’s not much of a social ‘safety-net’ in the USA.)

Meyer takes us inside dying blue-collar towns, the shabby streets, vacant lots, and empty red brick factories. They are places where there’s more short-fuse anger than long-term prospects. The Mon Valley is where teens huff glue, bums camp out before hopping the next freight train, and where ex-steelworkers hold down several jobs and jack deer out of season to keep food on the table. And, as several characters remark, it’s a constant reminder that this is not the way America was supposed to be.

Meyer tells his story through the eyes of six main characters. The least developed of these is Henry English, though he is a metaphor for what went wrong. Henry bought into the American Dream–literally–by buying a large house in Buell for his wife and two kids. His job disappeared and Henry went off to Ohio to keep up his payments, until that job dried up as well and an industrial accident left him an invalid. His wife died, but at least his libidinous daughter Lee got to Yale and married a rich man/boy. Left behind to tend to Henry is his son Isaac, a slight, brilliant lad of 20 who belongs in college but has few realistic chances of attending. He’s so unsophisticated that his grand life plan involves stealing cash from his old man and hopping a train to Berkeley, where he will just waltz into the University of California. His best friend, Billy Poe, is a handsome hulk and former high school jock who should have fled the Mon Valley on a football scholarship. Instead, he lives in a house trailer with his mother, Grace, and each daydream of fanciful escapes and opportunities squandered. Grace–still attractive in her 40s but weathered–is estranged from her no-account husband and has occasional flings with Harris, the local police chief and a decent guy.

The drama unfolds when Isaac decides to flee and takes Billy along with him–just for the first leg of the journey to the outskirts of town. But this is no On the Road, rather a harrowing tale involving an accidental death that looks like murder, an insider’s look at the brutality of American prisons, bouts of unrequited love and realized lust, peeks into small-town corruption, and a trip to nowhere.  American Rust is not a feel-good story, but it is one of the most brutally honest books on the shelf. It’s marked “fiction,” but tap into a few oral histories and you could change the label to “sociology.” Other than size, Buell isn’t that different from scores of other places in America: Flint, Detroit, Gary, East St. Louis, Watts, Buffalo, Allentown, Holyoke, Oakland….

Meyer isn’t always a great stylist–his depictions of intimacy seem particularly clumsy–but he’s an excellent storyteller and American Rust, for all its grit, is a surprisingly quick book to consume. It’s not easy to digest, though; it doesn’t just reveal, it rubs your face in what Jonathan Cobb and Richard Sennett called the “hidden injuries of class.” Meyer utterly demolishes the myth of America as a middle-class society and calls into question bourgeois assumptions. Many Americans think it’s fine that dirty jobs like those of the Mon Valley went away. No, it’s not. Not when there’s nothing to fill the void. Not when a kid like Billy is trapped on a dead-end street and one such as Isaac stands a better chance of being adducted by aliens than seeing the inside of a UCal classroom. Not when the black ash and greenbacks flee at the same time. Money can’t buy you happiness, but its absence sure does purchase a lot of misery.

American Rust is a tough book, but one every American should read. If America is not supposed to be this way, who made it such? Until there is culpability there is no justice, and where there is no justice, there is no hope.  --Rob Weir