Breathtaking Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker Release

Fire & Fortune
Navigator Records 082
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New releases fall into categories such as old friends, familiar voices, and promising discoveries. But few are as delicious as those that make us exclaim, “Who is that?” The London-based duo Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker induce the latter reaction. Fire & Fortune is their third release and if it gets half the play it deserves, Clarke and Walker will be the hottest duo around. (Fortune is always problematic in folk music!) Clarke’s voice is the sort that only comes around a few times in a generation: crystalline clear, supple, and gorgeous. She lists Sandy Denny, Linda Thompson, and June Tabor among her influences and, for once, it’s no stretch to say that the new kid is equal to her mentors. Half of the album’s 12 tracks are originals, many of them evocative of Denny’s trad-based contemporary offerings. “After Me,” for instance, is bell-like in tone and fragile in feel, yet contains soaring register shifts that let you know Clarke’s nobody’s china doll. When Clarke and Walker draw from the public domain, though, they tend to evoke Lorena McKennitt and the John Renbourn Group, if we imagine stripped-down ensembles. Clarke’s take on “The Seasons” is especially McKennit-like in its mix of magic, mystery, and drama, and her voice is a dead ringer for Jacqui McShee’s on “Green Grow the Laurels.” Guest musicians add tasteful contributions throughout but it’s always Ben Walker’s fretwork that’s the foundation from which Clarke’s voice leaps. Pay attention, folks, a coronation is in order. --Rob Weir

Think I exaggerate Clarke's voice? Check her out. watch her quiet a restive crowd.


Miley Cyrus and Duns Scotus

Color me bored, not shocked.

Yesterday morning I did something I've never done before: listened to a Miley Cyrus song. It made me think of Duns Scotus and I’ll bet you don’t know too many people who can say that with a straight face.

I was previously able to escape Miley because I don’t have cable and good old WUMB doesn’t play her music. But the uproar over her VMA routine made me curious enough to seek an online video. I wasn’t shocked by Miley’s performance because that’s exactly what it was–a performance that no rational human should confuse with music. Instead of quaking with outrage or fearing the moral corruption of America’s youth I roared with laughter at the tacky banality of it all. And, like I said, it reminded me of Duns Scotus–sort of.

Duns Scotus
That name probably doesn’t many ring bells. Scotus is Latin for Scotsman and Duns the Scotsman lived a long time ago (1268-1308). Although he is considered by scholars to be one of the most important thinkers of the Middle Ages, his very name gave us the English word “dunce,” a person too dense to learn. Scotus wrestled with some of the weightiest questions imaginable, but he is often discredited as the author of the ultimate stupid question: How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Leaving aside the possibility that Duns wasn’t the first to ask that kind of question and probably never posed it that way, it’s actually a very profound way of contemplating the differences between the natural and supernatural realms. If the latter exists, it would not be subject to the laws of physics. In a Duns/dunce-like way, the answer to the question is: As many angels as want to twerk and they can bring dates. No pin could contain them.

Scotus may have asked that “dumb” question because he was the victim of bad timing. Brilliant as he was, he had the misfortune to follow in the footsteps of one of the most stunning intellects in all of Western history: Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Aquinas was the apex of a religious/intellectual movement known as Scholasticism. The anti-intellectualism of the modern evangelical movement would make Scholastics spew if they were around today. Scholastics didn’t battle their culture or its ideas; they engaged in intellectual query that sought to harmonize faith, reason, and science. Aristotle occupied a lower throne than Jesus, Moses, and the prophets, but only slightly lower. The problem for Scotus was that Aquinas was so good at this kind of thinking, that he answered most of the good questions! (He mused upon 631 of them in his Summa Theologica.) The Scholastic movement hung around for another century or so, but it was on the downslide by the time Duns came along. And, really, what more was there to add to what Aquinas said?

By now you must think I slipped off the stripper pole. What the hell does this have to do with a twit like Miley Cyrus? Let’s go back to timing. I’m shocked all right–shocked that anyone would be shocked by Miley’s twerking. Have such people been living in a bubble even bigger than my cableless living room? The whole point of a lot of pop culture is to shock. Or did you think The Beatles really preferred Edwardian suits, or that Mick Jagger was simply ‘more comfortable’ in purple stretch pants and a leopard-print open jacket? Pop music has been the repository of outrĂ© costuming forever: Little Richard’s pompadour, Elvis’s tight-trouser gyrations, the glitter gay of Liberace and Elton John, the androgyny of Alice Cooper and Prince, glam rock, Flower Child psychedelia, punk safety pins and Mohawks…. But let’s hand the crown to one who topped them all: Madonna. Love her or hate her, Madonna didn’t just push the envelop; she ripped it open and tore it to shreds. Expose the hypocrisy of virgin versus whore images of women? Consider it shattered. Parody religion? Check–several times and several traditions. Nudity and lesbianism? Flip the pages of Sex. Death by copulation? See Body of Evidence (1993). Foul language, bullet bras, crotch shots, bondage, celebrity marriages and breakups, cowgirl sluttery, Kabbalah mysticism, outspoken political commentary…? Done that. Hell, the woman has even gotten away with playing a wholesome mom who writes children’s books.    

Did Madonna leave anything? If she did, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry grabbed it. So what’s a half talent like Miley riding the coattails of her old man’s career to do? The VMA spectacle was an attempt to push boundaries (plush toy sex anyone?), but it’s a vacuous flop–and not just because she can’t really sing or dance very well. It failed because Miley doesn’t have a vivid enough imagination. Her act is just soft porn with a Disney twist. In other words, it failed because it is neither original nor shocking–it’s just stupid and lame. What a dunce!


Ten Food Trends That Are So Over

Among the collateral damage of TV food shows is that foodie culture has become as trendy as any other form of popular culture–and in some ways, just as vacuous as the rest of television. Here are some “gourmet” (word used ironically) trends that should just go away.

1. Food as architecture. Remember the 1950s TV dinners that came in tin foil trays with ridges that walled off the potatoes from the peas and the meatloaf? We should stock restaurants with these so that chefs stop stacking the food. What am I, six months old? I don’t want my food smushed together so that the flavors “marry.” (Read: Every bite tastes the same.) Some of us actually like to taste the distinctiveness of vegetables, or enjoy the mouth feel of buttery potatoes. Can we please lose the food towers? If not, let’s go the next step and put everything into a blender and serve it adult-Gerber style.

2. Raspberry has been done to death. I used to enjoy raspberry picking. I associated it with a brief moment in summer in which Nature ripened and yielded her bounty. Now I hate raspberries. Thanks food industry. Raspberry is a very singular taste that shouldn’t  be consumed year ‘round. Tell that to chefs that put in on everything and proudly taut their raspberry coulis and raspberry drizzle. It’s as ubiquitous as parsley used to be. Unlike parsley, you can’t just push it aside and ignore it; raspberry gets into everything on the plate. I want roast beef au jus, thank you, not roast beef swimming in strained fruit. And I sure as hell don’t want it drizzled on chocolate, because...

3. Chocolate doesn’t need any help. I routinely send back chocolate desserts that come with unwanted raspberry. I do the same with mint sauce, orange swirls, and other such unadvertised overkill. You only need to dress up molten-center chocolate cake or a mousse if the chocolate is crap, in which case the chef should be sent back! There are just a few ingredients that should ever be mixed with chocolate. Peanut butter is one. I’ll get back to you with another. I’ve no objection to a dollop of cream and a strawberry on the side, but if I wanted to eat the equivalent of Neapolitan ice cream, I would have ordered it.

4. Pomegranate is an acquired taste. I actually like it, but it’s on its way to becoming the new raspberry–or so trendsetters would like you to believe. It won’t succeed; as more people dislike it than enjoy it. So lose it already. Like you did with mango, the last fruit you told everyone they’d love and they didn’t.

5. Panko is Japanese for breadcrumbs. Sorry, but I refuse to be impressed by “golden cod encrusted in panko.” When I was a kid we called that what is: a fried fish cake. Look up the word panko and it tells you that it’s an “inexpensive filler” to extend meat and other entrees. It doesn’t say this, but it should; its other meaning is: “ordinary bread crumbs under a pretentious name that adds 20-30% to the price of a so-so restaurant offering.”  

6. Greek yoghurt is no better than any other kind. Yes, it has a slightly different texture. It also tends to be a tad more sour. It’s hyped because it’s strained to remove more whey, which theoretically makes it healthier. Except that it has way more calories than fat-free regular yoghurt, which tastes just as good. Mainly Greek yoghurt just costs twice as much.  

7. Grapefruit and beet juice. They are very au courant. Just two thoughts: You’ve got to be kidding. Why?

8. Coffee and beer should be flavored with coffee and beer.  Infused coffees are like drinking a cup of BeyoncĂ©’s perfume. I mean it. Hazelnut and other flavored coffees engage my gag reflexes. Restaurants serving this kind of swill should be required to state so on their menus. A cup of Maxwell House would be preferable.
            I once enjoyed the occasional seasonal beer flavored with things such as blueberry or pumpkin. Then a friend bought me a case of blueberry ale and I had the raspberry reaction. Mainly I just think coffee and beer should be what they are–not fruit and/or nut delivery devices.

9. Bacon is farm food. These days the only thing longer than a list of foods with bacon in them is Lindsay Lohan’s rap sheet. Bacon is yummy because it’s mainly salt and fat. It’s one thing to load up on bacon if you’re a farmer burning a few thousand calories before noon; it’s another altogether to pig out on bacon if you’re going to park your fanny on a chair in front of a computer.
            Chow down on artery clogging bacon if you must, but can you please keep it out of food combos that border on the surreal. Among the weird places it shows up these days are in ice cream, beer, fudge, vodka, and peanut butter. That’s just gross! 

10. Bring back bread and water. Enough with the gluten-free diets already. Bread should be eaten in moderation, but if you eliminate it altogether, you’ll crave it and binge. Note to restaurants: If you really want me to order another glass of overpriced wine, bring me some bread so my body can absorb the alcohol. And bring some water too, lest the alcohol cause dehydration. And, no, I won't walk away thinking your establishment is saving the planet because you didn't automatically bring water to the table.