New CD from Sean Tyrrell One of Many Moods

Walker of the Snow
The Vital Record 003
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To get a sense of Seán Tyrrell’s latest, think Woody Guthrie rated R. Like Guthrie, Tyrrell’s voice will never invoke adjectives such as “mellifluous,” but it’s choked full of emotional honesty. Unlike Guthrie, Tyrrell is far more direct and dark in discussing the seamier side of life. His musical treatment of the Oscar Wilde poem “Reading Gaol” is so downright creepy that when he sings, “each man slays the thing he loves” you envision Tyrrell hovering in the shadows with a knife. There are lots of sanitized versions of “Ringsend,” but Tyrrell unabashedly opens with the original words: “I will live in Ringsend with a red-headed whore.” Then there are the songs that quake with righteous anger, like his cover of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero,” and “Black Hole,” Tyrrell’s take down of phonies. Yet, there are also moments of unexpected tenderness–a delicate instrumental of “The Derry Air” (“Danny Boy”), his clipped brogue rendition of “You Are My Sunshine,” and the title track, originally a late Victorian poem from Charles Dawson Shanly and one Tyrrell picked up form his collaborations with Davy Spillane. Walker of the Snow is an album of many moods and much of it–including a rendition of “On Top of Old Smokey”– feels like a throwback to the days of the Folk Revival. One wonders, in fact, if eighteen tracks aren’t too many in an age in which music is often purchased a la carte rather than by the platter, but at least there’s something for everybody.  Rob Weir


Rusty Belle Not Steely Enough for Me

Common Courtesy
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Confession time. I want to love Rusty Belle. Really. They’re local. I hear flashes of promise. Occasionally they lay down catchy riffs. The harmonies are sweet. Chris Smither likes them. I want to love them. I don’t. I listen to two or three tracks and need to find something else to do. When a tune named “I’m Alive” makes you check your own pulse to make sure something in the room is animated, that’s not a good sign.

Common Courtesy opens with “Sad Little Boys” and it’s emblematic of most of the CD’s ten tracks. It has a little shuffle based on repeated notes that finds a groove and stays in it. The title aside, it feels more like an old man making his way down the sidewalk on a hot, humid day and trying not to sweat. Another tune, “Anything,” begs to be torchy, but never sparks a flame; “When We Were Older” takes us on a 6:13 journey that’s like a caterpillar’s meander. I found a few things I liked–the dangerous-sounding “Devil In Your Smile” is memorable, and “Light at the End of the Tunnel” is an intriguing rockabilly/gospel mash. Even these, however, could benefit from better studio engineering as the vocals bleed into fuzzed out instrumentation in ways that create a unified sound, but do little to highlight the lyrics. (And don’t look to two-point, single-spaced, no-breaks liner notes for help!)

Rusty Belle began life as an offbeat folk trio, morphed into glam-rock, and then turned to pop. They now fancy themselves a rock band, though they really fall into an emerging genre that’s faintly bluegrass, kind of country, and very atmospheric. I want to love them. But if I’m honest, I see Rusty Belle as a trio with unrealized potential and no clear identity. When I want torrid, they give me torpor; when it feels like it’s time to rock, they mellow out.

As always, though, I appreciate that music strikes people in different ways. You might want to check them out for yourself. There’s an entire concert on YouTube, so if you like what you hear, Vermonters can see them in Burlington Radio Bean) on September 27 or Ludlow (Town Hall) on October 12. Those in my area can catch them in Northampton, MA (Parlor Room) on September 28. Feel free to tell me I’m nuts.

Rob Weir


Life After Life: Over Hyped and Under Realized

Life After Life (2013)
Kate Atkinson
Reagan Arthur Books # 9780316176484
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Ursula Todd was born in 1909, but then “darkness fell” and she was gone before she ever lived. Ursula Todd was born in 1909 and was pronounced stillborn, until the umbilical cord was removed from her neck and breath was blown into her tiny lungs. To borrow a phrase from Kurt Vonnegut: and so it goes.

What if we could live our lives over (and over and over) again? The assumption that it sometimes happens is at the center of Kate Atkinson’s new novel–one praised by a lot of folks, including some of my favorite authors, like J. Courtney Sullivan. Alas, I found Life After Life a novel more likely to impress writers than readers. I can see why they like it. What novelist hasn’t created a character and wished he or she could play out all the possible scenarios of that character’s life? Atkinson accomplishes that task by constructing parallel universes around her various Ursulas. For one Ursula, darkness falls and she dies; for another, death is cheated and a new narrative emerges. Is this reincarnation, or the butterfly effect? Déjà vu, or paths anew? Each of us makes thousands of choices in our lives, but what if just one would completely alter your trajectory? When, if ever, would you recognize that it was the single moment that altered the future? And what if we could choose again? It’s a promising set up; I wish the execution were better.

These fascinating questions are not original to Atkinson. They are old ideas that even figures such as Donne, Goethe, and Poe considered. Recent works that use the same pivots include Groundhog’s Day, The Cloud Atlas, and The Time Traveler’s Wife. For my money, each of these is superior to Life After Life. Why? Because Ursula is so passive. She is the child of easy-going Hugh and uptight Sylvie, the latter of whom used to be a lot of fun, but has melted into the impressions-obsessed boorishness common among pre-World War I English bourgeois housewives. Sylvie duly had a passel of children, including Ursula and her younger brother, the ne’er do well Teddy, but Sylvie’s only real joy lies in badmouthing Hugh’s bohemian sister, Isabel. “Izzy,” a prototypical 1920s “New Woman,” is easily the most interesting character in the book–sassy, promiscuous, avant-garde, and carefree. Alas, Ursula is the book’s main character, and she’s more like Hugh than Izzy.

The novel is allegedly constructed around Ursula’s “choices,” but she makes few. She is exactly the thing that drives me crazy about characters in novels from the Brontë sisters–you think you see some spunk in her, but she never does much with it. That is to say, she doesn’t make choices; she reacts to circumstances thrust upon her. Although we admire Ursula’s pluck in a World War II scenario in which she becomes a civil defense volunteer during the Blitz, everything that occurs seems happenstance rather than chosen. (In another scenario, a bomb delivers her demise; in still another–the book’s most-contrived and least believable thread–she has a German husband, befriends Eva Braun, and kills Hitler!) But whatever the situation, Izzy makes things happen; Ursula detachedly drifts whichever way the wind takes her.

I ultimately tired of Atkinson’s start/stop/start again structure. We are supposed to accept Ursula as an “old soul,” but for this to work, she needs to be more like a Star Trek Trill–a joined species whose outward bodies have short lives, but whose internal symbiants have multiple lives and retain the lessons learned from each. There is so little connection between the various Ursulas that they are like free-floating ions disconnected from a nucleic soul. Of Life After Life, one British reader remarked that it is “curiously empty.” Exactly!

Rob Weir