Bad Reputation 2 of Limited Appeal

Bad Reputation: Volume 2
Vermillion Records 0009
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It sounds like a great idea–have a French-born, New York City-based former punk musician translate and sing the songs of Georges Brassens (1921-81). Brassens isn’t a household name in the United States, but was in France–as a poet, anarchist, and outré folk singer. To say that Brassens didn’t sing about flowers and rainbows would be a gross understatement. Among the songs resurrected for this album are those that deal with streetwalkers (“Lament of the Ladies of Leisure”), several anti-love songs (“The Storm,” “With All Due Respect”), and a few deathbed requests. Of the latter, “The Old Man” expresses his desire to shuffle off this mortal coil with alcohol, loose women, and wild music instead of holy water, nuns, and hymns; and in “The Codicil,” that scantily clad nymphs might dance upon his oceanside grave.

Material like this ought to be golden safety pins for a former punk rocker. Alas, it’s not. Bad Reputation 2 never rises (sinks?) to the insouciant, debauched levels of the originals. Why? First of all, Brassens the poet was masterful with language–so much so that much of his work is considered untranslatable. De Gaillande has done a better job than most, but lyrics that flow and sing in French sound forced and turgid in English. Second, the music was decidedly of an era. The avant-garde café folk of the 1940s/50s now sounds rather naff, and one wonders if the result might have been more exciting had de Gaillande given the tunes a neo-punk update. Even then one would face the obstacle that de Gaillande is, at best, an adequate singer. He can carry a tune, but he doesn’t have the range to bring drama to and accent the humor within music in which it’s just voice, instrument, and lyric. In the end, Bad Reputation 2 feels like a novelty record. Translation: Limited appeal to a specialized market. 

Rob Weir


Joy Dunlop's Dreamy Delights

Sradag Music SRM004

It’s wonderful to hear a new generation of Scots Gaelic singers come to the fore. Among names such as Julie Fowlis and Jenna Cumming we should add Joy Dunlop. She differs from a lot of other Gaelic singers in that her classical soprano voice is both prettier and more delicate. On its own, in fact, it might sound too “girly” to carry a powerful lament such as “Cumba Chaíleín Ghlínn lubhair,” or provide musical cover of the sad Sorely MacLean poem “An Roghainn” (popularized by a robust rendition from Fiona Mackenzie). What Dunlop does, though, is back herself with musicians that add depth and drama to her voice–people such as Donald Shaw, Lorne MacDougall, James Mackintosh, Aidan O’Rourke, and Karen Matheson. We can hear this to great advantage on the opening track, which translates “If I Marry at All, I Won’t Wed a Big Girl.” As the title suggests, it’s a Gaelic humor song, but MacDougall’s Border pipes and Andrew Dunlop’s lush piano give it an emotional feel. Dunlop isn’t just playing at the Gaelic; she’s a graduate of the Gaelic College on Skye and is fully bilingual–like many folks from her native Argyll, whose traditions she showcases on “Buaín na raeiních taobh Loch Eite” and a regional mouth music song. Another stellar track is “Eileann Luinn,” a praise song, but also one that demonstrates how singers emulate the pip of the pipes. This lovely album features a lullaby as its penultimate track. It put me to sleep–in a very good way! Rob Weir


Lewis Hine Restrospective: Hurry Up and See It

International Center for Photography, New York City
Through January 19, 2014

The age of American documentary photography began in earnest with the Civil War images of Alexander Gardner and Matthew Brady, became urban under the gaze of Jacob Riis, and came of age through the eye and lens of Lewis Hine (1874-1940). An exhibit at New York City’s International Center for Photography captures Hines in more than 175 images.

From his initial images of immigrants pouring into Ellis Island in 1905, through his shots for the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression, Hine remained steadfast in his insistence that plebian Americans needed a visual ‘voice.’  Hine insisted that he was a social reformer with a camera and, as such, had little interest in taking pictures of the rich, powerful, and (self-styled) beautiful. When they appear at all in his images, it is to call attention to contrasts of wealth and, by extension, to cast doubt on economic and political systems that countenance such injustices. One famed Hine image shows an upper crust matron casting a disapproving eye on a bare- and dirty-footed newsie peddling papers in the nation’s Capitol. He’s oblivious to her, or is it that he finds her beneath contempt?

The ICP displays photographs from all of Hine’s major projects: immigration, child labor, the Pittsburgh Survey, men at work, and the WPA. (The Pittsburgh Survey was a pioneering ethnographic study of working-class life underwritten by the Russell Sage Foundation in 1907-08.) Hine is probably best known for his child labor shots—underage oyster schuckers, preteen bowling alley pin setters, dust-smudged coal mine breaker boys, and textile workers so young they had to stand upon boxes to reach the machines they tended. Before Hine, factories denied that child labor abuses existed; after Hine, no one could look away from the sorrows in their midst.

Hine never sought to be an ‘artist’ as such. Some of what he did violated the prevailing rules of photography. He shot many of his subjects frontally and full face, for instance, because he wanted us to see their eyes, their determination, and the experiences life etched upon their faces. As such, he imbued his subjects with more dignity than conventional profile portraiture ever could. He also violated the rules in his use of light, with subjects often appearing as if emerging from a bank of shadows. But make no mistake; Hine was an accomplished artist
despite himself. “Powerhouse Mechanic” was clicked to emphasize the muscularity of workers, but today is often taught as an example of a near-perfect composition. Similarly, a painter would be hard-pressed to put on canvas anything as dramatic as Hine’s shots of the construction of the Empire State Building.

Alas, by the 1930s Hine was viewed as old hat and photography’s torch passed to a new generation, among them: Margaret Bourke-White, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, and Dorothea Lange. Hine never completed his WPA contract, and died in relative obscurity. Was he an icon from a bygone era? The ICP exhibit suggests quite the opposite—though one must concede Hine’s WPA images were not his strongest. Hine worked with large format cameras and preferred to make contact prints; hence many of the ICP images are just 4” x 6” or 5” by 7.” One must look carefully, but look one should. What we see is a blend of artistry, social consciousness, respect for subjects, and control of craft that has few peers and even fewer superiors.

The ICP images come from the George Eastman House in Rochester and the show was intelligently curated by Alison Nordström, who also assembled the exhibit catalogue. See it before these images go back into storage. 

Rob Weir