Retro Folk from Makem & Spain and Friends

Makem & Spain
Sessions Vol. I
Red Biddy Records 2014

If the name Makem rings a bill it's because Rory is the offspring of Irish folk legends Tommy and Sarah Makem. He once had a trio with older brothers Shane and Conor, but when Shane left to pursue other things and Conor (alas!) got into legal difficulties, Rory joined forces with New Hampshire natives Liam and Mickey Spain to form the Makem & Spain Band. But if you're thinking the new generation is out blazing new trails, think again–the single newest thing about Sessions I is that it was funded by a Kickstarter campaign. This album's feel is that of the early Folk Revival–back in the days in which Pete Seeger's command to "Sing out!" was in full flower, genres were loose, and music was a group exercise.

Sessions I mines folk's back archives and calls upon some of folk music's beloved road-warriors to take the lead: Gordon Bok, Jonathan Edwards, David Mallett, Roger McGuinn, Tom Paxton, Schooner Fare, The Shaw Brothers, Bill Staines, and Noel Paul Stookey. The flavor is that of hootenannies, basket clubs, and kitchen parties. There is, for instance, Tom Paxton leading the charge in a honky-tonk folk rendition of "My Creole Belle," David Mallett (with sons Luke and Will) giving a more homespun treatment to "Roll on Columbia," and Schooner Fare leading a Kingston Trio times two cover of "I Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound." Most of this album is so retro that it sometimes comes–for good or ill–as a sort of a folk revue. Makem and Spain even dust off children's favorites such as "Skip to My Lou" and "Go tell Aunt Rhody." With the exception of "Run, Come See Jerusalem," which Gordon Bok arranges similarly to the way he performed it with Ann Mayo Muir and Ed Tricket; and Mallett's updated look at "The Ballad of St. Anne's Reel," with Eileen Ivers gracing the fiddle parts, Sessons I stays in the retro mode.

Your enjoyment of the record will depend entirely on whether you delight in a stroll down Memory Lane, or long to turn the calendar page. This reviewer felt a bit of both. I happen to think, for example, that "Four Strong Winds" is a sad song that ought to be enveloped in pathos not chorale singing, but that's surely a statement of preference, not artistic judgment. And, in an odd way, it's an endorsement of the project. The twelve songs on the album are such a part of the American DNA, that we're bound to hold views on how they should sound. Call it old meets new meets old. —Rob Weir


Brewster a Brutally Honest Run through Small Town Muck

By Mark Slouka
W. W. Norton, 288 pp.  ISBN: 978-039329756
* * * *

I was born about the same time as the characters in Mark Slouka's Brewster, and l too grew up in a fading blue-collar town analogous to the titular burg of this novel. Like its protagonists, Jon Mosher and Ray Cappicciano, the conversations between my friends and me were peppered with references to The Beatles, Woodstock, Nixon, Kent State, and girls. Like Jon and Ray's unlikely friendship, I too ran with a pack that my friends today would find hard to imagine. It was the times, to be sure, but it was also the place. Unless you grew up in a place in which optimism was seldom the first, best option, you can't really understand why people in those places make the decisions they do. But reading Brewster is a pretty good way to gain some insight.

 Jon Mosher is a lonely, hard-working Jewish kid who spends his non-school hours working in the shoe store owned by his immigrant father—the kind of kid years later everyone would have said, "Who?" when his name was mentioned, were it not for some memorable twists of fate. At home he lives in the shadow of his dead brother, Aaron, and in the gloom of his mother, who never quite got over it. Jon's life takes a public turn when a teacher/cross country coach practically forces him to be on the team. He meets the nerdy Frank, but life-changing events comes after Ray inexplicably befriends him. On the surface, he's Jon's polar opposite—a sort of delayed Fonz type known for being disheveled, smoking, getting into trouble, and for being the best fighter in the school. In fact, as Ray tells it, all the visible cuts and bruises come from periodic trips to Danbury, where he can duke it out with the real tough guys. Jon has a detached mother; Ray's ran away when he was a child. And eventually there is also Karen—pretty, smart, and sensitive. Jon falls for her hard, but her heart belongs to Ray. Again I say––if that makes little sense to you, it's because you didn't grow up in a place like Brewster in the late 60s and early 70s–places where you gravitated toward those who "got" you, not those who were like you.

What's it like? Remember the old Sam Cooke song with the line, "It's been a long, long time coming/But I know a change gon' come." You feel it coming, you know it must, but you have no idea what it will bring. Slouka is a master spinner of tales who immerses us in the simmering rage, the lurking violence, the adult betrayals, and the death of hope by a thousand small injustices that happen in places where what we see on the surface isn't what lurks in the mud. The book is just 288 pages, but it feels longer in a good way. It's a quick read but it's so intimate in its details and so personal on every level that its sweep feels magisterial. At times it's like a train wreck you see coming, but are powerless to stop. And, yes, if you're on the wrong end of a town like Brewster, the only hope is to get out. You know that reading this book, and you sit on the edge of your seat wondering who will make it and who won't.

I realize this is an unconventional review–as befits an unconventional book. By setting his book in a real place, not a contrived composite, Slouka merges physical verisimilitude with psychological truth. If you want a literary analogy, call it a Tobias Wolf-like coming-of-age novel as a master narrator of blue-collar America such as Richard Russo might imagine it. It left me shattered in the way that only nostalgia leavened by dredged up unpleasant memory can. –Rob Weir


Love is Strange Misfires on All Cylinders

Directed by Ira Sachs
Sony Classics, 94 minutes, R (for pathetic and idiotic reasons)
* ½

Actually, in this film it's distressingly ordinary!
Love Is Strange is a movie with its heart in the right place. Alas, every other part is as misplaced as a storage cube packed by drunken movers. It is, simply, a lousy movie poorly directed by Ira Sachs and badly written by he and Mauricio Zacharias.

The setup is that Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) decide to tie the matrimonial knot after 39 years of cohabitation. A crisis emerges when their marriage catches the attention of the bishop who oversees the tony private Catholic school where George teaches music and demands George's dismissal. This means that he and George must sell the condo in which they've lived for decades. Script problem # 1: In what has to be the fastest real estate closing in history, they have to move out immediately and have nowhere to go. Script problem # 2: Who knew that private school music teachers made enough bread to afford such a lovely apartment in Manhattan?

With no income other than George's pension, the couple is temporarily homeless and the only place in which they could live together is with dippy New Age friend Mindy (Christina Kirk in a cringe-worthy dumb role) in Poughkeepsie. That's not happening because, well don't you know, gay men just don't live outside of New York. Call that script problem # 3. Instead, the newlyweds must separate. Ben moves in with his nephew, Elliot (Darren Barrows), who does something or other in film;  his uptight novelist wife Kate (Marissa Tomei); and their son, Joey (CharlieTahan). While Ben snoozes in the bottom bunk of Joey's room, George crashes on the couch of two gay cop friends, Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez), whose cramped apartment is filled with partiers and voguers. Script problem # 4: Gay cops? What is this, The Village People?

I think you begin to see the problems. Script problem # 5: Lithgow and Molina are older actors who are better known for their work on the boards than on the screen. Few young people know who they are and fewer still will want to see this film. Fine. Lord knows we need more adult entertainment, but if you're going this route, don't write a light rom-com-meets-lame farce for 20-somethings. Give us something frothier than a frappuccino with extra cool whip. And don't telegraph what will/must happen with set-ups so obvious Inspector Clouseau wouldn't need to bumble upon the solutions. Don't pad the movie with subplots that go nowhere, and for heaven's sake don't try to imbue Marisa Tomei with anything resembling gravitas. Script problem # 6: While you're at it, if George must be a music teacher, have him love something other than Chopin. Chopin was a great composer, but with a script this leaden you don't want dreamy music suggestive of naptime.

Some critics have called the performances of Lithgow and Molina "courageous." Really? Did I miss something? Did the calendar roll back to 1984? Each is perfectly competent, but nothing more. In life they are great friends and these roles seemed little more taxing than a walk through for each. They are, however, head and shoulders above the rest of the cast who, with the exception of young Tahan, seems to have been chosen because they fit the bill for character cutouts devoid of depth.

Need further proof of this film's shopworn nature? It's rated R. For gay snogging? Nope. Lithgow and Molina share about half a dozen chaste kisses and there are a few F-bombs, but that's as salacious as things get. All of which is to say, this film got an R simply because it's about a gay couple. Script problem # 7 through infinity: If you want to promote inclusivity, don't make a film that perpetuates every idiotic stereotype in the book. Were it not for the fact that Lithgow and Molina are so talented that their walk-throughs are better than the histrionics of most, this would be one of the worst dogs of 2014. As is, it's just a bad move that deserves to be quickly forgotten. –Rob Weir