The Red Headed Indian a Talent Worth watching

Honey (2014)
Self Release (available from Noisetrade.com)
* * * *

Lots of young musicians leave home and end up in Nashville. Most end up either making the reverse journey or deciding to downsize their careers in the name of something more probable than the seductive notion of headlining at the Ryman Auditorium. If the Red Headed Indian–actually Florida native Caroline Kingsbury–has to retreat, it won't be because she lacks the chops to make the Ryman ring. Her six-track EP Honey showcases a young voice that's surely more memorable than most.

Kingsbury counts Joy Williams (The Civil Wars) and Ray LaMontagne among her influences, two pretty good role models. You can certainly hear analogous LaMontagne housebroken-but-also-heartbroken themes in Kingsbury's songs and, like Williams, hers is a voice that's as fragile as Limoges cup one moment and like a bar of iron the next. Its qualities reminded me quite a bit of Lori McKenna with more twang. There are, of course, loads of great voices out there but three things make Kingsbury stand out: her sense of phrasing, her ability to build a song, and her cross-genre facilities. My favorite track was "January." It has memorable lines–January is a lovely dame/She sparkles the future of heartbreak and pain–and Kingsbury punctuates them to give the composition a syncopated feel even when parts of it are crooned on the offbeat. The effect is that the performance feels simultaneously sweet and edgy. "From Colorado" is a clinic on building a song a different way. It opens with power chords and a furious start, then settles into a quiet acoustic middle, regroups for soulful, soaring vocals, then pulls back a second time and fades out with cadences evocative of a chain gang finishing a long day. She also toys with a country/soul feel ("Please Come Home") and rounds off the EP with "You," a selection that initially evokes a lullaby but then morphs into something more lush and mysterious.

I can't promise that The Red Headed Indian will light up the charts any more than I can attest whether she has an ounce of native blood in her veins. But I can say that that Honey is a tantalizing, tasty teaser for what I hope will come next.  Rob Weir   


Reese Witherspoon Takes a Walk on the Wild Side

Wild (2014)
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee
Fox Searchlight, 155 minutes, R (nudity, language, drug use)
* * * *

How does one deal with grief and misfortune? Seek to rise above it or sink below it? That’s the central question in Wild, the film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s acclaimed 2012 memoir.

If Strayed doesn’t sound like a normal last name, it’s not. Strayed was born Cheryl Grey and adopted the last name Strayed as an ironic descriptor for the self-made hell she put herself through. It began when her mother, Barbara “Bobbi” Grey, died of fast-moving cancer when Cheryl was a senior in college and passed through phases such as survivor’s guilt, a failed marriage, heroin abuse, random promiscuity, and abortion. Wild tells the story of how she began to rebuild her life while on a 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail from California’s Mojave Desert to the Oregon/Washington border.

In the film, Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) is forced to contrast her jaded cynicism with her mother’s (Laura Dern) carefree bohemianism. Bobbi had way more reasons to stray than her daughter–flight from a physically abusive, alcoholic husband sentenced her to a too-short lifetime of single motherhood lived just above the poverty line. Yet when we see Bobbi in flashback, she’s the one who breaks into song, sashays across the room, and explodes into convulsive laughter at her own silliness. In a key adolescent moment Cheryl seeks to belittle her mother by noting it must be hard to have a daughter who is more “sophisticated” than she. Bobbi unashamedly replies, “That was always the plan.” 

The story is moving, the scenery stunning, and the journey perilous. Witherspoon continues to prove that there’s a real actress residing in her luminous body. She actually lugged a 65-pound backpack for this film, a feat that adds verisimilitude to the scenes in which trail weariness is etched on her brow. She also fearlessly doffs her clothing and her dignity to underscore how thin the borders had become between Strayed's pretty girl promise and use-me depravity. When Strayed and her ex-husband, Paul (Thomas Saduski) receive identical tattoos the day their divorce is finalized, the parallel between the external abuse cycle from which her mother fled and the internally constructed one Cheryl embraces is literally etched upon her bicep.

Strayed’s three-month walk along the Pacific Crest Trail is strewn with possibility for both damnation and grace. Though we know the latter will win, it does not diminish the poignancy of the journey. The final leg of the sojourn takes her through Ashland, Oregon, where she learns that Jerry Garcia has just died and finds herself in the midst of mourning Grateful Dead-style. It is there she connects her mother’s grief with her own as a tribute band wails out the words to “Ripple:”

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone
Ripple in still water
When there is no 
pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow

Wild is a very good movie though, like many road films, there are places where the languid pace is wearisome. Scriptwriter Nick Hornby tries to enliven this through an episodic account of the trek, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. There are several scenes excerpted from the memoir that seem ham-handed on the screen, including Strayed's encounter with an erstwhile journalist who insists she is a female hobo even when told otherwise, and a ride with a burnt-out hippie couple dealing badly with their daughter’s death that has little context. Each probably make more sense in the memoir (as would Cheryl’s decision to divorce Paul). We can also predict most of the menaces Strayed will face—and she does. Serious hikers might also tut-tut scenes in which Witherspoon is referred to as a reeking trail mess, but never seems to be much messier than a sweat stain, blisters, brush burns, and pack bruises. Still, Witherspoon gives a superb performance worthy of the Best Actress Oscar nomination she garnered. Inexplicably, Dern got one for Best Supporting Actress. I love Laura Dern, but her appearances in Wild are little more than expanded cameos—too slight for a nomination, IMHO.
This film won’t isn't for those who want thrill-a-minute action. There's more tension in the possibility of what might happen than what does. Still, it's well worth lacing up your own REI boots to walk a few miles in Cheryl Strayed’s shoes, even if you're not born to be wild.-- Rob Weir


Rhythms of Labour an Important Collection of Bygone Work Songs

Rhythms of Labour: Music at Work in Britain
Harbourtown Records

Can you imagine it? Noon rolls around and office workers begin to sing: “Boss man called a meetin’/At a time I should be eatin’/Didn’t hear a word he said/Just wanted to get fed/Got them working lunch blues, un huh….” Or you walk into Target and wage earners sing as they restock shelves in unison.  From the wings you hear administrators lining out “The Ballad of the Busted Copy Machine.” Workers do still sing, of course, but these days it’s more likely to occur among non-English-speaking migrant workers or on (an increasingly rare) picket line. By the time Stan Rogers penned “White Collar Holler” back in 1979, one of the things that made it so funny was the very idea that postindustrial workers had any sort of folk community.

Rhythms of Labour takes us back to the days in which English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh workers sang to set the pace of work, pour out their aspirations, build community, and wile away the time. It is a two-disc companion piece to an academic investigation into work songs by professors Marek Korcznski (Nottingham), Michael Pickering (Loughborough), and Emma Robertson (La Trobe, Melbourne). The 50 songs contained herein are mainly those once commonly called “source songs,” those collected in the field by folklorists and ethnomusicologists and then reinterpreted by professional folk musicians.  Featured are songs from now-passing occupations such as droving, quarrying, cloth fulling, shepherding, street vending, wooden ship sailing, hand milking, doffing, and hop picking. Most of these are field recordings made from the 1920s though the early 1970s, though there are a handful of songs from contemporary performers such as Lee Enstone, Laura Hockenhill, Brona McVittie, and Will, Ed, and Ginger, who have mined old song collections. Only a handful of the source singers bear familiar names: Harry Cox, Lizzie Higgins, Stan Hugill, Sam Larner, Flora MacNeil….

Another way that Western society has changed is the way we hear music. Casual listeners will need to readjust their habits to appreciate the richness of these songs. Their value as historical documents is obvious, but these songs come from common folk and the voices are often rough, sparse, unaccompanied, and unhurried. A superb 48-page booklet accompanies the collection and gives detailed information on the material, performers, and collectors, but appreciating the scope of this impressive project requires patience. It is very much unlike anything pop-weaned, ear-bud-wearing workers today experience.  More’s the pity. I wish someone would create a similar encyclopedic sampler of North America’s bygone work traditions. I’d like to imagine push back against latter day straw bosses.

Rob Weir