New James Taylor a Solid Late-Career Effort

Before this World
Concord Records 35270-02
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The early hype on James Taylor's first album in seven years—and first collection of new material in thirteen—is that he had entered the Way Back Machine and retrieved a record reminiscent of the days in which he was Sweet Baby James. Well… that's asking for a bit much; he's 67 now, and there are a lot of miles on that dulcet voice. No—he does not sing like it's 1980 all over again. That said, if you ask me if I'd trade voices with him as he sounds now, I'd reply: "You're damn right I would. In a heartbeat!" Step one in enjoying Taylor's new record is to brush aside hyperbolic press releases and enjoy Before this World for what it is: a very pleasant and non-taxing release filled with catchy melodies, heartfelt lyrics, and high-sheen production values.

Step two is to have realistic expectations and be forgiving of limitations. First of all, you need to need to overlook the fact that this album is a few songs short of a full CD—just ten tracks, none longer than 5:48 and several around or under the three-minute mark. One indication of the thinness of the new material is that he closes the record with a very old chestnut he didn't write, "Wild Mountain Thyme." A second is that just about everything is so mid-tempo that the CD takes three or four spins before the tunes distinguish themselves from each other. Midrange best describes Taylor's voice these days. Ironically, he can still go up grab a note, and hold it, but there's not much bottom or grit anymore. On the other hand, longevity provides a few ways to compensate—like a nice collection of friends who can lend a hand, and access to a good producer who knows what to add to flatter your gifts. Is that Yo Yo Ma we hear on cello in "You and I Again" and "Before This World?" Yes. And that's also Sting singing backup song, and a host of respected sessions musicians, including longtime collaborator Andrea Zonn on fiddle and vocals. Producer Dave O'Donnell's touches are everywhere—splashes of robust backing vocals here, a horn section there, and lush arrangements everywhere. The new songs are solid, several are terrific, and one or two skirt the sentimentality danger zone. (Sorry Red Sox Nation, but "Angels of Fenway" is one of the latter; if this song were about the Yankees you'd reach for the airsickness bag.) My favorites including the funky "Stretch of the Highway," with its bluesy horn riffs and tight harmonies; and "Watchin' Over Me," a folk gospel song of gratitude and redemption. I also quite enjoyed "Snowtime," whose theme any New Englander can- appreciate: being in a cold place—wintry Toronto in this case—but adrift more in dreams of sun-dappled climes than in the surrounding storm. Never mind that it evokes Mexico in both its lyrics and the tune of a song of that name he recorded in 1975. There's also a very fine political song, "Far Afghanistan," that humanizes war and transcends conflict without being didactic or preachy. So let's forget the vintage James Taylor comparisons—we still have all that classic material if we need a shot of nostalgia—and enjoy this late-career effort. Maybe this isn't a great album—but it's a good one. Appropriately, Before this World opens with a song titled "Today Today Today," which includes the line: "The world will open wide/And I'm running with this tide." It's one of several songs that bespeak contentment—and who could wish more than that?
 Rob Weir


Just a Few Weeks Left to Catch Thomas Hart Benton in Salem

Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood
Peabody Essex Museum (Salem, MA)
Through September 7, 2015

Planning a trip to Salem, Massachusetts? Don't wait until October when you have to share the streets with every 14-year-old self-styled Goth queen in New England. Go now before the fabulous "Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood" exhibit closes at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM).

Part of the fun of this exhibit is trying to unravel the enigmatic Benton (1889-1975). He's often clumped with regionalists such as Grant Wood, though he was far less sentimental; or with WPA muralists, though he was producing large-scale public art a decade before the Great Depression hit and painters became government employees. He was the offspring of conservatives—his grandfather was a US Senator who advocated Manifest Destiny, and his father a Confederate during the Civil War and a racist and imperialist thereafter—but Thomas flirted with socialism in his youth and he routinely painted Native Americans and African Americans in a sympathetic light. If he owed an artistic debt to anyone, it was probably late Renaissance Mannerists, especially Tintoretto, whose acidic colors made up so much of Benton's palette. He was also familiar with modernism, which he admired and disdained in equal measure, yet he donned his instructor's cap and turned out a famed pupil: Jackson Pollock!

On the surface, Benton was a mythmaker who did on canvas what John Ford did on the big screen. The similarities don't end there—both men also exposed the darkness lurking behind elegiac surfaces. The first room of the PEM exhibit is devoted the "American Epic" series Benton painted in the 1920s, a giant rendering of the American saga from European discovery through the taming of the frontier. The scale alone suggests triumphant grandeur, but again the take is more John Ford than Walt Disney. Indians sometimes appear as menacing, but just as often they are victims, and the overall portrait of his grandfather's Manifest Destiny ideals is that of progress bloodied by violence, and of enterprise mediated by chicanery..

PEM cleverly displays these panels in an open room with theater chairs that invite you to view them as one might a film. Also like a film, Benton forces viewers to suspend belief. His figures are not just huge, they are rubbery and misshapen—arms that hang well below the knees, bent backs that suggest bonelessness, and featureless faces on the perpetrators of violence. His odd perspectives are everywhere, including the fact that one soon realizes that he often paints everyone as if they were nude. 

Look at the ankles of the Native in the next picture. He seems to be wearing leggings, but where do they end? We see other figures whose buttocks, chests, and muscles are so pronounced that they appear clad only in body paint.

Illusion—the essence of Hollywood. Benton loved movies and the movies loved him. I knew nothing of this connection before seeing the PEM exhibit, but it was a fruitful one, which Benton clearly enjoyed—right down to the act of painting himself and his wife in rakish poses suggestive of publicity stills. In Hollywood, Benton produced sketches used by directors to block scenes, made 3-D clay mock-ups for set designers, painted backdrops, and even made the marquee posters for classics such as of The Grapes of Wrath. His journals noted the frenetic energy of movie sets and expressed bafflement over why certain things were done. But about those illusions, check out the next painting-- of a Hollywood set. Benton frames the scantily clad actress with an arch, a looming camera boom, and all manner of strong verticals and horizontals. Despite all the activity behind and around her, the gaze is drawn salaciously toward her nearly nude body—so much so that we almost miss Benton's joke: a bare-breasted woman sitting at the bottom to the canvas casually adjusting her hair. Make the audience see what you want them to see—no wonder Hollywood called Benton to its bosom—as it were.  

By the time World War II rolled around, Benton was inspired by popular culture, especially film, comic books, posters. He played his part in pumping out propaganda, but compare his images of  black soldiers to sterile government images in which boxer Joe Louis appears in we-must-all-do-our-part guises. And look at this image of a young man peering back before he ships out—it's lifted from a World War One silent film. Indeed, his most famous war image, "Sowers" is an update of World War One propaganda posters associated with what was commonly called "the rape of Belgium." 

The Benton exhibit is excellently curated and full of small revelations. And how often does one get to use "small" and "Benton" in the same sentence? Hurry! Don't miss this exhibit.
Rob Weir

Black Lives Matter Owes Sanders an Apology


Progress was made in a flawed coalition
Two recent incidents make one wonder if the Black Lives Matter movement has lost its political savvy. Last December, Smith College President Kathy McCartney used the phrase "all lives matter" in a campus email outlining the campus response to Ferguson, Missouri. When angry students accused her of diverting attention away from racism, she did what anyone with an ounce of political skill would do: she apologized. Last week, Senator Bernie Sanders took the podium at the University of Washington as part of his presidential campaign. He was shoved aside by Black Lives Matter activists who hijacked the podium to harangue the assembly on the need for criminal justice reform. They even had the moxie to dismiss Sanders as "just another white liberal."

Really? One must wonder if, politically speaking, BLM has jumped the shark. Has the greater agenda been swept aside in the name of unfocused anger and opportunistic attention grabbing? Does BLM think it will do better by alienating white liberals? That would be an unwise conclusion—one ranking in severity with the 1967 decision of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to expel its white members, or the Black Panthers' move to engaging in reverse race-baiting.

Purity led to backlash
The history of social movements reveals that a certain degree of provocative confrontation can be effective, the key words being "a certain degree." Not enough, and you get ignored; too much, though, and you invite a counter assault. The latter happened to both SNCC and the Panthers. Whites who were once on the front lines in African American civil rights struggles turned inward to anti-Vietnam protests, cultural issues, and campus activism. SNCC disbanded in 1970, its goal of racial justice obviously unrealized. As for the Black Panthers, although its threats against whites were almost entirely rhetorical, 30 of them died at hands of cops in 1969 alone. Because Panthers had positioned themselves as dangerous, many whites saw their demise as justice, not extralegal race murders. By 1971, the Black Panther Party was known more for its internal squabbles than affecting social change. It was laid to rest in 1982, but had been reduced to ineffectiveness long before then. 

Social movements of all configurations would do well to review the history of the American left. BLM is starting to remind me of socialist movements that spent so much of their time insisting upon ideological purity that they defined themselves by whom they tossed out rather than their agendas. I am sympathetic to BLM claims that enough is enough (Sanders' campaign slogan, by the way!) and that African Americans are tired of explaining how racism works. I get it that they feel the need for self- empowerment. I am 100% on board with the idea that the time to stop police violence is now—not when politicians find it convenient. I am even willing to concede that there are many things that I, as a white person, don't "get" about black people.

Here's the rub, though: separatist movements of all sort are doomed. The United States is the greatest polyglot since the Roman Empire. If BLM insists on going it alone, it will probably obtain that wish, though not its goals. BLM is a minority within a minority. We used to say that Latinos would become the largest minority group by 2030. We were wrong; at 17% of the population Latinos already surpass African Americans (12.6%). Two of three Americans are Euro-Caucasian and three of four identify as "white" (whatever that might mean). The moral is that it's a matter of numbers. BLM can't survive by being viewed as a "Black thing" anymore than SNCC could, and it's doomed for the same reason that the Tea Party will ultimately collapse—it doesn't matter whether or not one likes American social diversity, it's a demographic fact with profound political implications. There are myriad constituencies in America and Jesse Jackson got it right years ago: the best path forward is a rainbow coalition. If you hope to win, you're going to have to build that coalition. Righteous anger might feel better, but it's no substitute for movement building.

My years associated with labor unions teaches me this: the Opposition is more organized and powerful than most social change movements. It's simply a waste of time to fight your allies! Save that energy and anger for the SOBs whose hearts won't change. (Save your breath as well—those whose mindlessness is set are unamenable to reason.) Yes, many of your allies will frustrate you and some of them simply won't "get it." Nonetheless, if they aren't on the line with you, at the very least you don't want to face them on the other side of the barricade.

This brings me back to President McCartney and Bernie Sanders. They are allies, not enemies, and dissing them evokes the very worst excesses of 1970s-style identity politics. It's just silly to shout down Bernie Sanders. Good God! If you don't think Bernie Sanders is on your side, at least have to courage to become a revolutionary and denounce all interest in politics. If BLM thinks there are things Sanders doesn't "get," it would behoove it to explain it to him, because there simply isn't a bigger champion of social change than he in political office. Derail someone like Sanders and all I can say is, good luck with the alternatives.


Hope and Justin and Toby Lightman: We Want to Love You, but We Have Reservations


The hardest music to evaluate is that which glimmers with promise, but drives the reviewer to ambivalence. Musical taste is, of course, like physical taste–one person's chocolate delight is another's limp kale. Whenever I'm moved to ambivalence I ask questions such as: Is this just not a genre I enjoy? (I am bored to tears by klezmer, for instance.) Is it poorly recorded? A one-trick pony? Inappropriate? (I'm not sure why anyone records solo clogging.) Mediocre? Those are easy. Harder are those that simply lack "spark," my dilemma on recent releases from Hope and Justin and from Toby Lightman. I offer the following observations cognizant of the possibility that floodlights may go off for others.

Hope and Justin Schneir's Eastern Bound is actually a 2013 release that was recently forwarded to me. They are a California-based husband-and-wife duo who describe their music as "70s folk and bluegrass with a modern vibe." They front four other musicians and collectively produce tight instrumentals. The songs, however, felt limp whenever Hope took the lead. She has a nice voice and as she demonstrates on the CD's best track, "Ball and Chain," one with occasional winning catches and ornamentation. Alas, it's not a clear one and it's strong only in the mid ranges. As can be heard on "When the Fire Came Down," when she has to reach up or drop down, she struggles. Justin's voice is drier and faintly reminiscent of Mark Erelli, though he too is strongest in the mid-ranges. The good news is that both are fine harmony singers and a part of me thinks that Hope and Justin would fit well as backups with occasional solo spotlights inside the traveling band of someone such as Gillian Welch or Mary Chapin Carpenter. As a solo act, Hope and Justin are good, but probably not good enough to make serious waves.

Toby Lightman's sampler Time Traveler demonstrates that she has a glorious voice capable of singing anything and, alas, she often does. She's been compared to Sheryl Crow–an apt descriptor if we throw in the pyrotechnics of pop princesses du jour. Lightman's voice is filled with husk and power. On songs such as "Let Go," she's finger-snapping funky and sassy; on "Lost," she makes us feel the pain. There's nothing inherently wrong with the other four tracks other than they are decidedly pop offerings. My take, though, is that a repertoire freighted with such songs also makes it sound ephemeral and slight. These tracks are the sort that get (and have gotten) mentions from USA Today and Entertainment Weekly. And how many flashes in the pan do each expose in a given month? Toby Lightman has a voice for the ages, but she needs to add some timeless songs to her repertoire before the current ones expire.
Rob Weir