aave, Meh! Chris Whitten, Yes! Honeybird, Nope!

It's summer clean out time. Here's the word on three recent releases.

There's Nothing
Villain Place/Rock Ridge Music
* *

The four-piece band aave hails from Nashville, but you're excused if you thought it was from San Francisco, circa 1967. This quartet consciously locates itself in a  psychedelic/ambient mode and, if you close your eyes, you could summon forth images of garland-adorned hippie chicks in tie-dye dresses, heads-tilted, eyelids half closed, and twirling against a light show backdrop. While that's sort of cool, musically it means that aave is more about mood than melody. It often draws comparisons to bands like Pink Floyd and Flaming Lips—largely because it combines the dreaminess (bleak and optimistic) of the first with the occasional thrash of the latter. I'd also call aave a post-punk band for the way in which songs often flirt the edge of cacophony. Add Hollies-like bubbly lead vocals and chirpy harmonies, and aave emerges as the ultimate mash-up band. Alas, this is less interesting than you might expect. The eight tracks I heard lack the signature hooks of acid rock classics, the attitude of punk, or the catchy melodies of The Hollies. In other words, meh!

(Digital downloads)
* * *

Charlie Whitten is also based in Nashville, and he too admires late-60s psychedelia. Luckily for us, he also likes Simon and Garfunkel, folk-rock, grunge, and fin-de-si├Ęcle radio hits. Although he is sometimes compared to Don McLean, Nick Drake and Neil Young are more apt comparisons. Especially the latter, if you can conjure Young in his youth with his rough edges smoothed out. Whitten, in fact, positively channels Neil in a cover of "Only Love Can Break Your Heart." One the things I admired about Whitten's folk-rock sound was his balance between trippiness and control.  "Dreaming" and "Home" have a Drake-like drift to them, but they don't meander. In like fashion, "Wedding Song" is sweet, but not treaclely, and "Too Far Gone" is funky and cool without being remote. Only "Lost I Heard" fails to connect, a song that simply feels and sounds undone. Whether any of this is good enough to break through in Nashville is up in the air, but Whitten's music is certainly worth a listen.

Out Comes Woman
(Digital download)

I suppose Honeybird (aka/ Monique Mizrahi) has her charms, but they eluded me on Out Comes a Woman, the sort of album I imagine Gil Scott-Heron would have made with a gender change and a talent transplant. Honeybird tries too hard to be hip and sassy, efforts that lead to literary disasters such as "Good Job," where she rhymes "rejection" with "erection" (mostly for shock value) and "tease job" with "on your knees, John." There are also musical train wrecks such as "You Think I'm Single" that are so muddled they are little more than random noise masquerading as art. This album feels homemade, but not in homey way. Honeybird styles her instrumental approach as "charango punk" and bass, but some of the bass tracks are so out of balance that what pours out of the amp obliterates sounds in its path. When she mixes spoken word with song, she her musings and snippets of poetry frequently lack enough articulation to connect. For the record, I don't know this Brooklyn-based artist. For all I know she's funny, kind, and smart, but Outlaw Woman felt pointless and self-indulgent. At several junctures I felt like I was in a Dos Equis ad gone terribly wrong and wanted to cry out, "Please lose the 'tude! You're not that interesting."

Here she is performing "Ex-Spearmint."



Shaun the Sheep Movie: Recycling Works!

Directed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak
Studio Canal, 85 minutes, PG
* * * *

Nick Park and Aardman Studios set the gold standard for claymation, that anally retentive form of animation in which pliable models are minutely manipulated for each film frame. Park is the guiding spirit behind this project, though his role is that of executive producer rather than director. Those who have followed his output already know that Shaun the Sheep was a character introduced in the delightful 1995 Wallace and Gromit film A Close Shave. Shaun proved so endearing that, in 2007, he got his own series in Britain (130 episodes and counting). This, however, is Shaun's first time as lead sheep in a wild and wooly big screen adventure.

Any skeptical or cynical charge one might level against the film is true. If you know Park's work and values, you'll find them recycled on the screen. He has long been an animal rights' activist—though contrary to popular belief, Park is not a vegetarian—and all Park movies place well-meaning critters in jeopardy from menacing humans looking to cage or devour them. Shaun and his associates have to fend off a power-mad Animal Containment Officer in this film. Akin to other Park features, the story of Shaun is a thin contrivance there solely to link a series of sketches and capers. The story for Shaun is essentially a rework of Chicken Run (2000), which was a takeoff of The Great Escape. You'll see other Park trademarks: goofy inventions, makeshift fantasy contraptions, hair's width escapes, and frenetic chases. If one is honest, nearly all of the major characters are recycled: The Farmer is a mumbling hayseed-meets-grunge boy version of Wallace, Bitzer is a less-adorable Gromit, the Flock variants of Chicken Run fowl, and the Naughty Pigs an ongoing gag. To which I reply, so what? Chuck Jones repeated characters and ideas for Looney Tunes, and Aardman productions are essentially cartoons in a different format. We watch both because they are wildly clever, are for adults as much as for children (maybe more so), and because they make us feel happy all over.

The story, such as it is, unspools in response to the universal theme of boredom. Shaun and all the barnyard animals love The Farmer who, in turn, sees them as part of his extended family. Shaun, however, can't help but notice that each day is pretty much the same—right down to the on-time arrival of the bus from the city. One day, though, a  bus-side advertisement for a "A Day Off" prompts Shaun to consider that a 24-hour break in routine is just what a clever sheep such as he needs. He lulls The Farmer to sleep in a van and diverts Bitzer's attention, but his plan goes terribly awry when the van is dislodged and hurtles downhill toward The City. A sudden stop and The Farmer gets a knock on the head that leaves him with amnesia. Mayhem ensues when Shaun, the Flock, Bitzer, and an ugly stray they meet set out to find The Farmer and restore order from the chaos Shaun has unleashed.

As noted, Aardman films are not about structured narrative; they are inventive imaginings of what sort of adventures can be told by manipulating small figures. In this film, the challenge is even greater as no one speaks per se—even the humans are reduced to mumbles and dramatic gesticulations. The sheep, of course, baa, but with differing inflections. Put some music to it and you can even come up with an ovine approximation of the Blues Brothers! Shaun the Sheep references all manner of other forms and tropes: pantomime, prison films, mad inventors and, yes, The Great Escape (though this time the goal is to break in rather than out). The fun happens when the Aardman crew makes us look at ourselves through the button-eyes of their creations. Characters such as a snotty head waiter, golfers, and a vain Celebrity serve as butts for takedowns of bourgeois values and hipster airs, and The City itself becomes a metaphor for the inauthentic. I'll say no more except to remind you to look hard into each sequence for all the jokes put there for alert adults. And be sure to stay through the credits, if for no other reason to hear Tim Wheeler, Mark Thomas, and Rizzie Kicks warble the hysterical (and catchy) Shaun the Sheep song.

The whole film is a silly bit of fluff, but it's such a lark you won't care. I can't remember the last time I was in a cinema in which six- and sixty-year-olds were both laughing. Oh wait—it was Chicken Run. Note to Nick Park: Keep on recycling. 

Rob Weir


Doh! Huh? Ummm... Monday Thoughts

Even when I try to ignore it, the news manages to outrage, irk, or perplex me. So here are a few observations of recent coverage that falls into the categories of Doh! Huh? and Hmmm…
Doh! (as in, 'Well, yeah.')

·      The release of the long awaited report on the failed bid for a Boston Olympics contained the non-shocking news that boosters underreported the realistic costs of the games by at least three billion dollars. Well, who could have predicted that? Only the living.
·      President Obama recently approved drilling for oil in the Arctic. Yet liberals still think he's one of them. That would be cute were it not so tragic.
·      The Boston Globe reported reactions of "shock" and "surprise" to the in-house coup that toppled Ben Cherington as Red Sox general manager. Did anyone really think he'd be back?
·      A big doh! to anyone who thought that Garry Trudeau had lost his edge. His recent takedown of the new Texas history guidelines is an incisive as any satire he's ever done. Moreover, it's gutsier than anything you'll hear from the lamestream media.
·      You can safely ignore 95% of what happens on the primary campaign trail. There are really only four or five serious candidates out there (Clinton, Sanders, Bush, Christie, maybe Walker) and the rest of the reportage is tales told by idiots that signifies nothing--just a con game played by lazy reporters who have created a faux horse race whose 'progress' they can write about because they're too lazy to do investigative reporting.
·      It's back… dress code battles. School boards and other self-styled guardians of public morality have returned to their censorious ways. One 15-year-old girl was recently sent home because some prudes deemed her exposed collarbones too provocative. Good grief! Baby Boomers fought and won those battles years ago by calling the ACLU and taking these clowns to court. Message to Millennials: You're not entitled; each generation has to reinforce the rights won earlier or they slip away like buttered eels. 

Huh? (As in 'Beats me')

·      Does anyone have the slightest idea what Jim Webb is doing on the campaign trail? Is he actually "running" for anything? Is he angling for a Secretary of Defense posting in a future Democratic administration? Who would pick him? He has virtues, but did anyone ever use his name and "team" in the same sentence?
·      Can you imagine signing a treaty with Operation Rescue? The Tea Party? ISIS? Of course not, because theocracies are not rational bodies. Enter Obama's Iran treaty folly. There is no Iranian government; it's a mere front for the mullahs whose logic system is based on what they see as Allah's will. You don't make deals with people who don't believe in deals. Chuck Schumer often infuriates, but he's right to oppose a treaty that the mullahs have no intention of honoring. Is the Democratic Party trying to drive Jews to the GOP? 
·      Why do people: (a) complain there are no choices in politics, and (b) shy away from candidates like Bernie Sanders (or even Rand Paul) who really are different? Isn't the very logic of 'they can't win' the very reason they don't? Eugene Debs once quipped, "I'd rather vote for what I want and not get it than vote for what I don't want and get it." Yep.
·      Some Democrats want Joe Biden to run for president to derail Hillary Clinton. Huh? He's the Spiro Agnew of Democrats. And before you tell me there's a difference because Agnew was corrupt, be careful: Biden's Delaware is the Cayman Islands for insurance companies.
·      Speaking of needing choices, anyone in education who supports the GOP is sleeping with the enemy, pure and simple. Message to Chris Christie: Until you give up your $175k governor's chair and spend a year in a public classroom at $50k, maybe you should stop talking out of your big fat ass.

Ummm… (As in: Why isn't this happening….')

·      Sick of endless political campaigns? Good grief, it's still six months to the New Hampshire primary. The fix is simple: follow Canada's lead and restrict the campaign season. Canada's longest election cycle in history lasted just 78 days.
·      Is 'young Democrat' an oxymoron? Shouldn't the party start thinking about 2020 as much as 2016? By then, Hillary would be 73, Biden 78, Nancy Pelosi 80,Gerry Brown 82, and Liz Warren 71.
·      Why is there a statute of limitations for art theft? Let's eliminate it and simultaneously ratchet penalties for buying stolen works. I could envision Interpol nabbing an art thief and delivering an ultimatum: finger the buyer or we throw away the key. Now imagine a Japanese businessman or an American celebrity being thrown in the clinker for 40 years for receiving stolen goods.
·      Does a corporate name on a ballpark make you want to support that company? Can't we go back to things like Tiger Stadium? At least name venues after sports figures. A T & T Park doesn't thrill me, but Willie Mays Park does. I' be happy to see a game at Tony Gwynn Field, but I'm sorry—if I go to Petco Field I expect to see a dog show.
·      Why the hell are there sports teams in Oakland? Do they not know the way to San Jose? Going to the Oakland Coliseum—sorry O.co Coliseum--reminds me of seeing a childhood game I saw at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia. I couldn't even tell it was a ballpark until I went in because, like Oakland, the neighborhood looked more like a place where mobsters dump bodies than a sports venue.