Simrit, Yael Meyer, Family Folk Revival, Jennell, and Ingird Michaelson


Time to clean the decks again, so here are a few short reviews to alert readers about new releases.

Simrit Kaur is a Greek-born, South Carolina-raised Sikh, a phrase that probably just set off a few "New Age" alarms. Get over it. Simrit performs sacred chant music, but her musical influences include: Greek legend Nana Mouskouri and ancient Byzantine music, Jeff Buckley, Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin, and The Grateful Dead. Plus Loreena McKennitt, which makes a lot of sense because Simrit's dreamy cadences, like McKennitt's or Enya's, often tumble out of frothy mixes. You'll hear bells and angelic harmonies behind her, but also percussion and peddle steel. Songs like "Kal Akaal" are at once deeply meditative, but the bass notes are heavy and vaguely ominous and the feel is evocative of quieter Renaissance folk rock offerings—think Pentangle. "Pure" uses electric guitar for the effect a sitar might induce in an Indian raga, but Simrit's voice has all the power and ornamentation of a pop singer. About that voice—it's one for the ages. Her songs are so gorgeous you might find your pacified mind disconnects from your sashaying body. (By the way, all Sikh women use the surname Kaur in the same way that all males use Singh.)

Speaking of intriguing voices, Yael Meyer is worth adding to singers-you-should-check-out bucket list. In her own way, she's as meditative as Simrit, but she does it more in a folk/pop vein. She's a Chilean-born, Los Angeles-based artist in the indie pop/folk range whose latest release Warrior Heart (Kli Records, 2014) generated some buzz. The title track is a nice mix of lush pop and energetic polyrhythm that creates a solid aural base for Meyer's voice. Hers is delicate palette, but she uses her 'small' voice in confident and interesting ways that make it sound bigger than it is. A personal favorite is "Everything Will Be Alright," an upbeat song with a slightly quirky backbeat and clipped end-of-line syllables on the chorus that punctuate the arrangement and add silent contrast to her light vocals. Meyer won't blow you away with power but—like the TV and movie soundtrack works to her credit—her voice is that background lilt that makes you take notice when you least expect it.

There's a band from Magnolia, Texas that calls itself Family Folk Revival. That's based largely on the fact that three members of the quintet come from the Lankford family, but aside from a few forays into (mostly) acoustic music ("Marfa," "Trash") there's not much on their new record Water Walker (Rock Ridge Music) that evokes a coffeehouse scene. FFF calls itself a "psychedelic rock and roll band" and that doesn't quite cut it either, though lead vocalist Mason Lankford evokes Jim Morrison on songs such as "Dream" and "I Found God." A better descriptor would be to call these guys moody garage country. Thick thwacking bass lines frame the breakdown song "I Drew a Line," and "Darlin'" feels like bluegrass from the place where the mountain stream drains into a swamp. A lot of FFF songs have dark edges and arrangements—the echo chamber used in "Everyone Loves Everyone," the spooky feel to "American Standard," and the grungy guitar and bass of "If It Don't Kill You (It ain't Love)." But yeah, these guys are country. You don't get much more country than a line like line: Now I'm drunk again tonight/Like I was the night before that/And the night before that/And the night before that. But you know what? Slap any label you want on them because they're just damned good. If I were their manager, though, I'd make them get a new moniker. (Try an Internet search on Family Folk Revival and leave yourself extra time!)

Does the music industry ask women to go by one name because it sees them as interchangeable widgets? Here's hoping that a young singer from Wyoming billed simply as Jennell doesn't let Nashville turn her into a replacement part. Her music evokes the indie pop/club music side of things (especially Sweden's Robyn) and her new EP Home is filled with bubbly hooks and energy. You can hear her youth in songwriting way too heavy on ooo-ooo-ooo and woo-ooo-oo filler, but this young woman knows how to use her voice. She can reach up for diva stuff, but she builds to it and has an infectious catch that she uses to good effect. She's strongest, though, when the arrangements ratchet down. "Feels Like Home" and "Pave My Own Way" are winners because she controls the vibe, whereas the other three songs, though they have their virtues, feel more like the mix is controlling her. Lots of promise, though—if she can avoid widget syndrome. [No videos available.]

I can't tell you the number of young women I run into who'd like to be Ingrid Michaelson when they grow up. Small wonder. If you think pop music has to be banal, check out her back catalog. Her sampler A Summer Night Out illustrates why she's an underground goddess. First of all, she owns the arrangements, not vice versa. "Time Machine" is gutsy and bluesy, with Michaelson's voice matching the grit of the brassy horns. In like fashion, she uses heavy bass as the dark counterpoint to her bright voice on "The Way I Am," a song that hold another key to her success: her willingness to take chances—by bringing a cool jazz ambience to pop in this case. On "Warpath" she absolutely abuses what we think about pop by squeezing it into some hand jive and layering it with swamp rock. I could go on, but you really need to hear her—if for no other reason, you'll understand why tweens, teens, and twenty-somethings swoon when her name is dropped. (She's the coolest thing in glasses this side of Tina Fey, by the way.)

Rob Weir


Izzy Young's Greenwich Village: When Art Triumphed over Commerce

Directed by Jim Downing
MVD Visual 52150
* * * *

If the name Izzy Young rings no bells, t'is time to educate yourself. A superb re-release from DVD Visual will help you do so. In 1957, Young—fueled by the energy of the Folk Music Revival movement—sold his life insurance policy and opened a storefront on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village called The Folklore Center. He gave it that all-purpose name because he wanted it to be more than a hootenanny venue, though it was certainly that. In 1961, Young produced the first concert for a kid calling himself Bob Dylan.  Dylan even wrote a 'talking blues' song in Young's honor titled "Talking Folklife Center." The Folklife Center was a drop-in magnet for those identifying themselves as bohemian, countercultural, or unorthodox—a place to hear poetry, discuss politics, watch dance performances, catch a concert, learn about progressive causes, or find publications not sold at your local newsstand. The same year Young welcomed Dylan to the Folklore Center, he led an important free-speech battle in New York aimed at overturning a stupid ordinance that banned singing folk music in Washington Square on Sunday. You could (and should) call that event a precursor of the countercultural Sixties. Young also DJed a progressive music show on WBAI, bankrolled a few publications, wrote a column titled "Frets and Frails" for Sing Out! Magazine from 1959 to 1969, helped bring The Fugs to prominence, and welcomed hundreds of artists to the Center. In many respects, Young embodied the idealism and anti-materialism of the late 50s and 1960s. As he put it, "I couldn't have had a better time, or earned less money."

 Alas, the dream didn't last. Young closed The Folklife Center in 1973, moved to Sweden, and opened a Stockholm version of his vision, where (at age 87) he still presides. This film was originally aired on Swedish TV in 1989, and recounts Young's visit to his former Greenwich Village haunts. Although it centers on Young, one cannot help but muse upon the death of pure art, the decline of idealism, and the triumph of soulless commercialism. That is to say, it's sad for reasons other than the fact that many of those who appear in the film are now dead: poet Allen Ginsberg (1997), musician/anarchist Tuli Kupferberg (2010), former New York Mayor Ed Koch (2013), folksinger Pete Seeger (2014)…. In the film, the Village Young knew is already on its way to becoming a high-rent district for the moneyed classes. The Center site was empty, high rents having driven out several tenants since Young left 15 years earlier. Young noted he was able to open it back in 1957 in part because he paid $75/month rent for his apartment in a neighborhood now occupied by the nouveau riche.

We also see Young back at the mic at WBAI, where old friends such has Heather Woods, Danny Kalb, and Marc Silber polish off a few standards. We also see him with Allen Ginsberg, who does a fine version of "Father Death Blues" before discussing how "workaholism" is a neurosis; with Kupferberg, an unreconstructed anarchist who justified stealing from the rich; and with Ed Koch, who rather presciently opined that "bohemianism is a state of mind" and that artists that missed out on buying cheap property in the Village ought to think about Brooklyn and the Bronx. Koch may have missed the mark on the Bronx, but he was spot on concerning Brooklyn. Brooklyn was also where Young spent much of his youth, and we see him there making bagels with his brother, Oscar, a union baker; and singing Yiddish folk songs with his mother. Later we see him in Peekskill with Pete Seeger—talking about folk songs, of course.

Director Jim Downing was onto something back in 1989. He gives us subtle glimpses of the downside of gentrification: fast food franchises in spots once occupied by family businesses, sleek limos clogging streets once given over to youth culture, and street characters whose seediness results from poverty rather lifestyle choices. Above all, he shows ubiquitous symbols of commerce—the bucks that replaced the vibes. Even Art D'Lugoff's famed Village Gate closed five years after this film was made; a CVS now stands there and can anyone argue that society is richer for that? Downing did with his camera what those being pushed out did in words; both are lamentations on how artifice supplanted art. As Ed Sanders (The Fugs) put it in his poem "The Five Feet": You've got to have five feet to skitter down the road/One foot in the grave/One foot in the glitter/One foot in the gutter/One foot in the glory/One foot near the Grail. This small film shows us a remarkable man—Izzy Young—but it shows what is lost when you take away everything except the glitter and the gutter. I generally don't get nostalgic about the Sixties, but this film (and a steady diet of hollow commercialism) induced waves of it.      Rob Weir

PS—This film can be viewed as a $3.99 rental on YouTube if you can't find it elsewhere.  


Safekeeping: Memorable Characters, So-So Plot

Jessamyn Hope
Fog Tree Books, 371 pages, #978-1941493069
* *

Subtitle Jessamyn Hope's debut novel "Where's Dagmar?" Or maybe, "Whither Israel?" Hope's sprawling novel centers, in part, on the fate of a precious heirloom broach with such a long history that it's no longer clear whether it should be in someone's personal possession, or on display as a symbol of Jewish heritage.

The novel's central tension lies in the fact that it does lie in personal hands–those of Adam, a 26-year-old drug addict living in New York City, whose ownership of it is tainted. Though he is a very secular Jew, Adam seeks redemption on many levels; hence he flees New York for Israel with only the broach and the clothes on his back.  His only plan is to cleanse himself by giving the broach to a woman named Dagmar. Why? Because the broach once belonged to his (now deceased) grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, who briefly lived on Kibbutz Sadot Hadar after Israel was founded.  Adam learned that she, not his grandmother, had been the love of his life.

As a birth Jew, Adam is entitled to enter Israel, and as a family member of a former kibbutznik, he provisionally enters Sadot Haddar. Staying there will require finding himself before he sets off to find Dagmar—cold turkey detox, establishing some work habits, and abstaining from alcohol for starters. But the hardest part might be negotiating kibbutz politics and personalities. The year is 1994, and the old socialist ideals of Sadot Hadar are under attack by those who wish to abandon radical equality and bring the place into late 20th century economic reality. Want some tension? Opposing all efforts to modernize is aged but fiery Ziva, an ardent Zionist, communist, and cofounder of Sadot Hadar; her son is on the other side. Moreover, Adam may not be the most screwed up camper on the premises. There is, for instance, the flirtatious Ulya, a young Belarusian lass who dreams of leaving the dreary kibbutz to live glamorously in New York. Never mind that her image is from a very old issue of Life Magazine. There's also Ofir, a teenaged Israeli soldier whose head is filled with music, not military strategy; and Claudette, a French-Canadian Catholic with such severe OCD that she can barely function. And why is Farid, a Palestinian man, always lurking about after hours?

The strength of Hope's novel lies with her memorable characters. As a storyteller, though, Hope occasionally stumbles. The broach is a classic Chekhov's gun, so we must get its back-story in flashback sequences and let's just say that The Red Violin it's not. The story arc is likewise too predictable, a problem made more acute by the fact that the narrative is driven by mysteries that don't require Sherlock Holmes to reveal. More to the point, it's a problem if readers unspool them many pages before they are officially revealed. Ironically, the non-Jewish Claudette is the only character whose actions surprise us.   

We are supposed to overlay Adam's story, that of the broach, and the fate of Sodot Hadar and then extrapolate that generational clashes over values are analogous to Israel's own growing pains. Sodot Hadar translates as "fields of splendor," and we are invited to muse over the question of how much can change (for people, communities, and nations) before essential character disintegrates into incoherence. Interesting premise—but, in my view, not one fully realized. But maybe that's because I'm like Claudette: a non-Jewish observer. I suspect, though, that it's because Ms. Hope has some growing of her own to do.

Rob Weir