Musical Short Takes: Dan Bern, Eilen Jewell, Justin Earle, The Pollies

Put Dan Bern in the category of singer songwriters for whom maturity has done a world of good. Bern's music falls into a seam that's somewhere between Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen by way of Billy Bragg. In the past, his love of irony has crossed the line that separates humor and egoism, but lately his voice, instrumentation, and lyrics have dialed back the snark. This has made him more accessible and his wry commentary more incisive. He is now on tour with a recent album, Hoody (www.danbern.comwww.danbern.com) that also features his recent drift toward a more country rock feel. Check out "Lifeline," a classic piece of honky tonk: "They say I've been carousing too much/Drinking like a sailor and smoking like a Dutch…."
            Bern's current tour only has a few Northeast stops: Northampton's Parlor Room on October 11, The Winery in New York City on October 14, and Club Passim in Cambridge, MA on October18. 

Eilen Jewell is also on the road with a recent record, Sundown Over Ghost Town (Signature Sounds). Jewell hails from Idaho, but she couldn't escape comparisons to Kentuckian Loretta Lynn even if she didn't do a lot of Lynn covers. You get that same mix of honky tonk, Western swing, and controlled twang. With Jewell, even her sweet songs are tinged with a little melancholy. Sundown Over Ghost Town is classic Jewell with a few small detours like "Rio Grande," whose Mexicana flair evokes a splash of Linda Ronstadt. One of the great joys of listening to Jewell is checking out of well she works with her band. The Lynn comparisons not withstanding, the guitar arrangements make you wonder if you're listening to country folk or surf music. But, heck, I'd love this new album even if it were only for a line in "Needle in Thread" where she describes her Idaho hometown as "one horse shy of a one-horse town."  I grew 2,300 miles east of her, but I know exactly what she means.
            You can sample Eilen Jewell here

Justin Townes Earle has a recent record titled Absent Fathers (Vagrant Records), which is intended as the companion piece to his 2014 Single Mothers and is available as double album in some formats (including LP). Earle knows whereof he speaks on both issues. He is the son of country music bad boy Steve Earle and his third (of seven!) wives, who raised Justin. Justin has had his own battles with drug addiction but seems to have gotten his life back on track. For those who don't know his music, his voice is a smoother counterpart to his old man's girt and gravel and, these days at least, he's more of an acoustic blues singer than country folk. In fact, "Farther From Me" is reminiscent of Van Morrison unplugged.
           Click here for some Justin Townes Earle track. s

Is there such a category as hard soft rock? If so, let me nominate The Pollies as an exemplar of it. They've just (as in days ago) released their second record, Not Here (Single Lock Records). They hail from Alabama and I've no idea where the band name comes from, so excuse me if I make an inappropriate Hollies remark because they do indeed sport some Hollies-like harmonies, though the band with which they most compare is My Morning Jacket. The album's theme is loss—usually lost love, though it opens with "Jackson," a paean to Jimmie Lee Jackson who, in 1965 was the Michael Brown of his day: an unarmed black man murdered by an Alabama state trooper. (His death sparked the famed Selma to Montgomery march.) Most of the rest of the CD is softer in content and, occasionally, in tone and mood. The Pollies are the kind of ensemble that prefers to knock you off your pins with a soft feather—as they do on quiet songs such as "Threw It Away" or "My Darling"–but can also amp up the pace when necessary. Check out "Lost," which simultaneously swells and rocks but with controlled aggression. Like I said, hard soft rock. 
            PS: On some websites the CD name is listed as Lost, but methinks that's wrong!

Rob Weir


Forgotten Films: Rosewater Reveals the True nature of Iran's Government

Written and directed by Jon Stewart
Open Roads Films, 103 minutes, R (language, violence, suggestiveness)
* * * *

A lot of my liberal friends ask me why I oppose Obama's treaty with Iran. I tell them that Iran is a theocratic dictatorship that deserves global ostracism, not its stamp of legitimacy. But don't take my word for it; ask Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, who spent 118 days of torture, abuse, and deprivation in Iranian jails. Lucky for him he was a foreign national and a Newsweek correspondent, or he would have simply disappeared.

Bahari's Then They Came for Me is harrowing reading and if you don't want to read it, check out Jon Stewart's directorial debut film based upon Bahari's memoir. It is shot in documentary-meets-biography style. We watch as happy-go-lucky Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) lands in Tehran and visits his mother, then proceeds to do what good journalists do: seek out sources. He was in Tehran to report upon the protests surrounding the 2009 election-one blatantly stolen from the opposition so that brutal Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—the Persian Putin--could stay in power and do the mullahs' bidding. Bahari reported on the rumors, filmed the crackdown, and interviewed dissidents—the stuff journalists do. For this he was jailed as a spy and Zionist tool. We watch the effort to breakdown Bahari for propaganda purposes, mostly by an interrogator unsuccessfully playing the "good cop" role before turning Bahari over to the rough treatment boys. The first inquisitor is the film's titular Rosewater (Kim Bodnia); Bahari is always blindfolded and comes to identify his tormentor by scent long before he sees his face.

The prison scenes are predictably horrifying, especially in conveying a sense of isolation, as Bahari spent most of his time in solitary confinement. But Stewart throws in two twists—Bahari's imagined conversations with his father, who was imprisoned by the Shah; and with his sister, who ran afoul of Khomeini. The second twist is subtler and ultimately more powerful: Bahari's realization that his captors are both fascinated by the West and are as frightened by him as he is of them. That revelation was ultimately Bahari's soul- and mind-saving grace.

Stewart knows his way around the camera and uses light and angles effectively to build drama and set moods. The only self-reverential nod to The Daily Show is a brief segment in which Bahari agrees to a satirical interview with Jason Jones. Need I tell you that Iran's masters are not noted for their sense of humor? Stewart wisely abandons his TV rant style for a detached one that makes the Iranian government appear more ridiculous (and dangerous) than any contrived script could have done. Stewart's only slip-up lies in odd casting. Garcia Bernal is a fine actor capable of chameleon performances and he does his best in Rosewater. Still, Bernal is Mexican and aren't we decades past the days in which we don't "see" when someone is in ethnic drag? Good as Bernal was, there are numerous Iranian actors who would have been more appropriate choices (Ramin Korimloo, Asghar Farhadi, Shabab Hosseini…).

I'm at a loss to understand why this film bombed at the box office: just $3.1 million in receipts on a budget of over $5 million. Maybe Americans only want Jon Stewart to be funny, or maybe the bleak subject put them off. Or maybe they swallowed the same Kool-Aid that Obama drank. Iran's reaction to this film was to denounce Stewart as a Zionist CIA agent. Isn't that what they said about Bahari? The Shah… Khomeini… the mullahs… The more things change, the more they stay the same. Good on Jon Stewart for exposing the reality beneath the turbans.



If You Don't Vote for Bernie, You're on Your Own!

A Tale of Three Americas

I had a recent argument with a friend over politics. Don't worry—we're still friends. We both support Bernie Sanders–you know, that awful socialist who'd make all Americans share toothbrushes if elected. At least that's what people who don't know the difference between a socialist and a coconut would have you believe.

The debate was over what each of us will do if Bernie doesn't get the nomination and my friend insisted that I will go into the voting booth and put an X beside Hillary Clinton's name. I'll do it, he insisted, because the current crop of Republicans is so intrinsically crazy that a vote for Hillary would be the only way to fight the possibility of a GOP president. I agree that today's GOP is to the right of Mussolini. (Hey, even Mussolini cared about his nation's train system!) I think "crazy" might be too mild; "evil" is a better handle. What does it tell you when evangelicals endorse Donald Trump? It tells me that their pious rhetoric on morality is the biggest sham since Piltdown Man. It tells me they worship a god named Mammon, not one named Jehovah.

But I still won't vote for Hillary; I will write in "Bernard Sanders" on the ballot. I'm just not going to carry anyone else's cross any more. If women vote for the GOP, who am I to tell them they shouldn't sleep with the enemy? If Christians want to commit acts of blasphemy, it's not my job to save them from fiery perdition. And if working Americans once again vote against their self-interest, I'll be done explaining to them that their bosses are not their friends. But I'll try one last time.

Here's what I tell anyone who wants to know why it's Bernie or nobody for me. I've seen enough of America to say this: If you want to know what the economy would look like under Donald Trump, go to Atlantic City. If you want to know what it would look like under Hillary Clinton, visit a Wal-Mart.  I'm for Bernie because one of my favorite places in the world is Burlington, Vermont–a place whose transformation under a Sanders mayoralty I witnessed with my own eyes.

Donald Trump Prosperity
Donald Trump is a modern-day pirate, has the fashion sense to go with it, and economic theories rooted in the pirate ethos of raid and plunder. Stroll down Atlantic City's splintering Boardwalk and you'll see what happens when pirates sail away. Atlantic City's heyday was over before Trump arrived, but he proved you can get blood out of a turnip. Trump once owned three of Atlantic City's casinos; all of them have since been sold or closed. He took advantage of bankruptcy laws four times to stiff creditors, which means only the corporate entities lost money—not Trump personally. But you know what, even if he had lost some change, let's consider how The Donald makes his money: real estate and gambling. Both are high-risk ventures, but Trump seldom puts his own chips on the table. He develops, sells, and lets the buyers worry over whether they'll make back their investment. He arrives in places like Atlantic City—as godawful a burg as you'll ever want to be–lays on the bling and sells dreams of riches. Did you ever know of a poor man walking into a casino and exiting a millionaire? Casino operators are classic bottom-feeders selling fantasies dollar-by-dollar to those with little left to lose, but manage to do so anyhow. Don't take my word for it—go to the Casino State—sorry New Jersey–and report back on how casinos have revitalized Atlantic City, Camden, Pleasantville, and other Garden State locales. This is what Trumpeconomics looks like, folks.

Hillarynomics: Protest Outside of Bentonville HQ
Hillary Clinton was on the Wal-Mart board of directors for six years (1985-92) and would have been there longer if Bill hadn't charmed his way into the White House. Here's what she's said to date about efforts to unionize Wal-Mart: nada. There's no need to regale you with anti-Wal-Mart screeds; if you don't know the high cost of low prices by now you're simply not paying attention. But I will say that Bill & Hill made up the most powerful conservative presidency since Calvin Coolidge. Need a list? Here it is: NAFTA, Defense of Marriage Act, fast-track free trade deals, deregulation of the communications industry, the military's DADT policy, tightening welfare eligibility, spending cuts, repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, the pardon of Marc Rich, relaxation of regulations at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac…. Ronald Reagan couldn't have dreamed of such things! Can we just stop with the nonsense that Hillary would be a progressive force? Her economic vision is that of Chinese goods being sold to low-wage workers by low-wage workers. She's a pirate as well–just one whose baubles are made of plastic instead of gold. A Hillary presidency would look more like Maggie Thatcher's reign than the liberal regimes of Helen Clark, Johanna Sigurdardottir, or Julia Gillard.*

Burlington's vibrant Marketplace
This brings me to Bernie Sanders—that left-winger so many people fear. The one who took over a decaying city (Burlington) in 1981, put city services out to competitive bid, balanced the books, inspired the redevelopment of the city's waterfront, marshaled the completion of the city's vibrant downtown retail center, encouraged the development of the arts, negotiated with city workers as equals, brought minor league baseball to the city, prevented the conversion of working-class homes into luxury condos, and created a Community Economic Development Office. Under Sanders, millions of new dollars flowed into Burlington coffers. Some of this might have happened on its own, but Bernie was the catalyst. I was there; I watched Burlington go from seedy to trendy. Above all, I saw Bernie Sanders practice citizen-based democracy—not the politics of the one percent.

That's why he has my vote no matter how the primaries sugar off. If he's not on the ballot, I'll write in his name because, frankly, if it's the GOP versus Hillary, I will have lost all hope. At least I can have a clean conscience.  

* Helen Clark headed New Zealand's government from 1985-92; Sigurdardottir Iceland's from 2009-13; and Gillard Australia from 2010-13.