Holly Arrowsmith: Remember this Name!

For The Weary Traveller
Parachute Records
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The best new country/folk singer on the planet doesn't live anywhere near Nashville. Try New Zealand. Holly Arrowsmith was born in New Mexico, but was raised and lives on New Zealand's South Island where, at the tender age of 21, she has already won a passel of awards. One listen and you'll know why. There are tons of beautiful voices flitting about, but there's a world of difference between having a nice voice and being a great singer. When given a choice, always go with the latter. I mention Ms. Arrowsmith's age because you'll be stunned at the depth and maturity of her music. She has a classically pretty soprano voice, but she knows when to be subtle and when to be strong, when to be fragile and when to add husky bottom notes. She has drawn comparisons to Joni Mitchell, not because they sound at all similar, but because each makes what comes from their mouths sounds effortless and free. Check out Arrowsmith's "Voices of Youth" official video and you'll see and hear what I mean. (Added bonus: South Island scenery!)

For the Weary Traveller consists of ten tight tracks. About half of the songs are spare—voice and guitar mostly; on the other half she works with a larger band. "Desert Owl" is exemplary of the latter. It's a fine mix of acoustic and electric and of thematic loneliness and resilience. In fact, Arrowsmith's something of a lyrical alchemist in the way she pens bittersweet contrasts. The aforementioned song contains these words: "The red sun bursts on the mountain high/Spills like blood down the valley dry/Peace like a river extend to me and carry my feet on by/No brother before me or behind/My mind is worn and my body's tired/Peace like a river extend to me and, carry my feet on by." On the title track she sings, "To find comfort, first you must know sorrow/To know healing, there must be a wound."{Note: This version of "Desert Owl" is all acoustic.}

Arrowsmith is equally adroit at setting moods. Her "Lady of the Valley" has a quirky tune and its atmosphere is ominous—mountain music with a touch of Goth. To extend the Joni Mitchell references, call it a reverse "Ladies of the Canyon," a song drenched in foreboding instead of sunshine. But Arrowsmith has an optimistic side as well. Often we hear neither New Mexico nor New Zealand—the inspiration seems like something from the hollows of Appalachia. "Mountain Prayer" and "Love Will Be a River" are in that vein, the latter sounding a bit like a secular, carnal baptism. (And our love will be a river/Flowing out into the sea/Started in the mountains/Where you washed my feet.)  And then there's the stunning "Flinted." When Arrowsmith's voice catches after the line "cold July snow," all one can do is admire that sublime moment. The purity of those tones are rivaled only by the innocence of lines such as "I want to know what the seasons know/There's a time to reap and a time to sow/A time to hold on and a time to let go/Teach me to trust when I don't see…"

Let me repeat: She's just 21, which means she's going to get even better. Oh my!

 Rob Weir


November Music Pot Pourri: Zedashe Ensemble, All Them Witches, Twin Within

World music can take us on imaginative journeys to faraway and long ago lands. One could visit the  former Soviet republic of Georgia, but one can only get a taste of its pre-Soviet past by listening to the Zedashe Ensemble. Their latest release Intangible Pearls  (Cowbell Records) is of the variety often called "folkloristic," which means it's a scholarly interpretation of ancient cultural traditions from those who no longer live that way. But don't think buttoned-down academia. Quite the opposite; the Zedashe Ensemble channel bygone village life, right down to their costumes and three-part harmonies rendered in melodic scales seldom used in modern times. Even the name is old; zedashe references an earthenware jug in which wine was aged. Most of the singing is done a capella, but when instruments are used, they too come from the past: the pandari, a type of lute; the chonguri, a flute more strident than melodic; and the ch'ibini, one of numerous goatskin-covered hand-held drums used by the ensemble. The vocals are what one might get by crossing Tuvan throat singing's over and undertones with the unbridled primeval feel of Balkan music. The album is old in another way—it's paternalistic in the sense that just four of its 25 tracks feature female leads. The gender breakdown is heard stylistically. Male songs such as "Alilo Sashabao" or "Elena" feature lead voices in unison, with background singers providing a chant-like accompaniment of contrasting tone and drone. At times it sounds like Gregorian chant adapted for the mountains. Women's vocals—"Lale" is a good example—tend toward call-and-response style. Check out the instrumental dance tunes as well; instruments tend to pulse rather than establish melodies. Toss in frenzied drumming and you get something that's part dance and part village riot.  The Ensemble's Website has several videos you can sample.

I was reading James Parker's piece in The Atlantic on the fading of heavy metal music as bands such as Motorhead, Slayer, and AC/DC age-out (and die). Parker ought to give a listen to Nashville-based All Them Witches before he rushes to judgment. Their first full-length album, Dying Surfer Meets His Maker (New West Records) suggests there are sparks of life left in death metal. At their best, ATW reminds me of Black Sabbath with occasional Allman Brothers-like seasoning. I suppose some might say that this band is a hybrid of metal, grunge, and Goth rock and that's probably correct, but if you're looking for crunchy power chords, ominous bass, and pounding drums, this is your ticket. Lead vocals are given over to bass player Michael Parks, Jr. but a song such as "Dirt Preacher" is the norm: a big cacophony of loud songs that largely drown the vocals. Even songs such as "Swallowed by the Sea," which opens as if it is an incantation, quickly give way to discordant walls of sound. Like metal in its heyday, the music itself isn't overly complex because it's all about painting the walls black. This isn't the sort of thing I'd want to hear everyday, but a little fury is cathartic and the band's stripped down loudness makes a change from processed fare that plays it safe.

Speaking of overly processed, I liked the Hamilton, Ontario duo Twin Within (Steve McKay and Alex Samras), but I didn't love them. Their debut LP/EP (eight tracks) Horizontal Lines (Hidden Pony) has its moments, but not enough of them. Canadian reviewers have compared their matched timbre vocals to performers such as the Righteous Brothers, the Walker Brothers, and Simon and Garfunkel, but that's overly charitable as they lack the soul of the first, the grit of the second, or the poetry of the last. The lineup of which they most remind me is Ireland's Snow Patrol, though as a duo they can't replicate the contrasts and textures that makes it anodyne vocals sting as well as soothe. "Faraway Car Rides" is typical in that drifts toward a lullaby mood in which vocals and tune wash over us like a perfumed breeze. The effect is hypnotic, but also indistinctive. The most appealing track on the album by far is "Bernie." Insofar as I know, it has nothing to do with Bernie Sanders, but it's enigmatic enough that one could infer it as homage. More to the point, it's a slice of sunshine pop that, in my view, most flatters the duo. Maybe these guys ought to watch some Wham! videos.     

Rob Weir


Political Thoughts for November

November is election month in the United States–a good time to do some political musing. Here are a few random thoughts.

Canadian-style election results happen in the United States.

17 US presidents got less than 50%
Many Americans are baffled by the recent Canadian elections. Justin Trudeau's election as prime minister is being called a "rout" in Canada, which perplexes Americans who read that he got just a shade over 39% of the vote. Part of the answer lays with Canadian election laws in which the party's fate—the one that wins electoral districts ("ridings")-- determines the prime minister. I get that people unfamiliar with parliamentary democracy would be confused by that. What I don't get is where Americans obtained the weird idea that the U.S. president obtains a "majority." More than 1/3 of all U.S. presidents have taken office with a plurality, not a majority.

Citizens did not vote for presidents until 1824, which means Yanks have gone to the polls 48 times since then. In seventeen cases (35.4%), the winner got less than 50% of the popular vote. Want to guess who took office with the lowest percentage  of votes? That would be John Quincy Adams (30.9%) in 1824, but that's hardly a fair gauge given how few eligible voters there were back then. It might surprise to learn that Abraham Lincoln is second on the list; he got just 39.8% of the vote, about what Trudeau got in Canada. (Bill Clinton is third with 43% in 1992.)

Nor do Americans have much authority for pondering the oddities of other electoral systems. We, after all, have that archaic institution called the Electoral College. In five elections (1824, 1876, 1884, 1888, 2000) the Electoral College has anointed president a candidate who "lost" the popular vote.

Is the Tea Party the Republican version of the Dixiecrats?

The Republican Party is in utter chaos, even if Paul Ryan wrings concessions that allow him to become Speaker of the House. The GOP is being held hostage by the forces of reaction and unreason. The Tea Party isn't the party majority, but it's large enough to force feed its agenda. An analogy can be made to Dixiecrats that disrupted the Democratic Party from 1948 into 1980, but the GOP's problem might be bigger still.

The Dixiecrats were a one-trick pony trotting behind a cardboard sulky labeled states' rights; it was really an entrenched group of racist Southern Democrats opposed to civil rights. Dixiecrats fielded formal candidates twice—Strom Thurmond in 1948 and George Wallace in 1968–but it's unclear they affected either election. By 1980, they had abandoned the Democratic Party and joined the GOP, where their Southern suburbanite heirs are one component of the Tea Party. If they were only one, the GOP problem would be less acute.

Ted Cruz: an independent for president?
The Tea Party also includes anti-tax fanatics, Second Amendment zealots, anti-choice advocates, theocrats, pseudo-libertarians, nativists, anti-regulation business pirates, and scores of paranoiacs, conspiracy nuts, climate change deniers, Creationists, Biblical literalists, and those with the IQ of garden vegetables. The coalition cannot win on its own, but neither can the GOP ignore it. Fanaticism makes it hard for the GOP to win the White House and even harder to govern should it win. Yes, I'm talking to you Donald Trump.

It's very conceivable that the next president will win but a plurality of the 2016 vote. It's likely that some of the current GOP pretenders will launch independent campaigns when they don't get the nomination. Rand Paul might go that route and I wouldn't put it past loose cannons such as Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina either; they're not in government, so such a run would only increase their name recognition. I really find it likely that one or more Tea Partiers will declare themselves Keeper of the True Faith and launch a bid: Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, or Ted Cruz—especially Cruz.

If GOP strategists could think beyond the bottom line for Wall Street's next quarter—a very big if—it would be a good idea to concede 2016 by running an independent mainstream Republican (Jindal? Rubio?) to sabotage the Tea Party and chase them from the party. I don't think that would happen, but the chaos makes it possible that someone like Bernie Sanders could win the White House, if he nabs the Democratic nomination.

Netanyahu has his facts scrambled, but he's not wrong!

Netanyahu: Bad history but good sociology?
I have had it up to my eyeteeth with bleeding heart critiques of Israel. The latest is the brouhaha about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's stupid remark that Hitler didn't want to kill Jews and that Palestinians talked him into it. Those details are simply false, but he's not incorrect that Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Husseini supported the Holocaust. Nor is he wrong to think that prevailing Palestinian sentiment is to wipe Jews from the face of planet. Would Hamas make the kind of remark Netanyahu attributed to al-Husseini? It does—every day. It also does more than advocate the extermination of Jews.

Is there no accountability whatsoever for Muslim anti-Semitism? Look, folks, it's this simple: there will no peace in the Middle East until Israel's right to exist is affirmed. None. Nada. Zilch. Nor will there be any substantive movement on land for peace, relaxing border security, or dismantling West Bank settlements.

Where's the outrage over Palestinian terrorism? As long as that continues, there will be more deaths, such as that of Ahmad Manasra. Shouldn't we ask how a 13-year-old became so hateful? Or why the troops who shot him did so without hesitation? Don't tell me that 13-year-old Mansara developed a sophisticated political analysis involving the use of guerilla tactics against occupiers, or that the Israeli soldiers are born killers.

Anti-Semitism breeds violence–on both sides. It creates patterns in which intemperate individuals sacrifice human dignity and their children rather than making peace. Netanyahu is the angriest Israeli prime minister since Ariel Sharon, but he's right about the intentions of anti-Semites. Nor is he inherently more evil than Hamas head Khaled Marshal, who is the de facto head of Palestine, not that empty suit President Mahmoud Abbas. (Of what is he president, actually? There is no such nation as Palestine and you can kiss that goodbye too until anti-Semitism abates.) Until Muslims can embrace Jews (and Christians as well) as brothers and sisters in faith rather than infidels, Netanyahu's remarks stand as bad history but good sociology.

Is the United Nations a noble failure?

Time for condo conversion?
It would seem so. Related to my remarks on Netanyahu, anyone who has followed the U.N. lately will have observed that it's little more than a bully pulpit for denouncing both Israel and the United States. Both have their share of things for which they should answer, but it's not commensurate with the amount of vitriol spent.

More to the point, there's simply no way the United States gets $500 million worth of dues value from the United Nations. How did the U.N. help Rwanda? What has it done to resolve kidnapping in Nigeria? What good has it done for Ukraine? Why has it made so much noise over Assad in Syria and so little over ISIS? When was the last time anyone other than the U.S. called attention to the plight of Muslim women?

I'd not like to see the US abandon UN international development, health, and human rights programs, nor do I support the recent suspension of UNESCO payments. We might, however, have to admit that as a peacekeeping organization it's not any better than the post-World War One League of Nations. I'd not mind seeing a huge chunk of US annual dues yanked away and diverted to anti-poverty programs inside the United States.   

Hooray for Germany!

Its decision to dismantle nuclear power plants and replace them with renewable energy sources is, simply, the moral thing to do. It might hurt in the economic short-term, but it will pay huge environmental and economic dividends in the future.      

Check out the new National Geographic. The cover is of earth from outer space. Emblazoned across the photo is a poignant message: "Cool it." We need many more Germanys. We need to say no to the nonsense of "clean coal." We also need non-transferable carbon taxes, mandated mileage increases, and a raft of other immediate reforms. Now.