Shakey Graves, Steve Forbert, Peach Kings, Darlingside, David Ramirez

Is Shakey Graves a great name for a country singer or what? The Austin-bred Graves was actually born Alejandro Rose-Garcia, but the stage handle fits like a glove. Check out his most recent release, And the War Came (Dualtone Music). These days about the only difference between country music and rock is the twang, but Graves further obliterates that blurry line. There are a surprising number of stylistic shifts on the record. "Pansy Waltz" unfolds with clipped vocals akin to a poetry slam tempo; "Only Son" has the dreamy sonic feel of acid folk; and "Perfect Parts" has a buzzy grunge vibe. Some singers are smooth with hard edges, but Graves is the opposite. His voice is robust and husky, yet capable of delicacy when the mood strikes—which is only occasionally. Most of the songs on this album are about doomed relationships and pain, but of the variety tempered by passion, hope, and a refusal to let set-backs turn into beat-me-downs. The morning after in "Hard Wired," for instance, reveals a doomed relationship in full light: Well you are as you came/Mostly blessin' cocaine/Just a match begging for fire, but it was still a helluva night! In keeping with the themes of attract/retreat, many of the songs are duets with Esme Patterson, whose lovely voice provides grace to Graves' grit. When you hear lines like, Well, I've never seen life as a chore/Or a treasure to find/I've read the news, abused the booze/And often wondered why you are hearing what country music does best: offering a velvet fist. Take a listen and you'll know why the mayor of Austin once declared a Shakey Graves Day.  {Noted: The link on "Perfect Parts" is acoustic, not electric.}

Steve Forbert is a certified road warrior that lots of people remember for his 1980 hit "Romeo." That one was something of a fluke; Forbert writes a lot of songs with solid hooks, but he isn't really a pop charts kind of guy. His voice is too unusual for the gleam and generic sparkle of Top 40­–too much smoke, quaver, and growly bottom, especially now that he's turned 60. His new record, Compromised (Rock Ridge Music) is his 16th studio release to go along with a passel of compilations and website-only recordings. Despite the title, most of the songs are about change as a natural life progression rather than something with which one must settle. The record reunites Forbert with John Simon, who produced his second record back in 1979. It also places Forbert at the front of a band, which allows for bigger arrangements. "Big Comeuppance" has very cool brassy blues horn from Kami Lyle that makes the song reminiscent of Dr. John back when he tempered his jazz-soaked offerings with accessible pop hooks. Another winner is "Rollin Home to Someone You Love," whose memorable bass lines perfectly supplement the song's working-class feel. Joey Spampinato's bass also anchors "Devil (Here She Comes)," a classic tale of moving deliberately toward the Siren's flame knowing full well that you're going to get scorched. This is a fine release from Forbert, with a few reservations. The wear and tear on his voice is starting to show, so don't expect it to be 1980 all over again. On a more substantive note, three of the songs are labeled as "Americana" versions of earlier tracks. Forbert's version of Americana is mainly to slow the bass and tempo, which I found more gimmicky than effective. That's also what I thought of the speeded up cover of "Send in the Clowns," and Forbert's thinly veiled appropriation of the hook from The Who's "Baba Riley" on "Whatever Man."

The Peach Kings are the LA-Based duo of Paige Wood and Steven Dies. Their most recent release, Mojo Thunder (Mophonics), is probably illegal in the Bible Belt. It's a heavy breathing rock and roll EP that blends Wood's sultry voice with Dies' hard-edged guitar. The half-sung/half-spoken word "Hold On" is like Barry White on acid and the title track uses a surf guitar meets swamp rock arrangement to front vocals such as Fell you coming on harder now sugar/Puttin' on your push/Push…. Somehow I don't think Wood is singing about her partner's brilliant defense of Schopenhauer's critique of Kant's view of the noumenal. Sexy, dark, and slightly ominous—think dashes of the Velvet Underground and P.J. Harvey.  

Darlingside has just released a new CD titled Birds Say (!KZ Records) that demonstrates the quartet's evolution from a group of Williams College students messing with folk, rock, and bluegrass into one featuring a complex interweaving of melodic, ambient, and transcendent sounds. Check out "The Ancestor," which invokes the drenched sounds quality of a band such as Snow Patrol. Its gorgeous harmonies and tight instrumentation make it sound at once sunny and enigmatic.

Austin singer/songwriter David Ramirez has a new release, Fables (Sweetworld), which is great news. By his own admission, Ramirez smacked into writers' block after his 2013 EP The Rooster. "Rock and a Hard Place," a featured video from Fables is reason enough for cheer. Ramirez tends not to be fancy—just thoughtful songs, solid guitar, and a soulful voice that exudes an honesty embedded in simplicity.

Rob Weir


Blythe Danner and Alice Hoffman Let Me Down!

Here are  reviews of a film and a book that let me down. Sigh!

Directed by Brett Haley
Bleeker Street Films, 92 minutes, PG-13

I'm a huge Blythe Danner fan. I think she's a way better actress than her more famous daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow, and in her youth she was more attractive. I was excited to see what sort of role she would play now that she's 72 (and still striking). Alas, there's very little that's as embarrassing as presenting elderly people as if they are twenty-somethings with wrinkles, which is what is done in I'll See You in My Dreams.  It centers on Carol Petersen (Danner), who has been widowed for twenty years and is bored out of her mind in sunny California. Her BFFs—Georgina (June Squibb), Sally (Rhea Perlman), and Rona (Mary Kay Place)—try to convince her to leave her house and move to their retirement community, but she can't imagine being in such a place. The death of her beloved dog, Hazel, is the tipping point. Something—anything—has to happen. She's so desperate that she even goes to a karaoke bar with Lloyd (Martin Starr) the young, lost guy who cleans her pool, where she dazzles patrons by reviving her youthful past as a singer. Will this be a December-April romance? There are creepy suggestions that might happen, but she begins a new relationship with a man her own age, Bill (the always delightful Sam Elliott). No spoilers here, but I will say that it doesn't go where you might expect.

The film is tagged with the line "life can begin at any age," but that's as deceptive as the film's vague title. Elliott and Banner have real chemistry together and Danner also has a few poignant scenes with her daughter Kath (Malin Akerman). These prevent the film from being a total train wreck, but more cars are derailed than remain on track. There are scenes of smoking pot, snide cougar jokes, a cringe-worthy speed dating setup, and giggly pleas to kiss-and-tell. I detest films that infantilize older people by treating them like post-menopausal teens, and this one gets added to that list. Not even Ms. Danner can redeem such offensive material.

By Alice Hoffman
Simon & Schuster, 369 pages, #145169393591

I'm also a fan of Alice Hoffman's novels. By all indications, I should have loved this one. Its subject matter is a fictionalized look at Rachel Pomie, the mother of my very favorite Impressionist painter: Camille Pissaro. Rachel had a very unorthodox life, the early part of which reminded me of a Judy Collins song with the line, "My father always promised me/That we would live in France/We'd go boating by the Seine/And I would learn to dance." Rachel was born and raised on the Danish West Antilles island of St. Thomas—now one of the US Virgin Islands––and her Jewish merchant father indulged her dream to one day go to Paris. Life, as they say, had other plans. Her father's financial troubles led her to become the wife of Isaac Petit, a much older widower, while she was still in her early twenties. The marriage came with three young children and in the six years before Isaac died, Rachel bore three children of her own. She was a widow with six children under her care by the time she was 29!

The novel delves into marriages of convenience and passion, as her next connection was a lusty one to Isaac's nephew, Frédéric Manzano. Many islanders viewed the relationship as scandalous, but she bore four more children, the next to last of which was Camille. Toss in island experiences such as having a mixed race best friend and claiming Jewish European heritage (though she was probably Creole and her own children, including Camille, were forced to attend all-black schools) in a land full of dark-skinned descendants of slaves, and you have the elements of high drama.

Alas, I found Hoffman's treatment so dull that I managed to read just a third of the book before giving up. Hoffman's usual magical prose disappears in passages that are prosaically descriptive rather than illuminating. Perhaps the pace quickens when Rachel takes up with Frédéric but I bailed around page 120. The Marriage of Opposites has been compared to the works of Gabriel García Marquez, but from where I sit, such praise is badly misplaced.  But hey, not every Camille Pissaro painting was a masterpiece.

Rob Weir


Liberals Face Unpleasant Choices on Terrorism Question

Exactly the sort of idiotic thinking that can elect Trump!
Remember the Rolling Stones line: You can't always get what you want? Liberals face the possibility of inadvertently electing a Republican president in 2016 through out-of-touch thinking on terrorism. The GOP has called for a “lockout” on Syrian refugees in the light of the bloody terrorist attack on Paris and information that some of the planners slipped into Europe by posing as humanitarian refugees. The French and the Russians have declared war on ISIS. A call for a broader international coalition against Muslim jihadists is sure to follow. These things will happen and liberals really have just two choices: formulate viable (and realistic) alternative policy, or enjoy irrelevance as the world passes them by.

It goes by a German name, folks: realpolitik–that which is deemed practical and realistic (in power and material terms). It is often the antonym of idealistic. Principles are rooted in idealism, actions in realpolitik. I hear all the liberal concerns: nervousness over religious profiling, fear that harsh actions will breed terrorists, the need for the equivalent of a Marshall Plan for developing nations, and suspicion that Western policies are largely to blame for terrorism. Better go easy on the last of these; nothing justifies the slaughter of innocents and such a pitch abrogates the moral high ground. The other three principled concerns need to be aired, but not today and probably not until retribution runs its course.

Here’s the reality: today's cries for restraint are analogous to those in the days following 9/11. In political terms it is simply inconceivable for France not to retaliate for its 130 terror victims, or for Russia simply to mourn the 219 who died in October when ISIS planted a bomb on a plane. Retribution is happening now and will continue. Democrats need to get on board with this and they'd better articulate plans for better screening of refugees instead of foisting them upon unwilling states. It doesn't matter if liberals don't like it. Check out the numbers: 56% of the American public finds Islam "at odds" with American values, 67% of the working-class feels that way, 40% of Americans think Muslims want to impose Sharia law on America, and almost no one is comfortable with accepting Syrian refugees. Ignore this data and it becomes thinkable we will sing "Hail to the Chief" to Donald Trump in January of 2017.

Liberals need to do some soul-searching on the question of when they became such knee-jerk softies and defeatists. Dialogue is the preferred option for mediating disputes, but a minimum requirement is that that both sides must be willing to talk. NPR, the New York Times, and President Obama have all argued persuasively that ISIS and other jihadist groups are "death cults," not negotiating teams. If they are correct, dialogue is off the table. There is a strain of oft-aired thought that claims the war on terror cannot be won. Really? I wonder what the world would be like now if the Western world had taken a similar position on fascism. We should not confuse what makes us uncomfortable with what cannot be done. 

There may a case to be made for isolation over war, but let's see the plans and let's be willing to make some hard choices–those grounded in realpolitik rather than abstractions. A good start would be a moratorium on bad analogies. Those on the left have been quick to make comparisons between today's close-the-borders call and past hysteria toward European immigrants, Jews, and Asians. I understand the reluctance to profile, but let's get some history straight. What made acts such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1924 National Origins Act, Japanese internment, Jewish quotas, and current fear over Latino immigration–yes, lots of egg on GOP faces too­–such miscarriages of justice is that they were directed against those who did no and posed no harm. This is categorically not the case when applied to radical jihadists. Have we forgotten Lockerbie, 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, and the beheading of Daniel Pearl and at least five other Americans? The website Fusion tells us that homegrown terrorists have killed more Americans than jihadists since 9/11, but is anyone feeling good about that narrow 28 to 26 victory? More to the point, do you think voters are keeping score?  Want to make liberals seem like total jerks? Mock those who fear Muslim terrorists. Do you think voters haven't heard about shopping mall bombings in Kenya, bombings in Beirut, hotel slaughters in Mali, and travel bans to Belgium? Take this tack and it's you who plays the Fool.

Here's another vote-loser: blame-the-West. Whatever the root causes of terrorism might be, it's at best an eye-for-an-eye response and attempts to excuse it are morally repugnant. In plain terms, it's hard to cast victimizers as victims. Each year thousands die at the hands of jihadists, a global perspective that needs to be considered. In a world of 1.6 billion Muslims those thousands might seem a small number, and the argument that other religious fanatics have blood on their hands is certainly true. Tell that to voters who recognize groups such as these: al-Qaeda, al-Shabaad, Abu Sayyaf, Boko Haram, Fatah-al-Intifada, Hamas, Harkat-il-Jihad-Islami, Hezbollah, ISIS, Islamic Jihad, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Jamaat-ul-Mujahedeen, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Taliban. And this is the short list! 

Everyone should welcome a frank discussion on the root causes of all terrorism–once the death cults are neutralized. The first discussion, though, is what role the United States will play in neutralization. Look at pictures from the Paris bombings and the above list again. Now ask how hard it will be to use fear of another 9/11 for political gain. You can make any argument you wish about how marginal these groups are vis-à-vis the world’s Muslim population and be correct, but ask also if the globe would be better if the above list were shorter. Until it is, a lot of people will worry about Muslim immigrants and calling them bigots isn't going to make them feel more charitable.

I do not welcome the war on Islamic terrorism, but it’s coming. The only real question is whether you want the commander-in-chief to be a right-wing Crusader or someone (at least slightly) more rational. There is no third option.