Alex Dezen: Album of the Month

Alex Dezen
Rock Ridge Music
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The best album I heard in the month of January doesn't officially release until February 12–a self-titled solo affair from Alex Dezen, the lead singer of Brooklyn's The Damnwells. Among the many things I admire about Dezen's solo venture is that he made me like the kind of album that generally annoys me: a let-me-tell-you-about-me collection. An entire album of these usually makes me want to scream, "Dude! Get over yourself; you're not that interesting." It's to Dezen's credit that his self-disclosures feel bigger than that.

Call it the voice of experience; he has already gotten into the heads of others by penning songs for the likes of Justin Bieber, Kelly Clarkson, The Dixie Chicks, Matt Hines, and the Pilobolus dance troupe. His news songs, though, are cut from non-pop cloth. You know you're in for personal stuff when a release kicks off with "Ode to Ex-Girlfriends." It's typical of the album's ten tracks in that Dezen writes in a long prose form that is heavy on narrative and short on poetry. (A lot of the lyrics don't even rhyme, let alone conform to meter or couplets.) It's also typical in that much of the material deals with relationships, usually of the doomed variety. A track titled "If You Can Say 'I Love You' on a Greeting Card, How Can it Be True?" is wordy, but poignant–the tale of a failed marriage. Boiled to its basics it's the classic cycle of abuse: violence/apology, promises/lies, guilt/betrayal, and children caught in the middle. Appropriately, Dezen puts down his acoustic guitar for an electric, as if symbolically allowing tragedy to spark and fritz. Speaking of guitars, "The Last Song I'll Ever Write (on this Guitar)" is a love song to an old D-35 Martin he was forced to sell. "Into the Hands of Hazelden" explores a different kind of regret: Dezen's musing over a college friendship and musical collaboration that fell apart in early adulthood. "I Don't Want to be Alone When I Die" suggests he's not had the best of luck in love.

The last of the above finds Dezen at the piano and in Seth-Glier-like sotto voice. He duplicates this effect on "Leonardo," in which he cleverly catalogs a doomed romance—himself presumably in the tragic male lead–by metaphorically casting his beloved as a 19th century woman like Kate Winslet in Titanic waiting to be swept away by a suave Leonardo Di Caprio: "He was cool, so cool/Like a Dylan/So brave and confident/And I was a short Jewish kid/with long hair and green tint…" But again, Dezen adjusts his musical vibes to the mood of his songs, including an angry dance club throb to "A Little Less Like Hell," in which he refuses to fall in line with self-congratulatory victory parades like the one after Osama bin Laden's death. Instead he notes: "But what I'll never understand is why/Regardless of how hard we try/We need someone on the cross/Just to make up for the things we lost." He sings it with the kind of leave-nothing-behind abandonment of Ellis Paul. "Elephant" is filled with lots of Millennial references, and sung like it might be a Paul Simon song, though the tune was inspired by the mix of structure and looseness of The Beatles' "Blackbird."

I'd be the first to admit that there are lyrical and musical misfires on the album and hints of self-absorption. But there are enough gems on this recording to make it very worth your while. Check out www.alexdezen.com in mid-February and see what you think.

Rob Weir  


Video Review: Circumstance an Idea Only Partially Realized

Directed by Maryam Keshavarz
Participant Media, 107 minutes, Unrated (sexuality), Farsi with subtitles
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This film from Iranian-American writer/director Maryam Keshavarz made a splash at Sundance back in 2011, but almost nowhere else. Lately it’s gotten a bit of new life courtesy of a DVD re-release. It's probably worth a rental, but it's at best a worthy idea only partially realized.

Circumstance could be called a film about song in a land that has abolished singing. Atafeh Hakimi (Nikohi Boosheri) dreams of becoming a belly dancing chanteuse, not exactly a sanctioned path in an Iran ruled by cheerless post-revolutionary mullahs. Atafeh has other issues as well. Her fate is inextricably linked with that of her orphaned BFF Shireen (Sarah Kazemy). They are typical teens filled with typical teen hormonal surges, desire to experiment, and urges to go wild. One person’s typical is another’s taboo, and virtually everything the two wish to try—listen to hip hop, smoke, dub porno films into Farsi, make out with boys, and make out with each other–is dangerously verboten.

Circumstance is ultimately a film about the gap between freedom and what a small cadre thinks the supernatural demands of them—right down to the point of foisting their values upon others. It’s also about how easy it is to be drawn to absolutism and intolerance and what it’s like to live in a society whose public norms are shrinking. Who can one trust under such conditions? We watch Atafeh’s brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) transform himself from a druggie loser to an increasingly pious young man, but is that a good thing or not? Can Atafeh and Shireen trust him? And what happens if one makes a teenaged mistake in an oppressive society? Even worse, what if one simply cannot tolerate life amidst repression? Can even a hero of the revolution like Hakimi paterfamilias Firouz (Sohei Parsa) protect family members?

We see two Irans on the screen—the one like exists officially and publicly, and the one that exists in the shadows—in private homes, subterranean clubs, and inside outlawed affinity groups. Keshavarz has dared hope that underground copies of her film will make their way into Iran and he aired in that shadow world. Perhaps they will, though I wished it had been a better film that would justify the risks involved in viewing such a film.

I found Circumstance to be too disjointed. Big ideas are waved and dropped more than probed, which makes it ultimately a character study about two teens trying to circumnavigate sharia law. That’s fine, but such a film demands a tighter narrative structure than Keshavarz’s episodic scattershot approach. It also entails tamping down sexual voyeurism that titillates without illuminating, and it requires believable evil, not cardboard cutout bad guys. For Keshavarz, Circumstance was a labor of love and politics, but one too obviously so. I came away fascinated, but convinced that what was needed was a more detached script treatment from a different writer. It’s not a bad film, but it’s not a patch on what it could/should have been.
Whatever it was that ignited interest at Sundance eludes me and seems to have eluded others as well, as the film hasn't caught fire on video either. I admire Ms. Keshavarz’s bravery and values, but good politics just isn’t the same as good filmmaking. Her film is a classic tweener—too good to be a bad film, but not good enough to be a great one. 

Rob Weir


Andrew Greig's Poetic Non-Fiction

Andrew Greig
Querus Non-fiction, 324 pages
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I'm about to start Andrew Greig's new novel, but one of his older books, The Green Corrie, inspired musings best phrased as "Whither Non-Fiction?"

As a historian I read lots of non-fiction books. Alas, too many must be labeled occupational hazards. I used to joke that many academics couldn't write "This End Up" on a box and make themselves understood, but now I think the joke is on me because it's more true than I ever imagined. The non-academic world is only marginally better. Non-fiction comes mostly in three forms these days: biography, memoir, and social problem exposés. Some biographies are quite good, but many writers suffer from Robert Caro Disease and can't sift relevant from mere detail, or tell a story in under a thousand pages. For every great memoir there seems to be a dozen penned by people who are legends only in their own mind–especially musicians! Books that probe sociological conundrums, political issues, and challenges economic, social, and cultural tend to have a very short shelf life, even when they are well written. Journalists are generally best at making this type of book readable, but we consume them more to be informed than for the sheer joy of reading. Where are the non-fiction books that make us marvel over the prose, provoke our imaginations, or contemplate our natures? Where, in short, are other books like At the Loch of the Green Corrie?

Green Corrie stands out because it's autobiographical, yet self-effacing; reflective in ways that invite us to probe rather than listen to homilies; and poetic both literally and figuratively. It's short, yet it's also a travelogue, a history and geology lesson, and a meditation upon friendship. It dips into everything from mountain climbing and fishing to questions of land ownership, a sense of self, lessons learned from the departed, and the meaning of life. All of this unfurls from the slimmest of premises: Greig set off with two friends to find, then fish, a remote mountain lake in Assynt, a region in the far north of Scotland. Why? Because Greig's departed mentor, poet Norman MacCaig, spoke fondly of it and Greig hoped to discover more of MacCaig's spirit and nature there. MacCaig's poetry appears throughout, as does some of Greig's own verse.  

No review can do justice to this book, so let me simply offer a few samples that give a sense of the glories of the book's prose and profundities.

On remembering the departed: Our days are numbered and we still don't know what that number is. So let us not sift through the dead who grow more numerous every year. Let the book of homage remain unwritten and unread. Yet there are places and times on this Earth when the ground as it were grows thin, and the dead rise of themselves. Gone days, dead parents, lost friends, old loves, rise round us as an escort, an entourage, to provoke, counsel and console. As we drive, or lie with a book at the day's end, we may glimpse them at the edge of vision. They must be spoken with, if we are to remain honest.

On over-learning about things intrinsically sublime: Sometimes the more you know, the less you see. What you encounter is your knowledge, not the thing itself.

On seeking to be mindful of the now and geologic Deep Time: I ambled back down to the car and drove off into the rest of the day, floating on Deep Time. I sometimes think only the unfolding present moment and Deep Time are good for us, and better not to mess with mister inbetween. As with the bifocal lenses I tried last year – the close-up and the long distance are true, while the middle distance is fuzzy and befuddled. Unfortunately that is where we live most of the time.

On the inevitability of change: World rolls on. This lochan is still here, maybe a degree warmer, though none of the water can be the same as last time we were here. A loch is essentially a bath with the tap running and the plug out. We are not so different. Let me not stand here and deplore. We are in danger of doing what we swore we never would when we were young, saying that the world is all changing for the worse. Dangerous, doomed and horrendous, or beautiful, mysterious and magnificent beyond reason– one's take on the world says more about oneself than the world. Let me not end up ringing my hands over all who have gone. They in their time were doubtless thought not a patch on their predecessors. The past is a bourach*. Let's pay homage, cut off the useful hooks and tie them to a fresh cast.

I could pull out dozens of poignant quotes like this–phrases that induce wonder, melancholy, and lucidity. The beauty with which Greig wields the English language is a hatchet to the argument that today's 140-character world can be called "communication." Not a chapter flew by without slowing my mind and forcing me to think upon the whys behind a world full of whats. Read any Andrew Greig book upon which you can put your hands.  

Rob Weir

* Bourach (boor-ack) is a Scots dialect word that means a muddled mess. It's also a hill, but an untidy one.