Alba's Edge Finds Connections between Celtic, Latin, and Jazz

Run to Fly
* * *

Celtic music fans certainly know the name Aidan O'Rourke. His latest project, though, found him twiddling dials in the studio rather than rosining up his bow. He has produced Alba's Edge, a young band that explores the connections between Celtic music, jazz, and Latin music. Please emphasize the word connections. Far too many contemporary mash-up efforts are force-fits instead of retrofits. A listen to Run to Fly finds Alba's Edge looking for logical affinity, not simply engaging in cultural splicing for the sheer sake of novelty. While I wouldn't say that every track works, I give these youngsters high marks for thoughtfulness.

Siblings Lilly and Neil Pearlman, she a Celtic-style fiddler and he a jazz pianist, anchor the quartet. They grew up in a Maine household filled with Cape Breton, Scottish, Brazilian, and Cuban music. The Pearlmans generally drive each composition, but solid cross rhythms from percussionist Jacob Cole and the versatile bass lines of Doug Berns texture the music. Don't expect cheesy cha-cha-chas appended to jigs. Alba's Edge sets the tone on the first track, "Rising," which strikes an ambient mood with its cascades of piano notes. In fact, quite a few tracks evoke high-end New Age jazz. This is certainly true of "Willard State Park," in which Neil Pearlman's keyboarding is reminiscent of that of jazz legend Vince Guaraldi, who was known for his work on Peanuts TV specials. "Willard State Park" has similar joyous piano runs, but the overlay with backswing fiddle produces a more complex result.

We don't really notice overt Latin influences until track four, the title track, which opens forlorn and foreboding, but is lightened by soft fiddle notes and keyboard chording that eases the piece into a swaying, playful bridge that allows the band to shift into a joyous higher gear. "General Jinjur/NOLA Chili" is also an interesting mix. It has decided Latin cross beats and Brazilian jazz piano running through, but the bass lines evoke some of Robby Krieger's work with The Doors, especially on Morrison Hotel. Another solid effort is "Summer Scraps," a giddy little tune that will make you grab your dance shoes. There's also a nice cover of "The Diamond," a famed whaling song popularized by Ewan MacColl. The deliberately scratchy fiddle on this one exudes bluegrass influence.

To my ear there are a few missteps. "HRK: Strength in Recovery" could use more structure and seems more like a forum for cool riffs than a cohesive piece. Ditto "The Sordid Life of Scientists," which has slices of soca, gypsy fiddling, and Latin cool jazz, but a helter-skelter binding that comes apart in places. But as I hope comes across, these folks are serious and skillful musicians. Even their not-quite-realized pieces are interesting ideas. Rob Weir


Hear My Sad Story--The History Behind the Songs

Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales That Inspired Stagolee, John Henry, and Other Traditional American Folksongs. By Richard Polenberg. Cornell University Press, 2015.

A version of this review originally ran on nepca.wordpress.com 

In 1966 Phil Ochs remarked, “Before the days of television and mass media, the folksinger was a traveling newspaper spreading tales through music…. Every newspaper headline is a potential song.” Long before and after Ochs' remark, commentators have applied the term "musical newspapers" in reference to folk songs. Call it all the news that's fit to sing. For every folk song that springs from a writer’s fertile imagination, there is at least one that’s inspired by real events and commemorated in ballads, broadsides, song-poems, slogans, and twice-told tales. Those events are the subject of a new book by Cornell history professor emeritus Richard Polenberg, who adds a twist: the way in which folk songs “improve” upon reality and help construct legends that may or may not be close to what actually happened.

Legends are not the same as myths; they occupy a middle position on a scale with verifiable history at one pole and belief-based mythology at the other. Often, legends become so well known that a work such as Polenberg’s is necessary to replant tales in factual soil. Polenberg begins with the news—the actual Lee Shelton (“Stack Lee”), Naomi (“Omie”) Wise, Morris Slater (“Railroad Bill”), and other such characters—and links what history says of them to the songs and legends they inspired. Sometimes they match pretty well, like Vernon Dalhart’s famed “Wreck of the Old 97,” which some scholars call the first true country music recording; other times great liberties are taken­—some of the musical tales about John Hardy, for instance, could be viewed as singing with an expired poetic license. But whether the songs hew close to the truth or spin yarns of gossamer-fragile veracity, Ochs was ultimately right: those songs became traveling newspapers. They’re more than songs; they helped write history as it is perceived, whether it actually happened that way or not. In short, music is part of how legends emerge, spread, and ingrain themselves in American culture.

Hear My Sad Song consists of twenty-one mini narratives that focus on individuals, four that deal with occupations (cotton mill workers, chain gangs, miners, and New Orleans prostitutes), and two that probe disasters (the Titanic and the boll weevil infestation of the 1920s). Folk songs share an affinity with the tabloid press in the sense that neither can resist a good murder, hence sixteen of Polenberg’s chapters deal with sensational homicide cases, sanguinary rogues, and those who may or may not have been killers (such as Joe Hill and Sacco and Vanzetti). Polenberg bookends his twenty-seven chapters with a prologue and epilogue featuring cowboy poet/songwriter Frank Maynard (“The Dying Cowboy”) as foil.

Polenberg loves folk music, but this is primarily a work of history and legends. If you do the math, you can infer that he has bitten off quite a lot for 304 pages. Each chapter is self-contained, hence Hear My Sad Story is actually a series of short stories (8 to 11 pages each) loosely held together by his musings on Maynard. It’s the kind of book that’s best read one tale at a time, preferably with a soundtrack cued. The short chapters tend to be heavy on names, investigations, and court proceedings, with music appearing as annotation rather than discussed in great depth. The book could benefit from both pruning and lengthening. There is a stylistic and organizational disconnection between his discussions of individuals and those dealing with occupational groups and disasters. Excising a few chapters would have provided more space to tell stories in more leisurely detail, a tact that would improve the book’s flow by sharpening narratives and lessening the need for chronicling. Although most of this book is illuminating, there are other things that could be cut. We don’t know, for instance, if “House of the Rising Sun” had anything at all to do with New Orleans’ Storyville red light district, thus Polenberg’s chapter, though fascinating, tells us nothing about the song. On a personal note, I’m more skeptical of Joe Hill’s innocence than Polenberg, yet way more convinced of the validity of Scott Nelson’s research into the "real" John Henry.

Book critiques have a way, though, of reflecting a reviewer’s biases just as the actual book reflects those of the author. If you’re a longtime folk music fan, you probably already know the stories behind the Tom Dula/Dooley and the Casey Jones legends. It's important, though, to imagine readers for whom the history/music/legend nexus is a recent revelation. Polenberg’s book is fine reading on its own, but it may prove invaluable for undergraduates. Check back with me; I’ll be test-driving it in my spring seminar on American folk legends.

Rob Weir



Anomalisa is Dreck Pretending to be Art

Directed by Charlie Kauffman and Duke Johnson
Paramount, 90minutes, R (Language and graphic cartoon sex, really!)

It would unfair to call Anomalisa a bad film. Stronger terms are needed: animated atrocity, digital dreck, feculent film…. Or maybe we should use a line from The Goodbye Girl: "capital P, capital U, capital TRID."

I have adored past Charlie Kaufman efforts, even to the point of declaring his 2008 Synecdoche, New York a certified masterpiece, but Anomalisa is a one-trick pony whose singular subterfuge is stretched to 90 minutes. It feels much, much longer–as if you are plopped into a theater seat and told to stare into the sky until the sun supernovas. Here's the trick: Kauffman and 35-year-old-not-ready-for-prime-time co-director Duke Johnson use stop action technology on three live actors (David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan) and then animate them. The characters move in jerky, floppy, puppet-like ways, and their faces have scored parts like hinged puppets. That's because they are, in fact, puppets. Right away a problem emerges: Kauffman is paying homage to himself! Remember Being John Malkovich (1999)?

This is the first of numerous plagiarisms, none of which are a patch on the originals. The thin set up is that self-help customer service guru Michael Stone (Thewlis) flies to Cincinnati to give a conference keynote speech. Within five minutes we see his problem: he's incredibly lonely and perceives himself as the world's only unique being–the rest of the world literally looks like a male or androgynous female version of Tom Noonan and speaks in his voice. Add existential dread to Stone's list of worries, one compounded by a failure to rekindle a long-extinguished flame with former girlfriend Bella. Michael is a severely depressed individual, but neither he nor we are entirely sure what he is: a puppet in a cosmic game, an android in a universe of androids, insane…. Or, cliché of clichés, maybe it's all just a bad dream. Then he meets Lisa Hesselman (Leigh), a clumsy, half-bright, starry-eyed conference attendee with slight facial trauma. She's the only one other than Michael who looks and talks uniquely.  After an evening of–and this is very hard to watch without being creeped out­–rather graphic puppet sex, Michael wonders if maybe Lisa is his ticket out of whatever nightmare he's locked into.

Here's a partial list of sources from which Kauffman and Johnson either borrow or steal: Blade Runner, Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, Ex Machina, Star Trek, I, Robot, Logorama, and nearly every other film Kauffman has ever made. Is Stone the only sentient being in the universe? Hello, Dwayne Hoover from Vonnegut. Is he an android who wants to feel something? Shake hands with Mr. Data. Is he afraid that he too is a 'droid? You know, like Deckard in Blade Runner. Has the world become so generic that nostrums and consumer goods are the most real thing left? Logorama dealt with that question in a tidy 16 minutes. To quote Vonnegut, so it goes….  The only thing original about this dud is the surface technology and a few reoccurring jokes about Cincinnati. It's too thin—visual interest wears off in about ten minutes and the humor isn't funny enough to sustain us through the remaining 80. Anomalisa is, in turns, sad without being affecting, affected without being sad, pathetic without being sympathetic, and occasionally funny in the service of nothing. As for its ideas, Kauffman and Johnson could have put everything important on a Post-It note.

This movie has won some awards at film festivals and is up for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, but only one who isn't inoculated against buzz, puffery, and surfaces without depth could be impressed. I don't care how many awards this one gets—it's the turkey of the year. Don't get me started as on whether it's a biological or robotic turkey–Blade Runner covered that turf as well.
Rob Weir