New and Upcoming Releases: McNary, Dillingham, Phillips, Bridges, Freakwater

Those looking for material for a tragic novel could do worse than borrow from the biography of Tim McNary: raised in a cheerless Chicago evangelical home, a bout of homelessness, two band breakups, depression, and the theft of his van and all of his equipment…. At the very least you could get some good country music out of that. And he has—his forthcoming EP Above the Trees resulted from a move to Nashville and catharsis with guitar and pen. His voice has been compared to that of Damien Rice and that's a pretty good analogy in that both are capable of high-level drama and low-level pain. The vocals also evoke Richard Shindell's mix of reedy and guttural tones. My favorite track is "The Other Man," a song about the proverbial third wheel in a doomed triad: You've got another man… and I don't give a damn/I'm the one loving you now. Now if that's not a country song, I don't know what is. In style, though, McNary is more on the acoustic end of things, with flights into theatrical and robust arrangements. The EP releases April 8, but you can sample tracks now at Noisetrade.

All I can tell you about Dillingham is that it's an acoustic rock band based in Charlottesville, Virginia. The lead singer, Tucker MacDonald, sounds as if he might be English. Apparently the entire for-sale output is three tracks available for download. I liked all three. "Chicago" has the sad feel of a man pouring out his sorrows at a 2 am café as an accordion squeezes out the pain. "Night Run" is a different thing altogether—a metronome-like beat, some acoustic guitar playing over it, and vocals on, in-between, and behind the beat. The lyrics aren't really the point; it's more like being washed in sound. "Ships" features very strong vocals from a very fine singer, whoever he might be. Go to your favorite download site, sample these, and see if one makes you want to shell out a buck. It's worth it. Now enough with the mystery. Who are these folks?

I haven't heard the whole thing yet, but I'm hopeful that the new release from Grant-Lee Phillips titled The Narrows will return him to the promise of the early 1990s, when he toured with (and as) Grant Lee Buffalo and caught to praiseful notice of Michael Stipe (R.E.M.). His more recent solo work has been good, but lacks variety. At his best, his high tones are reminiscent of Neil Young with some of the rawness smoothed out, but an overabundance of slow-paced material borders on the laconic. But "Smoke and Sparks" from the new record lives up to its title. The circular strumming of the guitar is robust and his Young-like voice is dotted with colors and mannerisms that are like Springsteen in a country mode. I'm hopeful there will more of this.  

Speaking of Young, an outfit calling itself Bridges is actually Athens, Georgia-based Alex Young and some sidekicks. Their debut EP Bridges has a sort of Dave Matthews vibe to both Young's voice and the way in which songs begin one way and veer off in other directions. Bridges are a bit grittier, though. A favored technique, which we hear on the song "Young," is to open slow and mournful then segue to some crunchy power chords. This song has a bit of rock opera drama to it—as does "Stand Up, Fall Down"–but others spin differently. "No Ordinary Night" is a Van Morrison-like song with its jazzy horns and soulful grooves, yet the punfully named "Saxy" uses the same horns to deliver the power jazz/progressive rock of bands like Jon Hiseman's Colosseum. And then there's the heavy metal-meets-country "Departure (Yours)," whose very title lets us know a happy ending is unlikely. This one is another pay-what-you-wantdownload and its five tracks are well worth a few bucks.

The Louisville-based band Freakwater has been around since 1989 and I still can't figure out what I think about them. They have a nice recording titled Scheherazade (Bloodstone Records) that will either be your cup of tea or send you running for a beer. The first thing you need to know about this band is that they specialize in dissonance. The harmonies between Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin are, depending upon your point of view, raw, twangy mountain at their unfiltered and honest best; or Emmylou Harris on a dead drunk. I sampled "The Asp and theAlbatross," which has fine backing electric instrumentation, and the backwoodsy "Number One with a Bullet," a dark song done as if it were a two-step. Each has its appeal as alt.country living up to its label. There aren't many bands with such unusual vocals, so you can be excused if you think Freakwater is best imbibed in small sips, not big gulps. They're worth a taste test, though.

Rob Weir


Black Panthers Documentary (all too) Relevant for Today

Directed by Stanley Nelson, Jr.
PBS Distribution, 115 minutes, Unrated.
 * * **

If you’ve not yet seen this powerful documentary on the Black Panthers, see it ASAP. If you wonder why you’d want to take a trip—and not always a pleasant one—back in time, Google “Black Lives Matter” and you’ll have your answer.

Director Stanley Nelson, Jr. isn’t always entirely on the level, but his film is remarkably balanced in showing both the attractions and weaknesses of the Black Panthers from a black point of view. This alone is a revelation. As one old enough to recall, it often seemed that whites had one of two views of the Black Panther Party (BPP): romantic or fearful; that is, those who glorified the BPP and thought everything it did was justified, and those who agreed with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that they were terrorists. Nelson shows them as more complex and he—through former Panther William Calhoun—reminds us of their “youthful vigor.” Like many 1960s social activists, youthful Panthers were a sometimes volatile mix of idealism, impatience, insight, and naiveté. It also had what Kathleen Cleaver called the “swagger” of youth. Several commentators remarked upon the seductive coolness of Panthers in their shades, leather jackets, and defiance. To fearful whites they were a raised fist to the face of propriety and comfort—and that was the point! The BPP actually formed first in Alabama, but it was in the streets of 1966 Oakland where it took off. As Calhoun observed, there was no difference between how African Americans were treated in Alabama vis-à-vis Oakland. The BPP was originally called the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, and those automatic weapons they carried were there because they had, for too long, been gunned down by racist cops for reasons roughly as good as those that led to Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012, or Eric Garner’s in 2014.

Nelson mines archival video and crosscuts it with recent interviews, talking heads analysis, and voice-overs. He has some superb footage, like Bobby Seale on a talk show cohosted by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, old Soul Train episodes, and Ronald Reagan at his tough-cowboy worst. Numerous movement figures discuss their involvement in the organization and why they joined. The only reenactments are those involving FBI head J. Edgar Hoover (Stu Richel) and that’s because Hoover’s role was crucial in defining and declawing the BPP. Hoover was singularly obsessed with preventing the rise of a “Black Messiah” and the sight of Panthers ringing the California legislature carrying automatic weapons firmed his resolve to crush them. (It also led the National Rifle Association to call for strict gun control laws!) Huey Newton was railroaded on a manslaughter charge in 1968; though public pressure forced his release, he was ultimately too volatile to be that messiah. Ditto Eldridge Cleaver, who escaped prosecution by fleeing to Algeria. Bobby Seale had his own legal woes, and Stokely Carmichael was never a good fit. Soon, Hoover’s COINTELPRO spy network exacerbated the rift between Newton and Cleaver, which split the BPP into irreconcilable factions, one that wanted to emphasize revolution and the other community service. First, though, the most-promising messiah, Fred Hampton, had to go, a task accomplished when Chicago police and the FBI executed him in 1969. One of the more potent messages from the documentary is that the BPP, for all its revolutionary rhetoric, contained more victims than rebels. As was the case for most groups on Hoover’s watch list, civil liberties and legal niceties seldom stood in the way of eliminating “subversives.”

Does Nelson romanticize the Panthers? Though he’s no doe-eyed worshipper, the objective answer is yes. He assiduously avoids discussing the fact that many of its leaders were doctrinaire communists, or that the BPP did, on occasion, precipitate violence rather than simply react to it. He argues that the Panthers were not anti-white, but ignores lots of (admittedly heated) rhetoric that took that tone. In a related vein, the BPP’s relationship to the broader New Left is not developed. Perhaps most glaring is his gloss of BPP sexism. Let’s just say that women got a more respectful airing in this film than most got in BPP meetings, and that you’d never guess that Elaine Brown, who chaired the Panthers from 1974-77, was one of the biggest critics of Panther sexism.

If Nelson sugarcoats a bit, he doesn’t shy from BPP weaknesses such as the cults of personality it fostered, the egoism of Newton and Cleaver, and the very idea that Panthers could win an armed struggle against the federal government. For the most part, Nelson serves up a first-rate history lesson. The BPP did not accomplish a revolution, but remember that Nelson called it a “vanguard.” Black Lives Matter, Martin, Garner, and others remind us that history’s final chapter is yet to be written.

Rob Weir

Postscript: The NRA’s response to armed Black Panthers shielded by the Second Amendment spawned an idea for the gun control movement: give every illegal immigrant a firearm!  


Goodbye Blue: March Album of the Month

Worth the Wait
Wondermore Records/Noisetrade
* * * *

This album is everything I generally dislike: wall-to-wall wholesomeness, family values, and parents singing about their children. Mind, I've nothing against kids—but I nearly always find songs about parenthood embarrassing in their sentimentality. So why do I suddenly adore an entire album of this stuff?

Let's start with the obvious: the talent of the couple featured, the husband-wife team of Charlotte Kendrick and Dan Rowe, she a Pawling, NY native, University of Vermont grad, and Peace Corps vet; and he a multi-instrumentalist, veteran of the Northeast music scene, and a producer of indie label records. Okay—good values. Now let's go deeper. Ms. Kendrick doesn't just have a nice voice—it's one that stops you in your tracks and makes you ask, "Who is that?" Her vocals are often compared to Patty Griffin, but Lori McKenna is a better choice.

Kendrick and Rowe have three kids and the last one is the reason why the album is christened Worth the Wait; it was almost eight years between Kendrick's I Get Stupid and the new record. The album evokes Lori McKenna in the way in which family comes first and music second. Appropriately, it opens with the sunny "Another One on the Way," rendered in soft country folk style and oozing family values, but not in a mawkish or romantic way. One of the album's many joys is that Kendrick and Rowe simply embrace their choices and move on: There’s no question we’ve got ourselves a handful/So little time for us/But we’re never given more than we can handle/We’ve got this babe, another one on the way. There's nothing preachy about them and no sugarcoating what it takes to get by. On "Complicated," Kendrick sings, Nothing's simple as it seems/We both have our dreams/And we know nothing worth having comes easily/But, oh, it's complicated/Oh, it's complicated. Check out also the up-tempo, bluegrassy "By Firelight," which might be destined to become an ode to exhausted moms everywhere—a veritable litany of the ways in which kids and duties can drive a person to the point where, …you’re hiding in your basement/‘Cause you can no longer take it/Watching Youtube on your phone/ You should be folding clothes/Prepping dinner, wiping a nose/But all you need is one small minute alone.

Call this an Americana album that's both sweet and refreshingly honest. There's some folk, some bluegrass, a touch of hoedown, and the vibe of the title track is that of an anticipatory "Circle Game" update. But, like Ms. McKenna, not a peep of complaint from Kendrick—just that voice that makes you ask again, "Who is that?" and shames curmudgeons like me.  Rob Weir