Dark Matter a Smart, Engaging Multidemensional Novel

Blake Crouch
Crown Publishers, 352 pp.
* * * *

We all make choices in life. Dr. Jason Dessen was a brilliant young physicist working on cutting-edge quantum mechanics. Daniela Vargas was a rising star in Chicago's art world. They met, fell in love, and bore fruit: a son named Charlie, who became their top priority. Move the clock forward fifteen years. Jason is teaching undergrad physics at Lakemont College, a run-of-the-diploma-mill school, and Dani only fiddles with art. Both watch as those with far less intellect and talent pass them by. Jason's former classmate, Ryan Holder, has just won the prestigious Pavia Prize for work on the multiverse that Jason pioneered; Dani has seen friends make splashes where she could have raised waves. Do they have regrets? Of course they do, but only a few. They made their choices and are comfortable with the smaller world they built. They'd do it again the same way–in this universe, at least.

 But what if another Jason in another universe cracked the code for moving from one parallel universe to another? And what if that Jason got sick of his big world and decided to downsize by pulling a switcheroo with the Jason of this universe? If that sounds far-fetched, hold that thought. Author Blake Crouch has not constructed his novel from premises confined to crackpot sci-fi. Among quantum theorists, luminaries such as Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene, Leonard Susskind, and Neil deGrasse Tyson are among those who think that science suggests the strong possibility that parallel universes exist in dimensions beyond the one we perceive. Perhaps the multiverse is highly speculative, but it's not crazy to imagine it. How many parallel universes? Perhaps an infinite number.

Crouch constructs a fascinating crime/romance/drama that's equal parts Star Trek, Run Lola Run, and Lassie Come Home. He works from the premise that parallel universes are synchronous, but subject to the butterfly effect–each altered choice sets off a cascade of variant results. (See the film Run Lola Run for a brilliant look at how a single change leads to radically different outcomes.) Translation: You probably wouldn't want to open doors in which your parallel selves reside. There might be untold numbers of you–some unspeakably sad or awful, but also some so familiar that they might be able to pass as you.

Dark Matter is a journey and chase across dimensions via procedures that are partly controllable, but also highly random and/or subjective. Crouch describes the multiverse as a never-ending corridor with an infinite numbers of doors that could be opened, but only a finite opportunity of picking the correct portal. This is fascinating stuff and the descriptions of alt.Chicago alone make the book worth reading. Truth be told, the novel is often more intelligent than literary, and Crouch is certainly open to charges of sentimentality and contrivance. Nonetheless, I loved this book because it induced, if you will, a quantum leap in how I imagined the characters and, indeed, myself. What would I be like in other dimensions? The mind boggles! I ripped through this book at the speed of sight.  Rob Weir


Ten Strings and a Goat Skin/Paul McKenna Band: New Releases

When pressed to point out my favorite new Celtic band, I aim my finger north toward Canada, specifically toward Prince Edward Island (PEI), the home base of Ten Strings and a Goat Skin (TSGS for short). The music of PEI is a pastiche in the very best sense of that term. It's sort of Scottish, faintly Acadian, kind of Quèbeçois, has hints of Irish, and throws in occasional Breton cadences, but remains distinctly itself. TSGS's newest CD, its second, is titled Après du Poêle, which delightfully translates "Around the Woodstove," a reference to it warm accessibility. The trio–Jesse Périard (guitar) and brothers Caleb (bodhrán, feet, box drum, etc.) and Rowen (fiddle, guitar, lead vocals) Gallant–have a wonderful sense of both place and pace.

What's your pleasure? Do you like a Celtic tune that chases its own tail? Check out the first half of "The Ukranian Expedition" before it breaks into a full-bore rush across the field. How about what the Quèbeçois call "crooked tunes?" The opening of "Shoot theMoon" comes off as wistful, then messes with the beats and becomes deliciously off-center and, yes, a tad spacey. Pace changes are TSGS staple, but they prefer the subtle boiled-frog approach to tempo change. "Igen" begins as a spirited fiddle-led tune that built so slowly like I conjured swifts riding air currents and deftly weaving patterns in the air. Before I was even aware it had happened, the music got faster and the patterns tighter. But instead of jumping into the Celtic version of a full-tilt boogie, TSGS backed off to a lilting bridge, set a new theme and repeated the same slow-build formula. Then there's "Lament for Buckles," the first half of which evokes a languid John Hartford float-down-the-Mississippi tune, but whose second half is a rushing Gulf of St. Lawrence tide.

Do you prefer vocals? How about some spirited French songs with tight harmonies? "Maluron Lurette" would be at home in Québec's Saguenay region. Or how about some turlutte (rhythmic nonsense fillers like di-di-dee) singing in the title track? Prefer things a bit quieter? Try "Maudit Anglais." TSGS is bilingual, though, so there are English language songs as well. Several of these are laments to loss. TSGS cover of "Coal not Dole" unfolds atop droned instrumentation that gives it the feel of an Ewan MacColl song.* And the lads get positively nostalgic on "The Town," a song that links the passing of family farms to the loss of community vitality. This superb album was produced by Leonard Podolok, who also produces Canada's folk rock sensation The Duhks. Appropriately, the two bands join force to close out the record on the quirky "Duhk Duhk Goat." Après du Poêle deserves to be at or near the top of everyone's best Celtic records of the year.

And so does Paths that Wind (Alba) by Scotland's Paul McKenna Band. McKenna has one of the most distinct voices in Celtic music, hence this record features it a bit more of it than the band's past recordings. It also highlights the band's more forceful political voice, including a superb cover of Peggy Seeger's clarion warning against fascism, "Song of Choice," which she penned in the early 1970s but seems terrifyingly relevant today. If lyrics like "Close your eyes, stop your ears/Close your moth and take it slow/Let others take the lead and you bring up the rear/And later you can say you didn't know" don't move you, you need to wake up and pay attention. The reedy-voiced McKenna takes a gentler approach on "He Fades Away," an Australian song about a young man watching his miner father slowly die from black lung disease; and he gives us a wee history lesson on "The Banks of Moy," which tells us a bit about Irish Land League leader Michael Davitt. And then there's "The Dream," McKenna's own reflections on the Freddie Gray murder in Baltimore.

None of this is to say that this is a polemical album. Other songs take up topics such as being road-weary ("Long Days") and, to prove he's not a dreary pessimistic, McKenna composed "One More Time," a veritable optimist's plea to keep plugging away. The band's musical anchor is flautist/tin whistle wizard Seán Gray, who composed and/or arranged several spirited instrumental sets. And because these guys are real pros, they know how to stack the music on a CD to vary moods. When I wrote a feature on this band for SingOut Magazine back in 2013 I ventured that it had gelled and hit its stride. That seems such an understatement now. 

Rob Weir

* Many people assume this song was written by the Watersons, but it's actually the work of Kay Sutcliffe, a Kent coal miner's wife, who wrote it in the 1980s in response to the closing of pits during Maggie Thatcher's reign of error/terror.     


JD Eicher/Ben Bedford/Gabe Dixon

Sounds Like:

This column is devoted to people who reminded me of someone else. Yes, I know: comparisons are odious. So you try to tell readers what a musician sounds like without resorting to analogies. Besides, I'm only doing what agents, publicists, and promoters do. Everything I get these days comes with a "For fans of…." tag. 

At the top of my list is JD Eicher, a Youngstown, Ohio, native that some people know for his work with The Goodnights. His new release, The Middle Distance (Rock Ridge) is a much more personal work. It took me a New York minute into "This Heart"—that's much shorter than an Ohio minute for the uninitiated–to think "Ellis Paul." Okay, Eicher doesn't perform with Paul's leave-every-drop-of-sweat-on-the-stage energy, but who does? But Eicher does live in the same counter-tenor range as Paul, complete with embellishments that can only be oxymoronically called "muscular whisper tones." Can you imagine Ellis singing this line: "There’s a song that’s still unheard/There’s a hope that still hangs on and never dies/There’s a bunch of able words/Tied up in a bunch of tangled lies/And there’s a broken man/Lost and trying to answer for his sins/And there are some folded hands/Begging for a way to start again" Yeah—me too. Eicher's arrangements are generally more lush and atmospheric than Paul's—a strength and, on occasion, a drawback when his light voice disappears into the aural haze. My personal affinity lies with more stripped down songs such as the tender "Lines in the Sky," and "Not Afraid," in which soupy sound is balanced with quiet places in which he delivers the message of moving through life boldly. Lots of us need to be reminded that relationships aren't easy and that staying in love demands working through the tough times, the sermon he delivers in "What We're Not." Speaking of sermons, whatever your beliefs you need to admire Eicher's "Man of Faith," in which he professes his own with no judgments and no apologies. Two other tracks to consider: "The Little Bit" has the rapid- fire lyrical cadences of a Paul Simon song, complete with a pop-soaked refrain; and the title track is a duet with himself, which he accomplishes through switching to falsetto. It's jarring at first, but it works.

Ben Bedford reminds me of Richard Shindell fused with the late Townes Van Zandt. His voice isn't like either of them, though he shares Shindell's dry tones and Van Zandt's penchant for minimalist arrangements that are more complex than they sound. Like Shindell, Bedford could be viewed as a guitar-bearing poet, philosopher, and sometime theologian. His latest album, The Pilot and the Flying Machine (Waterbug), is about journeys of all sorts: natural, spiritual, metaphorical…. Or at least that's my take. Bedford's poetic vision is deeply interior and enigmatic. I'm pretty sure, for instance, that "Blood on Missouri" lines such as "Feel the shock to the marrow/as your head hits the ground/see the sky through the shields and the smoke/while the wand crushes down" references the killing of Darren Wilson in Ferguson, though references to "the seeds that we've sown for 400 years" also hints of a Native American connection. The title track Part I uses aircraft metaphors, but it's really about a person chasing dreams he was told were impossible. Part II has a very different feel and I'm not certain what it's about. Old age? Feeling hollowed out? Contentment? Yep—things are like that on this album. How many musicians would have the courage to do a jazz/country mix on a song built around being bored on the road, an auto accident on a snowy Iowa night, and feeling like Lucifer from Twain's "Letters from the Earth?" Get the picture? Call this record "music for people with brains they want to use." Maybe you won't know what Bedford intends, but you'll understand that the man is trying to tell you something and your own imagination ignites as you contemplate what it might be. This is one of the smartest records I've heard this side of, well, Richard Shindell.  

Let's see, a man capable of hitting the high notes singing piano-accompanied pop, light rock, and vaguely country songs. Think Gabe Dixon might get a few Seth Glier comparisons? Well, at least those will put to rest the Billy Joel analogies he used to get when he fronted a quartet. In the latter ensemble, Dixon once played with Paul McCartney and often opened arena shows. Since 2010, though, Dixon has dealt a lighter hand as a solo artist. His latest effort, Turn to Gold (Solo Acoustic) (Rolling Ball Records) is a lovely introduction for those unfamiliar with his past oeuvre and the Glier comparison is apt. You hear those glissando slides on both keyboard and piano right out of the gate on "Holding Her Freedom." The only downside to this 12-track collection is that some of the arrangements are quite similar, but when Dixon gets funky on the black keys–as he does on both "Crave" and "That Redemption"–the soulful turns add needed depth. My personal favorite, though, is guitar-based and falls on the tender side of the ledger, "The OneThing I Did Right." It's a confessional from guy who knows he's not the gold medal catch: God knows I've been wrong a million times/You're the one thing I did right/I could do the wrong thing the rest of my life/You're the one thing I did right. That one got to me. Maybe I relate too well.

Rob Weir