New Releases for August 2017

I recently devoted a column to female musicians, so it's only fair that to give equal time to the gentlemen and rogues of the road.

My favorite in this batch is Cold Answer, an EP from Matthew Perryman Jones. The Pennsylvania-born, Georgia-raised, Nashville-based Perryman has been recording since 2000, and this EP is a distillation of a 2015 full-length album. His best tracks evoke the smart, pensive songs of Richard Shindell.  When Jones sings of "Wrestling Tigers," it's self-analysis and the dangerous beast inner self-destructiveness. The title track is melodic and lush, but its look at a dead relation cuts deeply: Remember saying all the places we'd go/Once we've found the road to take us there/But we spend too much time waiting by the window/And ended up not going anywhere. I don't know much about his personal life, but songs like "Can't Get It Right, and "I'm Sorry" certainly suggest he has hit a few potholes here and there. But don't expect self-pity or apology. There is a repeating line from his you-can-do-better leaving song "I Can't Go Back Now" that runs, This is not what I planned. Jones' combination of raw emotions, lovely tunes, and sensitive voice linger and haunt long after you've taken out your ear buds.   ★★★★

The Adam Ezra Group is a six-person lineup from Boston that has been recording since 2003. Hurricane Wind, their 7th album, airs out a repertoire that's on the rock end of the folk rock scale. Ezra anchors the band with vocals that are simultaneously growly in tone but smooth in transition. Sometimes, as in the song "The Toast" with its parting song feel, the AEG sounds like an Irish folk rock band biding us goodnight.  By contrast, here's a countrified boot rock kick to "Steal Your Daughter" and a pop/party shimmer to "You Speak Girl." One of my favorite tracks is "Let Your HairDown," an affecting take on seizing the moment when boy-meets-girl and sparks ignite a fire that might not last the night. The AEG is superb at doing little things well—a splash of piano, rapid-fire couplets, or just a quirky line that's just right: You're sweet like a melon/sly like a felon/and I've been watchin' you dance all night. John Oates guests on the last track—a good match of talents that are not quite pop, folk, or rock but something of all three.★★★ ½ 
adam_ezra @adamezra

Drew Holcomb has just released a new CD titled Souvenir. To promote it he has released a previous record, Medicine, on Noisetrade, for whom he is its first artist in residence. Souvenir continues the musical journey of an artist who manages to remind us of old favorites without being derivative of any of them. On the new record, "Fight For Love" has a post-1975 Bob Dylan feel, yet "Postcard Memories" and "Mama's Sunshine, Daddy's Rain" evoke the wry commentary and stripped down instrumentation of John Prine. Overall, Holcomb and his band often draw comparisons to The Jayhawks. The pay-as-you-wish Noisetrade release of Medicine includes Holcomb standards such as the country/folk/Appalachian blend "American Beauty," the funky, LA rock with a secular gospel choir "Sisters and Brothers," and the instantly relatable "Ain't Nobody Got it Easy." My favorite is "Shine LikeLightning," which is just great rock n' roll—the kind someone like Springsteen might sweat his way through. ★★★★
Waldemar is the professional persona of Wisconsin-based Gabe Larson. His EP Visions has been described as "painting with sound." If it has a genre, it 's experimental rock, but that's hardly adequate for Larson's pastiche of electronics, piano, ambient vocals, trombone, guitar, and percussion. Visions is challenging—perhaps more of an artistic statement than concert music. Give a listen. You'll know pretty quickly whether you wish to imbibe further or if it's simply not your cup of tea. ★★ ½

There's a standing joke about the dearth of happy songs in folk music. That helps explain why so many artists draw upon the pen of Jesse Terry and why they want to record with him. Terry writes sunny, pop-infused folk that will remind graybeards of the light-voiced, optimistic Emitt Rhodes. Terry has just released a new LP, Stargazer, and has followed Holcomb's lead in bundling a few tracks with back catalogue material for those seeking to discover his music. The title track of the new record was inspired by his boyhood devotion to the Electric Light Orchestra. Dar Williams joins him on a song with a drift-across-the-night-sky feel. He rocks out a bit more on "Runaway Town," but the mood is like a more upbeat Roy Orbison. Finally, there is "Kaleidoscope" (with Sarah Darling), which is introspective and so atmospheric that it skirts lullaby terrain. These three are bundled with five other songs on Natural. Each track features a guest artist. I particularly enjoyed the Paul Simon-like "Mr. Blue Sky" with Liz Longley, and "Carry" with Kim Richey. You might long for a tad more diversity from Terry, but it's hard to quarrel with optimism. ★★★ ½    [Note: Williams and Richey are not on the YouTube clips]

"Sunny" isn't an adjective routinely applied to Justin Townes Earle and Kids in the Street won't alter that. That's not to say that it's a downer, but it is shot through with C&W heartache. "There Go a Fool" is the kind of tale Willie Nelson would tell—a guy who's been around the block enough times to suspect that tonight's date won't end well. "Faded Valentine" also lays on the pathos, though in the deliciously retro fashion of an old country weepy. From the content of "Maybe a Moment" it sounds as if Earle knows a few less savory Memphis streets. This one is acoustic, but sung in a soulful syllable-packed manner reminiscent of Van Morrison. For something more cheerful, try "Champagne Corolla," with its big horns, rolling arrangement, and N'awlins flavoring. Who can resist a pretty lady on the open road? ★★★

Are you a Greg Brown fan? Peter Mulvey is another artist in the same growly Midwestern acoustic folk blues style. Eleven Ways of Looking at Peter Mulvey is a good introduction to good introduction to his music. Fellow songwriters tend to admire the emotive concision of Mulvey's songs. "Are You Listening?" exemplifies this. It's a deliberately shaky-voiced song about being dumped with repeated and simple lines—Are you telling me you got a new life?—that capture that endless loop of despair that comes from being dumped. On the other end of the spectrum is the caffeinated splatter of words in "The Other Mornin Over Coffee." Mulvey's "Song for Michael Brown" has gotten attention and (alas!) its politics remain relevant. The fiddle texture of this one is evocative of Civil War era music, frighteningly appropriate for what he has to say about dangerous angry white men. Mulvey also dabbles in poetry and this collection has two spoken word tracks. I confess that I prefer songs with stronger melody, hence my favorites from Eleven Ways are "Shirt" and "Kids in the Square."  ★★★



The United States of America: 1776-2017?

"We the people of the United States…." How familiar the opening words of the Constitution. But it was all a dream. This is not a love letter; it is an obituary. Maybe it's premature, but, as in the case of famous people, it's on file awaiting the coroner's certification of the official time of death.

The United States of America experienced a difficult birth in 1776, when the Declaration of Independence heralded the arrival of a sickly child. It was conceived in myth and survived against long odds, but it never thrived or grew to maturity. It was always a loner—never a "we," not even in its rebellious years against its British parents when a third of its colonial citizens remained loyalists and another third stood neutral. The cause of rebellion was never noble—colonists paid far lower taxes than their British cousins and, though they were sometimes punished, they were never held to standards not expected of their peers. Tom Jefferson knew he was writing propaganda, so (with help from his peers, the well-heeled), he laid it on thickly and eloquently.

So did Madison. "We the people" did not mean the masses—whom Madison and most of his fellow Founders held in fearful contempt—nor did he mean the distaff side of anyone's family. He certainly did not mean Indians, slaves, free people of color, or unsavory non-English immigrants like the Irish. Small wonder that just 73 years after Madison's words were ratified, the republic was rent asunder by civil war, a bloody reminder that many wished the nation to remain the fiefdom of white men of means and the lackeys they tricked into maintaining their estates. For a short time, it looked as if elites might relinquish their robes, but the collapse of Reconstruction, the advent of Social Darwinism, triumph in the labor wars, periodic "red" scares, Jim Crow, domestic ideology, and time-tested applications of divide-and-conquer patched the holes and righted the throne. The Great White Fist ruled supreme.

There have been moments in which the crown tottered—Lincoln, New Deal, the temporary victory over fascism, civil rights, and liberation movements—but in the end, the Fist has always leveled its golden hammer. Now the Fist is shaky and the United States has entered its sclerotic old age. What will the history's death certificate list as the cause of death?

But America is a mighty nation, you protest. If that's the case, why must it become great "again," as its Madman in Chief insists? Sorry, but great nations do not arm lunatics and allow them to parade down public streets, or turn their backs when daily they aim guns at school children, movie attendees, shoppers, co-workers, and neighbors. Great nations do not elect gropers to lead them, don't entrust their future to pirates, or treat their women like ten-dollar whores. Great nations do not look away from the raging fires of environmental Armageddon or demonize their intellectuals. They do not sacrifice science and reason upon altars of blind faith or superstition, surrender the greater good to the greed of Croesus, or hold profits in higher regard than prophets. They do not allow paramilitary cops to slaughter its citizenry.  A great nation does not see the world in monochromatic white.

Matters such as these are deemed "ideological" or "political" only in lands where Jeremiah wails in the Wilderness to the deaf while demagogues, monsters, and madmen shake their fists from ahigh and laugh. They do not notice the Reaper behind the curtain. 


Ian McGuire's Whaling Novel Thrills and Chills

By Ian McGuire
Henry, Holy & Company, 255 pages.
Ian McGuire @ReadingsBooks #northwater 

Pirates are usually the poster children for the reprobate life, but the view that comes through in British writer Ian McGuire's realist novel is that 19th century whalers make those scurvy dogs look like choirboys. His is a corrective to popular views of whaling that fall into one of two stereotypes, the romantic and the honorably tragic. If you ever visit the informative New Bedford Whaling Museum or step aboard Mystic Seaport's Charles W. Morgan, you'll learn a lot about whaling and its hardships, but the overall impression is that of intrepid lords of the foam commanding crews of ship-born industrial workers during the golden age of sail. The tragic view comes closer to the mark. Chapels called Seamen's Bethels were a standard feature of fishing and whaling towns—places where considerably more memorial services than christenings took place. One estimate holds that as many as 20,000 whalers died at sea before the turn of the 20th century.

Tragedy is tragedy, but we often stereotype it as well. Think of exaggerated paintings of saw-toothed whales chewing up hapless sailors, or of crews being led to their doom by mad captains like Herman Melville's Ahab. Ian McGuire has a different take on why a whaler's life was often short and brutish: many of them were brutes. Many who 'read' Moby Dick skim or skip didactic chapters to get at the more thrilling material. But if you take the time to delve into the chapter titled "The Try-Works," you'll quickly learn that it took a taste for blood, filth, violence, and stink to stomach (literally) a whaler's life. In The North Water, Cetacean hunters fall into two categories: the ones with something to hide and those so far beyond the margins that they know longer bother with social pretenses.

The novel is set in 1859, a time in which whaling is on its last fins—a victim of over-harvesting and obsolescence occasioned by cheaper coal gas and petroleum. When Captain Arthur Barlowe agrees to skipper The Volunteer, he does so with the foreknowledge that it may well be its last voyage. As it is, he's headed for the Canadian Arctic pretty late in the season as that's where, if anywhere, sperm whales can be taken (as well as seals, foxes, and polar bears). In the waning days of the trade, recruitment was even more from the fetid bottom of the barrel. Barlowe's crew consists mostly of poverty-stricken Shetland islanders and dodgy characters scrounged from English ports of call. The curiosity is greenhorn ship surgeon, Patrick Sumner, who formerly served with the British army in India. What could possibly motivate such a learned man to give up the warmth of the South Asian sun for the gray waters of the North Atlantic and the ice of the Arctic? The rest are a rank (physically and morally) collection of drunkards, drug-addled fools, buggerers, thieves, cutthroats, and those with more crabs in their groins than teeth in their heads.

On such a ship, Otto, the German Swedenborgian fatalist, passes for normal. Everyone seems to have an agenda: Sumner, Barlowe, ship owner Jacob Baxter, First Mate Michael Cavendish, amoral harpooner Henry Drax…. The problem is, none of the agendas match. McGuire's yarn is a good one, though it's decidedly not for the squeamish. Cruelty toward animals and one's fellow man are staples of The North Water; treachery, double cross, roguery, and degradation are subthemes. McGuire's description of the Arctic chills in various ways. He skillfully weaves many strands, develops complex characters, dabbles in foreshadowing, and brings matters to a satisfying conclusion without being as wordy as, well, Herman Melville. Nor does he sacrifice drama or intrigue for the sake of economy. In fact, in places The North Water is evocative of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, if I can be forgiven for substituting the barren Arctic for the lush Congo. By the time you've finished McGuire, you will have marooned all romantic notions of whaling on a Baffin Islands ice sheet.

Rob Weir


Queen A Katwe a Light, Joyous Diversion


Directed by Mira Nair
Disney Studios, 124 minutes, PG.

Director Mira Nair is best known to American audiences for Mississippi Masala (1991) and Monsoon Wedding (2001). Her forte lies in presenting people of color in a positive light and in underscoring cultural misunderstanding. This time she turns her attention to Africa. She has joked that Queen of Katwe is the first Disney film made on that continent that doesn't star a singing animal.

It is a feel-good movie set in an unlikely place: the Katwe slums of Kampala, Uganda. Katwe is a desperate place where those lucky enough can rent a makeshift plywood and tin hovel, which is where 10-year-old Phiona lives with her widowed mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o), her infant brother, and her take-a-walk-on- the-wild-side older sister Night (Taryn Kyaze). There's not much hope for Katwe kids; they are the sort that must hawk goods in traffic each day to help put food in the cooking pot.

Phinoa's life takes a detour when she (Madina Nalwanga) spies Robert Katendi (David Oyelowe), a missionary school recreational director, teaching kids how to play chess. He invites her to come into the school, though she smells so bad that even younger slum kids scorn her. But not for long, as Phiona soon masters chess in ways that are intuitively brilliant. Dare she, or the peers who come to admire her, dream of life outside of Katwe? There are several touching scenes in which the Katwe children journey to posh places and are literally overwhelmed by what they see. Should such children even consider going beyond their station in life? Of what good is a chess champion in the slums?

One might assume that, from a direct standpoint, Nair's challenge would be to make chess visually exciting. That's actually not as hard as it sounds. In United States, baseball, boxing, and horse racing are the sports most often presented on film– probably because they lend themselves the best to dramatic 'moments' on which the outcome rests. So too for chess, which has been the subject of dozens of very successful films, quite a few of which spotlight how it helps those from disadvantaged backgrounds experience moments of glory. That's partly true, because it seems that topnotch chess players are often born rather than trained. (Some sports for harder to depict on film. Have you ever seen a film featuring tennis, golf, or basketball that looks realistic?)

Queen of Katwe is based on a true story and is indeed a feel-good flick. Is a path- breaking filmmaking? In all honesty, it could have been a made-for-TV film, which is how most people will see it: as a download on the small screen. That's fine, as there is nothing here that a large screen would enhance. It's also okay that this film deceptively elides time, is loaded with clich├ęs, and sports all-too-convenient triumphs in situations that would have been more dire in actual context. The film is well acted especially by Ms. Nyong'o (who won an Oscar in 12 Years a Slave). She plays well beyond her thirty-four years and is totally convincingly as a fierce protective mother of three. As always, David Oyelowe (Selma, The Butler, The Last King of Scotland) is superb, and Ms. Nalwanga is simply infectiously charming.  

Sometimes you just want to feel-good movie. As Disney films go, this one is pretty good. And there are no singing animals—though there is a soundtrack that features pop stars such as Alicia Keyes, P-Square, and Radio and Weasel.

Rob Weir