Sam Gleaves and Tyler Hughes: September 2017 Album of the Month

Sam Gleaves and Tyler Hughes
Sam Gleaves and Tyler Hughes
Community Music

The unpretentious title of this album is also its dominant mood. This is Appalachian music featuring warm, inviting vocals and fancy pickin’ that never sounds like showing off. Sam Gleaves made a splash a while back with his admission that he’s gay and proud. That wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in much of the urban Northeast, but it was an act of courage in the backwoods part of Virginia from which he hails. Here’s the deal, though. A confessional such as his will get huzzahs from the LGBTQ community and its allies, but you still need to be good if you want applause from music fans. So get this in your head: he’s not just good, he makes mountain music the way it ought to be made. This record, a collaboration with a fellow Virginian, Tyler Hughes, is the sort you’ll dust off any time you feel like you need to get back in touch with things fundamental and time-honored. One listen to “Living with Memories” will remind you you’re hearing the real deal, not a bunch of studio enhancements. It’s an elemental sort of country weepy, but there's not a false note to be heard. It made me think back to the days in which music was supposed to connect on the personal level, not make you stare at the musicians like they were gods. Is it a bit corny? Sure, but it also invokes walking by a neighbor's house when he looks up and says, "Hey--want to hear an old song my grandfather used to play?"

Gleaves and Hughes are equally sublime on the delicate harmonies of the wholesome “When We Love,” the breakout solos and forays into the minor key of “Georgia Row,” and “Mister Rabbit,” an Appalachian children’s song popularized by Burl Ives that is rendered here in a more folkloristic style. Gleaves and Hughes also give us a pastoral remake of “I Can’t Sit Down” to make Sister Rosetta Tharpe smile from the Beyond. (I caint sit down/I caint sit down/Just got to heaven and I’ve got to walk around.] They give a spiritual twist to “I Washed My Face in the Morning Dew” and make “Lonesome Homesick Blues” sound like we tuned in the Wheeling Jamboree on Sunday afternoon. Two soothing high tenor voices and enough instruments to fill a music shop: guitar, fiddle, autoharp, mandolin, banjo, dulcimer…. These are songs and tunes that scurry and circle, slow down and crawl, give a swift kick and lift your soul to the clouds. It such fun that it’s easy to overlook just how accomplished it is. Call it honest, earnest music that will melt the stony heart of a flinty cynic.

Rob Weir


Scorces's Silence an Overlooked Masterpiece

SILENCE (2016)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Paramount, 161 minutes, R (violent images)

If I told you that a really long, slow, and frequently gruesome movie about 17th century Portuguese missionaries to Japan might be the best film you’ll see all year, would you believe me? You should.

Silence joins The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun to complete Martin Scorsese’s trilogy about faith, the need for tolerance, and the limits of the latter. It’s the movie he’s wanted to make his whole life, or at least since 1990, when he first tried to bring Shūsaku Endō’s novel to the screen. Scorsese, like many Roman Catholics in a secular age, has long struggled with church doctrines fashioned in the Middle Ages that make sweeping demands on believers, but are often rooted more in custom, archaic power structures, and the arcane reasoning of theological tribunals than in Biblical commands or the needs of followers. Scorsese also ponders deeper eschatological mysteries: life’s meaning, eternity, and the nature of God. He concludes that faith and reason are often incompatible lovers.

This is especially the case when it comes to God. One of the greatest conundrums is whether God hears our prayers. If so, why does it often seem as if we are alone in the universe? If you think about it, all organized religions are rooted in a monstrous conceit. Each poses an omnipotent, ineffable god yet insists that theirs is the only true deity—as if somehow they alone among finite beings comprehend the infinite.

In Silence, Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) add another layer of irony. Their self-claimed task is to smuggle themselves into Japan, minister to the scattered faithful, and find Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), one of the few priests not reported killed in the wake of the Shimbara Rebellion (1637-38), a revolt against Tokugawa shoguns widely (and conveniently) blamed on foreigners. So our two fathers leave Portugal, where the Inquisition remains in full force and non-Catholics meet fates similar to those suffered by Japanese Catholics! As they seek Father Ferreira, think a 17th century version of the search for Dr. Livingstone meets Heart of Darkness. They find small bands of faith-starved Christians, but also hair-curling persecutions: burnings, drownings, beheadings, and a few tortures not even Europeans had considered. Through it all, the question persists: Why is God silent?

Rodrigues and Garupe also meet a different kind of inquisitor, Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata). He’s like Torquemada meets Marcus Welby—calm, reasoned, and a strange blend of mercy and unspeakable cruelty. He’s quite willing to forgive those who apostatize by trampling on an image of Jesus—something the professed devout believer Mokichi (Shinya Tsukamoto) does repeatedly to save his neck—and then promptly begs priests for forgiveness. There is a scene between Rodrigues and Inoue that is at once a masterful parry of rhetoric thrusts and a portrait of chilling psychological terror. Again the big questions: What is the duty of the faithful? It is easy to despise Mokichi, a Japanese mash up of Judas and Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, but would you renounce your faith if by doing so you saved others? What if the cost of doing so meant that you and your flock would be forever lost? Would you save them, or bear the guilt that you let them perish? At what point does doubt overwhelm faith and fervor? How do you live with yourself if you turn your back on God? And what if God speaks in the silences, not during self-perceived acts of faith?

The film reaches surprising conclusions that, like Inoue’s demeanor, evolve with—mixed metaphor intended—explosive quietude. Silence is beautiful to watch and its locations (in Taiwan) are sumptuous and Zen-like. Garfield is wonderful as a devotee torn between desire to emulate Jesus and the fear he's not up to the task. Driver has a lesser role, but is also superb in his battle between reason and moral impulses of potentially disastrous consequence. Both are outdone by Tsukamoto and Ogata. Tsukamoto's Mokichi takes his place among Uriah Heap, Gollum, Francis Urquhart, and Peter Baelish as one of fiction's greatest obsequious, treacherous characters. For his part, Ogata stuns. Watch how he uses his seated body to collapse like a trapped toad, only to slowly inflate and assume a Yoda-like counselor's position. When he does this, he is about to puff again and mete out monstrous fates—all with a Mona Lisa smile upon wan lips. 

Does Scorsese solve the riddles of faith, tolerance, and the nature of God? Of course not, but you will never think of such issues the same way again. They will probably haunt you in your solitude.

Rob Weir



Richard Russo's Trajectory Hits the Target

By Richard Russo
Alfred A. Knopf, 243 pages.

Readers of this blog know that I am a big fan of author Richard Russo. They also know I am not a fan of short fiction. This raises the question of how I’d feel about a collection of short stories from Russo. Answer: Pretty good. Russo is such a gifted writer that I suspect he could generate interest if he penned the ingredients in haggis.

It certainly helps that the tales in Trajectory are closer to novellas than to conventional short stories. There are just four spread across 243 pages, which affords Russo more space for his characters to breathe and develop. But first, let’s muse on the title. The hardcover dust jacket sports a single archery target set against a wooded backdrop. The implication is that a well-drawn arrow fired toward the target will either land in or around the bull’s-eye, but that an errant shaft has a good chance of being lost in the forest. As any archer knows, the slightest quiver, twitch, or loss of focus alters the outcome. Sometimes, so does luck. These are precisely the scenarios played out in Trajectory. Complexity is layered into the narratives via protagonists who occupy a middle position between contrasting characters whose trajectories direct them toward success or failure.

“The Horseman” juxtaposes a smart but inhibited play-it-safe English professor between a student caught plagiarizing, family pressure, and a burnt-out colleague on one hand, and her imposing but misunderstood former mentor on the other. It is one of the better looks at academic insecurity I have ever read. To add a personal note, every professor I’ve ever respected has felt like a fraud at some point—and it’s a fear I certainly experienced.

“Voice” follows a different scholar to Venice, where he must confront a mistake, ageing, a resentful brother, a sad widower, and two enigmatic women. Is there a better place to explore feeling lost than labyrinthine Venice?

The sands of time also get a workout in the remaining stories. “Intervention” is set amidst the wreckage of the housing market collapse and manages to connect that debacle to deep family dynamics, sidetracked dreams, failed expectations, and successes that feel like failures. “Milton and Marcus” finds an unnamed writer torn between the thrill of the chase and his own grasp on reality when Hollywood courts him as a script doctor for a proposed blockbuster. He is appropriately anonymous as the writer is a bit player in a game he knows he can’t win: “It’s all bullshit and you know it, just as you know that in due course you’ll be fired, though probably not by the people flattering you now.” He’s also caught between the demands of a prima donna director and the memory of a deceased friend: an actor for whom he wrote the first treatment of the script in question a decade earlier. This one comes off as a cautionary allegory and serves as a devastating takedown of the vacuity, amorality, airbrushed mountebanks, and flea-like attention span of modern celebrity. But would you join the Big Dance of money, posturing, and positioning?

Many of the things that make Russo a great writer are on display in Trajectory: his poignancy, his facility with stripping emotions to their core and conveying them in ways that hit home, the manner in which he universalizes individual drama, and the skill with which he presents pathos and pulls back before it becomes bathos. There’s always a tinge of hope amidst the darkness in a Russo tale. Also humor, but of the nuanced kind that makes you chuckle just before you say, “Ouch!” Russo is like that—sort of like taking a stroll in a tranquil glade just before a wayward arrow whizzes past your head.

Rob Weir