The Wailin' Jennys: First New Release in Six years

Red House Records #305

In Greek mythology the Sirens were dangerous creatures whose mellifluous voices lured sailors into treacherous waters where their boats were dashed upon the reefs. Odysseus stopped the ears of his crew with wax and had himself lashed to the mast just so he could hear them. Good thing he did, as he thrashed, howled, and screamed in madness at the sheer beauty of their tones. The Wailin' Jennys are a real-life equivalent of such vocal enticement. Luckily for us, their intentions are benign.

Fifteen is the Jennys' first album in six years—released just in time to honor the fifteen-year partnership between Nicky Mehta, Ruth Moody, and Heather Masse.  When you have such lovely voices and know how to harmonize them, there's no sense in competing with them. The instrumentation is wisely kept at a minimum (if there is any at all) so that we might savor every word and soaring note. Yet, somehow it feels rich, not spare. The traditional "Old Churchyard" is just vocals atop of viola drone and that's all we need. It's all about the song for the Wailin' Jennys and to that end, they perform covers rather than originals. These include Tom Petty's "Wildflowers," Dolly Parton's "Light of aClear Blue Morning," Emmylou Harris' "Boulder to Birmingham," Warren Zevon's "Keep Me in Your Heart," and Jane Silberry's "The Valley." But even if you know the song, it will sound new because you will be forced to listen to glorious voices, with few or no competing instruments. To my ear, the only misfire is their rendition of Paul Simon's "Love Me Like a Rock," which is too pretty and lacks Simon's urbane and soulful hipster vibe. But let's not nitpick; a new Wailin' Jennys album is cause for celebration. Unlike the Greek sirens, the Jennys soothe, delight, and bear healing musical delights. Okay—they do one not-so-nice thing. There are only nine songs on Fifteen. I would have liked at least six more.

Rob Weir


Lower Expectations for Current MFA Shows


Summer of Love (through October 22, 2017) ★★ ½
Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics  (through April 1, 2018)
Charles Sheeler: From Doylestown to Detroit (through November 5) ★★★
Mark Rothko: Reflection (through July 1, 2018) ★★★ ½
Follow the North Star: Inuit Art (through December 31) ★★★★

 I just took in five current shows at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). Each has its merits, but don't buy into the hype. You can easily take in all five without over-taxing your brain and have plenty of time left for a trip to the North End for a good meal.

There are only a few days left to see The Summer of Love: Photography and Graphic Design, but no big deal if you miss it unless you need a nostalgia trip or have younger folks in tow to whom you wish to expose to some cultural history. Don't bother at all if you saw the vastly superior show of posters from the Summer of Love (1967) at Smith College four years ago. The MFA show is small and its very remoteness—you have to wend to the back of the Peruvian gallery to get there—indicates the timidity with which it was assembled. It's basically album cover art, rock show posters, and a few dozen photographs, many of which have been so often reproduced they are now iconic. We've known for years that poster designers such as Stanley Mouse and Victor Moscoso were deeper into the artistic past—Viennese Secessionists, Bauhaus, 1930s muralists—than into designer chemicals. It's trippy to see a whole wall of day-glo and block lettering come-on from Bay Area enclaves such as the Fillmore and the Avalon Ballroom, but there were only a few I hadn't seen before. I did marvel in the outstanding composition of Herb Greene's street photos. Greene excelled in giving us just slightly skewed angles to put us a bit off guard—a touch of subtlety from an age of deliberate excess. I also experienced a tinge of sadness from my realization that every photo and poster featuring Janis Joplin depicts a smiling, sunny person we know didn't exist beyond the frame. I also really miss album cover art. Can't do that with an mp3 file. Hell, we can't even do decent sound with an mp3 file.


The MFA is really hyping a new exhibit spotlighting contemporary Japanese artist Takashi Murakami and his collaboration with scholar Nobuo Tsuji, whose Lineage of Eccentrics lends its name to the show's subtitle. It's easy to grasp that the rows of smiley faced flowers lining a canvas from an artist such as Murakami is ironic commentary on the rows of delicate flowers that often fringed Japanese silk-paneled screens. Ha ha! Got the joke. I also know one tiptoes upon dangerous reefs when trying to call one thing art and something else kitsch. Yet as much as I like the idea of blurring pedantic high/low art judgments, it's hard to see Murakami's "superflat" images as anything other than kitsch. His enormous murals certainly draw upon traditional images, but I felt more like I was in the toy section at Wal-Mart than in the MFA. It didn't take long for boredom to overwhelm me.  

I am a fan of the Precisionist paintings of Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) for their geometric displays of bisecting angles, horizontals, and verticals associated with American industrialism at is smoky majestic apex. From Doylestown to Detroit turns its attention to Sheeler's photographic development. It opens with images of barns and buildings from his Pennsylvania youth. The second section is from his time in New York in the 1920s, where he fell in step with the city's energy, grittiness, and waves of change. Most of the photos on display are stills from a film titled Manhatta (title from Walt Whitman) that he made with Paul Strand in 1920-21. That film, which was avant-garde in its day, runs on a loop in the gallery and is worth watching. It is, of course, silent, but look especially at what Sheeler does with light and shadow, bird's eye viewpoints, and smoke. The final section comes from Sheeler's successful foray into commercial art shots of Ford Motor's enormous River Rouge complex. This became templates for his painting and it's safe to say the factories impressed Sheeler as much as New York. This show won't change anyone's mind that Sheeler was a better painter than shutterbug, but it's interesting in its own right. Although it's in the MFA's photography wing, the photos could have been enhanced by displaying them with just a handful of paintings on the same subjects.

I like small, manageable exhibits, and Mark Rothko (1903-70) invites such a treatment. His color swath canvasses—often solids—make him a favored whipping boy for claims that non-representational art is pointless and childish. It's neither of those and Rothko's "solid" colors are often luminous with many underlying hues—more like northern lights than a painted room. Still, too many Rothkos in a gallery can induce trance. The MFA show has just a handful in one place, beginning with an early representational piece and moving us to his rectangular color bars. It forces one to look deeper into the seeming voids. I was also gratified to see a poetic musing on Rothko from John Taggart, my undergraduate English professor.

Pudlo Pudlat, "Spring Travelers"

 A few weeks ago I expressed the view that you might need to go to Ottawa to see great Inuit art. I was wrong. The MFA has a small but choice selection of works from the collection of Estrellita and Yousouf Karch (1908-2002), the latter a sublime Turkish/Canadian photographer. It's mere handful of graphic designs and sculptures, but everything is there that I wrote about earlier: the intersections between humans and nature, the uneasy juxtapositions of tradition and modernity, Arctic Circle humor, and stark but striking design. I really loved Josephee Kakee's "My Son's First Catch," various images from Pudlo Pudlat, and Lucy Meeko's perfect for Halloween "The Story of the Man Who Lost His Flesh." 

Kakee, "My Son's First Catch"

Meeko. "Story of the Man Who Lost His Flesh"

Pudlo Pudlat "New Horizons"


Les Paul Documentary Shines Light on Guitar Pioneer

Directed by Evan Haiman
MVDvisual #0392D

Only one person is in both the Rock 'n Roll and the National Inventors Hall of Fame; his name is Lester William Pulsfuss–better known as Les Paul (1905 – 2009). When Michael Braunstein, director of the Les Paul Foundation, remarked, "Les Paul is the Father of Modern Music," he was stating fact, not engaging in hyperbole or organizational promotion.

Les Paul certainly made his mark musically. He hit the road at age 13, when country music was in its recording adolescence, and left it behind in the 1930s when he discovered Django Reinhardt and began playing jazz with Art Tatum. At the height of that success, he pivoted again because he was displeased with how the acoustic guitar sounded when attached to electric pickups. He played a different kind of axe pumped through a different kind of sound system when he resurfaced in 1948 to make hit records with country singer Mary Ford, his second wife (1948-64).

Les Paul did not invent the solid body electric guitar –Adolph Rickenbacker and several others did that– but he made it sound better. It started when Paul sawed an Epiphone acoustic in half, inserted a "log"– a 2 x 4, some magnets, and some wiring— under its surface and tinkered until he finally got Gibson to produce "The Broadcaster" in 1952, the prototype of a guitar still favored by legions of rock 'n rollers. Along the way, he did a few other things. Through Ford, he experimented with close microphone singing, which gave vocals a whole new feel, and he also pioneered in multi-track recording and playback. In all, Les Paul held more than 450 patents.

A recent DVD pays tribute to Les Paul's achievements. It's largely a 2006 interview merged with a Hollywood concert held that same year to honor Paul's 90th birthday. Edgar Winter asks, "Where would rock n' roll be without the electric guitar?" and the concert fittingly trots out some top players to strut their stuff on instruments inspired by Paul's designs. The lineup includes: Joe Perry (Aerosmith), Slash (Guns n' Roses), Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Steve Lukather (Toto), Robben Ford (KISS, Miles Davis), and Neal Schon (Journey). Highlights include Winter belting out "Superstition," and a nice ensemble turn on "Rock n' Roll Hootchie Koo," but three performances really stand out: Joe Satriani's innovative solo, Buddy Guy killing it on "Hootchie Coochie Man," and Shayne Steele delivering turn-back-the-clock Aretha-like power vocals.

The footage is rock at its best—loud, aggressive, and fronted by muscular guitar gods.  Concert material is interspersed with interview clips. I'd be lying if I said any of this was remarkable filmmaking. A lot more attention should have been paid to structure. Like many fans, the director and producers of this film assumed too much—even though the point is made early on that Les Paul is an underappreciated figure. A more linear script with strategically placed information would have fleshed out basics (so I didn't have to in this review). But maybe this is because the film's central figure, though no saint, tended toward self-effacement. Of the post-1960s guitar giants, Paul remarked, "I started and they kept it going." Toward the film's end, though, some of Paul's puckish humor creeps in. When commenting on the new wave he commented, "Each guy has something to say. It's what inside that makes it unique." He followed with a twinkle and an impish grin: "But they all got it from me."

Yep. If you don't know, watch and learn. If you do know, pick up your air guitar and play along.

Rob Weir