Great Music: Mendilow, Pietrini, Kibel, TMBG, Whitney, Heath, Speed Bumps

Here are a few offerings from last year that got crowded out at holiday time. Think of them as like finding an overlooked chocolate bar, not leftover fruitcake.

The Guy Mendilow Ensemble devotes itself to Ladino music, that is the songs and traditions of the Sephardic Jews. Mendilow has four shows devoted to Sephardic music, including the recent Music from the Forgotten Kingdom. The music is forgotten because Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492, the very year Columbus sailed to the New World. I scarcely have words to tell you what a beautiful album this is—at turns sad and celebratory, formal and joyful, and always mystical, magical, and soaked in the brine of history. The ensemble blurs the lines between classical and folk music in ways that old Nonesuch albums used to place medieval court and village music cheek by jowl. Start with the "Una Noche Al Borde De La Mar" video, which opens with a two-minute real-time animated drawing before cutting to the stunning vocals of Sofia Tosello and truly haunting violin backing. Then try "Hermanas Riena Y Cautiva (Sisters, Queen and Captive)" with its distinct medieval feel. Then sample "La Galana Y La Mar," which is simpler but pure and beautiful, the woodwinds transporting us to an otherworldly place. This is, simply, a transcendent album. ★★★★★ 
Milwaukee Magazine dubbed the Zack Pietrini Band as the city's top ensemble in its 2017 wrap-up. Can't say that I've heard all the bands out there, but Pietrini would turn heads anywhere. Holding onto Ghosts is the quintet's fifth release. File it under Americana and, as readers know, I find that a mighty broad category. Pietrini's blend is part country, part rock, and a splash of folk. Pietrini has a smooth voice, but there's some back of the throat spit in it that adds an edge. The songs also reflect that edge, most of which are musings about misplaced hope, lost love, and trying to make it as an artist. The bring-on-the-weeping pedal steel of "Learning the Hard Way" could be at home in Nashville and the title says it all. Its flipside is "Dance," a slice of rockabilly that sketches one of those moments in which a joyous dancer lets itall go and lives a lifetime in a single evening. For the folksier side, try"Get Out," which is mostly acoustic guitar, melodic keys and a message that's both hopeful and cautionary.★★★★

If you've never before heard Seth Kibel you might think he's a Ragin' Cajun, not a Maryland-based klezmer, swing, and jazz artist. Actually, he's something of a musical polymath with a sense of humor on full display in Seth Kibel Presents: Songs of Snark and Despair. The album's ten songs were written in response to the 2016 election and the title track is a lighthearted musing on (among other things) what people such as John Lennon or Woody Guthrie would have made of our current conundrum, whereas all he "can do is write songs of snark and despair." Kibel plays clarinet, flute, and sax on the album, but he often surrounds himself with wet-lipped robust tubas and trombones that throw off the vibe of a New Orleans street band that's decided to party through the apocalypse. Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, and the GOP in general are the bad guys in most of the songs but in a, well, snarky way. Kibel invites folks from across the spectrum to add their voices and instruments to his offbeat mix. Black Betty (Jenny Langer) gives a soulful no-holds-barred survey of the history of racism on "240 Years," an amazing change-the-frame song with just enough dark humor to blunt its nasty edges. It's gift-wrapped in a sort of "Ride Your Pony"-like funky envelope. Trump takes it on the chin (again) in the klezmer/Dixieland blended "Stalin's Revenge," and Damon Foreman leads the reggae-laced "Misplaced Priorities." White liberals don't get off the hook either. There is, for example, "White Guilt," with its sneaky double satire—lyrical content and an appropriated bossa nova arrangement. For pure snark there's "Unfriend," simple advice for the Facebook generation and its stuck-in-angst luxury problems. Funny stuff and so good-natured you often laugh at the stiletto in your neck. ★★★★

What can I tell you about They Might Be Giants that hasn't already been written? They've been around since 1982, so you know the Lincoln, Massachusetts duo do unconventional things, like mix John Flansburgh's guitar with John Linnell's accordion and saxophone. You probably know they have gold records, a platinum or two, and some Grammys. Depending on your tastes, they are either experimental or just plain zany. To me, zany is a good thing and TMBG is also a hit in children's music of the warp-'em-while-they're-young (and teach 'em cool stuff) school. But maybe you didn't know that since they're dropping a new album this month, they put out a free NoiseTrade sampler in November. It's called Up to Date and contains back catalogue material spotlighting TMBG's signature quirkiness, self-deprecating humor, and sometimes-poignant observations. It's loud, brash, and irreverent in a post-New Wave, post-punk, post folk manner. What else can one say about a sampler whose tracks include "All the LazyBoyfriends," "Let Me Tell You about My Operation," "I LoveYou for Psychological Reasons," and "Say Nice Things about Detroit?" But check out the 2013 song "Black Ops" and you'll see a more serious pink side of Flansburgh and Linnell. ★★★★

The Wild Unrest is a dark and lean folk project from Beth Whitney, who cooked up some of her material in the deep woods of Washington State, where she and her husband lived for a time and where, at her admission, she struggled with postpartum depression. You can hear anguish in "Shadows of a Man," but in songs like "Raven" and its reflections of the Native American past, it's clear she also tapped into some ancient wisdom. "Tides Are forSirens" captures Whitney in a somewhat lighter mood; the song is reflective, but also sweet and pretty. I won't lie, though. This is an album that grows on you rather than grabbing you by collar and making you pay attention. Like many healing albums, it can be so personal that it feels distant. Take your time. Let it breathe. ★★★tides are for sirens

If you're looking for some rock n' roll, here are a few worth investigating. Want it loud and crunchy? Try Jason Heath and the Greedy Souls whose But There's Nowhere to Go takes a highly critical look at all that's gone busted and wrong in the USA: corruption, greed, loss of national identity, the 2016 election…. No punches are pulled in songs like "South of Babylon," in which Heath sings in a voice that's a cross between being soaked in whiskey and gargling with razor blades: John Wayne’s dead, but his guns are drawn/bodies are scattered on the White House lawn. In "In Love with My Gun" he sings: I’m Miss America’s favorite son/I got bloody red hands I was born with a gun/It’s a dirty job honey but it’s gotta be done’/Got stars and stripes in my eyes/And I’m in love with my gun. Yeah, he's a pissed off dude, as you'll also hear on tracks such as "Postcards from the Hanging," "Ballad of the Brown Bomber," and Here Comes My Savior" (and he doesn't mean Jesus). This is where straight up rock meets grunge, punk, and alternative. ★★★★

The Speed Bumps fall into the "indie" rock cubbyhole, which, in their case, is folk-rock with occasional dollops of country. "How Do We Work it Out" is shimmery, despite its theme of a relationship about to supernova. This Ohio Rust Belt quintet makes no bones about its debt to Nick Drake and Paul Simon and the aforementioned song would easily fit into Simon's urbane repertoire. "In the Moment" is gentler and folksier still. Smooth, good harmonies, and changes of pace make their Love is War EP a winner. ★★★★


Ursula Le Guin Blogs and Reflects


Ursula K. Le Guin
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 240 pages

Bloggers don't usually get to publish their posts in book form. Then again, not many bloggers are Ursula Le Guin, whose fantasy, science fiction, and children's books have expanded our imaginations and dared us to think of alternative worlds and ways we can make this one better. One suspects she must have had to build on to her Berkeley, California domicile to house all the awards she has garnered in her fifty plus years of publishing. In 2010, Le Guin drew inspiration from Portuguese novelist José Saramago and decided to try her hand at blogging.

Here's where things get a bit tougher to evaluate. On the blog, Le Guin is the main subject, not her characters. In a word, she becomes mortal. At age 88, Le Guin intends that to take her title literally—no time to spare. Blog writing, however, is a decidedly less edited, less censorious, less organized form of writing. One can basically write whatever one wishes. Given a choice between specialized and generalized approaches, Le Guin opts for the latter. No Time to Spare is organized into four themes—ageing, reflections on literature, critiquing society and her place in it, and wistfully musing over the things that have given her pleasure. These themes are, nonetheless, as loose as a kaftan. Le Guin has earned the right to indulge and does so. In practical terms this means her readers are confronted with a literary roundup of thoroughbreds contained in the same corral as plow horses and swaybacks.

At her best, Le Guin charms and beguiles. "The Horsies Upstairs" is a delightful and imaginative piece that invites us to view the world through the eyes of a two-year-old, not the logic of the adults all around her. Le Guin writes, "How does a child arrange a vast world that is always turning out new stuff? She does it the best she can, and doesn't bother with what she can't until she has to." In her observations of a child's question of where the horses sleep, Le Guin challenges us to think about what we mean by the word "real." Equally charming are the various intercalary blogs about her cat Pard. As one of her posts puts it, any feline caretaker needs to be mindful of the difference between "choosing a cat" and being "chosen by a cat." Pard is a rascal and even the most ardent dog person will smile when reading of his various adventures, misadventures, and cat cantankerousness.

How readers will respond to Le Guin's own cantankerousness probably depends upon whether or not you agree or disagree with the opinions she expresses. Do you share her view that Hemingway was a lazy writer? Does first-person writing that blurs the line between fiction and memoir annoy you? (Do you even care about the issue?) Is it a cheap shot to suggest that fantasy writing is as intellectually valid as religious fundamentalism, even if you think she's right (as do I)? Le Guin has long been a critic of unexamined belief, but I can imagine some readers will take deep exception to her takedown of New Age magical thinking, especially the notion of recovering one's Inner Child. She can barely contain her snark when contemplating a Catholic conference on exorcism. Does she go too far when she claims that definitions of demonic possession are so broad that her deep love of Beethoven's 9th Symphony could be so interpreted? To be fair, Le Guin has long championed rationalism. In my view, her post on "Belief in Belief" is utterly brilliant in the simplicity with which she highlights the problems that occur when we use "I think" and "I believe" as synonyms. As she puts it, "I don't believe in" Darwinian evolutionary theory, "I accept it. It isn't a matter of faith, but of evidence."  

In my mind, there are some very wise things in her meditations. She doesn't have a high view of life in contemporary America. Economists and capitalists come under scrutiny of their worship of "uncontrolled, unlimited, unceasing growth as the only recipe for economic health," and she decries the foolishness of ignoring limits and balance. She is equally concerned about the non-reflection of her fellow citizens: "I have watched my country accept, mostly complacently, along with a lower living standard for more and more people, a lower moral standard. A moral standard based on advertising." She's not optimistic the nation can endure "living on spin and illusion, hot air and hogwash."

It must be said that some of the pieces are fluff and others one-trick ponies. Even if you agree that today's bombardment of F-bombs is annoying, you might still find her "Will You Please Fucking Stop?" churlish. She similarly overextends herself in a rather silly piece on "vegempathy." In the end, of course, this is how one must evaluate blog collections. I too am a blogger and as much as I'd like to think everything I write is sensible, correct, and important, such an attitude is what I "believe," not what I "think." Do not read this collection looking for insight into Le Guin's books; Le Guin's blog is about her. She is undoubtedly more gifted than most bloggers, but not even she is immune from the blogger's curse: not every piece is a winner. Call this one a classic mixed bag.

Rob Weir