Big Little Lions, Erin Costello, Surrnder Hill, The Contenders and More

Big Little Lions, Alive and Well

Okay, I pretty much love these guys. Sometimes you hear music that's just what you need when you wonder if anything has a point anymore. Helen Austin—a former standup comic in London now in British Columbia—and Paul Otten, a Midwesterner, producer, and two-time winner of the John Lennon Songwriting contest bill themselves as indie artists and, for once, it's a good handle. Their music has the sparkle of pop, an edge of call-bullshit politics, the verve of danceable soft rock, and a whole lot going on in each track. Alive and Well is their third full LP and the title is meant as an ironic metaphor, almost as if to announce their astonishment at being able to hold out hope when the world is falling apart at the seams. "Big Mistake" infuses a tumbling little melody with handclaps and building noise that suggests maybe we can move beyond weariness. Austin drew comparisons to Dolores O'Riordan even before the latter died and a song such as "Unicorn" shows why. If you think you're in for magical thinking, the opening line disabuses you: Everybody wants a unicorn/To be unique and still belong. It's not that easy; instead we're looking for humanity/while wading through the vanity. "Kind" is equally double-edged—both a path forward and the gnawing possibility everything is going to hell in a handbag. Yet through all of this the music is airy, even sunny. In the end, the song that might sum what is to be done is to "Find Your Tribe." Like the group name, this one starts small and goes bigger to a repetitive acoustic groove that's both sweet but nervous. Find your people, find your tribe/Those you want to be beside/Then you are home. If that sounds trite, tell me something that makes more sense. ★★★★★

Erin Costello, Down Below, The Status Quo

If you laugh when I tell you that one of the best R & B singers around is from Nova Scotia, my response is that you've not heard Erin Costello. She has just released her fifth studio album and you need hear only a few bars to know that she has a serious set of pipes—the kind that are sultry, powerful, and tinted with small colorings that shade an otherwise simple song such as "Worry Don't Weigh Me Down" and make it seem like a masterpiece. Costello also beguiles with arrangements that blend jazz, R & B, and pop in ways that are simultaneously retro and new. Check out "Low," which unfolds atop Glenn Milchen's cross-rhythmic percussion and evolves into something you'd get if you crossed Mavis Staples with a whiff of danger from Eartha Kitt.  Then try the blue note grooves of "Fighter," a song that signals why the album bears its name. ★★★★

Surrender Hill, Tore Down Fences

Country music and time on the road seem to go together like a saddle and a horse. Tore Down Fences is the second album from married couple Robin Dean Salmon and Afton Seekins, but it's Salmon's twelfth. He was born in South Africa, raised on a San Antonio cattle ranch, had a New York band that played at CBGB, moved to Atlanta, then went on the road with everyone from Rodney Crowell to Cyndi Lauper. Seekins was born to self-sufficient folks from Alaska, moved to Arizona, and lived in New York. The two are now based in Sedona, Arizona, a place where rolling stones often settle. Surrender Hill is mostly a duo, but the two also work well inside a band. Salmon's voice has just the right amount of spit for country/folk music and Seekins adorns hers with small touches of nasal twang. Their new album departs from script with songs that generally exude more contentment than most country albums. The title track, for instance, is about picking up from being dumped and opening a new chapter of the Book of Love. A title like "I RideAlone" suggests a lonesome cowboy, but this one is content under the big Montana sky. I really liked "If I Can't Have You," a catchy song that rocks ever so slightly. If you like a bit of cheekiness, there's a video of the two singing "Misbehave" at their wedding—a bold choice for beginnings as it imagines being old and looking from the POV of endings. ★★★ ½

The Contenders, Laughing with the Reckless

Not too many duos consist of acoustic guitar and drums, but that's precisely the format for The Contenders and they do a few more unexpected things. Guitarist, lead vocalist, and songwriter Jay Nash, for instance, lives in Vermont but his percussion buddy, Josh Day, resides in Nashville. They bill themselves an Americana band—from the acoustic country end of the spectrum. Nash has a decided country scratch to his voice, but every now and then he drops a small riff (in unexpected places) that you'd swear he lifted from Elton John; listen carefully to select lines in "Call Me the Lucky One" and you'll know what I mean. I also really like Nash's percussive cadences in that one. Nash also has a knack for keeping us off balance in his writing. "Finer Weather" seems like it's going to be about New York City, but it's really an I-will-follow-you song. We get more misdirection in "The Night Jackson Fell," which might come off as a Lost Cause post-bellum anthem until you pay attention and realize it's really about the crumbling foundation of a doomed relationship. Another good one is "The Flood," an unvarnished song about hard lives, hard times, and hard choices. This rhythm and harmony first LP portends promise. ★★★½

Sarah Aroeste, Together/Endjuntos

Here's something you don't hear everyday: a singer billed as feminist Ladino rock. I'll take the feminist part of this on faith as I know just a few words in Spanish (and none of know of in this variant), but Together is not a rock album. "8Days" is theatrical to the point of having a show tune feel, and "Thank You Trees" is a bluegrass/pop/holiday song mashup. It is, however, a nice exposure to Sephardic song. One of my favorite tracks is "Buena Semana," a piano-based tune that has incantatory qualities. The American-born, New York-based Aroeste is of Greek Sephardic ancestry and there are songs that honor Jewish traditions such as Shabbat, Sukkot, and "El Dia de Purim," a spring holiday nearly upon us. I enjoyed this recording, though I wish Aroeste would rein in the vibrato more tightly. ★★★

Katie Herzig, Moment of Bliss and Walk Through Walls

Katie Bliss is releasing her sixth album, Moment of Bliss, this month. She's billed as a folk rock performer, but that's a misnomer: she's a pop artist who favors music slathered in electronica and production. "Feel Alive," from the new album evokes the disco dance grooves of Robyn and the video is worth a watch because the lyrics are featured. Much of Herzig's repertoire is drenched in sounds and loops that subsume vocals in a thick aural mix without many spaces. "Strangers" has the same feel, but with a catchier tune. If you want to check out voice with less going so, try her pop torch "Me Without You," in which she stretches her voice into the falsetto range. I'm not a big fan of pop but if you are, you should sample Herzig. ★★


Dodgers Should Repete in NL West

National League West Preview 2018
Big Blue and Who are You?

Were it not for the fact that baseball is a crazy and unpredictable game, this would be a no-brainer. I'll hedge my bets only to say that it would take a reckless person to wager on any team not called the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the NL West.

To Win: The Dodgers have the most talent by far, especially now that Bellinger has had his breakout season and Pederson has matured. Grandal, Seager, Turner, Utley, Puig…. Add the best pitcher in baseball in Kershaw, a decent supporting cast, and Jansen to seal the deal. The Dodgers are so above the rest that even though every other team in the division except the Diamondbacks improved, they are still miles behind LA.

To Show: The San Francisco Giants have the second best pitcher in the MLB in Bumgarner. They added McCutchen and Longoria to go with Posey, Belt, Panik, and Pence. If Cueto and Samardzjia pitch close to their overrated) reputations, the Giants should make a big jump.

Darkhorse: The San Diego Padres added Hosmer, Headley, Galvis and a few other moving pieces. The pitching is suspect, but if they catch a wave they could surprise.

Predicted Finish

1. Dodgers: Too much talent to lose the division, though probably not enough to win the World Series.

2. Giants: I'm still puzzled about how badly they tanked last year, but I think they'll break precedent and shine in an even-numbered year.

3. Padres: If the pitching is decent, they'll push the Giants; if not, it will be different cast, same show.

4. Rockies: They look as thin as the Denver air, yet they always seem to be better than experts think. Roster-wise they should finish last, but they never seem to do so.

5. Diamondbacks: Greinke is hurting and I don't think some kid from the minors will replace him. And you don't subtract J D Martinez and expect Souza to fill the holes between Goldschmidt and Lamb.


Eight Mountains a Story of Friendship and Fate


By Paulo Cognetti
Atria Books, 272 pages

When I was in Italy a few years ago I visited the mountain village where a friend was born many decades earlier. My wife and I drove higher and higher before reaching our destination. It would be overdramatic to say the village was a place time forgot, though that would be precisely the phrase for abandoned hamlets above and below it.

I mention this because one of the themes of Paulo Cognetti's Eight Mountains is that geologic time moves slowly and mighty mountains couldn't care less about the rhythms of its human inhabitants. The village I sought was in the Apennines and Cognetti's in the Southern Alps, where Italy melds with Switzerland, but it's easy to imagine a similar vibe. Eight Mountains follows a decades-long friendship between two individuals from quite different backgrounds: Milan-raised Pietro Gausti and Bruno Guglielmina, who seldom ventures far from the confines of greater Grana, a gateway village to the high peaks near the Matterhorn. Like some of the places I visited, Grana once held thousands, but now just hundreds.

Pietro and Bruno become soul mates despite their differences. Pietro comes from an educated bourgeois family who summer in the Alps; Bruno is a rough-and-tumble peasant lad whose mother is a near mute and his father a brute. Pietro's parents more politely parallel Bruno's: his mother is content with rustic pleasures and his father driven to traverse the length of mountain trails and glaciers, even if it means pushing Pietro like a driven mule and even though a summit is simply the signal to reverse and go home. For Pietro, though, the mountains, rivers, scree, and forests are Zen-like—places to contemplate, not conquer. This is a source of some amusement to Bruno, who tells him that "nature" is a name those of privilege give to the mountains, whereas people of his ilk label what is useful: wood, water, stone…. This is certainly the point of view of his people; Bruno's father punches Pietro's father when the latter offers to take Bruno back to Milan and pay for his education. Is this an act of tyranny, or a hard kindness?

In practical terms, it means the boys are seasonal friends who mature along different paths: Pietro becomes the educated professional who travels the world whilst Bruno lives out the only role he desired: that of a mountain man. Neither play their roles quite as they would have scripted them, but who comes closer and why is Pietro lured back to Grana whenever he can get there? As Bruno casually observes, "You are the one who comes and goes. I'm the one who stays put." The book's title derives from one of Pietro's visits to Tibet, where he speaks with a monk who draws an eight-spoked wheel and tells him that in Buddhist cosmology the great peak Semeru stands at the physical, spiritual, and metaphysical world, surrounded by eight mountains and eight seas. The monk asks Pietro, "Who has learned the most, the one who has been to all eight mountains, or the one who reaches the summit of Semeru?" Maybe that sounds weird, but think before you judge—it might well be one of most profound questions ever asked. To put it in more Western terms, is it better to be a rock or a rolling stone? To know thyself, or to live with the unknowingness of becoming? 

Eight Mountains is a book about friendship, fate, the things from childhood that can and cannot be overcome, parental secrets, and both ancient wisdom and nonsense masquerading as truth. At core it wrestles with the degree to which we change our basic essence and the limitations of such endeavors. In the end, it's also both an actual and a philosophical mystery. This is Cognetti's debut novel, and it's quite an achievement.

Rob Weir


Not Much Time Left to See O'Keeffe in Salem


Peabody Essex Museum (Salem, MA)
Through April 1

You don't have much time left to catch the Georgia O'Keeffe extravaganza at the Peabody Essex Museum. I'd like to suggest you rearrange your schedule to do so.

O'Keeffe (1887-1986) has been iconic for so long, that many people assume there's not much left to discover. It is well documented that young O'Keeffe dazzled teachers at the University of Chicago and everywhere else she studied. She was in Virginia when pioneering photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) organized her first solo show in 1915. Three years later he convinced her to move to New York and the two were married in 1924, though he was twenty-three years her senior. 

We know this, just as we are aware that marrying an older man was just the tip of the iceberg of her unconventional life. She was equal parts artistic genius, bohemian, rebel, and (fiercely) independent. Within her lifetime, she was lionized by feminists for the strong vulvar imagery in her canvases, especially depictions of flowers, but also in the folds of canyon lands in her beloved adopted state of New Mexico. She began spending time in 1929 and moved there full time when Stieglitz died in 1946.

So what's left to tell? Sometimes the least discussed aspects of a famous person's life are things that are hidden in plain view. It seems Ms. O'Keeffe was also a clotheshorse with a fondness for fine threads. That's the "style" part of the Peabody Essex show and when you look at the "image" part of it—the many photos taken by Stieglitz, Tony Vacarro and others, it's so obvious that we wonder why it took so long for anyone to launch a show comparable to this one. Perhaps it's because it doesn't fit as well into the nonconformity narratives we impose, or perhaps it's simpler: her art is so powerful that it simply dominates our minds as well as our eyes.

O'Keeffe's fashion sense is the first revelation of the show. The second is equally obvious, but makes perfect sense. We know that O'Keeffe's subject matter changed dramatically when she was in the Southwest, but so too did her entire sense of color. Her New York paintings were black and gray with splashes of color used for dramatic, often geometric, effect. In New Mexico, bold color is often dominant. Elsewhere the grays give way to azure blue, golden adobe, bright white, and textured beige. After seeing New Mexico, O'Keeffe's 1949 rendering of the Brooklyn Bridge makes perfect sense.

It's reflected in her clothing as well. When O'Keeffe painted in New York, she dressed the part of an avant-garde cosmopolitan. She especially liked being draped in silk. In New Mexico, her work clothes of choice were denim. She still enjoyed fine couture such as hand-stitched cuffs and fitted dresses, but her wardrobe was brighter.

I'm not sure what O'Keeffe would have thought about a show spotlighting on her closet. I'm pretty sure she's be appalled by one the videos—of a fashion show filmed in the desert of clothing "inspired" her art and fashion sense. It's hard to imagine she'd have anything but scorn for the waif-like vacant-eyed models and she might even tut-tut the idea of being an object of another's gaze—though surely she played that role for Stieglitz, some of whose photos of her focused on her body parts (fingers, breasts, segments of her face) rather than the whole. There is, though, a difference; Stieglitz was unquestionably artistic in her endeavors and both he and O'Keeffe held progressive views that were critical of commercialism.

This, however, is an incidental observation on my part. The Peabody Essex show rightly lists "art" as primary. You will see a few well-known paintings, but other revelations come in the form of less familiar paintings.

As I said, the clock is ticking. Run; don't walk.  Check out also the spectacular T C Cannon show in the same museum—to be reviewed next month.

Rob Weir


The Flight Attendant Soars as a Mystery

By Chris Bohjalian
Doubleday, 368 pages

It makes a difference when authors do their homework. By his own admission, Chris Bohjalian knew next to nothing about the following key elements in his latest novel: the daily grind and road life of flight attendants, the effects of severe alcoholism, weaponizing drones, or the contemporary world of espionage. But before he put fingers to keyboard, he knew a lot and it shows.

The eponymous Flight Attendant is Cassandra Brown and, if you know Greek mythology, you're aware that Cassandra is an unfortunate name with which to saddle someone. The unconventional "Cassie" knew from an early age she needed to get out of her hometown, but perhaps she fled her stifling hometown and dysfunctional family before she was ready for adulthood. The only life she's known since she departed is that of a rolling stone flight attendant with a major air carrier. Bohjalian takes us inside a lifestyle that sounds more glamorous than it is—long journeys with quick turnarounds, surly or sickly passengers, living out of a small suitcase, unpredictable scheduling, and airline-provided sleeping quarters that are more toward the former side of the budget versus luxury hotel spectrum. As for destinations, the best even an experienced attendant like Cassie can hope for is to "bid" a route and take her chances. Even that sometimes requires some bargaining: if you want to go to Rome, volunteer for a place you don't want to go, like Dubai. Women like Cassie are essentially airborne domestics in high heels.

We meet Cassie on the downward slope. She's still attractive, but is realistic enough to see that her job and Father Time have exacted a physical toll. She has a few "bid buddies" she's gotten to know, but even they are more concerned acquaintances than close friends. What they know, however, is that Cassie fills the voids in her life with casual sex and booze. Especially the latter, which is still another obstacle between she and her sister, a responsible mother who makes sure her kids are never alone with Cassie in the rare times she's at home. Cassie's life is thus a volatile mix of loneliness, flirtation, and alcoholic-fueled hook-ups. Her drinking isn't just foreplay—it's the sort that results in blackouts and waking up in the morning naked beside a man and not being sure if you had a good time or not.  

On a flight to Dubai, she chats up 28-year-old Alex, a wealthy hedge fund manager and later that day, he slips her the key for his room in a hotel that's decidedly more posh than her digs. He's younger than Cassie's usual one-night stands, but also kinder and the night begins well. There are just three things that mar Cassie's libidinous evening: a short interruption when a woman calling herself Miranda visits—presumably to brief Alex on his meeting the next day. Things two and three are more problematic: she and Alex have great sex, but Cassie drinks until she blacks out. That's embarrassing, but the fact that she wakes up soaked in Alex's blood is a real problem. Dubai is not a place where you want to be discovered with a dead man in the bed beside you and a broken gin bottle on the floor.

Cassie doesn't think she killed Alex, but then she wouldn't be the best judge of that, would she? Fight or flight? Hey—it's called The Flight Attendant! Bohjalian spins a suspenseful thriller told from Cassie's befuddled point of view and Miranda's more clear-headed perspective. This is far more than your average whodunit, one that takes us into some of those other worlds mentioned in opening paragraph. Is Cassie a deadly drunk? Did she just get away with murder? Who was Alex? Miranda? Is anyone, Cassie included, who they seem to be?

Chris Bohjalian is an author I have long admired because, yes, he does do his homework. More than that, though, he knows how to build suspense without going Dan Brown unbelievable on his readers. He is particularly skillful at getting inside the heads of characters. That may sound obvious—he invents them, right? You try thinking like someone who isn't you. Now repeat in a different mindset. And again…. I won't pretend that The Flight Attendant is the new War and Peace, but it's a terrific page-turning mystery. The final pages are a tad contrived, but there's plenty here to keep you glued in your reading chair way past your normal bedtime. The Flight Attendant earns its wings.

Rob Weir