Fugitives, Brooks Dixon, Rusty Young, Iain Matthews, Canty, Strawn

The Fugitives, The Promise of Strangers

I think I've figured out why I like Canadian music so much: the market is smaller and creative folks up that way feel less pressure to play to formulae. Add The Fugitives to your list of performers that are just flat-out amazing. They don't so much transgress the boundaries between folk, rock, bluegrass, and other genres as treat them as non-existent. This creates infectious melodic structures that sound both familiar yet unique. This Vancouver lineup is built around Adrian Glynn, Brendan McLeod, and a bunch of folks who cycle in and out. They are a mostly acoustic lineup, but when they hit on all cylinders their energy is as powerful as any indie rock band.  Glynn has a voice like an angel and I'm talking Art Garfunkel levels of celestial glow. Let's start with "No Words," which was penned the day Leonard Cohen died (11/7/16). I can't imagine a better tribute. It begins Cohen-like spare and builds to a gospel chorus with long pauses into which the air seems filled with the spirit of the departed. Try to stay in control as Glynn's voice cries out I have no words/I think he took 'em all with him/I have no voice/To shout from the ground. Watch the video—recorded in a resonant church—as it's simply more moving than my words can convey. Now watch this band do "Better Than Luck," whose melody is built around a balalaika, and is where breakdown bluegrass meets folk rock. Want a dose of nostalgia? "London in the Sixties" captures that zeitgeist. Need something sentimental? McLeod and Glynn pay tribute to their moms in "My Mother Sang," which tells us, my mother sang/but she could not sing and we know exactly what they mean. Or how about a pretty love song? Try "Northern Lights." There's even "Come Back Down," which they describe as a "tubular bells-gang party," which makes no sense at all until you listen to it. This fabulous record makes me want to shout, "O' Canada!" ★★★★★

Brooks Dixon, White Roses

We need Ancestry.com to do some serious blood work in the ridges and hills of the Carolinas as I pretty sure that James Taylor's ancestors dumped their DNA into local wells. It's stunning how many male singers have that same warm, slightly reedy, lacking-in-vibrato baritone voice. When you hear someone like Brooks Dixon you can't help but think he has to be a close cousin. Like Taylor, his repertoire favors a folk/pop/soft rock blend that's sweet without being cloying. "Aeroplane" sashays down the runway and its pleasures are magnified by winsome fiddle that invites you to traipse across the room. "Roses" has more of a country feel, including just a splash of pedal steel. My favorite new track is "Anymore," which is introduced with a spray of bright electric guitar notes and becomes that rarest of things: a cheerful break-up song. More to the point, it's the giddy moment you realize you've turned the corner and are over the heartaches. The melody will stick in your head (in a good way). White roses symbolize purity and charm. I'm not sure I'd want to saddle anyone with purity, so let's call this one a charming release. ★★★★

Rusty Young, Waitin’ for the Sun

Does the name Rusty Young ring any bells? No—he’s not kith and kin to Neil, though you might wonder when you hear the giddy-up guitar and world-weary voice on “My Friend.” Maybe it will resonate if I tell you that that song references some guests on the album: Timothy Schmidt and Richie Furay. Yep, this the Rusty Young who was a mainstay in the folk-rock band Poco; that’s Young on pedal steel on “Kind Woman,” one of Poco’s many hits. At age 72 and after 28 Poco releases, 24 singles, and 30 compilation albums, Young has released his first solo recording and it’s a treat! The title track has a Beatles-like background swirl. “Heaven Tonight” is also evocative of the Fab Four, “Crazy Love” is a classic country/folk not-over-her ditty, “Honey Bee” has more bounce than sting; and “Gonna Let the Rain” has been aptly labeled rock ‘n soul. Young sounds great, the instrumentals are solid, and the music is nostalgic but never throwback stale.

Matthews Southern Comfort, Like a Radio

Everyone knows Joni Mitchell wrote "Woodstock," right? But do you remember that it was Britain's Iain Matthews—he was Ian back then—who took it to the top of the pop charts? From 1969 into the late 1970s, Matthews was a key figure in the folk rock scene and few could rival his vocal combination of gentle but poignant. Matthews even moved to LA for a time, but by the 1980s, his career had cratered. But he never stopped worked and it might surprise to know that he has more than 50 recordings to his credit. In 2000, Matthews relocated to Amsterdam and his band Southern Comfort is Dutch. Like a Radio is a new release and a very good one. At 71, his voice has lost some of the candied tones of his youth, but listen to "Bits and Pieces" and you'll hear instantly that it retains heft and expressiveness. The song, by the way, is a reflection on his rolling stone vagabond ways. The title track has a Byrds-like shimmer as filtered through touches of cool jazz. Among the fifteen tracks are also classics such as "Something In the Way She Moves" and a particularly gentle and lovely revamp of "Darcy Farrow." Don't call this a comeback album, though. Matthews has gotten around, but he never went away. ★★★

Caitlin Canty, Motel Bouquet and Sampler

Caitlin Canty's newest CD has just breached and she released a sampler of back catalogue material along with a preview song from the new record: "Take Me For a Ride." It has a misty, dreamy feel in which vocals meld into a mix dominated by guitar and reverb. It has a nice feel, but Canty has a small voice and it seems like too much production. The Proctor, Vermont-born Canty has lived and recorded in Nashville for the past two years. It's hard to judge based on a single track, but I hope she avoids overly slick production. When I hear older material like "Get Up," you can feel the urgency when she sings: Get up get get up/Before the road pulls you under. Similarly, we are drawn into the tale of "Still Here" in which Canty imagines herself as an older man who never strayed far from home: There are those who go/There are those who stay/You cannot have it both ways. Canty sometimes draws comparisons to Lucinda Williams, but she's not; her voice is much closer in register to someone like Aoife O'Donovan. Nothing wrong with that, but songbirds with fragile, pretty voices run the danger of getting drowned out if too much is happening behind them. I want to reiterate I've heard only one track, but a caution flag is raised when older material shines brighter. ★★★  

Ben Strawn, At Sunset

Ahh, to be young! There is just one way to enjoy this debut EP: take all your cynicism, hang it in the dark recesses of the closet, and walk away. Ben Strawn is a recent college grad, has a lovely wife, and a dulcet voice. Listening to a song such as "How Sweet It Is (To Come Home to You)" is like donning a cozy fleece and sitting down to warm caramel for dinner. There's nothing real complex about songs like "You Don'tMind" with its repeating chorus: I don't deserve your love (3x)/You don't mind. Bit it says all it needs to say and tosses in a wee bit of pedal steel to make it sound a bit more country-like than in "It Don't Rain." He rocks out a little on "Woman with the Wind," but if I wanted to nitpick I'd say Strawn's songs need more variety. I'm content to let these gentle songs wash me down. My only gripe is that I think the LP ought to be called At Sunrise; it's more suitable for a guy with a bright future ahead. ★★★ ½

Rob Weir


Score Shows Us How Movies Sound!


Directed by Matt Schrader
Gravitas Ventures, 93 minutes, PG
★ ★

Years ago I got to be one of those names flying by on the fast scroll at the end of a movie: I was a music consultant for a Florentine Films project. My takeaway from that experience is that there sure is a whole lot that goes into a movie soundtrack. When it comes to sound, filmmakers frequently think in terms of seconds not minutes and when it works, it’s magic. Perhaps the best example of this is that quick burst of frantic violin in the shower scene of Psycho. Take away the strings and the horror quotient drops precipitously.

The documentary Score looks at some of those who compose, orchestrate, direct, and mix for the Big Screen—multi-million dollar projects, not the shoestring project in which I was involved. It is, to be sure, a self-serving and self-praising project in which everyone in it declares his or her competitors to be geniuses. Well… yes and no. As one who generally sits in front of the screen, not in the editing room, my standard is that a great score fits one of two standards: either the music integrates so well that you don’t think of it as a soundtrack, or it’s so artfully done that it becomes an earworm long after the film is over. Let’s say, for example, you haven’t seen the original Star Wars in over a decade. If I asked you to storyboard the film, you’d probably falter. But what if I asked you to hum a few bars of John Williams’ theme for the movie? Bet you could do that!

The major virtue of Score is that it shows just how complex it is to merge movie and music harmoniously. Some of the biggest names in the industry pop up: Williams, Danny Elfman, Quincy Jones, Moby, Randy Newman, Thomas Newman, Rachel Portman, Hans Zimmer …. Altogether, sixty talking heads appear. It’s fascinating to observe the stylistic and work habit differences between composers and orchestrators. Some work meticulously to craft the music slice by slice, others look for an inspirational vibe and the music flows, and still others are akin to a band leader who starts preparations for the spring concert in October. We also observe how those like Williams or Zimmer think in grandiose terms; in essence, they dramatize through sound. Their opposites are the techno-geeks who create layered sounds on their computers, and the junkyard artists who squeeze sounds out of everything imaginable—from rain drums to castoff machine parts.

Two things stood out for me—okay three if we count Hans Zimmer’s outlandish socks—the first being the extraordinary pastiche that makes up the score, both the music that comes at us a few seconds at a time and the big themes and/or songs that play for several minutes. Even more impressive are those who sit at mixing boards and computer screens and manipulate what we hear by nano seconds and experiment with the levels at which we will hear each instrument. You might even gain an understanding about some of the elements that make movies so expensive to make. That includes the duds. Some of the screen faces have scored movies you’ve never heard of or which you hadn’t. 

Again, though, this is an industry kind of film and I surely wouldn’t label all of these folks ‘geniuses.’ In fact, I’d venture to say that a good third of the films I see have dreadful soundtracks. How often have you had your intelligence insulted by music that telegraphs what will happen next? Or reached for a barf bag because the music is sickeningly maudlin and manipulative? Like I said earlier, the key is to harmonize movie and music.

That reservation aside, Score is well worth watching, as are most documentaries that take us inside the making of a film. Watch it and then think of all the other elements: lighting, script, editing for continuity, acting, directing, special effects, cinematography, and so on. Movies have been compared to painting with light, but when I see projects such as Score, I think movies are more like feeding the multitudes by sending them through the chow line of the world’s largest delicatessen.

Rob Weir


Planetarium is Mess, Yet Fascinating

Directed by Rebecca Zlotowski
Ad Vitam Distribution, 106 minutes, NR. In English and French.

Planetarium is a pre- and post-Holocaust film. Almost no reviewers got that.  But for once it’s not because they’re ethnically insensitive; it’s because the script—written by Director Rebecca Zlotowski and Robin Campillo —is a shambles. The film scored badly among audiences and I’d agree it’s often a head-scratcher. Yet I also recommend you might want to try it, so hear me out.

The disjointed narrative centers on sisters Laura (Natalie Portman) and Kate Barlow (Lily-Rose Depp). They are spiritualists on a not-so-successful barnstorming tour of southern France in the late 1930s. It’s a pretty slick act, though, and film director André Korben (Emmanuel Salinger) is beguiled by the Barlows—Laura for her mesmerizing perfect-for-the-screen countenance and Kate because she might really be spiritually gifted. Korben soon has both sisters ensconced at his seaside mansion, casts Laura in a movie, and has private (and unknown-to-Laura) séances with Kate to connect him to his deceased wife. I will say only that sometimes those séances are exceedingly pleasurable and other times André feels as if he is being choked to death.

Korben has another agenda: his film empire is hemorrhaging money and he is aware that the French, who invented cinema, have not only surrendered the market to Hollywood, they have also lost their ability to astonish or enlighten. Zlotkowski simply lacks the skill to connect these two threads, so let me flash two keys. The first comes when Laura detects a slight hint of an accent in Korben’s French; the second comes in the observation that ghosts need the living, not vice versa. You can probably connect the dots if I remind you that after Germany conquered France in 1940, it was divided in two: Hitler’s armies occupied the north, and the south—led from the city of Vichy—set up a government that collaborated with the Nazis.

Please forgive the history lesson. It’s necessary because Planetarium doesn’t explain (or anticipate) any of this. If you know what comes next, the camera angles exaggerating physical features, words scrawled on mirrors, and haloed vignettes presage the coming roundup of French Jews. You’ll then realize this isn’t just a run-on-the-mill film about paranormal things that go bump in the night. You might also come to suspect that when it comes to storytelling, neither Zlotkowski nor Campillo know what comes after “Once upon a time….”  

If I also tell you that it will be a while before we should use Lily-Rose Depp’s name in the same sentence as the word "actress" and that the film’s title is only tangentially relevant, you’ll probably wonder what could possibly redeem Planetarium. One thing, surely, is Natalie Portman. Not only is she fully bilingual in her role, she so thoroughly transforms herself into the very essence of a 1930s film star that one reviewer suggested she was born 75 years too soon. She even looks a bit like blend of Marlene Dietrich and Ava Gardner.  

Let’s stay with how the film looks, because the other true star of the film is cinematographer George Lechaptois. It is truly one of the more fascinating films of recent memory insofar as its moods are delivered visually. It might make little sense, but to my eyes Planetarium was like a mash of Cabaret, A Ghost Story, a gauzy dream, and a live action graphic novel. The character of André Korben is based upon that of real-life director Bernard Nathan, a very controversial figure who was nonetheless an innovator. It is tempting to think that Zlotkowski’s scattershot narrative is a backhand nod at what happened to French film after World War Two: "New Wave" directors emerged who emphasized visual impact over narrative coherence.

Then again, I may be giving far more credit than is due. Even if this was Zlotkowski’s intent, no one will confuse her with Goddard, Resnais, or Varda. Still, there are wonderful possibilities embedded within Planetarium struggling to come out. It dazzles the eyes, Portman is amazing, and—as bad as it was—I mused over it for a long time. As we watched, my wife asked me several times if any of the move made sense. Each time I replied, “I’m not sure, but it’s fascinating.” I admit that’s an odd recommendation. My only defense is that stimulating and profound things sometimes emerge from botched efforts.

Rob Weir