Don Gallardo, Lighthouse Keepers, Loebe and Napier, Merritt Gibson, Whiskey Wolves

Don Gallardo, Still Here

Loved, loved, loved the latest from Don Gallardo. It's a delightful folk/country/bluegrass mix evocative of the kind of projects the late Steve Goodman used to do with such great aplomb. Like Goodman, Gallardo tempers even his hard times songs with sunny-days-are-around-the-next-bend optimism. Gallardo also has a warm, inviting voice that’s its own balm. In some ways, the opening track, “Something I Gotta Learn,” sums Gallardo’s outlook. He takes kicks in the teeth with, “I don’t want to get over this/Let it hurt” determination and declares, “It could have been worse/Which is something I gotta learn.” That’s wisdom he tries to pass on; “The Golden Rule,” its message enhanced with emotive electric guitar, is a confessional of a man trying to protect his son from repeating his mistakes: “Kept him clean of the bad things I’ve seen/Ain’t that the Golden Rule?” These two, like each of the twelve tracks, grabs us with strong melodies, zinger lines, and memorable hooks.  And what a fine crop he cultivates: a country two-step (“Oh Jane”), a Texas-style weepy (“The Loving Kind”), some clarinet-led Dixieland swing (“Stay Awhile”), classic tonk (“The Bitter End”), several Appalachia-influenced pieces, occasional Dylanesque cadences (“Ballad of a Stranger’s Heart”), and crisp wordplay throughout. A small personal treat is “Alley Talkin’ Blues # 12,” which would be a great song just for the line “On the way to being lost/I got lost along the way.” It’s filled with wry humor in an amusing morality tale gone wrong, the kind Steve Goodman surely would have written had he not died so young. Still Here is a fantastic album; don’t miss it. ★★★★★

Lighthouse Keepers, Lighthouse Keepers

First things first, this six-piece outfit is a group of Harvard friends, not the Australian band of the same name. Second, this Lighthouse Keepers lineup spins musical magic—some of it sprinkled with fairy dust. They peg themselves an “indie” band, but I found them more in the ork-pop vein. (The “ork” here is a play on orchestral, not Tolkien baddies.) If you imagine the chamber rock band Renaissance as jazzier and infused with more bluegrass influences, you’d be on the same shoals as Lighthouse Keepers. They are powered b the vocals of Abby Westover who, if not quite Renaissance’s Annie Haslam, is a dynamic presence in her own right. Her strong, clear voice has the emotive impact of pop jazz and she is especially adroit at letting her tones swirl with the instrumentation: ukuleles, fiddle, bass, and guitar. “Liar’s Dice” is upbeat and poppy and the lovely “Edinburgh” harkens back to great folk balladry, but Lighthouse Keepers grab us with music that swirls in trance-like ways. “Worryblur” is a fine example of this; it’s jazzy, but also and trippy enough to evoke 60s psychedelia. That same feel comes through in the experimental “Oblivion.” Although Ms Westover has a great voice, Lighthouse Keepers won’t have you hanging onto each word; their goal is to let listeners drift with notes that bend and blend—floaty music in the very best sense. I’m impressed by how they manage to create this effect with acoustic instruments. Lighthouse Keepers are a young band, and I’m already to take a ride on whatever magic carpet ride they have up their sleeves. ★★★★

Rebecca Loebe and Findlay Napier, Filthy Jokes

Sure wish this one had landed in my inbox earlier than it did because "Joy to World" is one of the best new holiday songs I've heard in ages—a New Year's ditty with honest advice and salutations such as "Laugh more, fight less/Joy to the world I guess." It's a great song, even if it is a few months late. Lucky for us there are a few other songs on this EP that grew out of a songwriting retreat between the Austin-based Rebecca Loebe and Scotland's Findlay Napier. Let me just say that if either of these names is unfamiliar to you, it's time to get up to speed. Napier is not just a great songwriter, he has a terrific and powerful voice, as you will hear on "BadMedicine," a folk song with polished studio production. (The link is live.) Celtic fans might know his work with the band Back of the Moon. Loebe is no slouch either; her voice is soft and pretty, but it's adorned with a splash of husk at the edges. Both have great senses of humor as well. We hear Napier's wry commentary on making relationships work in "Option to Buy," and Loebe in the lead on the title track, a honky tonk explanation to a marriage made somewhere other than heaven: "Finally you've found someone/To laugh at all your filthy jokes." The stunner is "Kilimanjaro," a passage through life song in 4:21 with a poignant ending. ★★★★

Merritt Gibson, Eyes on Us

Merritt Gibson, a 19-year-old singer/songwriter who grew up in Boston, pens songs about love, breakups, loyalty, and how hard it is to let go. Her debut record is an impressive effort that shows influences from indie rock and new wave power pop, though it's often strongest when she tamps down the noise. You'll hear definite new wave touches on the heavy bass and edgy instrumentation of the title track. "Burning Hot" features clipped, quick machine gun runs reminiscent of The Cars, and the eerie keyboards and melody of "I Heard" is strongly suggestive of the Eurythmics. We'll get back to that. "When You Were Mine" has an intriguing point of view: that of a past relationship that seems sweeter in retrospect than it was at the time. It's also hard to resist "My Best Friends," in which Gibson lays down the law: "I don't intend/To choose a boy over my best friends." These pop songs have appeal, but also betray Gibson's youth. When songs invite comparisons it's easy to say she's no Annie Lenox. Few are. It also reveals that Gibson's voice is pretty and powerful, but it's not yet clear. Many of the songs are within the same range, which is why my favorite tracks by far are the quieter ones in which she competes with fewer things. "Area Code" is a nice song— one of desperate yearning built around unanswered phone calls. In "Truth and Myth," Gibson is tender and vulnerable; in "Cold War II" she's dark and pessimistic (even if the metaphors are forced). I was glad she finished with "Faraway," a love song of wishing to freeze time. Since she claims her work is autobiographical, I was worried she's been really unlucky for one so young. Let's call Merritt Gibson a gem in need of more polish, but definitely a rising talent. ★★★½

Whiskey Wolves of the West, Country Roots

Can you make a country record that’s so retro modern audiences will find it new? The Whiskey Wolves of the West are hoping so. The lineup is really the songwriting duo of Tim Jones (vocals and guitar) and Leroy Powell (vocals, guitar, and everything else from pedal steel to clarinet). Their approach is to unveil original material that sounds faintly like dusted-off outlaw country from the 60s and 70s as power vocalists such as Levon Helm and Waylon Jennings might have sung it. “Sound of the South” has everything from rolling organ, references to Elvis, and soulful Muscle Shoals evocations in a track that good ‘ole Southern music cures what ails you. “Lay That Needle Down” also takes up back to the age of vinyl in an “… all I need right now/Is the comfort of your company” song; and “Song Ain’t Gonna Write Itself” is the ultimate retro potpourri: a two-step rockabilly number with some surf guitar, some pedal steel, and big vocals. “Rainy Day Lovers” is also filled with old country tropes; it unfolds in a “honky tonk haze” and is about a hard luck man looking for a woman who, “Knows how to treat a man… [a] crazy kind of company to put me back where I belong.” Does this work? Yes and no. There are lots of borrowed riffs and vibes and its seven tracks feel about the right number for us to recall some of good-time feel of old-style white Southern country without getting into its problematic politics. ★★★


May Musings on Baseball & My GM Fantasies

I Wanna Be a GM for a Day!

Okay, I'm eating crow on the Arizona Diamondbacks, whom I picked to finish dead last in the NL West. I still don't think they will win the West, but when you take twenty of your first thirty, odds are good you'll make the playoffs. To put that in perspective, if the D'Backs won just half of their remaining games, they'd finish with 85 wins—probably good enough. If they scratched that to 90, it's definitely good enough. As of this writing, they've won 25 of 43. May I please have some sauce for my crow?

I've also been wrong about the Texas Rangers, whose pitching I figured would at least be mediocre. That's what it's been—except for ageless wonder Bartolo Colon—but everything else has gone south. Is Joey Gallo a bust (like Profar)? What happened to Odor? I predicted management would break up the team midseason, but now I think it will come earlier. It's probably not too soon to begin that process in Baltimore, Kansas City, or Cincinnati either.

We will see what the Boston Red Sox are made of. It has to be disheartening to have the greatest start in team history and still be looking up at the Yankees. If David Price doesn't pitch better, the Sox rotation might not be as solid as anticipated. They also have bullpen issues and are probably going to have to make trades they'd rather not make. One sensible move would be to trade Jackie Bradley while he still has some value. He's a streak hitter who is better than his current .171, but not much better. Great glove, but lifetime he's a .235 hitter. The Sox perennially overhype players; if you can get a decent middle reliever for Bradley, you make the trade. Swihart will definitely be moved and he won't get top value either as the Sox didn't showcase him.

Speaking of showcasing, a boo hiss to the Red Sox for burying Rusney Castillo in Pawtucket, where he's knocked the cover off the ball. Release him so he gets his shot at the Bigs. Yes, you'll have to eat some money, but it's just not fair to let such considerations keep a talented player down on the farm. Alternatively, in Boston he'd probably hit better than Bradley.

How long will the rope be before the Dodgers give Dave Roberts a tug?  It also looks as if the Buck Showalter train has jumped the track.

The Mets dumped Matt Harvey—shocking, but needed. Other teams with tough decisions include the Yankees, who simply must cut ties with Jacoby Ellsbury. There are six current outfielders ahead of him on the depth chart and several more just a year or two behind. Put me in GM Brian Cashman's place and Ellsbury goes on revocable waivers. If no direct rival claims him, wave goodbye. By the way, who had spring training in the annual "Jacoby Goes Lame" pool? The Yankees may also face an issue with Greg Bird, whom I believe isn't a real person. There's a zipper in his back and Nick Johnson resides within. Seriously, folks, trade Bird. Tyler Austin has been fine and first basemen aren't that hard to replace.

Speaking of trades you don't want to make, the Yankees desperately need another pitcher if they want to go deep into the postseason. That probably means they'll have to part with Clint Frazier, who is blocked by Ellsbury's contract.

I said the Phillies might mature earlier than expected. Looks like that is happening. The Braves also seem well along on their youthful rebuild and are currently in first in the NL East. I don't think that will last—this year—but the Braves have seriously good young prospects. And I really like the Brewers.

Raise your hand if you're happy your team didn't sign Yu Darvish. Or Lance Lynn. Or Jaime Garcia.

I wonder why no one has taken a flyer on Matt Garza or Melky Cabrera? 

The biggest disappointment early on has to be the Twins. Maybe those young prospects just aren't as good as advertised. Lucky for the Twins, they are in the AL Central and the Indians have had a horrible start.

Since I've been speculating, time for one of my favorite games: If I Were a General Manager. Here are: Rob's Rules for Being a Smart GM.
            1. Never ever sign a speedy player to a long-term contract unless his name is Ricky Henderson. When speed merchants slow down you're left with: Jacoby Ellsbury.

            2. Never trade even middling prospect pitchers for position players unless the position players are named Trout or Stanton. 

            3. Never shell out big bucks for an infielder over 30 or an outfielder over 32.

            4. Fire every trainer and pitching consultant in your system and start over. It's time to recognize that all the Tommy John surgeries have something to do with flawed training habits. For starters I'd not allow a pitcher anywhere near a weight room. Let's hear it for Bartolo Colon body types.

            5. Never waste roster space on one-trick ponies. What good is a lefty specialist who tosses 2/3 of an inning per week, or a DH you can't send onto the field? On my team, every position player gets a day off, as my DH and utility players are good enough to play multiple positions. Ideally my backup catcher can also play first base. And a lefty specialist who gets clubbed by right-handed batters is a thrower, not a pitcher. No thanks.

            6. Conventional wisdom is wrong about how hitters should be distributed in the lineup. Why put your contact hitters 1-2 when they will only hit that way in the first inning. And why stack all the power 3-6? For most clubs, 7-9 is where you try to hide weak hitters. My ideal lineup would look like this:

                        1. Fastest player on team if he is a high OBP player that doesn't whiff.
                        2. Contact hitter who puts the ball into play and has decent power. (Although I like the Yanks using Judge as #2.)
                        3. Slugger # 1
                        4. High OBP player who is patient at the plate.
                        5. Slugger # 2
                        6. Contact hitter
                        7. Player with highest strikeout rate
                        8. Slugger # 3
                        9. Contact hitter

            7. Use rational metrics and tell the crazies to get lost. On-base percentage matters, dammit! And so do strikeouts. There is no excuse for not advancing a runner from second with nobody out, or failing to plate a runner on third with less than two outs. Statheads can kiss my Home Plate: Wins matter for pitchers. Look at Jack Morris. He never worried about gaudy stats; he pitched to the situation and won 254 games. I'm still miffed that Felix Hernandez took the Cy Young in a year he won only 14 games. While I'm ranting, I've had it with the Michael Pineda/Sonny Gray/Kevin Gausman/Chris Archer types that manage to hit bats at the worst possible time yet keep their Stathead numbers high. 

            8. Hire a manager to make decisions, not make buddies or placate agents. They may turn out okay but turning over a team like the Red Sox or the Yankees to guys who've never managed is like building a world-class research lab and hiring a junior high school chemist to run it. 

            9. Never believe a single word out of Scott Boras' mouth.

            10. Never build a roster around two or three superstars and backfill the rest. You'll end up like the Orioles or the Reds—or like the Angels until they decided it might be a good idea to have a few decent pitchers.  



Our House as Advertised: A Twisty Mystery

Our House (2018)
By Louise Candlish
Simon and Schuster, 416 pages.

Imagine you are living in your dream house, a large elegant home in an exclusive part of South London where your neighbors brag about soaring house values and are talking millions, not thousands. You have everything you ever wanted—a handsome husband, an interesting professional job, two adorable young boys, a nice car, and a leafy manicured backyard. Then it all goes wrong. It's bad enough when you catch your husband bonking a neighbor in the kids' playhouse and throw him out. It gets worse when you go out of town for a few days, come home, and your furniture is gone, and another family has moved into your house. Apparently it's all perfectly legal, as there's a bill of sale signed by your estranged husband and yourself!

That's the nightmare facing Fiona Lawson in Louise Candlish's domestic noir Our House. She knows she never signed over her home, but Bram (Abraham) is nowhere to be found. Slowly Fiona comes to the realization that she's been a naïve dupe. It wasn't the first time Bram strayed, and what was she thinking when she entered into a "nesting" separation agreement in which she and Bram rented a nearby apartment so that, in the name of stability for the children, they could split custody and live-in dates until the divorce settlement?

Candlish's novel seems as if will be a cookie cutter gullible woman versus deceitful man tale. That's part of it, but this is indeed—as promos tag it— a "twisty mystery." In many ways it's a cautionary tale of the snowballing effects of bad decision-making by both Bram and Fiona. Bram is the mug shot for testosterone poisoning and male rage, and clueless Fiona is the quintessence of a helicopter parent who sacrifices her own desires and commonsense in the name of protecting her children. But, again, if this was all it was, Our House could be relegated to the pulp fiction bin. Louise Candlish is too skilled to stop at the clichéd or obvious.  

Before this novel concludes we tread a lot of ground, including peeks into the Dark Web, con artistry, blackmail, and even podcasts. Fiona willingly participates in a series called "The Victim" to warn other women of what can happen to them and detail how easily she was duped. This, of course, means she opens herself for comments from both sympathetic listeners and trolls. Collectively they act as a makeshift Greek chorus that judge her every action, presuppose her motives, and cast her as either courageous or an idiot. Listener comments are one of three voices in the novel, which also switches between Fiona's point of view and Bram's, his both in the present and in Word documents.

Our House could be seen as a confirmation of Sir Walter Scott's line, "Oh what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive." Candlish takes it step further and shows how deceit snowballs to the point where each new falsehood is a shovel for a self-dug grave. In such a novel, trust is a moving target and the book's very conclusion rests upon how one decides upon whom and where to place one's trust. I will admit I did not see coming the things that transpired.

Candlish creates characters with depth, a touch that extends beyond Fiona and Bram to both secondary and incidental figures. Like all gifted suspense writers, she is so gifted in misdirection that it's only after you've finished that you realize that several of the setups are implausible. Do we use the phrase page-turner any more? If not, call Our House a real finger-swiper!

Rob Weir



History Repeats? Moralists versus the Oneida Community

The Ministers’ War: John W. Mears, the Oneida Community, and the Crusade for Public Morality. By Michael Doyle. Syracuse University Press. 2018.

This review originally appeared n NEPCA Journal. I re-post it because there are parallels to how today's self-appointed moralists react to those whose lifestyles are outside the mainstream. 

Antebellum activism is often refracted through an abolitionist lens, though few Northern evangelicals compartmentalized reform. Protestant ministers spearheading change could be found among any of a number of reform groups.  In this regard, the subject of Michael Doyle’s fascinating study, the Rev. John W. Mears (1825-1881), was typical of men from the rising Northern middle class whose passions were inflamed by the religious revivals of the Second Great Awakening, which reached their height in the 1830s. There wasn’t much that Mears didn’t see as a sin in need of extirpation: prostitution, birth control literature, Mormonism, water pollution, Roman Catholicism, Valentine’s Day cards, obscenity…. The last of these, obscenity, really distressed Mears who was, as Doyle, a Washington, DC-based reporter, puts it, a “virtuous man (44).”

Battles over obscenity often stumble over its definition and parameters. As Doyle suggests, this was Mears’ problem. In the crucial decades before the Civil War, virtue was generally synonymous with the values of the middle class, but it took Mears some time to direct his prodigious energies at the targets that consumed him: John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886) and the Oneida Community. On the surface, the Oneida Community was what we’d today call a “soft target.” It was, after all, rooted in ideals located far from the banks of the mainstream, the least controversial of which was shared property and living arrangements rooted in spiritual communism. Members also practiced a system of “complex marriage” in which all men and women could (in theory) have carnal relations with each other. Moreover, Noyes equated unwanted pregnancy as enslavement of women, hence the keystone practice of “male continence.” More shocking still, young men learned this discipline through intercourse with postmenopausal women. Noyes himself was a bail jumper who escaped Putney, Vermont, and a possible jail term for adultery back in 1847. So why did it take Mears and the other ministers he recruited until 1881 to force the dissolution of the Oneida Community?

One of the many merits of Doyle’s book is that he captures aspects of the nineteenth-century Zeitgeist in just 172 briskly written pages. Mears shared commonality with others emboldened by the Second Great Awakening, but as Paul Johnson and others have demonstrated, conversion in Western New York State’s “burned-over district” was weighted heavily toward the middle class.  Most locals were farmers and artisans. Although they disapproved of Oneida Community practices, most were also intrigued (possibly titillated) by them, found the group to be good neighbors, and were willing to live and let live. This adds an under-examined class dimension to the crusade against Oneida.

It is important to note that neither Mears nor Noyes should be viewed through modern eyes. The Presbyterian Mears was meddlesome, but he was not akin to contemporary moralists. Northern evangelists were not fundamentalists—the concept barely existed then. Mears studied theology at Yale, revered Immanuel Kant, and was an exacting professor of moral philosophy at Hamilton College. Nor was Noyes a proto-hippie free lover; the Dartmouth/Andover Seminary-educated Noyes based community sexual practices in conceptions of primitive Christianity and a belief in moral perfectionism, the latter a key element of Second Great Awakening thought. In one of the books many concise summaries, Doyle details ways in which Mears and Noyes were quite similar in many respects. The sexual practices gap, though, was simply too wide for the stern Mears to bridge.

Mears prevailed—sort of; Oneida disbanded in 1881, but Mears expired that same year. One is tempted to draw parallels between the minister’s campaign against Oneida and today’s culture wars but, again, Doyle’s objective is to shed light on the nineteenth century, not our own time. Oneida was an endlessly intoxicating experiment about which much has been written. The dissolution narrative generally ends with the incorporation of the community’s chief source of income, its flatware manufactory. Doyle deftly illumines the lesser-known details of the organized opposition that forced the community’s hand. Metaphorically, Noyes represents the utopian impulse and Mears what Robert Wiebe famously dubbed “the search for order.” Doyle's small gem of a book should prove invaluable in facilitating discussions of ante- and postbellum America. Undergraduates will appreciate its clarity and brevity; general readers will find it fascinating.

Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts