New England Fashion an Amusing Concept!

This might sound odd from a guy whose idea of fashion is a clean T-shirt, but one of my favorite features in the paper is its periodic look at “local fashion.” The quotation marks are necessary because New Englanders don’t really do fashion. But that doesn’t prevent some folks from trying. I love the fashion section because it’s so damned funny.

Weather conspires against high fashion. In Massachusetts, there are just 98 days of full sunshine per year, and more than a third of the time Mr. Sol fails to appear at all. Imagine the statistics for northern Vermont or Down East Maine. We get enough snow, ice, rain, and cold to make skinny fashion models reach for long underwear, pork rinds, hot coffee, and the “Help Wanted” ads. New England fashion pretty much gravitates between styles labeled “prep,” “classic,” “hunting and fishing,” and “Igloowear.”

Here are some things that make for New England fashion amusement:

1. Uggs are rather universally panned these days. I don’t find them offensive, but they seem pretty dumb up these parts. We call untreated suede “bedroom slippers,” and know better than to wear them on slushy streets. We also wonder why anyone would wear them in warm weather.
2. Short dresses with down jackets make even less sense. Replace the rule of thumb with the rule of knee: If your knees turn red when you go outside, put on long pants! The male equivalent is the idea that a hoodie is outerwear. I don’t know whether to laugh or scowl when I see some young guy shivering in 10-degree weather. Hoodies are a layer, dude! (Move the calendar to June. Observe the same feckless youth sweltering in his hoodie.)

3. Sneakers: No more than two primary colors under any circumstance. Avoid all hues that look like something went wrong in the chemistry lab.

4. Long shorts are a contradiction in terms—especially if, like me, you’re short. It’s embarrassing when people come up to you and ask how you manage to walk without knees. NBA players are even worse; their ‘shorts’ make them look as if 80% of their height is from the waist up.

5. Clam diggers are for people who can’t decide between jeans and shorts. For the record, they have nothing to do with hunting mollusks; actual clam diggers wear wicked tall rubber boots. As fashion, Grace Kelly introduced clam diggers. She would have looked just as glamorous wearing the aforementioned rubber boots.

6. When I see ripped jeans I think, “Sucker!” Practical New Englanders either patch ripped jeans, or call them “rags.” If you must have a pair, don’t pay some fashion label $100; buy a pair of $30 Lees from Target, an exacto knife, and make your own.

7. On most men, moccasin style shoes say “geezer.” Or “banker on holiday.”

8. I am a proud Scot. Scots have a quirky sense of humor. Plaid is the best joke Scots have ever played on the world. There are–maybe­–two plaids that look halfway attractive. Chances are they are not in an L.L. Bean catalog near you.

9. There are two worse patterns than plaid, one of which is madras. I think it comes from the Hindi words that means, “getting sick from Indian food that’s off.” The worst of all, though, is camouflage, which is French for “monkey butt ugly.” Do you ever have the urge to come up to some camo-clad mall rat and say, “Despite your best efforts to hide, I saw you behind that rack of fuchsia towels?”

10. Pastels look good in Florida. In New England they make you look like a lost tourist. 

11. Hey guys, WTF with the sport jacket and an untucked shirt hanging a foot below the jacket hem. It makes you look like either: (a) a person who needs to get up 10 minutes earlier to finish dressing, (b) a slob, (c) a person who needs to ask his mom what goes together, or (d) all of the above.

12. It’s hard to avoid logos like the Nike swoosh, Lacoste alligators, or designer labels, but steer clear of what I call billboardware—the stuff that blasts the brand name and logo all over the article of clothing. You are, in essence, paying big bucks to become a walking advertisement. Especially avoid clothing that plasters its name across your rear end, or anything filled with so many logos it makes you look like a NASCAR driver or a Tour de France biker. Here’s the difference: those companies sponsor the celebrities, whereas you pay the companies for the privilege of looking dopey.
13. If you’re a normal person, avoid things in catalogs that say slimming. Yeah—they take a 100-poung woman or a ripped 160-pound guy, stick ‘em in Spandex and they instantly look to be not an ounce over 95 or 157. You will look like meat being stuffed into a sausage skin.

14. Mullet dresses. Just no. No mullet anything for anybody except hockey players missing at least 9 teeth. 

Not Ok.



Vivian Leva June Album of the Month

Time is Everything

There's no need to wait; Vivian Leva's Time is Everything is the best album of the month of June—maybe the year. My goodness, what a gorgeous voice! Leva grew up with traditional music in the Blue Ridge of Virginia and she sings it with a purity that could make those old mountains weep. She and her musical partner, Riley Calcagno (banjo, mandolin, fiddle), demonstrate the innate and intuitive understanding that Appalachian, old-time, and country music don't need a lot of musical ornaments when a good song and a great voice collide.

Let's talk about Ms. Leva's voice. The first song that grabbed and wouldn't let go was "Every Goodbye." It couldn't be simpler—just a bit of easy strum mandolin to frame it as Leva's voice hits each down stroke and lingers in the spaces in between. Yet somehow, if one morething were added, the spell would be broken. "Last of My Kind" is in the same vein—unpretentious music that speaks for itself. The catch in Leva's voice turns this into a weepy in the very best sense. You weep for the song's beauty, its fragility, and the utter perfection of the spare arrangement. And then there's the title track. There's a little flat-picked guitar and then, if we tweaked Leva's twang to make it sound more Texan than Virginian, you'd swear you stumbled across an unknown Nanci Griffith song.

The good news keeps on coming. Leva does retro country as well as she does neo-trad. "Bottom of the Glass" is honky-tonk at a slow gallop, "Wishes and Dreams" a gentle country waltz, and "Sturdy as the Land" has a bridge in which Leva's voice is almost like a meadowlark yodel. Rather have some bluegrass breakdown? Try "No Forever." "Here I Am" features piano notes that evoke an old standup. It's the sort of song that would have been an outro from the golden days of mountain music radio. Maybe this sounds like an oxymoron, but I'd label this album nouveau retro mountain/country music.

Before signing off, let me give a shout out to Riley Calgano, a musician some may know from his time in The Onlies. He's a fine player and could have certainly put himself forward on this project. Instead, he honors the music and Ms. Leva's voice in ways that shape the song instead of spotlighting virtuosity. Anyone with the beyond ego self-control to respect the music earns mine. Calgano's backing is skillful, tasteful, and tune appropriate at all times.

This is simply a marvelous record. Listen. Enjoy. Thrill. Weep.

Rob Weir


Death of Stalin is No Funnier than Stalin Himself

Directed by Armando Iannucci
IFC Films, 107 minutes, R (language, violence, crude and disturbing sexual references)

The humor in The Death of Stalin is droll, dark, and irreverent. Unfortunately it’s also dull, crude, and as broad as Rush Limbaugh’s backside. (Hey, why not put all our tyrants in the same bowl of borscht?) I was hoping for an offbeat comedy such as Christopher Guest, Wes Anderson, or the Coen Brothers would make, but Scottish—yes he is Scottish—director Armando Iannucci isn’t up to such standards. He’s not even up to a sophomoric Mel Brooks-like effort.

The setup is real enough, even if Iannucci plays loose with facts. Josef Stalin took power in 1924, after pretty much betraying the Russian Revolution and turning the Soviet Union into a combination gulag and killing field. By the 1930s he had established himself as one of history’s great monsters—one responsible for the death of three times more Russians than Jews under Hitler. His brutal secret service, the NKVD, led by the brutal torturer Lavnentiy Beria routinely rounded up “enemies” of the State—a category that pretty much meant any sort of rival to the Stalin cult of personality. Survival required becoming a glad-hand sycophant and even then, one had to be careful that a drunken remark or poorly worded joke didn’t cause fatal offense.

Move the clock to 1953, the year in which we join the tale. The film opens to a Radio Moscow concert and a phone call from Comrade Stalin himself demanding a recording of the evening’s performance. Big problem—no tapes were rolling, but engineer Andreyev (Paddy Considine) and others in the booth know their heads will tumble if they don’t provide one. They scramble frantically to reassemble the musicians, find a conductor to replace the one who scampered out, and recruit a new audience. The line of scruffy peasants entering the hall is funny enough, albeit a gag that trades in stereotypes. But as the recording is delivered to a courier, pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) slips a hate note into the album sleeve. Stalin sees it, laughs heartily, and collapses to the floor with a cerebral hemorrhage.

Call this the first of many scenes that could have been outlandishly humorous but is instead only mildly so. Stalin is lying on the floor, but there are no competent doctors to be found because Stalin had them all shot. (Not so!) So we watch his inner circle of yes men stand about wringing their hands: Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the hapless Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), the conniving “Niki” Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), and the bureaucratic waffler Vyascheslav Molotov (Michael Palin). “This is terrible,” each proclaims, but none will take action lest Stalin survive and disapprove or, worse, he dies and the others turn against the actor in the power struggle sure to ensue. It could have been amusing, but it plays like a third-rate Victorian drawing room comedy.

Also misplaced is the orchestration of Stalin’s funeral. Instead of a full-bore send up of the State-directed/bungled attempt at image and impression management, we get a stitched-together parade of one-liners that are essentially a skim milk version of the dialogue among thugs from Quentin Taratino’s Reservoir Dogs. The only part of this sequence that brings a smile comes from Tambor as Malenkov. Under the Soviet constitution, he is acting head of state, a job for which he is as qualified as a plumber is to do brain surgery. There is funny sequence in which Malenkov tries to manufacture continuity by recreating an iconic photo of a smiling Stalin embracing a peasant girl oblivious to the fact that said photo was a few years out of date. His "official" portrait is also a hoot.

The central lampoon of the messiness and bloodiness of Stalin’s succession is true in its essence, though it’s unnecessarily freighted with detail that is more scene-chewing than central to the story: Svetlana’s (Andrea Riseborough) Jekyll and Hyde act of grieving daughter and erstwhile plotter, or Rupert Friend’ rather ham-handed turn as Stalin’s drunken and cowardly son Vasily. Jason Issacs goes so far over the top as the be-scarred General Zhukov I expected extras to enter the room and proclaim, “Hail, Caesar!”  Uncharacteristically, Buscemi is flat at Khrushchev, and Tambor brings to the table many of the same fey qualities from TV’s Transparent. The best performance by far is that of Simon Russell Beale, who is chilling as Beria.

As for the rest, I give credit for not trying to make the actors speak in bad Russian accents, but that’s about it. There is nothing remarkable about the camera work, the cinematography, or the script. There are pocketfuls of laughs scattered here and there, but not enough to offset inappropriate jokes about rape, rampant ethnic stereotyping, or gruesome scenes such as Stalin’s autopsy or the murder of Beria. The script was developed from a graphic novel and that is part of the problem. Not to slam graphic novels, but most are more visual than verbal and The Death of Stalin needed sharper words to pillory the world of soulless apparatchiks serving a heartless tyrant. By the time you read this review, The Death of Stalin will be available in video and streaming. A better fate would be to send it to Siberia.

Rob Weir