Women with Amazing Voices

To repeat an old rant, too many Nashville-based female singers are like Lego pieces: unsnap one and pop another into place. As a rule they are young, small-voiced, whispery-toned sopranos—pretty to hear, but with all the distinctiveness of a block of clapboard houses painted white. Here's a June 2018 edition of Women with Amazing Voices—the ones that will make you want to stuff those Lego pieces back in the box and hide them in the closet.

Ellen Starski, The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants

Ellen Starski has a unique voice you'll either love or find odd. Put me firmly in the first camp. Its nasal, but expressive; dramatic, but controlled. The latter quality is one I really admire. "Daughter of the Sea" is a perfect example. This song has theatrical qualities with its bouncy, edgy strings, but it's deliberately paced and the tension comes from small shifts in Starski's voice, not flashy outbursts. It's also typical in that most of the songs are about loss, family, and coming to grips with the ways of adult life. "Ode to Nanny and Cookie" is about her grandmothers; the tone is somber and wrapped in moody repeated guitar pulses. "Miss You Mary" is homage to her mother and she wrenches emotion from lines such as I was looking for a place to bury the past with you. A different kind of yearning emerges in "Missing You," Glimpses of you still surface on my skin/I shower and the world comes crashing in…. Starski lists influences such as Leonard Cohen, Aimee Mann, and Sarah McLachlan, but there's also some old-time country in it that, to me, evoked Kitty Wells. Check out songs such as "Honey, I'm Not Him." When she sings I told you once don't make me tell you again/You better stay away from my man it's way more ominous than you'd expect. It also has Appalachian seasonings that reflect the northwest Pennsylvania coal country from which she hails. "Taken By the Breeze" also has an old-time flair, though its catchiness is enhanced with just a touch of mariachi brass that takes us south of the mountains. Ms. Starski also has a footlights-quality to parts of her repertoire. "Chasin' the Sun" feels like a string band vaudeville song, and she also engages in moody spoken word forays such as "Slip of Paper" and the title track, one that is completely silent for thirty seconds before Starski recites a rhythmic poem to flute and snare drum accompaniment. I always appreciate musicians who take chances and Starski's recording ranks high among my 2018 favorites.  ★★★★★

Gretchen Peters, Sad Songs Make Me Happy

Perhaps the name Gretchen Peters gives you pause, but I’ll bet you know her music. She has a dozen records of her own, including the newly released Dancing with the Beast, but she is best known as a songwriter; she even has a niche in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Her “Independence Day”—a hit for Martina McBride—ranks # 50 of the Top 100 greatest country songs of all time, but you’ve not heard it the way it should be sung until you’ve heard Peters perform it. Luckily you can; NoiseTrade has released it on a compilation of Peters’ back catalogue material. Take the collection title seriously; Peters has an affinity for tough songs. “Independence Day,” for example, is based on the infamous 1977 Francine Hughes case, and involves an eight-year-old girl who is at the fair the day her mother sets fire to the home of her abusive husband while he and she are in it.* A tragedy? Not from Peters’ perspective!  Disappearing Act” (from her new album) is about mortality, and "Blackbird" is another murder ballad.  “On a Bus to St. Cloud,” a hit for Trisha Yearwood, is a sad song of missing a lost love; and “When All You Got is a Hammer” is about an Iraq War vet who comes home with PTSD and the deck stacked against him. When he chillingly strikes back Peters sings, When all you got is a hammer/Everything looks like a nail. There are several tender moments on this collection, including the lovely “The Way You Move Me” and her Peters' manifesto of things of value in “The Answer.” Mostly, though, this is an album about when life isn’t exactly as imagines, like the harried woman in “Five Minutes,” or the woman aching for “The Matador,” but fearing his rage and not sure who I was cheering for… I loved the fighter and the bull. A final word: Although Ms. Peters’ music is often labeled country, that's an inaccurate descriptor. Her voice is like a huskier version of Emmylou Harris’ and like Harris, the music transgresses folk, pop, country, and Americana borders. Quite a lot, in fact, is piano-based—more like a rawhide tough Sara Bareilles than a CMT cutout. ★★★★★ 

*For those needing further proof Sean Hannity is an idiot, he has used "Independence Day" as a theme for his radio show under the mistaken impression it's a patriotic song!

Angela Josephine, Daylight

This album has been dubbed a combination "folk-opera and personal exploration" and that's an excellent description. It's deeply spiritual in a dark and honest way—musings filled with doubt, yearning, and surrender to the reality there are mysteries we cannot answer. In her stunning eight-minute finale "Face to the Wind," Angela Josephine asks do you know the way of darkness? Her revelation isn't what you expect, nor is her insistence: I'm taking the cross in this way/there's no other way… In it we also hear some of the instruments she has mastered: piano, guitar, mandolin, dulcimers….  Ms. Josephine's voice is soulful, emotive, and adaptable. She's Grace Slick-like in the way she works the band and trippy grooves of "Got to Believe," which is another song that doesn't play out to usual scripts. She takes to task a man with no one to hold/just a prayer/and a Bible/and what you've been told. And what do we do with the refrain of the ambience-dripped, feedback-enhanced, echoic "River Rising" with its refrain: O sister glory be/Glory be our mother/O sister glory be/The father, son, the lover. The title track is the album's most cheerful, one that unfolds to scampering of mando notes, but Josephine mostly walks on the mysterious and dark side. "Red Roses," for example, is a (sort of) love song but one so moody it could be French—or Leonard Cohen! Josephine is a talented singer, musician, poet, and thinker. She recorded this album in a barn in her Michigan Upper Peninsula homeland and those old beams sparked a lot of serious contemplation. ★★★★

Kris Angelis, Photobooth

Florida-born Kris Angelis now resides in Los Angeles, where she's an actress and singer/songwriter. She has just dropped a single titled "Photobooth" and has released a five-song NoiseTrade EP to mark this. Like much of her music over the past 5-plus years, "Photobooth" is upbeat, a giddy romance unfolding behind a photo booth curtain. Angelis has a small voice, but it's sweet and she can kick it up to drop into danceable arrangements. She draws comparisons to Brandi Carlile and Rachel Platten, though I think her voice is cleaner than Platten's. Check out "Heartbreak is Contagious," her warning she doesn't want to be the rebound girl. Much of it is just guitar and voice, but Angelis gives lots of bounce to the song to make it sound bigger than it is. That's the same approach we hear in the piano-shaped "Prove Me Wrong," the joyous "Roll the Dice," and the indie energy of "A Billion Hearts." Perhaps you've seen Angelis on TV; now give her a listen. ★★★★



On Chesil Beach Exudes Quiet Tragedy

Directed by Dominic Cooke
Bleecker Street Media, 110 minutes, R (some nudity, sexual situations)

Two things are obvious in watching On Chesil Beach: Saoirse Ronan is one helluva of an actress and Ian McEwan says more in a novella than lesser writers manage to utter in their doorstop tomes. This scant story manages to tear at our heartstrings through a slow simmer rather than a raging boil. It is a tragic tale that relies on two of the saddest scenarios imaginable. What if you met the right person, but at the wrong time? What if a couple was perfect for each other—except for one thing about which neither knew anything at all?

Florence Ponting (Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) meet at Oxford and are immediately drawn to each other because they are unlike their peers. She is the haute bourgeoisie offspring of a tyrannical industrial titan father and a toffee-nosed mother, with only younger sister Violet (Emily Watson) to lend support. She is both terrified of and resents her father—and the film hints there might be something more sinister in the deep background—but she is like him in one respect: she is driven. Florence is an aspiring classical violinist with an ear for perfection.  

Edward couldn’t be more different, starting with the fact that he likes rock n’ roll. His father is a schoolmaster and his mother (Anna-Marie Duff) is brain-damaged from a freak accident, a condition sometimes made manifest by walking about topless and smeared with pigment as she dabbles in painting and collage. And you can forget basic housekeeping. Unlike Florence, Edward has no one for emotional support. He is as shy as Florence is driven, but both are oddballs when they find each other at Oxford—he because he has to reinvent himself as a sophisticate without any guidance; she because she’s bored by pretense and is far more sensitive than her peers.

Here’s where timing enters into the equation. It’s 1962 when they graduate and marry. The film’s major action—such as it is—takes place on the film’s namesake Dorset beach where the newlyweds have gone to honeymoon. “English” and “beach” are pretty much an oxymoron. Director Dominic Cooke uses the idyllic isolation of Chesil Cove, its walking-challenged pebbled beaches, an abandoned seaward-facing fishing boat, and the slate gray of the English Channel and its skies to suggest that Florence and Edward now face a blank slate future that lacks clear direction. Everything about the honeymoon is a disaster—starting with the fact that the marriage will be immediately annulled, as neither has the slightest idea of how to consummate it.

The tragedy is palpable. As we see in flashbacks, Florence and Edward truly care for each other. Theirs is a 1962 misfortune, with Florence unsure of what it might mean to be a woman as well as a brilliant musician, and Edward trapped by 1950s misinformation on how to be a man. They are, literally, out of place out of time—too young to be married, and premature insofar as what lurks on the horizon: the sexual frankness of the later 1960s. The story does get ragged toward the end, as the script—also penned by McEwan—departs from the novella’s sequencing and gives us rather maudlin and less convincing vignettes from 1975 and 2007. But we get the point; destiny gets in the way of what should have been destined.

By now you’re probably thinking that this movie sounds more like a play. You are right to a point; On Chesil Beach requires patience. It is not about action; it is about bruised interiors, damaged psyches, and unfortunate circumstance. Such a film requires top-drawer acting and gets it. Howle hits most of the right notes as a man-shaped boy handed a set list of expectations for being a grown-up, but not the wisdom to evaluate what makes sense versus what is rubbish. Ronan is even more spectacular; she is, at turns, as delicate as a spring flower and precociously independent, even when the latter means being emotionally distant. Her performance during the seduction-gone-wrong scene practically personifies the death of innocence.

On Chesil Beach won’t give you adrenaline-rush thrills. It goes one step further; it will break your heart.

Rob Weir


Bring Me Back a Good (if not convincing) Mystery

By B. A. Paris
St. Martin's Press, 304 pages

Bring Me Back is a mystery that will keep you engrossed, even when you can't stand the protagonist, and even though a central reveal comes too early. Overall it's a readable and clever novel, even when it's not very convincing.

It was gutsy of Ms. Paris to cast Finn McQuaid as her lead, as he's the kind of jerk you'd avoid in real-life if you had an ounce of commonsense. Finn is vain, furtive, quick-tempered, and self-centered. He's also financially set thanks to an old friend, Harry, who helped him get his feet on the ground after a testosterone-fueled assault by bringing Finn into his high-powered London investment firm. The book is set between the years 2002 and 2016, which also tells us that Finn lined his nest during the global recession. As we know, profit-takers during those years are unlikely candidates for sainthood.

You'd better have a good tale if you want readers to connect with an egoist such as Finn. It's here that Paris casts her finest spell. Not much actually happens in Bring Me Back, but the novel is a bit like the old Alfred Hitchcock film Gaslight in that it sucks us into a psychological whirlpool. It's also like Hitchcock in that the more you suspend belief, the better you'll enjoy the spin.

Paris leads with intrigue: A British couple heading home from a French vacation makes a rest stop. When the male driver returns from the toilet, his female companion has disappeared without a trace. We soon learn that the couple is Finn and his girlfriend, Layla Gray. The book goes back and forth between time and point of view, and we immediately learn that Finn is an unreliable narrator. He is quite naturally the prime suspect in Layla's disappearance. Though he's cleared of wrong-doing, he informs us that he told both French and English authorities the truth, "just not the whole truth."    

We also learn that Finn met Layla in the Underground—he an upscale Yuppie on his way to a party, and she a Scottish country bumpkin in London for the first time with no clue that she'd never find a youth hostel bed on New Year's Eve. Layla ends up staying at the posh flat Finn shares with Harry and before you can say, "Holy plot device," Finn has dumped his girlfriend for Layla. Harry is baffled as Layla is everything Finn is not: sweet, vulnerable, reckless, non-calculating, and na├»ve is ways that blur the line between inexperience and mental instability. The last trait surfaces anew when she and Finn move to a country cottage, but Layla begins to act oddly. She claims she longs for London because Devon reminds her too much of the Isle of Lewis, where she grew up. It also makes her miss her sister, Ellen, who stayed on Lewis to care for their father in his final days, even though he was an abusive alcoholic lout. But the trip to France was not an engagement trip, as Finn told police. Was the purpose something more sinister? 

Twelve years pass. Layla has been declared legally dead, Finn now lives a quiet life in the Cotswolds, and he is affianced to Ellen, Layla's sister. She is Layla's opposite—calm, sophisticated, sensible, demure…. But the very announcement of impending nuptials sets off a string of bizarre consequences that begin when Ellen receives in the mail the missing piece of a Russian doll set she lost as a child. Only Layla knew about this. Other Russian dolls appear, with Finn doing his best to snatch them away before Ellen discovers them. There are reports of Ellen sightings and Finn begins to get emails with information that only Layla knew. Is she back? Is this a sick joke? Why doesn't she show herself? These questions haunt Finn. He becomes more and more agitated and irrational—which doesn't make him any more likable.

As I suggested earlier, much of Bring Me Back is more or less a crib of Gaslight, with the gender roles reversed. Although I unraveled a few rather obvious clues early on, I give Paris credit in that I did not anticipate the mystery's resolution. Nor did I particularly buy it once I finished the novel and thought about it. But perhaps this is the classic definition of a good summer read—one that keeps you swirling in the whirlpool until you cling to a branch, pull yourself out, and discover that the churning water was only two feet deep.

Thanks to St. Martin's Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this novel.

Rob Weir