August 2018 Album of the Month: Kittel and Company

Kittel and Company
Fiddlestick Music/Compass

There are legions of perfectly competent musicians, but the list of great ones is much shorter. Listen to 30 seconds of “Pando,” the opening track of Whorls, and you’ll know that Jeremy Kittel soars in the rarefied air of category number two. If you’re looking to slap a genre label on him, though, that will take much longer. You’ll hear passages on “Pando” that remind you of the Penguin Orchestra and bright swoops that are faintly bluegrass, but the latter is nothing Bill Monroe would have recognized. Then comes a contemplative cello and mandolin bridge from Nathaniel Smith and Joshua Pinkham respectively. A hoedown teaser follows, then a swirl, fast-paced fiddle fill, and a fade. “Ohmsted” is another head-scratcher. It opens with a somnambulant touch and then sprints into breakdown mode.

Get used to it; Whorls is as enigmatic as it is utterly brilliant. “The Boxing Reels” is dance tempo built around Simon Chapman’s hammer dulcimer, but for a circle of faeries traipsing in the morning dew. He warms them up gently, before Kittel quickens the dance and drives them into a mad and gleeful frenzy. “Home in the World” has the feel of a formal Scottish court dance the likes of which you might hear from the strings of Alasdair Fraser, especially in the almost silent but impossibly high end of the scale.  

So is this a kind of Celtic album? On occasion, but you’d never put such a label on pastoral, meditative material such as “Alpena,” “Chrysalis,” “Interlude,” or “Nethermead.” Each of those is a mix of jazz inflection, melodic folk, and New Age ambience, though they are more structured than the first, less homespun than the second, and way more complex than the last. “Preludio” is deconstructed classical music, and that’s not a metaphor; the tune comes from Bach, who’d probably be just as stunned as Bill Monroe to behold the flowers Kittel planted in his musical garden. In still another vein, the album’s first vocal track, “Waltz,” sung by Kittel with subtle texturing from Sarah Jarosz, feels like a cross between a chant and a lullaby.

Kittel often tours as a trio with Pinkham and guitarist Quinn Bachand, who fully embrace Kittel’s artistic vision. It is no exaggeration to say that Pinkham, in particular, is one of the more innovative mandolin players of recent memory. Bachand’s role is to be the glue and occasionally let loose. Listen carefully to what he does; without him, a tune such as “Fields of Brooklyn” could easily lose its understated syncopated bounce and coherence. Kittel is a masterful composer/arranger and the king of the slow build. Although the longest piece, “Ohmsted,” is under 8 minutes, each track feels like a suite. Surrender; there is no good label for this music. It’s a collection of whorls—kaleidoscopic sound lines and colors that intersect, loop, and spiral.

Rob Weir


Own It: Things That are Uncomfortably True

I’ve not written a Cranky Notions column in a while because I’ve grown weary of the Internet “noise” level. I wish Trump was the only fact-challenged voice out there, but confirmation bias is everywhere, that is, the selective interpretation of  detail designed to "prove" a preconceived belief.

Here are eight things folks need to own, whether they like them or not.

1. To Trump Supporters: One of these statements must be false: Unemployment levels are at historic lows. Illegal immigrants are stealing American jobs.  I’m suspicious of both statements, but the two assertions are clearly contradictory. Either immigrants (legal and illegal) are being hired because labor is in high demand, or Trump’s rosy economic rap is an utter lie. I’ll add for nothing that I’ve yet to discover a native-born “American” whose job was taken by an undocumented worker. Decide which statement you believe and own it.

2. To Liberals: Wall Street ate your values. There is a world of difference between what’s good for the Stock Market and what’s good for society. If you’ve grown wealthy from your 401k and other investments, you’ve probably cooperated in a robber baron economy of off-shoring, union bashing, dirty energy, runaway capital, and funding for the Republican Party. The only way to prevent such a thing is to shift all your investments to a socially responsible portfolio (and even then you have to be diligent). Ignoring what companies do could be viewed as less ethically defensible than the antics of rapacious capitalists; at least the latter own their behavior.  

3. To Republicans: It’s not fake news; you need to admit that Trump is the Wizard of Oz. He always has been. His greatest trick was to get working stiffs to believe that he cares about them. Message: Trump cares about himself and his economic interests; he’d gladly sell you down the river to enhance his profile and wealth. He did a good job of deflecting that, but the Michael Cohen plea and Paul Manafort convictions remove all doubt. Own it and repeat after me: “Crooked Donald.” 

4. To Clintonites: It’s going to be a helluva lot harder to seize high moral ground on election tampering now that we know that President Bill Clinton interfered in the 1996 Russian reelection of Boris Yeltsin. Clinton’s meddling—including collusion with the International Monetary Fund—vaulted an unpopular and severely alcoholic Yeltsin from 8% support in the primaries to a 54.4% majority in a matter of months. Guess who Yeltsin appointed as his prime minister? That would be the guy who followed him as president: Vladimir Putin.
Bill's role was speculative at the time, but now the evidence is in. Do you think future Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, knew nothing about this? Other troubling things: Is anyone impressed by Bill’s recent non-defense of his dallies with Monica Lewinsky? Or Hillary’s silence on those statements, followed by backpedaling? Are you shocked by the fact that Arkansas tops the charts as the nation’s most sexist state and has been a sinkhole for women since the 1970s?  That’s from the Washington Post by the way, not the rightwing Washington Times. Own it: The Clintons are toxic. 

5. To Red Sox Fans:  The Red Sox are the new Evil Empire. Their $227.8 million payroll is more than $20 million more than the #2 Giants, and a whopping $50 million more than the New York Yankees (6th highest). I wonder why we’ve not heard the phrase “trying to buy a championship” lately? I doubt many outside of New England will weep if the Sox are knocked out of the postseason early. Own it: The Sox are just as bad as the Yankees, or STFU next year when Hal Steinbrenner opens the vault to buy Manny Machado and a new pitching staff headed by Clayton Kershaw.

6. To Democrats Post-2018: Current numbers are looking better and the party has a chance to win at least one of the houses of Congress. I never underestimate the Democrats’ ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but I hope they capture both. The danger comes thereafter. Own it: Democratic leaders are too old—this coming from a graying Baby Boomer. The Democrats must encourage young folks like Alexandria Ocasio-Ortiz, or the party’s fortunes are headed for the boneyard. In 2020, Nancy Pelosi will be 80, Joe Biden 79, Michael Bloomberg 78, and Hillary Clinton 73. Even the admirable Liz Warren would be 71.

Kristin Gillibrand has a better profile; she’d be 53. Ditto Kamala Harris (55 in 2020), or even Deval Patrick at 64. Chris Murphy (47) is probably not ready yet. I doubt that any of these folks are electable in our current political climate. In my estimation, they should be looking for a bilingual populist—from where is the question.
7. To Bernie Supporters: Bernie’s my favorite politician, but it would be very wrong for him to make another bid. He’ll be 79 in 2020 and all good things must, inevitably, come to an end. He needs to step back and let his Our Revolution organization be his lasting legacy. Own it; Bernie’s moment has passed.

8. To Massachusetts Democrats: Own it: Governor Charlie Baker will be easily reelected in November. He’s earned it. I’ve not voted for a Republican since Silvio Conte, but unless some serious dirt peeps out from the carpet, I’ll cast one for Baker. He hasn’t done much harm, which would normally be small potatoes,  but it seems pretty huge these days. Write a check for charity, not the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. It would take a miracle to unseat Baker.


Bennington Mueum of Art: New Deal Art and Edward Koren

Crash to Creativity: The New Deal in Vermont (through Nov. 4, 2018)
Thinking about Extinction and other Droll Things: Recent Prints and Drawings from Edward Koren (though Sept. 9, 2018)
Bennington Museum of Art
Bennington, Vermont

Francis Colburn
Click Image for larger format

Back in the 1980s, when I was a high school teacher in Milton, Vermont, I oversaw an oral history project in which students solicited memories of the Great Depression. One comment remains vivid. A farmer from the Lamoille River Valley of north-central Vermont remarked, “What Depression? We were poor before the Depression, poor during it, and poor after it. It didn’t make much difference up to these parts.”

That old farmer exaggerated, but only by a little. Northern Vermont agriculture has always been easier to associate with an adjective such as hardscrabble rather than idyllic terms such as verdant or prosperous. A different story prevailed for Green Mountain State wage earners, and the Depression was also hard on intellectuals, artists, and writers. A current exhibit at the Bennington Museum of Art looks back at Vermont during the 1930s through the eyes of painters, graphic artists, and Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration photographers. We also hear from ordinary citizens who were interviewed by field researchers with the Federal Writers Project.

Ronald Slayon, Unemployed

If you are unfamiliar with programs such as the CCC, WPA, and FWP, all you need to know is that, once upon a time, we had a president named Franklin D. Roosevelt who actually believed it was wrong for people to be poor. During Roosevelt’s time in office (1933-45), his New Deal programs unfolded from the premise that only the federal government had the necessary resources to mediate a crisis the magnitude of the Great Depression (1929-41). Among the programs were those designed to put people back to work (WPA), give financial relief to farmers (Agricultural Adjustment Act), create work for unemployed young men (CCC), and harness the minds and talents of intellectuals to document what ordinary people experienced (FWP, WPA). The Bennington Museum’s exhibit centers on those who endured and documented the Depression.

Much of the exhibit focuses on the paintings of two former University of Vermont artists: Francis Colburn (1909-84) and Ronald Slayton (1910-92). Each was a New Deal liberal, a term often applied to those who also flirted with socialist ideals and even had some respect for communists. Conservatives back then also whipped up paranoia about Big Government, Reds, and radicals, but mostly an ethos of we’re-all-in-this-together relegated the self-serving power elites to the sidelines. 

Colburn, Quarry Workers

Several takeaways emerge from the paintings and photographs on display. First, there is the view noted by the above-mentioned farmer in the '80s. That is to say, though we see hard work during hard times, there is an underlying timelessness to the daily grind before us. Look into the eyes of the subjects; observe the nature of work lurking in the background. Often, only the implements or automobiles tell us that it’s the 1930s.

Marion Huse, Sunday
Second, New Deal art celebrated the Common Man (and Woman)—usually capitalized as I have done—in renderings sometimes known as proletarian art. Human scale is deliberately exaggerated in attempts to bestow dignity upon the subjects. The emphasis is on average Americans, a term that decidedly did not mean kowtowing to the romantic nonsense that all Americans were somehow members of the middle class. (Of all American myths, that of a middle-class society is the most perniciously false.) New Deal art doesn’t dwell on elites, a refreshing break in the history of Western art. 

Third, you’ll see—especially in Colburn and Slayton—artists experimenting with form, color, and style. If crisis has a virtue, it is that it challenges conventions of all sorts. This was also the case for graphics and woodcut artists. Again, the content is usually ordinary people, their work, and the upheavals in which they caught up, but you’ll see artists who reduce all of this to geometric outlines, a stripping away that universalizes experience.

If you live in the Greater Burlington area, you may have seen a 2010 retrospective of Colburn and Slayton, but it’s well worth a trip to southern Vermont to see them again in their New Deal context. Everyone else should definitely make a detour to Bennington if you find yourself anywhere near there before November.

Henry Schnakenberg, Winooski


The museum also has an exhibit of Edward Koren sketches and prints, though only for another month. The 82-year-old Koren is best known for his children’s books and his social and political cartoons that appear in the New Yorker. Koren splits his time in Manhattan and in Brookfield, Vermont, and happened to be giving a talk the July day I was in the museum. It was nice to see Koren, but if you miss the current exhibit, it’s not a tragedy. Although Koren tackles a timely subject (climate change), and sounds a clarion warning that mammals including humans are threatened with extinction, this exhibit is a one-trick skeletal pony.

Too much of one thing?

Koren’s trademark shaggy critters are everywhere. They remain charming and whimsical, but the show lacks visual diversity. You’d need to be a real Koren junkie to devote more time than needed for a brief walk through the gallery. In essence, the drawings are repeated doodles that add up to variations on the theme of species extinction. You could pretty much lift any Koren cartoon from the New Yorker and replace the body with bones and you’d get the same effect. For me, Koren’s Seuss-like offbeat faces blunted the seriousness of his message. I remain a fan of Koren’s work, share his alarm over climate change, and parrot his warning. However, I also think that if ever the phrase less is more applies, it is here.

Rob Weir


Art Road Trip: National Museum of African Art

National Museum of African Art
Washington, DC

Placed here b/c Achebe was once on the UMass faculty

Click on images for bigger size 

Last month, I paid a visit to my one-time undergraduate mentor—now dear friend—Charles Loucks. We reminisced about what might have done differently had we had been aware back then what we'd like to know or do now. One thing I definitely would have done is study African art in a serious way. This made my trip to Washington DC especially sweet, as it's the only museum devoted entirely to African art in the nation.

Art is the ultimate subjective discipline. Why does one person love a particular style, but not another? Try as I will, for example, I simply can't generate enthusiasm for Japanese painting, yet I have friends who can't get enough of it. I'm that way about African art. I like the fact that even art that is produced for display retains elements of utility. I also admire qualities sometimes called "folk art" when they appear in Western art, though I'm leery of that label as it's too often used to suggest that it's not as accomplished as so-called "fine" art. Oddly, we often lump Picasso and Matisse into the fine art category, though both of them acknowledged their debt to African masks and sculpture.

Mainly I love the diversity in African art—even when universal themes are present, no two African cultures render these the same way. There's also an earthy solidity to form that appeals to me that also shapes color palettes. You'll see much more brown, rust, yellow ochre, and such like in African art. And I really admire the fact that there's little frippery present; if I had to pick the period of art I like the least, hands-down it's European Baroque.

To return to my regret, I am self-taught in all that I know about African art and—I'm sorry to say—it's not much. I have attached some things I liked from my July trip to DC and comments on why, but offer apologies if I've misinterpreted anything. 

This powerful piece is called Apartheid Laboratory and the symbolism should be obvious, right down to an evocation of an electric chair.

 Ethiopia was Christianized very early and a lot of its art evokes Byzantine icons.

This was worn on the head in Sierra Leone, a nation founded by the British to resettle freed slaves and akin to Liberia, which was set up for that reason by the USA. In each case, resettled slaves entered lands already settles by others and--in a great irony--conquered indigenous peoples. The above is in the spirit of original peoples.

 This is a helmet mask from Nigeria. Note there are faces on all sides.

 An initiation panel from Congo. Boys often lived in separate houses as they prepared to be initiated into adulthood. In some lands this involved painful circumcision as the boys were generally over age 12.

 This is from Gabon and all I can say is it makes me happy. To me it evokes a cross between a baboon and an old man. I'm pretty sure that's me and not its intent!

From Benin. Benin was once an empire with a warrior class. As you can see, they maintianed a horse cavalry.

This massive contemporary piece is a comment on eternity. It's forged of metal, looks like rubber, and depicts a snake swallowing its own tail. The latter is an image found many places in the world, including Ireland.

This frightening object was worn on the crest of the head. It's from Nigeria.

I really love this pacific Yoruba figure from Nigeria. It reminds me of Buddhas found in Southeast Asia.

Many tribes, kinship groups, and clans are headed by a figure whose status better translates as "Big Man" rather than chief. This is from Ghana and takes the Big Man concept literally!
Another one that simply makes me happy. From Cameroon.

More recent painting from Tanzania. A reminder that Africans are sailors and fishers as well. And maybe a reminder that if we trash the waters of the Indian Ocean, it deprives millions of their livelihoods.