Sounds for Late Summer 2018

St. Pete Holland, Seven Deadly Hymns

I love the title of the new release from Nashville-based St. Pete Holland. Normally I'd be dismissive of the alt-folk label that's been slapped onto his music, but it actually fits for a change. Holland's voice is reminiscent of the late Bill Morrissey in that it's a tuneful growl, but his repertoire certainly takes more chances, and his lyrics are more observational and less interior. "Lullaby" uses a lovely folk/bluegrass melded tune that counters his sharper vocal inflections, and the song is a new twist on the old tale of selling one's soul to the Devil for Dorian Gray youthfulness: My love won't grow old. He whistles the intro and bridge for "Capulets," which is retelling of Romeo and Juliet that's more sympathetic to he former and suggests Juliet might be a seductress. He takes down New York shallowness in "Small Talk" in a song that's simple yet has a collaborative effect with its backing harmonies and hand clap-like percussiveness. On "Yours and Mine," a post-breakup song, Holland blurs folk and rock boundaries. Some may find his voice an acquired taste, but Holland is a clever songwriter and intriguing arranger.   ★★★★   

Forrest Fire Gospel Choir, Forest Fire Gospel Choir

If you're yearning for some Southern rock by way of Tennessee, Texas, California, Colorado, and New York, check out the Nashville-based quintet Forest Fire Gospel Choir (FFGC). Imagine a blend of The Band and Leon Russell, with a dash of the two-guitar plus keyboards energy of The Allman Brothers. FFGC isn't quite in that august company, but their five-track NoiseTrade EP invites such comparisons. FFGC is anchored by bass player/lead vocalist Will McGee, who definitely has an arena-rock voice. Nick Fields and Sam Hunt bring the noise with their dueling guitars, Will Lynde tickles the piano and organ keys, and drummer Daniel Closser brings it home. McGee borrows Robby Robertson's vocal styling on "Strange Air," but mostly FFGC goes its own way. "Go Getter" is Southern rock with a skiffle-meets-gospel mash. My favorite track is "Daddio," with its start-stop cadences that dissolve into a straight-on wall of sound. This one feels fresh, despite the 50s-like lyrics. I mean, who actually says "daddio" anymore? ★★★

Jim Lauderdale, A History

Can we say that a guy who has won a Grammy, an Americana Music Association Award, and has recorded 27 albums is overlooked? Jim Lauderdale has long been a songwriter's songwriter, which is why you find his name on hits from everyone from the Dixie Chicks, Patti Loveless, and Blake Shelton to Rodney Crowell and Elvis Costello. He has also co-written with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. Lauderdale, now 61, was originally inspired by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a seminal group whose place in music history is similarly underappreciated—perhaps because they too collapsed labels at a time in which the music industry was overly focused on them. Lauderdale is about to release a new album, Time Flies, and has released the title track and several others as singles to build some buzz.  He's also released some back catalog material packaged as A History, which highlights a level of versatility that to this day invites a vague "Americana" label. On songs such as "Sweet Time," Lauderdale honks and tonks with the twangiest of country singers, but he's a wailing folk-meets-acoustic blues on "Way Out is Fine." But then, there's "When They Turn Around," which is filled with Dirt Band Appalachian bluegrass energy, "Forgive and Forget," which could have come from John Prine's repertoire, and the shimmery early 60s pop vibe of "Borrow Some Summertime." Jim Lauderdale offers something for everyone to like, which makes him fun for listeners and perplexing for the industry. Maybe Time Flies will help him do something he's only ever done four other times: make the Top 100 charts. Either way, he's an artist you should check out. ★★★ ½   

Ike Reilly, Crooked Love

Crooked Love is a good title for Ike Reilly's latest release; he has a bent way of looking at a lot of things. This gritty release matches Reilly's voice: edgy with a growl. It's indie rock from a guy who has seen things. "Livin' In the Wrong Time"is a great bit of combo work anchored by Peter Cimbalo's ominous bass; "To Die in Her Arms" is boogie-woogie with just the right touch of noir. Reilly gets us inside the heads of people who don't build dream lives: a husband seeking escape in his garage in "She Haunts My Hideouts," and that guy is tame compared to some of the drinking and hard living that appears elsewhere. "Missile Site" has a rockabilly opening, but evolves into something bluesier and retro. As for any rockets, this one is more about the sparks that go off during a tryst. "Clean Blood Blues" sounds like where rockabilly meets bump-and-grind. The album's sit-up-and-take-notice track is "Boltcutter Again," a timely and vigorous junkyard rock/punk that takes on the travel ban through the experience of a detained woman. This one has other surprises you can discover for yourselves. ★★★★

Tow'rs, Grey Fidelity

I listened to this a lot when I was down with back trouble; it was a balm for the ears and soul. This Flagstaff, Arizona band is generally a quartet fronted by the husband/wife team of Kyle and Gretta Miller, but it's also an expandable lineup that draws in friends. What to call the music is a harder task. The indie rock label often gets used, but one of the sites in which the band shows up is called SleepMusic. In this case, that's a good thing; Tow'rs features meditative melodies and ambient vibes. "Girl in Calico" is aurally what a warm bath is physically. The song establishes a hypnotic space and punches small holes in it via bright electric guitar notes. "Consolations" uses cello, keys, bass, and guitar to build a moody frame and gives the beat a gentle nudge. In fact, gentle is the word I'd use to most of the songs. If you, as did I, need to carve out a place to recoup, you will find this just the ticket. If you're looking for something loud and abrasive, turn elsewhere. Objectively speaking, the album could use more variety. It's so calm that the lyrics retreat into the mix. That's fine for much of the material, but material like "When I'm Silent" could use more oomph, given that it's about those who challenge silence in the face of injustice. For me, "Revelator Man" has the catchiest hooks, but even it is more rose than hammer. That's the sort of band Tow'rs is and sometimes, that's what I want and need. ★★★★ 

Short Takes:

Labels are useful, but not when they're outdated. repeat repeat has been called a "bicoastal beach pop band," but their Bloom and Doom is more like a cross between The Bangles and a tamed version of Bad Religion. Yes, there's some surf guitar, but the heavy bass, 140 bpm percussion, power chords, and soaked-in-a-loud-mix vocals evoke punk and metal.  If this intrigues, try "Mostly" and the aptly named "Speaker Destroyer."

Lined out a capella singing dates to the 17th century, making it older than America itself. 76-year-old Frank Newsome was born in rural Kentucky, one of 20 children. Like most folks in his neck of the backwoods, he headed for the coal pits at an early age and had black lung disease by the time he 20. These days he's an Old Regular Baptist minister and an NEA Heritage Fellow, the type folklorists call a "source singer," meaning they tap into traditions that predate the recording industry. Think Ralph Stanley, with whom Newsome was a close friend. Newsome's comes from the soul and the hills—deep, resonant, spare and powerful—even though he needs medication (and sometimes a ventilator) to breathe. Try the title track from Gone Away with a Friend and "Long Black Train."

Robbie Fulks is a musician of many moods, but he goes country/rockabilly retro on Wild! Wild! Wild!, his collaboration with Linda Gail Lewis, little sister of rock pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis. "I Just Lived a Country Song" is class honky-tonk in feel, though the lyrics reference more recent history. The title track with its thwacky bass, slap-slap percussion, and twangy vocals certainly turns back the clock. "Memphis Never Falls from Style" could have been plucked from an old John Hartford album. It's no exaggeration to say that not too many folks make albums like this any more.

Stephen Winston has his own retro thing going on Grayling. Bossa nova influences are all over "Falling Apart." The bright cascades of notes, controlled drumming, and sunny feel of "Roman Road" conjure the type of light pop associated with California "easy listening" music. I like Winston's smooth high tenor, but a song such as "Trains in Utah" feels like it could use more emotion. Winston invokes comparisons to 70s/80s' icons such as Harry Chapin, Phil Collins, and John Denver. Whether or not that's a good thing totally depends on your capacity for evocative nostalgia.

Mostly, older material gets updated these days, which is what Madrid-based flamenco artist Elena Andujar has done on Flamenco in Time, her collaboration with club producer Matt Warren. This is a mix and remix album that seeks to bring flamenco into the age of electronic with lots of reverb, echo, and looping. How do you feel about a house version of the 1960s' flamenco standard "El Despertador?" Or a song like "Es Asi" given a brassy, thumping funk workout? I admit that I'm torn but then again, my clubbing days are decades behind me. Check out these tracks and see what you think.


Serena Versus Carlos: Rush to Judgment Does Not Serve Well

We live in touchy times. Memes, instant judgment, misinformation, and demagogues dominate the public realm. The net result is that far too often, opinions become “reality.” Why bother to do research, when one can jump on a bandwagon of like-minded folks? 

Alas, liberals are sometimes as fact-challenged and ideologically driven as red-meat Trump supporters. Witness the rush to support Serena Williams in her dispute with umpire Carlos Ramos during the U.S. Open tennis tournament.  Serena ticks all the P.C. boxes: African American, female, recent mom, champion, success story….  None of these, however, make Ms. Williams the aggrieved party in her dispute with Ramos. Nor do they make her a victim of sexism and double standards. Were it not for the fact that Ramos is Latino and Williams’ opponent Haitian-Japanese, one wonders if the race card would have been played as well.

I admire Serena Williams tremendously. In my view, in the history of women’s tennis, only Martina Navratilova surpasses Serena. Williams is a role model for strong, independent women and is rightly hailed as such. Nor would I deny the social ubiquity of sexism or racism. I’ll also concede that mistakes, umpire pique, and preferential treatment occur in sporting events.

None of these apply to what happened to Serena Williams at the U.S. Open. If I might use a colloquialism, what actually occurred is that Serena lost her shit.  Let’s start with this: 37-year-old Ms. Williams was not going to win the match against 20-year-old Naomi Osaka. Osaka trounced Serena in the first set and was in control of the second. If you want to speculate, perhaps Serena’s frustration was that of many great champions: she stared across the net at herself at Ms. Osaka’s age. Remember how young Serena outran and overpowered her opponents? She’s actually a better and smarter player now, but it happens to us all; at some point you can’t outrun or outslug those in their physical bloom, nor can you summon the energy to cover your mistakes. Vets like Serena learn to conserve energy and use canny experience to outfox those who are stronger and faster. Not this time.

But let’s get to the heart of the matter. Among the memes floating around is a montage of male rage on tennis courts. The irony is that they are shown getting away with swears and maniacal destructions of equipment. Not so. Abuse of equipment is an automatic loss of a point. Worse still, the John McEnroe meltdown used in Internet memes to “prove” double standards is from the 1990 Australian Open. Truth: McEnroe was up two sets to one against an obscure opponent. Upon his third serious code violation, however, McEnroe was disqualified from the match and was done for the tournament.

McEnroe was one of the bad boys of tennis, a hold-your-nose class that included Dennis Ralston, Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors, and Andre Agassi. Of them, McEnroe was probably the only one who sometimes played better angry. All of the careers mentioned were marred by penalties and suspensions; several involved serious struggles with alcoholism and depression. All were successful in their craft, but how many more matches would they have won had they been in better control of themselves? This is blatantly the case of Nastase—are you paying attention Nick Krygios?—who had talent to burn, but often squandered it at key moments when he turned boor and buffoon. And not even McEnroe or Connors won respect comparable to cucumber cool figures such as Arthur Ashe, Rod Laver, Stan Smith, Pete Sampras, or Roger Federer.

Anyone who has ever picked up a racquet—including yours truly—knows that when you lose your shit, you usually lose the points that follow until you regain your composure. Serena wasn’t able to do that; at pivotal moments where she needed to be her best for even a prayer of forcing a third set, she invested her mental concentration in berating Ramos. At that juncture, Serena defeated herself.

Serena is a warrior on the court, but passion and anger differ. Let’s wipe out another few myths. First, Ramos is known as one of the strictest umpires in tennis—something a vet such as Ms. Williams certainly knows. It’s simply untrue that Ramos wouldn’t penalize men—ask Murray, Djokovic, and Krygios. He’s a stickler for the rules, which is why he was the first to officiate all four Grand Slam events. Second, this isn’t the first time Williams has gone supernova on the court, and she’s not been selective in venting her ire; until the Open her three worst abuses had been hurled at female umps. Third, her own coach admitted he was sending signals to Ms. Williams. Perhaps she never saw them, but it’s still against the rules. Maybe her coach deserves a lambasting, but not Ramos. Add it up—an automatic violation for racquet abuse, unauthorized coaching, and insulting the umpire. 1 + 1 + 1= 3, which is an automatic loss of a game.

Sure, we want to see the players, not the officials, but all sports have rules to dampen rogue behavior and kill-the-ump mentalities. In soccer, after two yellow caution cards, the next infraction yields a red card and you’re done for the match. In hockey, arguing with an official is a two-minute penalty that an official can double if the player doesn’t back off. In both sports, an official can (and often does) bypass all of this and directly assess a game misconduct penalty. Baseball goes a step further; a player that argues balls and strikes is automatically tossed from the game. Basketball coaches are assessed technical fouls if they cross the sidelines to protest a call. Two technicals and you’re gone. Ask yourself, what you would have done were you Carlos Ramos? How much crap would you have taken?

I agree with Serena Williams that apologies are in order: one from her to Ramos for losing her temper, and another to Naomi Osaka for stealing her thunder. This was her moment to shine and Williams hijacked the story. I don’t think Williams intended to do that; she just lost it. Sexism is real, but not in every case in which a man and a woman argue. Moreover, if we wish to live in a world in which facts matter, we should make sure we are not contributing to “fake news.” 

Rob Weir


Sally Mann: A Retropsective Exhibit

Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem
Through September 23, 2018

Clicking on images opens a bigger file

Perhaps you’ve seen the wonderful Sally Mann retrospective that’s already cycled through several museums. I caught the show at the Peabody Essex Museum, where (alas!) it will only be on display for a few more weeks. But because it is a retrospective, pieces of this exhibit are likely to find their way closer to you and, indeed, Ms. Mann (born 1951) has been so prolific that any institution with a reputable photography collection will surely have some of her work.

Mann, a native Virginian who still spends much of her time there, always dazzles the eye. She also occasionally ruffles feathers. This is especially the case of images from her collection Immediate Family (1990) that is as advertised: gazes into the lives, faces, and bodies of husband Bruce, son Emmett, and daughters Jessica and Virginia. Some are metaphors—such as a rather obvious evocation of birth—that would be banal, were it not so striking. Some critics have panned such tableaux-like poses as artifice over art, but that’s small potatoes compared to the moralist outcry against unclothed images. Pat Robertson leveled child pornography accusations against Mann. I suppose one could raise consent issues, given that Mann’s children were minors, though her rejoinder has always been that casual nudity was a way of life on their backcountry homestead. You can make up your own mind, but to me there’s a prelapsarian innocence to these images. In fact, I admire the agency she gives to kids. Some exhibit gauzy dream-like qualities; others are like a Pre-Raphaelite painting come to life. One image invokes what the hidden child in Dorothea Lange’s iconic Migrant Mother might have looked like. And whom among us would not like to recapture the swagger and confidence of youth etched upon the face of Emmett Mann and his friend? 

Speaking of Emmett, they say that no one critiques the South like her own sons and daughters. Mann’s Deep South (1999) and other such projects aren’t preachy, but they often resonate with underlying tension. The diffused light of a grove of trees draped with Spanish moss is otherworldly in an attract-repeal fashion. If you detect a ghostly presence of shots of the Tallahatchie River, it’s deliberate. They depict the exact spot where Emmett Till’s body was found in 1955. (And, yes, Till is Mann’s son’s namesake.)  

Images of Civil War battlefields also haunt us. Mann uses large-format cameras, but skews perspectives and overlays the foreground with collodion washes on glass plate negatives that are eerie and messy, as if she is peering through the fog of the past to render sanguinary spills in monochrome. One shot of Antietam—shot from the upward-looking perspective of a trench in which hundreds died—invoked a line from a Neil Young song of a young man's moment of death: “Then I saw black/And my face splashed in the sky.”

The sense of loss and impermanence also mark Mann's 2003 collection What Remains, though to my eye her images of decaying churches are only poignant if you know the back stories, in which case you probably don’t need the image. I found this the weakest part of the show as Mann took too few measures to explain why the images mattered, and most of the decay images lacked intrinsic interest.

The saddest images come from Proud Flesh (2009), which documents her husband’s demise from Muscular Dystrophy. Is anything more horrifying than the journey from robust virility to bone sack death? I took no pictures of these. If any of Sally Mann’s photographs are too personal and too obscene, surely it is these. I wondered how she managed to focus the lens and snap the shutter. I suppose that she managed because genius dwells outside of the human heart.

Rob Weir   


Julian Barnes' Latest: Brilliantly Written--and Derivative

The Only Story: A Novel (2018)
By Julian Barnes
Alfred Knopf, 254 pages.

Have you ever seen The Graduate (1967)? Imagine what would have happened if the protagonist, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), had stayed with bored, boozy Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) instead of taking up with her daughter Elaine. Now make Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson British and toss in another daughter for good measure. How would that turn out? 

This is pretty much the story arc of Julian Barnes' latest novel. His Benjamin is Paul Roberts, a 19-year-old about to head off to university, though with little enthusiasm beyond escaping The Village, a Greater London version of soulless suburbia populated by interchangeable bourgeois "Hugos" and "Carolines." At the local tennis club Paul is paired with 48-year-old Susan MacLeod, who is decidedly not a Caroline, though she's just as weary of her social script as Mrs. Robinson. Paul will go off to university, but he and Susan will also become lovers—and I'm not talking about just a summer fling.

Do you see my dilemma in evaluating this book? No matter what other trappings Barnes adds, his tale is essentially The Graduate. Paul is every bit as passive as Benjamin, and Gordon MacLeod is as bombastic and as prone to violent outburst as Mr. Robinson. The Only Story even begins at roughly the same time period.

Let me add a dimension. I admired the fact that Barnes antiseptically dissects the next several decades of the Paul/Susan affair and does so without casting moral judgment. Barnes writes, "… [E]veryone has their love story. Even if it was a fiasco, even if it fizzled out, never got going, had been in the mind to begin with: that didn't make it any less real. And it was the only story."  Therein lies Barnes' thesis. Maybe love doesn't make the world go 'round, but it defines the human experience and is indeed, Banes opines, the only story. He sets us up in the book's opening query: "Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less and suffer the less?" If you think the answer (or the question) is obvious, or that we can say from the outset that Paul and Susan's relationship is repugnant, Barnes counters: "In love, everything is both true and false; it's the one subject on which it's impossible to say anything absurd." You can't "capture love in a definition;" only "in a story."

Well damn! That's great writing. It's succinct, provocative, and burns with the sort of incendiary heat that only a master wordsmith can stoke. What's a critic to do, admire the prose, or slam the book's lack of originality? It seems to me one is honor bound to do both. Is it clever or derivative to write a thinly veiled sequel to The Graduate? More the latter, I think. Especially given that the only new character of note is Susan's lifelong friend Joan, who is also occasionally plays the role of Paul's superego. Joan is, however, just about the only character beyond Paul and Susan with dimensionality. A measure of this is that Paul's putative pal, Eric, has only incidental presence and no last name. Nor do most other male characters in the book other than Susan's husband, and a fleeting reference to Paul's own surname.

This, of course, is deliberate. Love is, after all, the only story.  Or so Barnes avers.  It often seems as if Barnes' intent in this novel was to construct a skeletal narrative frame upon which he could hang his observations about life, suffering, games playing, ageing, and the unreflective passivity of English males. Paul makes a number of choices that are at best cheaply rationalized, but are better characterized as amoral. If all of this sounds rather familiar, it's because Paul is too much like Tony, the protagonist of Barnes' celebrated The Sense of an Ending.

Ahhh, but the prose…. It all comes back to that. If a glorious singer warbles random names from the London telephone directory, does that in any way diminish the quality of the voice? Barnes is simply too good to toss aside lightly. In the end, all we can do is bask in the heat of his sentences—even when they take us places we've already been.

Rob Weir