September 2018 Album of the Month: Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson, 13 Rivers

I'm going out on a limb with this album of the month pick. I heard some good new music in September, but nothing that blew me away other than a half dozen tracks from Richard Thompson's new record. That's the shakiest part of the limb, actually. Richard Thompson doesn't make bad records, just some that are better than others. Is this one of those? I think so, but I got a promo of the album and have only heard 6 of the album's 13 offerings.

Leave it to Thompson to have 13, a number many consider unlucky. That hardly fazes Thompson, who generally walks on the gloomy side before he offers hope. "Bones of Gilead" is inspired by the Old Testament prophet Micah (7th century BC) who predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and all manner of other woe. Yet he also forecast the rebirth of Judah and the (eventual) birth of Jesus. The arrangement of this song is what you'd get if you crossed some gritty rock, hand jive, and a machine gun. Thompson sings: What's my name? My name is Heartbreak. Does he mean Micah, or himself? Is he offering doom or rebirth?

My favorite track is the astonishing "The Storm Won't Come." Not too many would wish for a storm, but Thompson does:  I'm longing for a storm to blow through town/And blow these old buildings down/Fire to burn what fire may/And rain to wash it all away. Not dark enough for you? Okay, how about: There's a smell of death where I lay my head/So I'll go to the storm instead/I'll seek it out, stand in the rain/Thunder and lightening, and I'll scream my name. Such allusions are often metaphors for Thompson's internal torments. Or at least we think so. The song is as electric as the storm and has an ominous apocalyptic air to it. It gathers like a tempest and fades at the end. Is it the coming calm, or did all wash away?  

"My Rock, My Rope" is similarly ambiguous, albeit with a lighter musical touch. "Her Love Was Meant for Me" is rhythm and blues that strays into echoes of acid rock—a driving rock n' roll song like rock is meant to be. "The Rattle Within" is aptly named. We hear Thompson's woeful vocals unfold in staccato contrast to Michael Jerome's pounding drums and Taras Prodaniuck's bass. These lead Thompson into guitar explorations, with Bobby Eichorn providing rhythm guitar.

Richard Thompson has been known to deny that he's a rock n' roller. He's going to have a harder time making that claim stick after 13 Rivers. One note of caution: This is a self-produced album that was made quickly. Depending upon how clean you need rock to be, the album is either muddy or real. I'm in the second camp.

Rob Weir


Annihilation Takes Chances--to Mixed Results

Annihilation (2018)
Directed by Alex Garland
Paramount, 115 minutes, R (violence, brief sexuality)

There are three-star (of five) films that are middle of the pack because they only partially live up to their promise, and there are three-star films that fall short because they take risks that don’t quite pan out. Annihilation falls into the second category.

The horror writer H.P. Lovecraft recognized that one of the most terrifying things imaginable is, in fact, the unimaginable—those unseen terrors known mainly though their impact, not face-to-face confrontations. These tap into existential dread in ways that make garden-variety angst seem like therapy. Parts of Annihilation are among the most frightening things I’ve witnessed on the screen in some time. (Disclaimer: I usually avoid horror films.)

Annihilation is set somewhere along the Southern Gulf Coast. We meet Lena (Natalie Portman) and her Army Special Forces husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), just as he is to be deployed for a classified mission so secret he can’t tell Lena anything about it. He does not return and is considered KIA, until about a year later when he shows up in the kitchen. Something, though, is terribly amiss. He is distant, can't explain how he got back, and is unsure of everything. A few nights later, Kane convulses and blood dribbles from his mouth. As Lena rushes him toward the hospital, a military convoy surrounds the ambulance, seizes Kane, and drives off.

Sometime later, Lena, a cellular biology professor and former Army officer, sees Kane again on life support at Area X. Thus begins a deeper foray into terror. Lena meets psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason-Leigh), who introduces Lena to The Shimmer, a refracted light phenomenon that bathes the swamp just beyond the compound in eerie light. She learns that numerous teams have gone into The Shimmer, but only Kane has ever returned from it. Ventress recruits Lena to be part of an all-female research team to enter The Shimmer to see if they can succeed where male warriors failed. No, this is not a simplistic girls-kick-ass film where intuition and female friendship save the day. In fact, no one on the team trusts anyone else, and only Ventress knows that Kane is Lena’s husband.

The growing Shimmer threatens to cause the namesake annihilation of human life. The team learns one thing early on: it also alters DNA; some things copy in mirror images, others mutate. What no one knows is how it does that or what it is. Is it a rip in the time-space continuum, a portal to another dimension, some energy pulse from outside the galaxy, or the vanguard of an alien invasion? What, for instance, causes an alligator to grow to an enormous size and have a double row of teeth, as if hybridized with a shark?

Annihilation is a tense horror film wrapped in a mystery. Dangers lurk around each bend and grow more serious the closer team members move toward a seaside lighthouse, the center of the phenomenon. Previous teams have left behind video memory cards that terrify more than they enlighten, including footage of a man being held down as Kane uses his knife to cut open his abdomen. Does the team see something, or was it just a trick of the light? Other clues suggest that something is mirroring human behavior and movements as well as altering human DNA. To say more would be to venture into spoiler terrain. Let’s just say that very unsettling and odd things happen to the five women.

The film is at its nail-biting best when we are like the characters: unaware of what’s going on. The reveal will make your heart race, but the next day it feels like a let down. Why? Because the fog is always scariest when you don’t know what’s behind it. At times the film evokes Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake (2003); at others, an apocalyptic Bosch painting.  I, however, wished that director Alex Garland had trusted imagination to the very end.

In the end, though, the film's visual style—heavy on fluorescent green and hazy prismatic colors—surpasses the script. Despite a very discomforting (and ambiguous) final scene, the more Annihilation reveals, the less interesting it becomes—another way of saving that the journey is more convincing than the destination. It's a heck of a journey, though.

This film also stars Tuva Novotny, Josie Radek, and Tessa Thompson.

Rob Weir 


The Bartender's Tale: A Refreshing Fictional Draft

The Bartender’s Tale (2012)
By Ivan Doig
Riverhead, 387 pages

Confession time: I adored the novel The Dog Stars so much that I thought I’d check out an earlier work by the author. Except I remembered that author as Ivan Doig when, in fact, it was Peter Heller. If my reward is a book as good as Doig's The Bartender’s Tale, I should have such fortuitous memory lapses more often.

Call this one a 20th century Chaucer tale for Stetsons and mudslingers. It’s set in Montana, where Doig (1939-2015), spent much of his life. His protagonist is indeed a bartender, not a rancher, cowboy, mountaineer, or other Big Sky type. And it’s set in 1938 and 1960, which the historically minded will recognize as transitional times, the first near the end of the Great Depression and the second when the nation stood on the cusp of social, cultural, and political change. The eponymous character is Tom Harry, though his adult son Rusty narrates the story as a remembrance of what he experienced and discovered as a 12-year-old.

Rusty isn’t a happy camper when we meet him ensconced with his aunt and bullying cousins in Phoenix. He knows nothing of his mother, and Tom planted Rusty in Arizona until he could get established. Rusty is over the moon when Tom comes to claim him, though Tom’s life in the north central Montana town of Gros Ventre in Two Medicine County—both are based on real places in the vicinity of Glacier National Park—couldn’t be less like Phoenix. Tom lives in a big house and parks his Packard under an immense tree called Igdrasil—a variant spelling of Yggdrasil, the ash tree at the center of the universe in Norse cosmology—but he spends most of his time at The Medicine Lodge that fronts his home. That’s where Tom tends the bar he owns, and where’s he’s generally acknowledged as the master of his craft. It’s white shirt, bow-tie, and machine-like efficiency for Tom, who takes as much pride in pouring a perfect beer as a maestro in conducting a flawless symphony. If you don’t have cash, the backroom is filled with pawned goods, a veritable museum of wonders for Rusty and his new friend Zoe, whose folks bought the town diner. Zoe's parents are better owners, Tom opines, though the food isn’t any better! But Rusty will eat there a lot, because Tom isn’t exactly the homemaker type.

Tom is equal parts open book and mystery. He’s not well schooled, but he possesses both homespun wisdom and homespun nonsense. He’s careful to say “be-ess” and “son of a bee” around Rusty, though he doesn’t sugarcoat other swears. Tom also has definite ideas about most things, especially fishing, though Rusty can’t get the hang of the latter. Tom isn’t among the town’s elite, but he’s certainly among its most respected citizens, and Rusty gets to see a lot in the bar, as Tom gives him a swamper’s job; that is, he cleans the joint and in those late days of old-style saloons, that includes spittoons. Other than that, Rusty and Zoe are pretty much free to roam and improvise. They even help the elderly Mrs. Reinking—a character from earlier Doig novels—rehearse a play. Insofar as Rusty is concerned, the only thing that distresses him is that his father sometimes collects stuff from the backroom and makes trips—sometimes in bad weather—up to Medicine Hat, Alberta, and is close-lipped about why he does that.

Tom, of course, had a life before Rusty, which reveals itself when one Delano Robertson comes to town and tries to convince Tom to help him with his “Missing Voices” project on the building of the Fort Peck Dam in northeast Montana, where Tom operated his first bar, The Blue Eagle, during the Depression. Tom, Delano knows, was a trusted figure even back then. “Del” wants Tom to jump into his Gab Lab, as his retrofitted van/recording studio is dubbed, and introduce him to key individuals attending a reunion. Tom is reluctant; the place holds some unpleasant memories, not the least of which is a mudslide (historically accurate) that killed 8 workers. The name Delano carries magic for Tom, though. He worshiped Franklin D. Roosevelt and is hopeful John F. Kennedy will get elected in November and become another FDR.

Before this marvelous tale concludes, we’ll also meet Proxy, a former taxi dancer, and her daughter Francine who is 21, has a mysterious background, and is caught somewhere between beatnik and the yet-to-born hippie subcultures. You’ll learn why Tom and Rusty’s mother “split the blanket” (divorced), learn about the New Deal and projects that offered hope during hard times, step inside working-class life in the 1930s and 1960, experience drama, and sort the mud from the sheen of Rusty’s childhood.

Doig was a compelling and vivid writer, though I will warn you that the novel’s pace is deliberate. I found it pitch-prefect for capturing what boils down to small lives caught up in big events against big backdrops. It took me a while to adjust to the pace but once I did, I was delighted to be a regular at the Medicine Lodge. How rare to read a tribute to a common man who glorified his humble craft.    

Rob Weir