Gregory Alan Isakov: Catch a Rising Star

Gregory Alan Isakov
Nine Songs

I first heard Gregory Alan Isakov's music in a Starbucks and that alone tells you that he's an artist who has attracted industry attention. The 39-year-old South African-born, Philadelphia-raised Isakov now resides in Boulder, and he has cranked out seven albums since 2003. You'll hear some high production values in Isakov's sampling of past offerings on his NoiseTrade offering in the form of added strings, guitar, and studio musicianship. Although I personally find that orchestral strings and folk/Americana music can stray upon affected and sugary ground, Isakov is good enough to rise above the processing.

If you don't know, Isakov's big breaks came from commercials. His 2009 song "Big Black Car" was used in a MacDonald's commercial, just as "Time Will Tell" showed up in a Subaru ad. Some of his songs have also been background music in TV shows and films. Don't be put off by any of this. "Big Black car" is a helluva song. It's the ultimate not-made-for-each-other tale: Well you were a dancer, I was a rag/The song in my head, well, was all that I had/Hope was a letter I never could send/Love was a country we couldn't defend. For the most part the song is just Isakov's consolatory voice and just the right amount of acoustic guitar and banjo. "Time Will Tell" is on the opposite end of the hope scale; its themes are endurance, perseverance, and long-term commitment. Again, its back porch banjo-led simplicity is a great virtue. (I'm pretty sure there's a touch of musical saw in the recorded version.) I'm also very enamored of the tender and nostalgic "The Stable Song." It also features some fine lyrics that fit as snug as a winter blanket, including this gem: Now I've been crazy, couldn't you tell/Threw stones at the stars, but the whole sky fell.

I'm not sure Isakov needed all the extras in "Dark, Dark, Dark." In a similar manner, the echo chamber effects, creates a melancholy mood in "Liars," but for me the big symphonic build produces more distancing than connectivity.  I found myself thinking that the intimacy of a live performance would be dramatic rather than melodramatic. I'll take a small song like "Master and Hound" any day. Ditto a heartfelt composition such as "Amsterdam," which captures a moment I'm sure most of us have experienced, that of being on an overlong journey that loses it wonder and makes you think of home. If you already know Isakov, this NoiseTrade collection is something of a "greatest hits" collection you'll yearn to have. If you're a newbie, enjoy your introduction to an artist who deserves the attention that has come his way. Let's just hope Isakov keeps thing simple.

Rob Weir



Sully: Video Review

Sully (2016)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Warner Brothers, 96 minutes, PG-13

My aversion to malls is well documented, which means I often see mall films on DVD long after they've departed the cinemas. And, yes, I usually watch DVDs rather than downloads because my house is surrounded by signal-sucking trees. Consider this a video review.

Unless you live under a rock, you are aware of the basics of this story. On January 15, 2009, a US Airways Airbus A320 took off from New York's LaGuardia Airport and climbed to 2,800 feet before slamming into a flock of geese that took out its engines. Captain Chesley ("Sully") Sullenberger made a successful emergency landing in the icy Hudson River. Miraculously, all 155 people on board were rescued.

Sounds like great stuff for a feature film, doesn't it? Not really. Hollywood films trade in drama and melodrama. There is no drama in Sully because we already know the outcome. Director Clint Eastwood tries to whip up a bit of drama by emphasizing mobility challenged passengers, by showing us Sully (Tom Hanks) walking down the watery aisle of his plane as co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) urges him to abandon the plane lest the plane sink with Sully on it, and by focusing on first responders. Well, we also know the plane didn't sink. We also know that the captain being the last person to abandon ship is a standard movie trope. In other words, because there is no drama, melodrama must suffice. This is especially the case when Eastwood portrays first responders as if the downed Airbus was 9/11-Upon-Hudson.

You will notice that the film is just 96 minutes long. That's really as much as Eastwood could stretch the material, and even then we flash back to Sully's boyhood before Eastwood fixates on the part of the historical record that is less known. Although the public immediately hailed Sully as a hero, the National Transportation Board was uncertain he deserved that status. They ran several computer scenarios that showed Sully had time to land to land at either of two nearby airports. Were that true, Sully would have been guilty of recklessly endangering the passengers and crew. If you followed the story, you know what happened with that; if you've not, I won't spoil your only unknown.

The drama might have been helped had Hanks been half as animated as Eckhart. Hanks portrays Sully as clinically analytical, phlegmatic, and stoic. Sully might indeed be a hero, but Hanks' emotional impact is akin to that of Mr. Spock. (The real Sully seems much warmer than Hanks plays him.) Eckhart out does Hanks and whips up the annoyed anger one might expect from a person immediately dragged before an inquiry board after coming within a whisper of losing his life and that of 154 others.

Eastwood deserves credit for putting us in the pilot's chair for those "What would I have done?" moments. Likewise, the sets and cinematography add loud notes of verisimilitude. The film was nominated for a slew of awards and won a few, but none of the acclaim was really merited; quite a lot came from committees seeking to honor Captain Sullenberger, not this movie. What we really have is a movie that could have been a made-for-TV special. Sully isn't a bad film by any means; it's mostly a bit of vicarious escapism. If you've not already seen it, there are worse ways to wile away a dark winter's night. Just don't watch it if you plan to fly anywhere in the near future!

Rob Weir 


Abel Raises Cain: Today's Type of News Yesterday

Abel Raises Cain  (2005)
Directed by Jenny Abel
Crashcourse Documentaries, 82 minutes, Not-rated (but totally PG-13)
★★ ½

When Alan Abel died on September 14, 2018, the New York Times obituary was headed: "Alan Abel, Hoaxer Extraordinaire, Is (on Good Authority) Dead at 94." The Times was alluding to an embarrassing moment from its past. In 1980, Abel fed the paper a fake obituary, complete with the hysterical tidbit that he had died while filming a vampire film titled Who Will Bite Your Neck, Dear, When All My Teeth are Gone? To its credit, the Times did use a fact-checker, who was hoodwinked by the actors Abel hired to portray everyone from the undertaker to his grieving widow.

When Abel passed for real, some newspapers credited him with having invented "fake news." That's not true, and it's also self-serving. Abel was a hoaxster, but a good-natured one whose aim was, in his words, to give the public "a kick in the intellect." Jenny Abel documented her father's eccentricities more than a decade ago. As she makes clear, her childhood was filled with hilarity, but not a lot of money; her dad refused to cash in on his elaborate pranks and her mother, Jeanne, was his number one enabler. And what wonderful bamboozles they were.

In 1959, for example, he formed the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA), and launched crude staged protests with signs depicting cows in muumuus and dogs wearing shorts. He kept SINA going for more than a decade. In 1963, self-proclaimed supporters even picketed the White House. Those supporters were apparently grammatically challenged, as the conjunction "for" and the preposition "to" are jokes within a joke that suggested that SINA was in favor of indecency! As SINA attracted media attention, Abel called upon a friend to help him script the organization's material: a then unknown Buck Henry using the pseudonym G. Clifford Prout.

A sampling of other Abel hoaxes included a fake celebrity lottery winner, the Topless String Quintet, the International Sex Bowl, and the write-in presidential campaigns of Yetta Bronstein in 1964 and 1968. In taped interviews Yetta—Jeanne in an outrageous Yiddish grandmother guise—proclaimed: "Vote for Yetta and things will get betta." Aside from SINA, Abel's most flamboyant pranks were Omar's School for Beggars, a training course for panhandlers, and the Ku Klux Klan Symphony Orchestra, which briefly tricked David Duke into accepting an offer to guest conduct! During the Watergate hearings, Abel struck again and posed as a Beltway insider who claimed to possess the missing 18 ½ minutes of tape that would incriminate President Nixon.

Sound outrageous and unbelievable? Maybe not these days. If there is any solace, it wasn't any better back then. The media ate it up. Abel appeared on shows hosted by Johnny Carson, Phil Donohue, Jenny Jones, Jerry Springer, and Morton Downey, Jr. Even news anchors such as Tom Snyder and Walter Cronkite fell prey. Some were infuriated when they discovered they'd been had. Isn't it often the case that people get angry with others when their own laziness is to blame? Abel was often filmed wearing cheesy and obvious disguises. Worse still, he was on air dozens of times without disguise and under his own name, though he had written several books about his practical jokes and was known to the media. He got away with it because journalists often failed to do their homework. Scholars have written about Watergate's deleterious effects on news-gathering. Abel was indeed a kick in the intellect but, alas, the joke was on him; sensationalism triumphed.

You will have noticed I've said little about the documentary. You can and should watch it on Vimeo to appreciate how Abel was the P. T. Barnum of the television age. It is, though, a rather crude effort—as family documentaries often are. It is the only film Jenny Abel ever directed, and she is among a long line of directors who stumbled because she couldn't get sufficient distance from her subject. There is a lot of repetition and her film frequently fragments both chronology and the narrative, and I don't mean in any arty or hipster fashion. It often feels like the work of a film school novice. What is good about it, though, is that Jenny Abel had access to rich archival material and her father's own notes, videotapes, and presence.

Abel Raises Cain is ultimately about an eccentric jokester. It is both funny and a sobering prelude to the age of Trump. If it disturbs you, don't blame Alan Abel. It's our own damn fault for not paying closer attention.

Rob Weir