Fox & Bones, Kitka, Bearfoot, Zak Trojano: New Releases

Fox and Bones, Better Land

Combine the leave-it-on-the-stage hard work of Ellis Paul, add a female voice, and mix with pop- and country-tinged folk and you’ve got an idea of what Fox and Bones sounds like. This delightful Oregon-based duo of Sarah Vitort (“Fox”) and Scott Gilmore (“Bones”) serves up music that’s optimistic, harmonically simpatico, and catchy. It seems these days that any man/woman duo draws immediate comparisons to the (now defunct) Civil Wars, which is a shame as it’s hard for most female singers to match Joy Williams. It also pigeonholes bands in inaccurate ways. Ignore those comparisons, Fox and Bones shines with its own light. The title track is a slice of hope for our troubled times. It manages to be deeply emotional and make a joyful noise despite being just two voices and a resonant guitar. “Little Animal” is a hand-clap, thick bass line treat with the wonderful line: Everything has already been said/Well, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The YouTube video of the song is silly, yet strangely compelling. “Welcome Home” tells of one who had lost his way, but landed well and recounts that journey in an honest warts-and-all fashion. Fox and Bones also have a new single, “Love Me Like a River,” and it’s both mysterious and come-hither carnal. This is definitely an act to catch. ★★★★

Kitka, Evening Star/Wintersongs

From Oakland comes a remarkable collection of women who sing in 18 different languages and carry endorsements from everyone from David Crosby to Garrison Keillor. Those 18 languages, by the way, include Ladino and medieval Galician. Maybe you didn’t know anyone spoke Galician in the Middle Ages. Kitka delight in teaching as well enrapturing us. Summer Burke of the Guardian said it well, “Even God stops to listen when Kitka … opens its collective mouth.” Kita truly is a collective–nine voices at last count–performing mostly a cappella music inspired by Eastern European traditions, especially those of Bulgaria. Their repertoire sometimes seems like choral singing. At the other end of the scale are ancient songs that skirt the edges of dissonance and could have been the soundtrack for creation. I listened to 22 tracks from two albums, each of them a jewel. See what you think of “Momci Koledarci,” with keening and drone from Kitka adding depth to a Bulgarian young people’s ensemble. Go with Kitka on the road as they sing one of their winter songs, “Ščo v pana khazjajna.” Their voices linger in the air like falling snow on “Alilo.” I have no idea what the lyrics to any of these might mean. I don’t need to. I agree with Summer Burke. ★★★★★

Bearfoot, Strong Water

Is there’s any doubt that bluegrass music is hotter than a banjo in a bonfire, consider that bands form in places where Kentucky-style bluegrass wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell. Like Alaska for instance, which is where Bearfoot started playing even before several of its members headed off to Eastern Tennessee State University to study. Fiddler Angela Oudean joined Bearfoot when she was just 16 and now might be the only person in the country with a BS in sociology and a minor in bluegrass! Bearfoot’s blend of grass seed contains alt.country, swing, folk, Cajun, and–courtesy of guest singer Megan McCormick–a bit of blues. “Firefly” sounds like a Heather Maloney song until Oudean turns it loose. Youthful exuberance meets breakneck playing on “Derailed;” Poison Drips” has the taste of a sweet mountain song, its title notwithstanding. I reckon the “Tuscarora” ridges look mighty puny to native Alaskans, but they give the weathered Appalachians a loving treatment. Good stuff from a rising band. ★★★★

Zak Trojano, Wolf Trees

The first time I heard Zak Trojano he washed over me in the way opening acts often do. What a difference a few years can make. The phrase, “he plays a wicked guitar” can be overused, but it fits Trojano like fingerpicks, which is what he wears when he showcases acoustic lap guitar and dark voice on “99 Ways.” His songwriting skills have also sharpened, as you’ll hear on “Kid’s Got Heart.” If you like acoustic guitar that booms and rings with dark tones, “Nowhere Shuffle” is for you. With the release of Wolf Trees Zak Trojano has come into his own. Don’t take my word for it; Chris Smither hangs out with Trojano. ★★★★


Cold War is a Masterpiece

Cold War (2018)
Directed by Paweł Pawlikowski
Opus Films, 85 minutes, R (sexuality, brief nudity, language)
Polish with subtitles

We all know the story of doomed lovers Romeo and Juliet, right? How would that tale look if identity, ambition, and politics drove a wedge between them instead of their respective families? That's roughly the setup of Cold War, but anyone who reduces this film to its narrative is floating on the surface of a very deep sea. This is not a good film, it is a great one.

Cold War is set in its namesake time period, that post-World War II period which the United Sates and the Soviet Union engaged in an ideological contest for global supremacy. From their bipolar perspectives, the rest of the world's nations were client states and pawns. Poland was such a land. It was planted behind the Iron Curtain under the aegis of the Soviet Union. Though the Polish people have a long history, Poland's very borders were radically altered by the war. The film opens in 1947, when Wiktor Warshi (Tomasz Kot) and his partner Irena are field workers collecting traditional songs and dances. They have been tasked with launching a traveling showcase of costumed Polish folk culture performed by young people. Such shows were far more than Fame without the pop sheen. Rediscovering folk traditions was part and parcel of national identity creation in lands once under the boot heel of Nazi domination.

Poland certainly needed a boost, as it was a grim place for many years after the war.  Director Paweł Pawlikowski and cinematographer Łukasz Żal show this by filming in black and white. There are languorous establishing shots of vast snowy fields and skies whose leadenness swallows the landscape. Even town streets and concert halls are steeped in austerity and drear. The effect is unexpectedly eye catching, as if John Singer Sargent had layered the countryside with shades of white upon white and gray upon gray.

We learn that Wiktor is a skilled pianist, composer, and conductor, but the music that makes his heart sing loudest is the physical and emotional allure of Zuzanna "Zula Lichoń (Joanna Kulig), an aspirant for Wiktor's folk spectacle. Their affair is complicated by their age differential, politics, circumstance, and passion of the most reckless kind—the sort that must play out, the costs be damned. Theirs is a steamy ardor that's equal part pleasure and pain that transcends safety, marital status, and ideology. Cold War spans 15 years and takes place in Poland, Berlin, Paris, and Yugoslavia. In keeping with the spare exteriors of the film, Pawlikowski uses screen wipes to shift from one time period or location to the next, and he uses vignettes within each that we recognize as metaphors for what has transpired in the intervening years. Does it matter that Wiktor walks away from communist Poland* to seek artistic freedom in the West, but Zula stays behind? Borders are obstacles, but they are not insurmountable ones.

Cold War is also a film about identity. National histories can be invented, but what of the traditions, culture, language, and collective memories embedded within the psyche? Does crossing a border make one French, or does it make one not French and not Polish– a vagabond in purgatory? Those who have studied the Cold War will recognize that the film's sense of personal ambiguity and incompleteness mirrors the geopolitical uncertainties of the era.

The overall stillness of Cold War is akin to black and white photos that come to life but cannot break the frames that contain them. In effect, Cold War is and isn't a love story. Think of it as a tone poem the likes of which Wiktor conducts but cannot resolve. Like a still photo or a musical movement connected episodically to an opera, Wiktor and Zula are part of bigger stories they intuit but cannot command. The namesake Cold War ultimately collapsed from its own weight and contradictions and so must Wiktor and Zula.

This is indeed a Polish Romeo and Juliet, but seldom has it been staged so gloriously. Joanna Kulig is a marvel. She is 36, but her natural plasticity and unique features allow her to be convincing as both a precocious and dangerous adolescent as well as a mature and voluptuous adult. Kot impresses in a less direct way. His very resignation is powerful in its passivity, an innervating negation if you will. Above them both stands Pawlikowski's masterful direction. I suspect that film students will be studying this film for many years to come.

Rob Weir

* World War II ended with the Allies liberating Europe from west to east and the Russians from east to west. The city of Berlin was divided into four zones. The American, British, and French sectors became West Berlin and the Russian zone East Berlin. In 1961, the Russians and East Germans built the Berlin Wall that prevented movement between East and West Berlin. Prior to this, it was dangerous but possible to flee communist East Berlin simply by walking through a checkpoint.


CCR, Black Masala, Ozan, Dream Reporter: New Releases

Credence Clearwater Revival, The Complete Studio Albums (Sampler)

Between 1968 and 1972, Credence Clearwater Revival (CCR) had an astonishing run: 7 albums and 9 songs that hit the Top Ten. Because of internal friction and bad business decisions, members of CCR didn’t do all that well financially, but my goodness what a treat for the ears they were. If you want to know what “swamp rock” sounds like, listen to CCR. Fifty years later, Craft Recordings has released all 7 of their albums in a boxed set. The hook is that these are studio recordings that have been transferred from analog at half speed. I received a sampler that includes tracks from 6 of the albums. (Nothing from Mardi Gras, which was a flop.) This doesn’t mean the music has been slowed, just that it hadn’t yet been mixed. It’s akin to taking a RAW picture before post-processing. The sampler includes songs such as “Born on the Bayou,” “Run through the Jungle,” and “Hey Tonight.” These were massive hits that retain great familiarity and provide windows into hearing things you might have overlooked in the singles. The studio recordings make J. C. Fogerty sound even mightier than you thought. His voice smashes through a song like a locomotive with a fell head of stream. Ditto his guitar licks. I especially enjoyed hearing “Porterville,” which is less known, because it revealed something I hadn’t remembered. Although he got much better, drummer Doug Clifford’s skills in 1968 were basically garage band level. We all start somewhere, yes? This anthropological dig makes CCR sound fresh and alive, not like museum pieces. It made me want to chase down a hoodoo bear, whatever the hell that might be! ★★★★★  (Note: These links are from different sources.)

Black Masala, Trains & Moonlight Destinies

And now for something completely different. Black Masala is brass band based in Washington, DC. Masala is an Indian spice mix; you name it, and you’ll find some of your favorite condiments in this band. The title track is a heart-racing blend of indie rock, jazz, klezmer, and lord knows what else. Black Masala is the kind of party band that will take you places, like New Orleans, Paris, Eastern Europe, and Delhi. I’m serious about the last of these; as you’ll hear on “MidnightBhangra,” this band also borrows from Southeast Asian dance music. In part that’s because lead singer Kristen Long can’t stand still. If you like a dash of saucy attitude, taste “Whatcha Gonna Do.” Need an infusion of funk, jazz, and soul? Try “Above the Clouds.” Everything comes at you in a bold, brassy stew of sax, trombone, trumpet, sousaphone, guitar, bass, and drums. What else do you want? “Big Man” offers an echo of salsa; “Chaje Shukarije” is Indian, Roma, and splashes of klezmer. Party on! Who knows where you'll end up? ★★★★

Ozan Aksoy, Ozan

If Black Masala isn’t exotic enough for you, how about some Turkish saz? Go to the front of the class if you know that this is a 7-stringed teardrop-shaped plucked instrument favored among Turkey’s Kurdish, Armenian, and Azerbaijani minorities, especially as it evolved from Ottoman classical styles. Ozan Aksoy is an immigrant Kurd who now lives in New York where he’s working on a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology. He also plays other instruments, but the saz captures both the beauty and sadness of Turkish minorities. (If you are unaware, Turkey has one of the world’s worst human rights records.) This is not to say that Ozan is a depressing album; Aksoy has chosen a more meditative and positive approach.  The opening track is titled “Hope” and within it you can hear various influences that are Turkish, but are also an intriguing blend of North American New Age mystery wrapped in a much more dramatic mix of other instruments. Guest musicians add everything from violin and cello to piano and electric guitar. “Rindé” is a fine example of this. It sounds almost like an Indian raga until you see it is clearly influenced by flamenco. In a very different way, Ozan is also masala. ★★★★

Dream Reporter, White Horse

If you need a pop/indie fix after all of this, London’s Dream Reporter might do the trick. That’s the handle of a young singer whose identity is currently a bit mysterious. She’s an unsigned artist who is obviously going for a build-the-buzz vibe and her bio line is sprayed with descriptions that press the right buttons but don't really describe her music. I did like the title track a lot. It has melody snatches some might recognize as reminiscent of “Son of a Preacher Man,” but it evolves into club pop with lots of synth, overlays, and (I think) drum machine. “Everything Means Something to Me” features echo chamber vocals that resonate, as do other tracks. Dream Reporter clearly has chops. In my mind, though, she needs a more diverse repertoire, lest she be tarred a Robyn-wannabe. And can the cloying buzz campaign. ★★★