Jared and the Mill, Blue Dahlia, They Might Be Giants, Sean McConnell, Frances Cone, Johno

Jared and the Mill, This Story is No Longer Available

Jared Kolesar has a sweet tenor voice that might first put you in mind of someone like Josh Ritter. Don't be fooled; Kolesar and his band delight in opening soft and then jarring you to attention by catapulting themselves onto the loud side of the sound spectrum. Take a song like "Feels Like." Its quiet acoustic-driven opening sounds like maybe Kolesar is about to unwrap a folk ballad. At the end of every few bars, though, there's a bit of a sneer and brief swelling of the instrumentation. That's your cue for what's about to happen. Soon, the percussion and bass will boom, the electric guitars will wail, and the room will start jumping. About the time you think the piece is ending, there's a swirl and we are taken to new places. Or maybe it's old ones. When this five-piece rock band from Phoenix starts to crank, it can feel like 1968. You will hear this soft-to-hard technique throughout the album. Sample "Break in the Ether" for another example, or "Soul in Mind." The latter is a terrific song that opens with such seeming vulnerability that it's a small shock when Jared sings, "I don't give a fuck/If you don't think I'm good enough." Then once again, it's bring on the noise. No need for Kolesar to worry. Jared and the Mill are plenty good enough. ★★★★

The Blue Dahlia, Le Tradition Américaine

What a fun album! The Blue Dahlia is a Brooklyn-based "project" by Dahlia Dumont and seven or eight friends. Dumont is a first-generation American and the title track honors immigrants through the eyes of a small girl who seldom sees her father because he is working hard to support his family. It's a testament to what it really means to come to America. The songs on this album are in English and French, but this multicultural/multiethnic band draws upon everything from French chanson to reggae, ska, jazz, folk, klezmer, and Big Band stylings. How about, for starters, both an old-time/bluegrass version of "I See Things Differently" and the same song with a reggae backbeat? Dumont has a strong voice to go with her scrappy approach to singing. She airs out her chops on the soulful, torchy "Reasonable," but goes full bore French cafĂ© singer on "Canal Saint Martin." "Le Reve II" is a joyous number that could be at home at a community dance somewhere in Mexico, or maybe the southern Pyrenees. Dumont propels herself into the heart attack-paced "Blah, Blah, Blah," a giddy number of trying to make big decisions when there's just too much in her mind. On "Plantation," she goes calypso. This is a kitchen sink kind of album in all the best ways. You can do a lot when two saxophonists, a trombonist, a trumpeter, a cellist, several accordionists and percussionists, bass, guitar, violin, and ukulele are laying down the grooves. ★★★★

They Might Be Giants, My Murdered Remains

It's no scoop to declare that They Might Be Giants (TMG) is the heir apparent to bands like The Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart. In turn, TMG gave birth to other tongue-in-cheek groups such as Flight of the Conchords and Lemon Demon. There are no surprises on My Murdered Remains, the 21st album released by John Flansburgh and John Linnell, which is to say you'll either like their shtick or you won't. As always, offbeat observations are on full display. My favorite track is "The Communists Have the Music," a riotous take on being apolitically political in which TMG explains: I got handed an Ayn Rand sandwich/Straight from the can, it tasted so bland/I asked a lass to pass me a glass/ Of Engels' Conditions of the Working Class/ Right away they dragged me to the committee/To explain my un-American activity/They're gonna see they made a mistake/If they'd only let me play my mixtape. Musically "The Neck Rolls Aren't Working" feels like a mash of early 60s rock and an overwrought cinematic score, and the song is either a series of non-sequiturs and open to interpretation. The album's least ambiguous song is "Best Regrets," which is about a busted relationship–sort of. In this case there's a touch of acid rock. But if it's too tame for you, try "Selectionist," which what you'd get if robots went to the disco. The new album is TMG's latest in the Dial-a-Song network of free music. Flansburgh and Linnell always make me smile, but in my reviewer role I'd have to say My Murdered Remains is similar to other TMG albums. But these guys have been cranking it out since 1982, so whadda I know? ★★★

Sean McConnell, Here We Go

He has a Celtic surname, but don't expect any diddly diddly music from Sean McConnell. He's from Massachusetts, but again you might not know it, which is to say he's more Nashville than Newtownabbey or Newburyport. "Here We Go" is a well-crafted song with a pop-influenced folk rock vibe and hooky repeating lines. McConnell has a warm inviting voice with a touch of nasality. Check out his tender duet with Lori McKenna on "Nothing On You." (Ten thousand angels can't keep from coming back home.) Or "Shotgun" with Audra Mae, a sweet acoustic country love song. McConnell busts out a band and choir (The McCrary Sisters) for the gospel-tinged "Shaky Bridges." McConnell has been around since 2000, so he's not exactly a newbie. He is, however, an artist to catch if you get the chance. ★★★ ½

Frances Cone, Late Riser

Frances Cone is another Nashville (via Brooklyn) artist who has started to attract attention. That's understandable as Christina Cone and Andrew Doherty are not cookie cutter artists churned out by a Tennessee factory. (The group name is in honor of Cone's musician father and grandfather, each born on September 11.) "Wide Awake" opens to electronic looping and gadgetry from Doherty, but cuts to Cone's piano and bird-like vocals. More synth and effects make up the bridge and then Cone lets it rip. "Arizona" is similarly wrapped. Although Cone's vocals might put you in mind of Robyn on this one, the latter never put this much atmosphere in a song. She picks up an electric guitar on "Failure," a song that might put you in mind of something from Nanci Griffith's back pages, though Griffith seldom climbed the scales like Cone does on this one. My only critique of this talented duo is that Ms. Cone is often more impressive than clear, hence it's often hard to know what she's singing. With her voice and presence, you might not care. ★★★ ½  

Johno, The Road Not Taken

Did you ever sketch a plan that was way better on paper than in reality? Such a project is Johno's The Road Not Taken. Johno (John Keating) is a trained jazz musician who plays several instruments and is best known as a composer, arranger, and instrumentalist. The concept of this album is a good one: take poems and soliloquies from Blake, Byron, Frost, Shakespeare, and others and set them to music. Toss in some pop/jazz/world music remakes of hits such as "CountryRoads,"  "HomewardBound," and "The Long and Winding Road." Mix with musicians (and influences) from the Balkans, Turkey, the Middle East, and Turkey and mess with time signatures. The flaw in the ointment is that Johno is simply not a very good vocalist. Johno tries whispery tones, growls, and techniques that blur the line between singing and spoken word, but there's simply no hiding the fact that he's an uninteresting vocalist. He should have taken the more traveled road and handed the mic to a skilled vocalist.   


Entangled in Plastic at SCMA

Plastic Entanglements: Ecology, Aesthetics, Materials
Smith College Museum of Art
Through July 28, 2019

In the 1967 blockbuster The Graduate–certainly among the great classic films– Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) spends his pre-college summer days alienated and adrift. At a tortuous party putatively in Ben's honor, Mr. Maguire a family friend, corners him to impart surefire advice for success: "I want to say one word to you. Just one word. … Plastics." 

That line often throws viewers under the age of 60. Plastics are ubiquitous–so much so that when we imagine a world without them it's a good thing. Plastic is so slow to decompose that it clutters our landfills and fouls the seas and waterways. It is pretty much a death sentence for birds and marine life that consume it, and its very manufacture depends upon toxic chemicals and non-renewable petroleum. In 1967, though, it wasn't nuts to link plastics to the future. Rudimentary forms of the stuff have been around for a long time, but plastics as a commercial product such as you know it is largely a byproduct of World War II. This made mass production plastic less than 20 years old when Ben was given the word. 

We know better now, right? Nope! We are drowning in the stuff and the United States is the world's largest producer of plastic. What do we do with it once we're done with it? One response is to use it to make art. A new exhibit at the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA) focuses on plastic as a "material." That alone wouldn't be such a big deal; wearable art shows make liberal use of plastic panels, fasteners, shredded strips, and molded shapes. In that sense, Dianna Cohen's "postconsumer mandala," a brightly colored bag, might at first seem little more than an eye-catching version of the ordinary–until you read the wall panel. The curators of the SCMA show are aware that aesthetics and materials also link to ecology. Cohen's bag also makes a statement about "the worship of profit, power, and the accumulation of things." Its undulating shape is a plastic version of El Anatsui's metallic bottle cap curtains. In each case, we marvel over the artistic vision (and labor) but wonder about the state of civilization in which there is such a proliferation of cast-off material–or garbage, if you prefer.  

Pamela Longobardi wordlessly makes this point. Her 20-foot-long "Economies of Scale" is a small-to-big metaphorical timeline that takes us from a nurdle (plastic pellet) to a large fishing buoy fashioned from plastic. Talk about data visualization! It made me return home to notice how plastic is everywhere in my life, including the keyboard keys upon which I typed these words. The question, as always, is what happens when we're "done" with the plastic. We know that much of it will be landfilled and leach chemicals into the soil and water table, but amnesia is psychologically easier to digest. 

Mark Dion tries to help us remember. He grew up beachcombing along the New Bedford shoreline. There are several of his "cabinets of curiosity" at the SCMA show, His "specimen" jars are filled with plastic objects, some of which look like human organs. Others (pictured) are children's (and sex) toys that make up his "Institute for Inveterate Marine Biology."

Sure, we can make weird art out of the garbage, as Aurora Robeson has done with her "Ona," though you might also want to muse upon the fact that it also means "only child." Indeed, though "Ecosystem of Excess" from Turkish artist Pinar Yoldas isn't as instantly powerful as some of the other pieces, it's wallop comes from forcing us to consider how a world in which the oceans contain more plastics than plankton might alter evolution of marine life. Will the future be one in which organics and plastics meld? That's probably not what Mr. Maguire envisioned.

Rob Weir


You Know What You Could Be: A Scottish Take on the 1960s

You Know What You Could Be: Tuning into the 1960s (2017 UK)
Mike Heron and Andrew Greig
Riverrun Books, 370 pages.

There are tons of musical biographies in which the artists in question find some way of asserting that they changed musical history. Most of that is rubbish, just ex post facto attempts to obscure the fact that they got lucky and managed to get noticed in a crowded field of contenders. An exception to this was Scotland’s Incredible String Band (ISB).

Who, you say? Exactly! One of the things about the 1960s is that, despite the recording industry, scads of record shops, hip radio stations, and the British Invasion, there were scores of artists who were famous on one side of the Big Pond but not on opposing shores. ISB was one such band, though it did tour North America a few times and played at Woodstock (in an unfavorable slot sandwiched between two hard rock bands). Their records were available in the U.S. but they didn’t chart well. In part this was because they were a bit ahead of the curve; the ISB are considered pioneers of acid folk rock and progressive folk, two labels that didn’t even exist in their day (1966-74). The trio–plus sidemen/women du jour– consisted of Clive Palmer, Robin Williamson, and co-author of our book in question, Mike Heron. Between them they played everything from guitar and fiddle to harp, sitar, banjo, flute, keys, and more. The heart was Robin Williamson, whose innovative playing and songwriting influenced scores of musicians, including Pentangle, Fairport Convention, and Steeleye Span. Do you know ISB singles such as “The Hedgehog Song,” “Everything’s Fine Now,” “The Song Has No Ending,” and “October Song?” Probably not, but if you asked someone who came of age in Britain during the 1960s, you’d get a different response. Many consider “October Song” a path breaking composition.

Distance, luck, and Elektra Records’ lackluster marketing strategy help explain why ISB was known mainly to Yanks like me who bought obscure records on a whim to see what was out there, my lame attempt at obtaining “coolness.” Objectively, Williamson’s voice was the biggest obstacle. How to say it? It was weird! Think as singular and octave-straining as that of Steve Winwood, but more so. I confess that at the time, I didn’t like it and offloaded my ISB album. Wish I had it back. It was only later that I learned to appreciate what Williamson was on about. (I’ll dismiss the lackluster 1999-2006 reunion tour and Williamson's immersion into Scientology.) ISB’s music was dreamy, drifty, and often quite long, the last another reason they didn’t chart well in the USA. Some of it, though, has the vibe of improv explorations of jam bands.

This background is necessary to review You Know What You Could Be. In Britain, reviewers raved over the book’s first 104 pages, which were written by Heron. That’s fanboy stuff, as Heron is no prose stylist. His is more of a series of disconnected riffs and select memories that appeal to ISB junkies. If you’re not, you will probably skim Heron’s pages. Because he assumes everyone knows all about the band, he mainly offers random tidbits about love affairs, Williamson’s genius, the songs Heron wrote, and usual tales of bad boy star misbehavior.  

By contrast, Andrew Greig is a real writer whose poetry, non-fiction works, and novels have won praise and awards. (He’s also my favorite living Scottish author.)  He’s a writer because he failed at his first love: music. Like every Boomer I know who played an instrument, Greig was in a band. Unlike most, though, that group, Fate & ferret [sic], was at least good enough to attract the notice of Elektra’s Joe Boyd, who produced ISB. Greig grew up in a small Fifeshire town and was headed for a conventional career. Then, as they say, the 60s “happened.” Greig’s path took him instead to poetry, Edinburgh, and music. He and his best mate were–you guessed it–obsessed with the String Band. As Greig admits, F & f too closely mimicked their heroes.

In his 263 pages Greig also muses over the ISB and how the band’s music impacted his youth, but it’s really about how the 1960s transformed Scotland and youngsters such as himself. The handprint of dour Presbyterianism remained smudged across the Scottish landscape until the '60s wiped it away. Greig makes us feel the excitement of coming of age at a time in which music, sex, and dreams were first openly discussed, if not necessarily condoned. His description of trying to smuggle a few young women back into their dorm in Glen Coe is hilarious, and we can almost see the stardust in his eyes when he recalls artists with whom he encountered, including Williamson. Mainly, though, his tale is one of a young Scot growing up and, in the process, coming to grips with both his personal and national identity. He does not apologize for his youthful idealism or the indiscretions that went with it, a refreshing honesty that takes the steam out of self-proclaimed moralists who think everyone alive in the '60s should repent. It’s hackneyed to say that Grieg writes like an angel, so let’s skip that and take our collective cap off to the way in which his poetic eye gazes upon the sublime and the mundane and finds grace, beauty, humor, and poignancy in each.

Who says dreams can’t come true? Over the years Greig and Heron have become friends. Who wouldn’t wish to be a fly on the wall when Grieg joined Heron on stage to dust off some ballads, folk chesnuts, and ISB songs?

Rob Weir