May 2019 Music: Nels Andrews, April Verch, Taina Asili, Finnish Independents, Sass Jordan

Nels Andrews, Scrimshaw

You will notice several things about folksinger Nels Andrews from the start: he's a contemplative poet, a born storyteller, and reminds you of Richard Shindell in voice and temperament. In fact, he too has a song titled "Wisteria," though Andrews' song is a sweet love song and Shindell's is rumination on the past. Andrews has made his 2012 recording Scrimshaw widely available as a kickoff to a new project that releases in June. The songs on Scrimshaw aren't all maritime in theme, but do draw inspiration from songs and stories that sailors fashioned during long voyages. "Flotsam" is a wanderers' tale whose waltz melody will stick in your head, as will the imploring line leave the romantics alone. "Barroom Bards" is another take on travelers, this one with a cautionary line: Barroom bards and river stones done shine so bright/When you get them home. In a similar vein, "Starboard" draws you in deeper with each line, this one of dreams gone wrong: You come home ragged and you come home curt/We can smell the city on your shirt/By the length of your hem and your torn lapel/We see you've been sinking in the wishing well. It, like "Trident," is a sink-or-swim song and Andrews often doesn't resolve matters for us. In the latter he sings: Then you rise, you're back on the pavement/Your hands in your pocket digging for warmth. I adored this album. It even comes with eye-popping medieval manuscript artwork. One can only imagine what Andrews has up his sleeve in the future, but if you've not heard Scrimshaw you're missing a literate, finely polished gem. ★★★★★

April Verch, Once a Day

The Ottawa Valley has long been a hotbed for country music. April Verch has steadily been moving in that direction and gone full-bore cowgirl on Once a Day, her tribute to country music from the 1950s and 1960s. You will find songs penned by country giants such as Webb Pierce, Connie Smith, and Loretta Lynn. Speaking of Lynn, Verch covers her classic "You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man." Yep, that one dates from before feminism took hold, though in its own corny way it's flippant and defiant. Another old chestnut is "A Fool Such asI," which Hank Snow recorded back in 1953. Songs such as these are fun, but it's hard not to contrast them with tunes such as https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8h281Cjszw" a rollicking fiddle reel drawn from the traditional well. I like Verch's voice, though it may not be for everyone–it's nasal, high, and quirky­–but she's nonpareil when she picks up the fiddle. I'm glad she's having some fun, but I hope future releases won't hide her best gift under a basket. ★★★

Taína Asili, Resiliencia

Taína Asili could be the poster child for strong women who forge their own path. She's a poet and a podcaster, a singer and a feminist, a storyteller and an activist. Resilient women inspired her new album, and she celebrates them on the title track. The instrumentation pays homage to Ms. Asili's Puerto Rican heritage as well as hard rock. Aisili is a veteran of New York State's punk rock scene, but her musical boundaries go way beyond. "Even If" takes on the sexual violation of women, transgressions of boundaries, and misogyny to a decided reggae beat. "Plant the Seed" sings the glories of farming and the land, "Gave It All My Love" has pop hooks, and "Beyond the Stars" spices with Southeast Asian rhythms, courtesy of collaborator Veena Chandra. Elsewhere there are plenty of Afro-Carib melodies inspired by salsa and guaracha. No matter the format, you'll be impressed by Asili's gale-force vocals. Once you hear her sing, it won't surprise you to learn she's also done opera as well as punk, and how many people can say that? Make no mistake, though, Aisili is on a mission of resistance against injustices of all sort. ★★★★  

Finnish Independents, Finnish Home Party

Don't expect kantele or keyed fiddles on Finnish Home Party. Don't expect any Finnish either; all of the songs are in English though all five acts are from the Land of a Thousand Lakes. This album is a spotlight for emerging talent. Anni's songs are moody and dramatic. Try "Lost Ones," in which her piano is drenched in drone guitar and electronic keys. GEA also features keys, though they are more lush and the vocals evoke Enya. "Snow" is intriguing with its rain-like piano notes and mix with strings and bass. Lone Deer Laredo might suggest Texas, but vocalist Paola Suhonen and guitarist Olli Happonen echo the ambient feel of GEA, but with arrangements that are simultaneously more jangly and harder. Sample "Golden Harvest." New Silver Girl opens "Phantom Ride" quietly, but soon amp up for a song that's a cross between punk and New Wave. Sort of what you'd expect from a band that counts among its influences both Dick Dale and Lou Reed. Finally there's Sam Shaky, whose "Too Proud" features cascades of notes and Bowie-like vocals. Shakey calls his music "bittersweet rock." He hails from Kouvala, which he claims is the "most hated city in the country." Will we be hearing more from any of these artists? It's hard to say, but each act is positioning itself for an international market that increasingly communicates in English. Is that a good thing? You be the judge. ★★★

Sass Jordan, #Make Big Noise

Sass Jordan lives up to her handle–Sarah is her given name–and to the title of her recent four-track EP. Jordan currently lives in Montreal, though she's done lots of acting on both sides of the border. How big is her voice? She played Janis Joplin in an off-Broadway play and did a duet with Joe Cocker for The Bodyguard soundtrack. You'll hear some pop-rock on Cinnamon" and "Small Thing."  She ratchets up to arena rock levels on "So Hard" with its power chords and swirling guitar flourishes, and there are echoes of New Wave on "Tell Somebody."  Yeah, Jordan can sing a bit! ★★★★

Rob Weir 


Gender Bending and Lautrec at MFA Boston

Gender Bending Fashion (through August 25, 2019)
Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris (through August 4, 2019)
Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Have you seen Sally Potter's 1993 film Orlando? If not, you should. It's a mind-blowing work that casts the androgynous Tilda Swinton in the title role of a tale that will make you think that Ms. Potter was way ahead of the curve in calling into question gender assertions. If you follow up by attending Gender Bending Fashion, a show at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), you'll quickly learn that Sally Potter wasn't a pioneer; she merely did her homework.

The MFA show has the glitz, impact lighting, and glamour of a designer's runway, which is appropriate given that many past and present designers have work on display. It might, at first, shock you to witness video footage of a man in high heels rocking form-fitting tights, or another man sporting zombie-like makeup to go with his golden boots and flowing flowered dress. Perhaps you might wonder if current discussions of gender fluidity and its dizzying array of terms–agender, bigender, cisgender, intersexual, Third gender, etc.–have gone too far, perhaps even transgressed the borders of absurdity and obscenity. Reserve your judgment.

As curators Michelle Tolini Finamore and Penny Vinick remind us, gender barriers have long been porous and it's not just fashion designers who have noticed, though they have certainly exploited it more than most. Marlene Dietrich shocked audiences when she donned a tuxedo in the 1930 film Morocco, and Katherine Hepburn scandalized traditionalists when she started wearing tailored pants in 1931. Okay, so Dietrich and Hepburn would look fabulous wearing shredded newspaper and bottle caps, but they weren't pioneers either–merely two women powerful enough to do as they wished. Vaudeville performers, double-voiced singers, emcees, and black vaudevillians obliterated gender dress lines decades earlier, and even they were upstarts. What, for example, does one do with Scotsmen in kilts? Or Greeks in chitons. Is it worthwhile even to open discussions of the foppish costumes and nosebleed shoes worn during the Baroque era? Lest you think Americans have more commonsense (whatever that might mean), gaze upon a 19th century painting of two young boys in dresses. The custom of the day was that a male child wore gowns until "breeched," that is placed in trousers, around age 9.

In other words, fashion has long been both a mirror of custom and a cultural provocateur. Think of bloomers, Edwardian dandies, the "masculine" shirtwaists of the Gibson girls, 1950s Teddy Boys and Girls, unisex clothing, and wear-whatever-the-hell-you-wish hippies. Each time the old guard reacted with horror and predicted the impending collapse of Western values. Each time, of course, we got over it.

In the category of what goes around comes around, the first thing that confronts us at the MFA are clips from a 2004 Viktor&Rolf show titled "One Woman Show." In this case, "woman" is used ironically and ambiguously. The star model is none other than Tilda Swinton, though you might not recognize her in what looks to be a form-fitting black onesie blended with a ruffled fan on steroids. The latter is open at the collar and plunges toward the waist, but none of the exposed flesh suggests femininity. If anything, Swinton looks as if she might be a castrati. It reminded me of a line from Orlando in which the formerly male Orlando awakes as a woman, gazes upon her female body, and remarks, "Same person. No difference at all… just a different sex."

Indeed. What we learn most from the MFA show is that we fret too much over perceived differences. Take it from another gender bender: David Bowie. The cover of his 1971 album The Man Who Sold the World featured Bowie sprawled across a daybed attired in a tasteful frock and staring demurely at the camera. That is, if you happened to live in Britain. North American releases used various alternative covers: Bowie's face, Bowie kicking his leg into the air, or a truly absurd cartoon of a man carrying a gun.

Oh, for heaven's sake! Have we finally gotten over this sort of thing? Yes and no. We celebrate Janelle Monáe's transgressions of gender boundaries, but how comfortable are we when we see a man wearing a dress consisting of yards of shingled grey material and carrying a white parasol as if he were on his way to sip mint juleps at a cotillion? I confess that it made me wonder what the point is, but then again I've seen pictures of myself from the 1970s wearing stack heels and butt-ugly polyester trousers. (No, you may not see these shots!) Perhaps today's fashion rebels are no more dangerous than Hepburn in her pants. Kudos the MFA for a provocative show. Go ahead and enjoy it. It only looks dangerous. 

Also on the bohemian side of the ledger, the MFA is also showing Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris. It's always wonderful to view a Lautrec show. His career was a short as his stature (4'8" due to a genetic disorder) and his life. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) died from a combination of absinthe addiction and syphilis at age of just 36, yet left behind an astonishing output of more than 6,500 works (paintings, posters, drawings, ceramics, stained glass). The MFA assembled 200 pieces–some from contemporaries ranging from Cassat and Degas to Sargent and Tissot–mostly on the subject of Parisian celebrities known to Lautrec. That pack included performers such as Jane Avril, Sarah Bernhardt, Aristide Bruant, and Loïe Fuller, but since Lautrec spent much of his time in brothels, can-can houses, and salacious cabarets as well as legitimate clubs, theaters, and the ballet, we also see the Parisian underbelly: prostitutes, lesbians, johns, gamblers, and hard drinkers. 

Objectively speaking, we don't learn much about Lautrec that we don't already know. If I had to pick the two takeaway points, the first would be that Lautrec's infatuation with celebrities sometimes approximated what we'd today call fanboy culture. The second is a reminder that the Paris he knew in both its glamour and its unseemliness was largely a new city. The Paris most of us think of today is the reinvention of Baron Haussmann, who was commissioned by Napoleon III to open up the city and bring air and sunlight into it. Much of old Paris disappeared between the years 1853 and 1870, less than two decades before Lautrec arrived to the Montmartre section of the city in 1889. He lived in the shadow of the Moulin Rouge until 1894.

I always enjoy Lautrec, but he's been done a lot lately, including a 2009 show at the Clark in Williamstown and one at the National Gallery in 2018, both of which focused on Paris. There was also a show at the Currier in Manchester, New Hampshire in 2018 that was organized by the Museum of Modern Art. The MFA was late to the party on this one.

Rob Weir


The Great Believers is Moving But Falls Short of Its Hype

The Great Believers (2018)
Rebecca Makkai
Viking, 432 pages.

Rebecca Makkai is a fine wordsmith. At her best, she’s also a superb storyteller. Structure and consistency are other matters altogether. I’ll return to these, but first let’s look at the tales she tells.

The Great Believers toggles between 1985 and 2015. The first date was the height of the AIDS crisis, two years before AZT was widely available and longer still until it and other drugs were affordable and safe. An estimated 325,000 gay men died during the worst days of the crisis, prompting activists to compare AIDS to the Black Death of the Middle Ages. New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco were hardest hit by AIDS. Makkai instead takes us to Chicago, which had its own “Boystown” subculture of bars, clubs, bathhouses, and casual sex. Soon it too was hollowed out by AIDS as surely as if it were a warzone.  

Makkai tells this part of her story through a large cast of gay men—too many in my estimation—before the focus narrows. We meet the ironically named Yale, as he and several other characters are Northwestern grads. He works in a gallery seeking to be taken seriously and is the long-term partner of Charlie, the editor of Out Loud, a leading gay newspaper that advocates safe sex. Caution wasn’t what some Boystown residents wanted to hear; several worried that the bathhouse culture they built would crumble to nothingness. In many ways, though, the main character isn’t present. Nico Marcus is among the first to die of AIDS and Makkai uses him as the pivot around which others rotate: his black partner Terrence; his friends Teddy, Bill, and Richard Campo, a famed photographer; and Nico’s grieving sister, Fiona, who takes on the role of caregiver to the dying. There is also Julian, who is the Typhoid Mary of AIDS.

That’s quite a few characters and to it we add gallery staff, especially Cicely Pearce. Makkai interjects another story atop her AIDS drama: that of Fiona’s dying Aunt Nora who wishes to donate art work to the gallery. Her stash was collected when she lived in Paris in the 1920s and was the lover of little known painter Ranko Novak. The biggest obstacle is Nora’s family, who thinks she should sell it. In a moment of candor, though, Nora tells Yale she chose him because Paris in the 1920s was also a warzone of grief and death.  

What we learn from the 2015 part of the book is that Fiona is really the main character of the novel. Thirty years on, she is divorced and estranged from her daughter Claire, who disappeared into a cult in the 1990s­ and severed all ties with her family. Fiona thinks she might be in Paris and goes there to see if she can find her. This works for Makkai’s circular structure. That is, if you buy into the idea that Nora’s Paris of the 1920s and Fiona’s of 2015 is a clean connect-the-dots dual mystery. Another point of view might call this contrivance. That particular judgment is bolstered by the all-too-neat reappearance of key 1980s figures. I’m less bothered by this—most novelists resolve plots through coincidences that seldom occur in real life—than I am that the 2015 story feels thin compared to the moving 1985 sections.  

There is also the question of equivalency. I don’t wish to diminish the trauma of a mother’s attempt to track down a wayward offspring, but Claire’s voluntary absence hardly compares with the involuntary carnage of Boystown. Some might say it cheapens the latter. Makkai’s idea of taking us from crisis to post-crisis to new crisis was a good one, but there is a palpable sense that these themes were clearer in Makkai’s mind than upon the page. I often felt as if I was reading a novella within a novel that could have easily been a postscript. In like fashion, the book’s resolution—a sort of resignation—can be read as either honest or forced. We are to infer that war (broadly defined) victimizes randomly and leaves guilt-ridden survivors in its wake.

The Great Believers is about trauma and tragedy, loss and gain, surrender and perseverance. Muse upon this as you contemplate the book’s purposefully ambiguous title. I admired the book more than I liked it. It is overly long and could have lost 100 pages or so by cutting extraneous characters and threads. The first third is especially confusing until you sort out who is central and who is just passing through. I nearly gave up several times. I was glad I forged ahead, as parts of the book are deeply affecting, but I won’t join those who have praised it to the skies. It’s a good book, but it falls short of its hype.

Rob Weir