Karen Jonas, John Westmoreland, Makru, and More

Karen Jonas, Lucky Revisited

Every now and then you run across a recording that's so audacious that all you can do is applaud its chutzpa. Such a work is the 4th release from Karen Jonas. This album is sass, poise, and one helluva voice. Jonas gives us stripped down versions of songs from her back pages, some new material, and an unapologetic turn-back-the-calendar approach to country music before it became slick and safe. Her new version of "Lucky" is honed to a dangerous edge. Jonas sings it as if it's part of the soundtrack of a gritty film noir film set in a dusty Texas town filled with desperate people. She positively eviscerates the Golden Fifties myth in "Butter." She frames her video with an old-style TV screen and melts the song in suggestive nastiness whose sugary sprinkles are like a diaphanous dress waiting to be unzipped. Hers is a feminist country music, even when it evokes the past. It doesn't get any more throwback stylistically than "Ophelia" but then again, few past country stars could have gotten away with a lyric such as when a man calls you a whore, go on and the find the closest door…walk out. Want an old-time weepy? "Country Songs" is about a girl who hated country music until she came of age and had her heart broken: So thank you for teaching me to sing country songs/For making me so sad I want to sing along. She completes her stroll through yesteryear with two excellent covers–one of Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," and Hank Williams' "Lovesick Blues." ★★★★

John Westmoreland, Cast Fire

Some music grabs you with memorable melody lines, others with lyrical grace or pulsing energy. John Westmoreland–known for his guitar work with Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba–stirs your soul. That's exactly where he's aiming with Cast Fire, an album full of "grief singing," vocal stylizations borrowed from Karelia. Don't think depressing; think honorific and contemplative. "The Sparrow" was inspired by being part of a song/prayer circle attending to a dying man. A small bird glided into the room, perched upon a lampshade, and just as gracefully departed. Westmoreland's guitar is at once suggestive of a slow flamenco and of feathery flight. He allows his bright notes to ring and frame his expressive baritone voice. "Thomas" honors his departed grandfather and is a meditation on life, death, and the soul. If the music sounds Baroque, it's because Westmoreland synchs his nylon-stringed Guild with a torban, a Ukrainian lute/psaltery combination. "Open Your Eyes" also evokes an ancient music feel, this time induced by guitar arpeggios, hand percussion, violin, and bansuri, a wooden flute from India. Everything on this album is designed to induce inner thought. The gorgeous notes and fretwork of "Land of the Living" takes you to one part of the human experience, "All Saints Day" to another. You might notice that Westmoreland's videos feature a lot of free-style interpretive dance. His music encourages personal journeys. He takes one of how own on an innovative cover of "All Along the Watchtower." Maybe you'll do your own dance to the jazzy but moody instrumental "Waltz in A Minor." Don't flee from lamentation; remember that laments come from the living. They express sorrow and regret, but are also cathartic and cleansing. ★★★★

Makrú, Tu Mission

Makrú is a global kitchen sink band from California that plays a mash of ska, regaae, flamenca, cumbia, rumba, and jazz. This befits a group whose members were born in Colombia, El Salvador, Spain, Turkey, and the United States. If you think of the Spanish-speaking world as branching south and west from Spain into Latin America, you get an idea of the multiple influences Makrú put into play. On "Cloud," we hear a soft Caribbean-like melody filtered through a reggae pulse and faintly Middle Eastern undertones. It, as much of the album, is anchored by the vocals and vihuela (Mexican guitar/timple blend) of Colombia's Jenny Rodríquez, and the cájon (box drum) and vocals of El Salvador-born Raúl Vargas. The instrumental "Where You Wanna Be" is a pastiche that moves from jazzy to dance hall and back to jazz in a start/stop arrangement in which Haluk Kecelioglu spins out oud (Turkish lute) notes like a mandolin player. Vargas takes the lead vocals on the titletrack and it too takes twisty turns. It opens with the wistfulness of an island ballad, but evolves into something akin to a Mexican corrido. I have no Spanish so I can't comment on the song lyrics, but I do know that Makrú band members are associated with social activism. I like the eclectic approach of the band, as well as its tendency to blend traditional styles with the urgency of pop music and the contemplativeness of jazz. ★★★★

Short Takes

The NoiseTrade sampler of Nicole Boggs and the Reel, Live at Oceanway serves up soul fused with hard-edged rock. Boggs belts out the self-descriptive “Life of the Party,” and laments looking for love in all the wrong places on “Fool for a Fool” and “Sleeping with the Enemy.” If you think Lake Street Dive’s Rachael Price has a big voice, listen to Boggs.

NoiseTrade recently paired with Paste Magazine and has begun to make past performances available through the latter's Daytrotter Sessions. British folk rockers Mumford and Sons now play large venues. We hear them in a quieter, less glitzy mode on a seven-track August 30, 2013 stopover in Troy, Ohio, where they jammed with a handful of friends in an empty high school auditorium. One of the selections is a cover of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice It's Alright," but by far the stellar track is a sensitive rendition of "Like a Hurricane."

Garrett Dutton goes by the handle of G. Love and generally fronts a trio called Special Sauce. Check out a solo performance titled G. Love Live at Daytrotter. He's from Philadelphia, but this four-song acoustic country blues set sounds more bayou than Schuylkill Expressway. My favorite track was "Rainbow," in which he gives an acoustic slide a fine workout. I also enjoyed the hard driving, good summer fun "Soulbbq" and "Diggin Roots," which he recently recorded with Keb' Mo'. 

A final blast from the past comes from Daytrotter's sampler of a Bon Iver concert from July 21, 2008. Back then they had just one album, For Emma, Forever Ago. (The band would go on to win a Grammy in 2012.) For those who don't know, Bon Iver is the brainchild of Justin Vernon, and the name a phonetic spelling of the French bon l'hiver, or "good winter." Vernon hails from Wisconsin, where they know about winter. Bon Iver is often billed as an indie rock band, though folk with some rock would be a better description. Listen to "re: Stacks" [sic] to hear the band's soft side, and "Creature Free" for its now-trademark combo of soft, pause, speed up, flirt with havoc, and return to soft. Vernon's falsetto lead is featured on all tracks, the other two being "Flume" and "Lamp Sum."

Rob Weir


Invictus Video Review: Good Sports Flick

Invictus (2009)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Warner Brothers, 133 minutes, PG-13
In English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu, Maori

I got psyched for the women's World Cup soccer final by watching a film about rugby. Huh? Not the same, I know, but I watched Invictus, which I had never seen, partly because of the controversy stirred up by conservatives because of Megan Rapinoe's strident anti-Trump remarks. I notice that the right never goes into a tizzy when one of its own such as Tom Brady, Dale Earnhardt Jr., John Rocker, Curt Schilling, or Tim Tebow spout their views, but never mind. Let me address something that Invictus does well. It puts to rest the naïve belief that sports should be politics-free. They never have been.  Take a look at controversy and tragedy at the Olympic games in 1932, 1968, 1972, 1980, and 1984. Even in a good year, the Olympics does a better job at flaming nationalism than of celebrating athletic excellence.

Soccer and rugby long ago gave up the pretense that sports exist independent of politics.  Director Clint Eastwood takes us to the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which was held in South Africa less than 5 years after Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) was released from his apartheid jail cell after 27 years, and just one after he was elected South Africa's first black president. His nation's rugby team, the Springboks, was a source of pride for whites, but Mandela noticed that the black majority rooted for whomever was playing the Springboks. To their eyes, the very name and color of the jersey represented decades of apartheid. Mandela, though, resisted calls for a new name and jersey, as he knew his job was to represent all South Africans, plus he needed to attract foreign investment for South Africa's fragile democracy. The last thing he needed was a flight of white money with the World Cup coming to Johannesburg. His task was to make the Springboks a symbol of national pride. The problem, though, was simple: the Springboks sucked! So how to meld a team and get everyone to root for it, especially when the squad had but one black player, Chester Williams (McNeil Hendriks)?

Mandela decided that the racial healing began with team captain François Pienaar (Matt Damon), who was sired in a racist Afrikaner* home. In not-entirely-accurate scenes Pienaar buys into the new South Africa, comes to admire Mandela's struggle, and whips the squad into shape. Pienaar's transformation was capped by a visit  to Robbens Island where Mandela was jailed for nearly three decades, and the Springboks–at Mandela's suggestion–began to capture black support by conducting clinics in the townships to which they were confined and still concentrated.

You can look it up, so no need to worry about spoilers. In the 1995 tournament, South Africa shockingly defeated heavily favored Australia and eventually won the Cup by upsetting the New Zealand All Blacks in the final. This was especially shocking given that the All Blacks featured Jonah Lomu, an explosive giant (6'5", 276 pounds) and the most dominating athlete of my lifetime (with the possible exception of Secretariat!).

I liked the film, though I certainly recognize its limitations. In feel it's a bit like Chariots of Fire, which is to say that drama and over-the-top melodrama occupy adjacent stadium seats. Invictus had generally good reviews when it debuted a decade ago, with a few naysayers finding it too "manly" in a thudding, muddy, spit-blood kind of way. Rugby is a much tougher sport than gridiron football–no padding-–but it's not quite as bone crunching as viewed on the screen. You might also wonder why we see Damon bruised and sliced during a game, but looking spit-polish fine the next day. (Did he bathe in Arnica to get rid of his bruises?) You could also be (rightfully) skeptical as to whether Mandela spent his entire first year in office fixating on the Springboks. In sum, this is a rather typical sports film–insert any sport here–with an arc of demoralization followed by team bonding, hard work, and glorious triumph. You could even call this an Eastwood family vanity pic; Scott Eastwood played one of the Springboks and his brother Kyle composed and/or co-arranged the music.

Nonetheless, it's a highly entertaining movie even though ten years later we know that much of the South African dream died when Mandela passed in 2013. Do I even need to tell you that Morgan Freeman was superb as Mandela? He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, though he didn't win. The surprise is how good Damon was; for a dude from Boston, he sports an excellent Afrikaans accent. His acting is subtle, not a histrionic Hollywood star turn. Kudos to both Eastwood and Damon for making us see the latter as a rugby player, not a celebrity hunk. 

If you're wondering about the film's title, it is that of a poem by William Earnest Henley (1849-1903) that Mandela often recited in confinement. [Follow the links for further details.] The movie is based on a book written by John Carlin, who writes about the connections between–what else?–sports and politics.

Rob Weir

*Afrikaner references the 17th century white Dutch who colonized South Africa. The English took over "Cape" colony in the 19th century. Afrikaners fled to the interior, formed the Orange Free State, and eventually melded with French, Germans, and Swedes, all of whom spoke a variant of Dutch called Afrikaans. The Union of South Africa was formed in 1910 and absorbed the Orange Free State, which precipitated the Boer Wars–Boer a word for Dutch farmers–that ended in defeat of the Boers. They, however, came to dominate the Union and, in 1948, put apartheid into place, a system akin to segregation in the US but much more brutal.


Local Strangers, Kristina Murray, VanWyk, Rupa Marya, Noaccordion

The Local Strangers, Complete Catalog

If you're unaware of the Seattle-based Local Strangers fronted by Aubrey Zoli and Matt Hart, you’ve got a treat in store. They are often classified as Americana, which in their case means they’re a bit of everything. TLS has released their back catalogue material. There's lots to sample and if you don’t find something to love, you just don’t like music. “Hunted by Ghosts” has a sufficiently spooky feel with a melody that's sort of string band-meets-small combo. The operative phrase is “sort of,” because Zoli and Hart run the acoustic gamut; when they meld with their touring band, they also tilt the rock and folk rock machines. “Devil and a Stiff Drink” is a "sort of" country rock badass song, but “Mr. Blackberry” is a handclap ditty that could be something from the 1940s filtered through electric noise that skirts cacophony. Zoli is bold and in command on “Chasethe Battle,” which evokes the pretty to let-‘er-rip style of Maura Kennedy. On “Uptown,” Hart takes the lead on an impressive song that’s and indie rock/folk hybrid. Listen to the white keys on that one. What else? How about the harmonies and folk gospel feel of “Daniel,” a community sing-along in real time?  The acid surf guitar intro to “Red Dress” also sounds like it’s borrowed from another time, though its chorus is now. “Always Me” is a shitkicker, but there's also the emotional “Letter to My Love,” complete with cello and horns. This is a wonderful ensemble and Audrey Zoli is the real deal. ★★★★
Kristina Murray, Southern Ambrosia

Kristina Murray writes new songs in classic country and Southern rock style. Her alto, slightly nasal voice is evocative of Nanci Griffith, as is her flair for pastoral tracks such as “Strong Blood” and “Pink Azaleas,” the last a collection of nostalgic childhood memories. She can also spin a good story, as she does in “Ballad of Angel and Donnie,” which was inspired by reading of the meth bust of two folks living on the razor’s edge. The project’s attention-grabber, “Made in America,” features cool guitar hooks and is about another life-on-the-margins character that grew up fighting, drinking, praying, and scrapping by. ★★★

VanWyck, An Average Woman

This one is tough to evaluate. Christien VanWyck is a Dutch singer whose 11-track An Average Woman is so moody that I immediately thought of Leonard Cohen. When I sought information on her, it turned out everyone else has also made the Cohen (and Laura Marling) connection. The multiple threads of the title track lie with hearing of a teen girl’s suicide, discussing acceptance with a therapist friend, and reading a novel about a girl’s disappearance and her parents’ inability to describe her to the police because she was so “average.” It's also an ironic opener, as most of the album spotlights strong women. For instance, if you know Titian’s masterpiece “The Rape of Europa,” you can imagine VanWyck’s take on “Europa Escapes.” But the rub is that each track track on this album has the same pace: slow. “Europa Escapes” at least has some reverb guitar, but that's as close as we get to a pace change. I admired VanWyck’s lyrics and voice, but the arrangements make it difficult to differentiate one song from another. You know–a lot like Leonard Cohen’s early work. Try tracks such as the echoing “Red River Girl,” the soulful “Don't Talk to the Captain,” and her amazing small voice catch in “By the Oak Tree.”  I yearned for more moments such as these. ★★½

Rupa and the April Fishes, Growing Upward

If this band name perplexes you, Rupa Marya fronts a six-piece band and April Fishes is a translation of the French les poissons d'avril, a French April 1 prank of sticking paper fish on the back of unsuspecting victims. Rupa is a Bay Area fireball who sings in English, French, Spanish, and Hindi. Her eclectic band is often dubbed "global alternative" as it's a mix of jazz, rock, and chanson, with splashes of reggae and punk. I've heard this band and admire much of what they do, but was underwhelmed by Growing Upward. "Where You From" is emblematic; the recording balance isn't loud but still feels overstuffed. Ditto "Water Song," which as so much drone-like ambience that it flattens Marya's vocals. "Yelamu (We Are Still Here)" throws everything but the kitchen sink at you: chants, background lead vocals, trumpet, snippets of a newscast, and Guillermo Gomez Peña reading a human rights declaration. Nice idea, but it gets in its own way. This album is much stronger when it keeps things simple, as in the Caribbean-meets-Cajun "Ena Mena Deeka," which is like a washboard song without the namesake percussion. "Frontline" is also a good song. It has oomph of R and B and sexy trumpet that supplements Rupa's swaying rhythms. Throughout the album I wanted more Rupa and less of the mess. ★★

Noaccordion, Surrender

An old joke holds there is no form of music that can't be improved by the deletion of an accordion. Polka, Celtic, and Cajun bands would disagree. So would Onah Indigo, the Bay Area performance artist who spearheads the Noaccordion project. "Project" is indeed the best way to describe Indigo's vision. The "no" part of her music reminded me of Japanese "noh" theater in that it is grounded, minimalist, and exotic to those who've never before encountered it. Indigo's "Surrender" evolved from Indigo's recovery from intense back pain. The squeezebox can be hard on backs, and apparently she had plenty of time to think. Noaccordion–and Indigo does play one, as well as keys–is performance art merged with bold experimentation and musical pastiche. "Goodness RiseAgain" features trumpet, plus the reggae/funk vocals of Spencer Garret Burton; yet in "Grow" we hear Indigo reaching into operatic range. In "Another Way," heavy drone-like bass sets a Gothic foundation for accordion parading as fiddle. "Quick Time" is ironically named. It would invoke descriptors such as funereal and elegiac were it not for the beat box percussion. "Lessons" has been labeled "glitch hop," and that's a pretty good handle. The final track, "Allies," is piano, bass, bang-the-can percussion, and buried wraithlike vocals, but also makes us feel that Indigo has found simpatico peeps. This project strikes me as a more successful venture onto turf upon which Rupa Marya stumbled. I warn you, though, that Noaccordion is not for everyone. It's decidedly a walk on the unorthodox side. Check out the official video for "Trouble" (not on the album) and you'll see what I mean. ★★★½

Rob Weir