Soulsha, Tall Pines, Lucy Isabel, Moken and More

Soulsha, Carry It On

Score one for boldness. Soulsha is a band that blends Scottish grooves with funk and uses melody to serve rhythm. It is the brainchild of Elias Alexander (vocals, fiddle, Highland pipes) and Neil Pearlman (keys, accordion), both of whom are American but are well versed in Scottish and world music. As Alexander tells it, they had their minds blown during a trip to New Orleans and decided to form a Scottish funk fusion band. Their 8- sometimes 9-piece band includes Senegalese percussion artist Lamine Touré, a kit drummer, a saxophonist, a trumpet player, guitars, and electric bass. The sometimes-9th member is none other than Galen Fraser, the son of Alasdair Fraser. Don't be fooled by track titles such as "Isle of Skye Reel" or "A'Ghirian," though. In each case you'll get blasts of brass, chunky bass lines, and talking drums to go with the bagpipes and fiddle. The band's normal MO is to lay down an accented funk groove and use it as the springboard for launching into energetic reels. As you'll quickly surmise, the reel is usually the Celtic club of choice for high energy stimuli; this is a jump-up-and-down-and-sweat kind of band. Check out the live performance of the aptly named "Rhythm's in the Melody." You'd not be wrong to think that Soulsha's also a rave band. Another in this spirit is "Fetchal (Let'sDance)." Listen to the inflections in Alexander's vocals on the title track and you'll think Paul Simon's Graceland album. It's not all gyration and jive. The most "Scottish" track is "Standing in the Water," with its grand and sweeping melody. "Beautiful Line" uses echo vocal effects, but it too ratchets down the pace. For the most part, though, Touré, kit drummer Chris Southiere, and the rhythm section (Jake Galloway and Dylan Sherry) place their beats and pulses front and center, a flip of the usual Western pattern of melody first. Soulsha isn't the first band to fuse Celtic and African music­–Baka Beyond has been around since 1992 and the Afro Celt Sound System since 1995–but they are certainly a ray of light on the musical horizon. If you speak no Scots Gaelic, Soulsha is a play on the Gaelic soillse, which means, well, ray of light. ★★★★

The Tall Pines, Love is the Reason

With a name like The Tall Pines, you're probably thinking Appalachian bluegrass. If so, you are not even in the same ballpark. This power duo of Connie Lynn Petruk and Christmas Davies–yeah, that's his name–like to get down in the mud. Petruk's voice is sometimes compared to that of Bobbie Gentry and when they describe their own music as "shack-shakin,' foot-stompin' folk rock," they are not engaging in PR hyperbole.  They have recently dropped a new album titled Skeletons of Soul and have released a short NoiseTrade sampler of back material as an appetizer. "Boogie Pt. 1" is swamp rock with Davies putting on his best Dr. John growl. Petruk is a real force of nature. "Give It All You Got" is more than a song title. It's full of grit and soul and Petruka doesn't believe in letting any air linger in her lungs. She goes badass country rock in "Dirty Cousin," and gets retro in "Howl Me Your Heartache." The latter begins introspective, builds the pain, and takes you lower than low down. And, yeah, she howls! ★★★★

Lucy Isabel, Rambling Stranger

Lucy Isabel's 3rd release, Rambling Stranger, is aptly named. She's a Nashville artist by way of New Jersey and Yale–not your usual career arc. Her new songs often express dislocation. It opens with "How It Goes," a song so good I sort of wish she had saved it for mid-release as it's hard to get back to the energy and dynamism of this track. John Prentice kicks it off with booming, bold electric guitar (with a touch of slide). Then come the percussion, the bass groove, and Isabel's voice. When she croons, You want to be free/To be lonely with me you almost think that that the cur slipped out as the guitar wailed. Isabel changes the mood with the Appalachian influenced "Something New," but it too has a there/not there theme. In this case, she films herself against the off-season Jersey shore to enhance the mood of feeling split between homes past and the present. She gives us more desolation in "Lucky Stars." This stripped down song lets us hear the lovely ornaments in Isabel's voice. We also hear its expressiveness when she sings: I slept with my guitar/In my arms last night/ 'Cause I didn't to think/I was alone…. "Little Bird" is another (semi) sad song done in a quasi-bluegrass style. In this case, it's a tale of needing to leave the cage and spread her wings. Another one to explore is "False Prophet." No, it's not political, rather another song about disconnection: The way you look at me/It's clear to me/You don't understand. This one has a don't-piss-off-a-songwriter feel to it. Ms. Isabel is the real deal, so check her out. ★★★★

Moken, Missing Chapters

Moken Nunga is a Cameroonian immigrant now based in Atlanta after a stint in Detroit. Missing Chapters is a natural sequel to his 2016 release Chapters of My Life. He is hard to classify–the sort of artist to whom you're likely to gravitate instantly or not at all. His is the Africa-meets-the-West style that defines highlife music, but he crosses many other stylistic borders as well. His musical influences include African lions such as Francis Beby and Miriam Makeba, but also Western legends such as James Brown, Nat King Cole, and Van Morrison. The biggest influence of all is Nina Simone and this is evident in Moken's vocal technique of switching between his resonant baritone and falsetto tones. "Yen nin" translates as "look for life," and it's a dance tempo blend of highlife and Afropop whose melody lines are backed by saxophone, groove guitar, and thick bass lines. It contrasts with "Your Son is Rising," which has the sleepy feel of a Bayou ballad crossed with a gospel shout, and a crooner's sentimentality. We get a splash of Borderlands corrido in "Tequila Song " and the fiddle parts of "Mi Amor" work off the persistent percussion foundation to create something akin to an Afropop Roma mash. The song that will probably grab the most is "Machine Man." I am one of many who likes to quote one it's lines:  I became a machine, but with a human heart. In the video Moken sets the song in the broken streets of Detroit and lets that backdrop provide its own social commentary as Moken assumes the persona of a shaman singing the blues. The open question is whether Moken will be your cup of tea. In my view, he overdoes the deep-to-falsetto effect. I could also do with less melodrama. It raises the question of whether he crosses the line between musician and performance artist. But you should decide for yourself. Moken Nunga intrigues me, but to reiterate my first point, he is acquired taste. ★★★    

Short Takes

Let's hear it for World Peace, a new collection from the good folks at Putumayo World Music. It is exactly as advertised. Keb' Mo' gets the ball rolling with "Wake Up Everybody," and ain't it the truth? Jackson Browne weighs in with his Caribbean-flavored "It Is One," and Nina Simone (1933-2003) never let anyone off the hook. Her "IWish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" is a reminder of what an enormous talent she was and how sad it is that this song could have been written yesterday. Other artists include: India Arie, Richard Bona, and David Broza and Wycleaf Jean.

I love living where I do, though it must be said that most of my town's street buskers are pretty terrible. When I was in Ontario recently I heard Luke Prosser singing on the street. He and a traveling buddy caught my ear and Luke sent me this link to his Mercy and Forgiveness CD. In my view, Prosser is more dynamic live, but for those looking for some for some good Christian music, this one is an honest telling of fall and redemption. https://lukeprosser.bandcamp.com/releases

Speaking of Christian music, I know a lot of people who won't go anywhere near it but think nothing of listening to Buddhist chants, Indian ragas, or Sufi praise music. If you've not heard Christian music lately, your POV is frozen in time. Jacob Everett Wallace is a Texas-based pastor, small business owner, and singer songwriter and the man has a great voice and writes meaningful songs. Sample his new EP Arrows and you'll see what I mean. No matter what you think, a song like "Human Condition" makes you think when he sings, We know what we want, but we don't know who we are. Jimmy Carter once (sort of) said the same thing. Wallace calls his style acoustic indie-rock. It sounds like folk to me, but no matter the label, material such as "Cold War" and "Skelton Army" unsettle complacency (in a good way).

Rob Weir


Revisiting Niagara

Niagara (1953)
Directed by Henry Hathaway
20th Century Fox, 88 minutes, Not-rated (Bad acting warning)

You have to do it. You'll hate yourself afterward, but you still have to do it. Everyone does. What, you ask? See the 1953 Marilyn Monroe vehicle Niagara right after you get back from visiting Niagara Falls. It was box office boffo back in '53, but it sure looks like buffoonery in the present.

The set up is simple enough. A wholesome Midwestern couple, Ray and Polly Cutler, come to Niagara Falls for a delayed honeymoon. It's the '50s and Ray (Max Showalter) was too busy with his job with Quaker Oats to get away with the missus (Jean Peters) after the wedding, but that's all to the good as he's such a clever lad that he's won a slogan contest and some dosh to finance the trip. The destination has as much to do with Ray's hope of seeing Mr. Kettering, a company big shot over on the U.S. side, than of taking in the view.

The Cutlers arrive at the rustic cabins overlooking the falls, but the couple in their unit hasn't yet checked out. Rose Loomis (Marilyn Monroe) pleads that her husband is ill and the Cutlers valiantly agree to take another cabin. George Loomis (Joseph Cotten) is indeed sick–of both life and his wife's philandering. He's a Korean vet suffering from PTSD and while the cat was away at war, the mouse sure did play. Rose is younger, more vivacious, and more than a little on the slutty side. It might be more accurate to say that she was the cat, one playing with George and trying to lure him into a trap wherein Patrick, her boyfriend du jour, would kill him and toss his body over the falls. When the Rainbow Tower Carillon chimed the song "Kisses," Rose would know the plan had succeeded. In the meantime she spends her time squeezing into tight dresses and driving both George and the local teenagers crazy. (Why the "kids," as Rose calls them, hold their record hops at a local motor court is never explained.) Rose is your basic femme fatale, but with a wiggle and a bump.

You don't need me to tell you that there's no film if the murder scheme goes exactly as planned. Queue some scenes along the falls, in the tower, and on the river. My first thought was of how different this film would have been had Alfred Hitchcock directed it. Instead it was Henry Hathaway, whose métier was Westerns. Niagara thus has the disjointed feel of a B-Western in which the plot hardly matters as the audience is just waiting for the shoot-out. Replace the corral with Niagara's churning foam and this film is essentially a watery Western.

Hathaway tried to add noir elements in scenes inside the Rainbow Carillon and by making Joseph Cotten sullen and dark, but he's just not up to the task. I'm sure Cotten must have thought dozens of times, "Toto, I've a feeling this isn't an Orson Welles film anymore." Cotten's talents were wasted in this film, as were those of Jean Peters who was known for being a film siren in her own right, though in this film she's done up more like Ginger on Gilligan's Island. Peters could actually act, though, which is far more than can be said for Monroe. In this film, Monroe played to every stereotype you've ever associated with her. Her attempts to be dramatic were risible and the best that can be said is that she's as good as Showalter, who plays a gee-whiz kid who's around 30 going on 12. The Ketterings (Don Wilson and Lurene Tuttle) are also more over the top than, well, a barrel over Niagara.

Niagara's real standout is, of course, the falls. They looked a bit differently in 1953. They were higher as there was less rock debris at the base, you could get much closer to them, and they appeared even more powerful as there wasn't much surrounding them. The US/Canada border was pretty much an open one and there was very little development on either side. Nor did you have to wait in a long line to pay $20 to park your car; there was plenty of on-street parking. The film's final dramatic scenes above the falls play out a little bit like Lillian Gish leaping onto ice floes in Way Down East, but if you've been to Niagara you can generate your own adrenaline during the film's climax.

As movies go, Niagara is a small cask of hogwash tumbling over the precipice. Somehow it seemed so much better when I saw it on TV as a child, but maybe that's because Monroe and the 1950s seemed more plausible back then. Objectively, this is a really dumb film. But if you go to Niagara Falls, you'll want to watch it. Go ahead. It's okay. The guilt passes quickly. Then you can laugh about it.

Rob Weir


The Warehouse an Imaginable Dystopia

The Warehouse (August 2019)
By Rob Hart
Crown Publishers, 368 pages

Remember how we were told the movie The Circle wasn’t about Google, though it was? Rob Hart’s new novel The Warehouse isn’t about Amazon, but of course it is–with a bit of Apple mashed into the batter. Picture a not-so-distant future in which climate change has drowned the coastline, blazing sun has parched much of the land, water and food are in short supply, economic downturn has produced high unemployment rates, and gun violence and marauding gangs plague the cities. (How sad that it takes so little imagination to conjure such scenarios.)

Amidst this bleak landscape stands a beacon, Cloud, a company that’s also a way of life. Those who secure employment at Cloud leave the outside world behind and move onto a Cloud campus where they work, eat, play, and bed in a carbon-neutral climate-controlled environment. Cloud uses its army of drones and driverless trucks to provide its residents and the outside world with all the material goods it demands. Yeah, like I said: Amazon/not Amazon.

To those on the outside and many on the inside, Cloud is Utopia. Its founder, Gibson Wells, appears a benefactor. He’s the star of his own videocasts, which play incessantly inside the campus, even when you’re enjoying a yummy Cloud Burger, touted by all as the best burger ever. Think of Wells as possessing the folksiness of Walmart founder Sam Walton, the omnipresence of 1984’s Big Brother, the business acumen of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and the tech savvy of Apple’s Steve Jobs. Think especially of Jobs, as “Gib” is dying of pancreatic cancer, which not coincidentally is what killed Jobs. You’ll think of Jobs again when you consider that every employee of Cloud wears a CloudBand on their wrist, which monitors work productivity, keeps track of earned credits in this moneyless enclave, reminds each employee of when to wake up, and is the key in and out of cell-like dorm rooms. You need your CloudBand even to use the bathroom. But it’s okay, because Gib assures everyone he’s trying to improve the world through Cloud, and that things are way better there than on the outside. He’s probably right about the latter.

As you might expect, Utopia has some holes in its fabric. It is highly stratified, which one can tell by the color of the shirt one wears: red for the “pickers and placers” that work in the warehouse preparing goods for shipment, green for food and cleaning service personnel, yellow for customer service representatives, brown for tech support, blue for security, and white for managers. The reds are the lowest on the food chain; they are little more than flesh-and-blood robots who rush pell-mell to scale warehouse racks, grab a product, and run it to a conveyor belt to be shipped to customers. Missing quotas is not to be taken lightly, as it could send you back outside.

Oddly, red is the shirt Paxton hoped to secure. He worked as a prison guard on the outside after his invention of the Perfect Egg was stolen by Cloud and wrecked his business. So, of course, he finishes orientation and finds blue security shirts in his room. Another new recruit, Zinnia, hopes for brown shirts, but gets a picker’s red instead. Her official story is that she had been a teacher in Detroit until education went entirely online and a single teacher could serve millions. That’s her cover; she’s actually a corporate spy trying to find Cloud’s vulnerabilities.

The Warehouse is a pas de trois between Gib, Paxton, and Zinnia. The book is a pastiche of various books, movies, and ideas. Cloud’s control over workers owes similarities to efficiency theorist Frederick Winslow Taylor as filtered through Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, and a careful reader will find echoes of everything from 1984, Animal Farm, and Lord of the Flies to Soylent Green, Mad Max, and Blade Runner. The Warehouse lacks originality, but it compensates through a clever and compelling rearranging of its various blocks. About the time you think you know where it’s headed, author Rob Hart veers in a slightly different direction. The same can be said of his characters and their motives. Hart keeps us just unbalanced enough to make us doubt whether they will do as we suspect. That’s a good thing because often they don’t!

Let me give Hart another shout out for introducing secondary characters that have just enough depth to advance the plot in feasible ways. There is also moral ambiguity within The Warehouse that lends verisimilitude to the beat-the-clock drama that sets up the conclusion. If you think of the very world Hart constructs, who would be most likely to be correct: those resigned to the status quo, the skeptics, the starry-eyed converts, or the saboteurs? If you guessed “yes,” ask Amazon to ship you a copy of The Warehouse. 

Rob Weir