David Newbould: September 2019 Artist of the Month

David Newbould
Sin and Redemption
Rock Ridge Music

Note: This album is not yet supported by any new videos except for the title track. The album version of the other links are different on the album.

Yes, this is a new cover!
David Newbould’s newest album honors its title through vignettes of individuals pushed to the limits and facing moments of reckoning in which staying put is no longer an option. The dilemma, of course, is which direction to turn.

Newbould has faced a few of those decisions himself. He grew up in a Toronto ‘burb he couldn’t wait to escape. His journey took him to New York City and beyond, though he’s lately been ensconced in Nashville. The album’s most biographical song is “RunaroundTown,” in which he admits he chose to follow in the footstep of some of his heroes: Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young–who respectively fled Oklahoma, Minnesota, and Ontario. Ironically, the song’s vibe is more Springsteen than any of the folks mentioned in the lyrics. It’s hard, though, to find a particular category that contains Newbould. You can find, for instance, a video of Newbould performing an acoustic version of “Runaround Town” that reminiscent of Springsteen in his Nebraska days; but the album cut is more like Bruce with the E Street Band.

Mostly, Newbould is a storyteller who lets the tale dictate the musical style. “Diamonds in the Dark” is a swampy blues offering that is short on poetry and long on pain. He sings Sometimes a man’s got to move before he knows where to go, yet moments later laments I don’t know where to go. There’s a new version of “Long Road to Barstow,” which appeared on an earlier album. The previous also evoked acoustic Springsteen, but the new one is rocked out with its traveling clothes on. Barstow isn’t necessarily the destination for the story’s antihero whose life on the hard road is fueled by booze, pills, and tragedy. “Sweet Virginia Morn” is another in this vein, with its chilling reminder There’s something that happens when dreams don’t come true. And don’t be fooled by the singalong feel of “Oh Katy.” Its parenthetical subtitle is “Just Getting’ By” and it reminds me of an updated version of The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. The heavy bass lines alert us that is a dialogue/rant against a life that should be but isn’t working: Running in circles like the hands of time/O Katy this ain’t living life/We gotta find something more.  

Newbould has a big voice that he reels in for sensitive material “Love You Too Much (Henry’s Song)” or the gospel-influenced “Smiling in the Rain.” But if you want to know how much sound Newbould’s vocals can generate, listen to him rise above the electric version of the title track. It’s another hair-raising tale, this one of a sister and brother in a family where the first–as viewed through paternal eyes–could do no wrong and the second could do no right. The latter is the path to sin and, eventually, yearning for redemption. My favorite track is “Sensitive Heart,” about the woman who got away and now looks for love in the arms of another. The arrangement pulses with the plucked energy of a backing guitar and features both a memorable melody line and some serious noise. Newbould booms above it.

Rob Weir


Ian McEwan's Machines Like Me Raises Questions about Sentience

Machines Like Me (2019)
By Ian McEwan
Doubleday/Random House, 332 pages

But remember, please, the Law by which we live;
We are not built to comprehend a lie…
We are nothing more than children of your brain!
Rudyard Kipling “The Secret of Machines”

Is artificial intelligence (AI) actually “intelligence” as humans understand it? In the world Ian McEwan builds in his new novel the answer to that question is, “Probably not.” His is a very smart book that blends science, science fiction, actual history, counterfactual history, philosophy, mathematics, and imagination.

McEwan’s fictive tension rests in part on a real problem in AI research, that of P/NP. To the degree that I understand it, P is polynomial (computing) time and NP is nondeterministic time. What happens if a computer quickly identifies a problem, but cannot compute the solution to that problem at the same (if any) speed? Moreover, how does a machine deal with moral dilemmas or situations in which the answer is indeterminate, immoral, or morally ambiguous? My computer science friend reminded me of a central programming dilemma for self-driving cars. What if its cameras detect a child running into traffic and there is insufficient time to brake the car? On the other side of the road there is a group of 10 people waiting for a bus. What decision is made? Should the car be diverted straight and kill its powerless occupant, run over the child, or plow into those waiting for the bus? How can a machine make a decision that is ethics- driven rather than one resolved by an algorithm?

If PNP, one interpretation holds that a machine could never become fully sentient. If, on the other hand, some genius figures out a way in which P =NP, machines might acquire the ability to simulate human thought. That holds the potential to do away with human creativity, intuitive thought, and moral reasoning. The latter is the scenario implied in many dystopian novels in which androids overthrow humanity.

McEwan steers more toward the first assumption. He presents an alt-version of the late 20th century that’s intriguingly counterfactual. In that realm, Alan Turing refused chemical castration for violating Britain’s anti-homosexuality laws and did not commit suicide in 1954; it’s 1982 and he is an esteemed member of the intellectual community. That’s not all. John F. Kennedy narrowly escaped assassination, Jimmy Carter defeated Reagan in 1980, and Margaret Thatcher leaves office in disgrace after Britain loses the Falklands War to Argentina. John Lennon lives and The Beatles have just reunited. Self-driving cars have navigated British roads for nearly a decade, the Internet is already ubiquitous, and the first human-like robots have just gone on the market: 13 “Adam” models and 12 “Eves.”

The last of these is the hook of McEwan’s riveting tale. An Adam–he had hoped for an Eve but most of them were purchased by Saudis–comes into the hands of the brilliant-but-disappointing 32-year-old Charlie Friend who impulsively spends all of his ₤86,000 inheritance to purchase it. His Adam is a blend of Star Trek’s Mr. Data and Philip K. Dick’s replicants.* Adam is a quick learner and soon Charlie’s equal in the sort of abstracted banter Charlie favors instead of trying to recharge his drained finances through day trading. Even worse, a love triad emerges between Charlie, his 22-year-old grad student girlfriend Miranda, and Adam, who writes Miranda puppy love haiku. (He is also, as Mr. Data once said, “fully functional” sexually.)

If only this were Charlie’s only worry. Adam becomes increasingly secretive, mildly disobedient, and seems a bit morose at times. Charlie will discover–through Turing–that the robots are “not thriving” and that several Eves in Riyadh committed the android equivalent of suicide. (You can read your own politics into that!) Is it because Adam is in “love,” or is it because humans are simply too unpredictable for his PNP processors? A major moral dilemma involving Miranda puts both of these possibilities to the test.

Even if your head spins from some of McEwan’s philosophical flights and forays into theoretical mathematics, Machines Like Me is both a provocative and compelling novel. Its content begs discussion of what the title means and its unexpected resolution is surprising on several levels.

Rob Weir

* Philip K. Dick authored Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which was the basis of the film Blade Runner.



The Italian Teacher Instructs on Art, Ego, and More

The Italian Teacher (2018)
By Tom Rachman
Penguin/Random House, 352 pages.

If the child is the father of the man, as Wordsworth famously put it, poor Charlie has no chance. He is the offspring of Natalie, a scattershot Canadian ceramicist, and Bear Bavinsky, a celebrated but bombastic modernist painter. We first meet Charlie and his sister Birdie in Rome in 1955, and to say that their household was unorthodox is akin to saying that chaos is unstable. Rome just happens to be where Bear has flung his paint pots at the moment. His is an enormous ego and before this novel winds to an end in the 2010s, his residences will have included Toronto, Rome, New York, London, France, and the Basque country. (Charlie’s nickname “Pinch” is an Anglicization of the Basque pintxo, the Basque version of tapas.)

Bear’s egoism has no bounds. He deplores contemporaries such as Lucian Freud, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and especially Picasso (“that clown,” in Bear’s judgment) though his lifestyle closely aligns with Picasso’s. That is to say, every few years Bear has a new wife and sires new children, so many that Pinch is later surprised to discover the final tally of his stepbrothers and stepsisters. Charlie/Pinch is our tragic central character. He knows his father is a rogue, yet he admires him and yearns for his approval, a need he nurtures across 7 decades. Think of it as an addiction, as Bear is always all about Bear. He makes promises he has no intention of keeping, expects to be fawned upon, basks in pubic adulation, refuses to sell his art to anyone other than museums, barricades himself in his studios, burns most of what he creates, yet claims Pinch is the only one of his children who “understands” him. He also gives Pinch a few art lessons, then crushes the lad’s dreams by telling him he will “never be an artist”–though it’s not clear he ever actually did more than glance as his art–and rudely dismisses Pinch’s academic desires to study Caravaggio.  

Like a moth drawn to the flame, though, Charlie wallows in the old man’s glory. He even attempts to write Bear’s biography. If you imagine this won’t give rise to a healthy adult, you are right, though perhaps not in ways you’d imagine. Rachman’s sprawling family saga takes us to a lot of places metaphorically as well as geographically. Rachman’s title is deliciously ambiguous. On the surface, it references Pinch’s one unassailable talent: his facility with languages. He is, for instance, Cilla Barrows’ Italian tutor at university. She is Pinch’s deepest love but one of several failed relationships. But maybe the book’s title draws us toward a different kind of teacher: Charlie’s childhood lessons? His artistic desires? An affirmation of his own inadequacies, real and imagined?

If you are an art fan, there’s a lot of “dish” in this novel. It certainly takes the piss out of pompous art critics, fashion-driven dealers, and deceitful gallery owners. There are also provocative observations about art itself. Bear delivers one of many opinions when he expounds that concrete isn’t necessarily less beautiful than a leaf: “Not that nature is better than artifice. Because art is artifice.” Later he opines, “There’s a gap always between what the object is and what the picture isn’t. That gap … is where the art is.” These two quotes alert us that this is also a novel about art, artifice, and whether there is a difference. If you can’t tell, does provenance matter?

Other themes include questions of self-worth, the blurry lines between right and wrong, the complexities of family, the corrosive toxicity of greed, and questions about the purpose of art and how we define an artist. Looming large above it all, both physically and metaphorically, is Bear Bavinsky, as thoroughly an unlikable figure as literature has seen in many a moon. You’ll hate the self-centered SOB, yet he fascinates to the degree that you can’t wait to flip the page to see what he does next.

Rob Weir