November 2019 Artists of the Month: Villalobos Brothers

Villalobos Brothers

If you’ve not already gotten the word, let me be the first to deliver it. The Villalobos Brothers are indeed three brothers (Alberto, Luis, Ernesto), each a violin virtuoso from Vera Cruz state in Mexico. They are joined by their childhood friend Humberto Flores on guitar, plus assorted percussionists who join them in the studio and on stage. The siblings were each childhood prodigies who left Mexico to study classical music abroad, but reassembled to enormous public acclaim. They have accompanied numerous Latin jazz ensembles and have collaborated with everyone from The Chieftains, Ry Cooder, Dolly Parton, Leni Stern, and Dan Zanes. They have also shared the stage with the Cuban and Peruvian national symphonies and have headlined at both Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. In other words, they are the real deal.

Their new release Somos features both their considerable musical mastery and their commitment to social justice. For the Spanish-challenged–like me–the album title translates “We Are.” It is a simple and direct assertion of presence and the title track addresses the U.S. immigration crisis and backlash. You need not understand the lyrics to admire the passion and craftsmanship of the Villalobos Brothers. This song has the scope of a pop anthem. It is lively, upbeat, hopeful, and has tongue-twisting staccato interludes.

The Villalobos Brothers are polished to a slick veneer and don’t shy away from a bit of showmanship. For example, “Xalapa Bang!” is a mélange of classical, funk, jazz, and Latin music built around frenetic fiddling. If you watch the YouTube video, Luis explains that the song is about police brutality, and the brothers do a bit of pantomime to drive home the point. It might seem a bit hokey on the surface. That is, until you do a bit of research on the subject and start to tally the number of lives lost in both the U.S. and Mexico at the hands of those who are supposed to serve and protect.

Once again, though, you can admire the musicianship with or without the politics (though I recommend you add it). The ensemble has a wonderful ability to mix styles and emotions. “Hombres de Arcilla” translates “Men of Clay” and just happens to be the name of a show of Alberto’s ceramic masks. which he fashioned in honor of 43 students who were abducted from an Iguala, Guerrero teachers’ college in 2014, 40 of whom were never found.* Alberto explains that his ceramics–inspired by pre-Aztec death masks–and musical composition are also intended to call attention to the fragility of life. The composition opens with discordant and melancholy strains that skirt the edge of experimental music. The vocals, though slow and soulful, are reminiscent of 1930s Spanish Civil War laments.

On the lighter side, “Veracruzana” is imbued with joyful and playful sounds that evoke a Zócalo party. “Hermano Mio” is a delicate melody that’s simultaneously jaunty and sweet. It has the feel of a folk song. And again, on the musical boundaries, there is “Wind Song.” It’s decidedly a slice of jazz, but jazz as filtered through classical music and salsa. Perhaps all three also have a political message but, as noted, my Spanish is limited.

What’s not in short supply insofar as the Villalobos Brothers are concerned is talent. They bring to bear all of their classical training, but they place ardor and intensity at the fore rather than devotion to technical prowess or individual huzzahs. You will, however, be tempted to dole out plenty of the latter.

Rob Weir

** The 2014 kidnappings have yet to be resolved fully, though they have been linked to local police, politicians, and organized crime figures. Allegations remain that the federal police, military, and government were also involved.


Isabelle Stillman, Manon Ward, Jason Hawk Harris, Olivia Francis, Aaron Jaxon Band, Daniel Johnston


Denver-based Isabelle Stillman has just released her debut LP Middle Sister. Her themes include love of family, growing pains, and being a woman in American society. I think you’re going to hear from this young high school teacher. “Take Care of You” doles out just enough darkness to add some husk to her voice and lend an air of mystery to the song. There’s an open feel to Stillman’s compositions. “That Salinger Novel” is mostly resonant woods with percussion that evokes a clip-clop slow ride across the plains, though the song has nothing to do with riding horses–or being in control for that matter. Though she’s a new artist in the indie folk tradition, Stillman is not starry-eyed. “Nashville” has a cheerful wrapper, but hers is more of a what if/I hope song than just a matter of time swagger. It’s also woke in recognizing the differences between externals and substance. In some ways it’s a bookend to “Driving Alone,” a museful on-the-road piece with memorable melodic hooks. She’s pushing this one as a single, but somehow, I think that honor might go to “Kid.” Like Joni Mitchell’s famed “Circle Game” it’s about the swift passage of time that goes from the “You’re fragile and unbreakable” days of toddlerdom to being to one who dispenses “grown-up words and tips.” If you’re still not impressed, check out her cover of “Beast of Burden.★★★★

Manon Ward is a Wyoming native who has also relocated to Nashville. That’s where dreams are crushed or come true these days, and Ward has a legitimate shot at falling into the second camp. Her self-titled debut EP is billed as country, but from where I sit the only country (ish) song on her EP is “Honey on Me,” a blues rock arrangement that has stylistic echoes of Dusty Springfield and Bobbi Jo Gentry. The rest is a mélange of rock and pop. Ward’s idols included Hank Williams and Shania Twain, but also AC/DC, Queen, and John Mayer, and her producer and lead guitarist is Johnny Garcia (Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood). This is to say that Ward might not be the typical Nashville product and that could stand her in good stead. If you listen to “I’ve Never Felt SoMe,” a song in which she celebrates herself, you can hear the pop influences in her voice, but her phrasing suggests that she has enormous potential. Also impressive is “Do Over,” which has a hint of funk. The lyrics come in the rapid-fire delivery of sung rap. “Unlike Love” is a clever and optimistic little number in which she catalogues the things she can take or leave and turn on or off–unlike love. The flip side to “I’ve Never Felt So Me” is “Don’t Need a Map,” and if it’s country, I’ll eat my cowboy hat. The cadences and rhymes are decidedly pop/rap/indie rock in nature. Ward drops the names of her sheroes, but it’ a personal declaration of strength: Everybody seems to be somebody’s something/I don’t want to be nobody’s nothing…At the end of the day I’ll find my way/And I don’t need a map. I think we may be hearing more from Manon Ward as well. ★★★★

If you want to sample someone who is country (plus rock, folk, and a touch of punk), try Jason Hawk Harris, a Houstonian transplanted to LA. You don’t get much more country than “Cussing At the Light,” which is country rock with a honkytonk feel. What’s more country than a song about a guy whose broken heart leads him to drink? How about a lyric like: I’ve been cussing at the light and waiting for the night/ To medicate this heart of mine? It’s one of several gems on Introducing Jason Hawk Harris. “I’m Afraid” comes across as a sort of redneck version of the trials of Job, and Harris does it with such tongue in cheek that it’s hard to tell if the song is kick-ass gospel or a parody. Hawks can also shift to wistful mode, as he does on “The Smoke and the Stars,” in which he expresses his desire to get lost in the “green eyes” of the woman waiting at the end of the road. The song’s format is quiet to loud to quiet to loud–and repeat. He goes mostly acoustic on “The Risk That You Take,” a supplication to be taken as he is: Honey let me be the risk that you take. ★★★★

Olivia Frances counts Taylor Swift, Kacey Musgraves, and Fleetwood Mac among her inspirations. Call her album Orchid songs in the key of sunshine–even when the content isn’t upbeat. If that makes no sense to you, listen to “Porcelain,” which is about the lonely and forgotten. Frances gives the song a pop treatment that somehow makes us think that connections will be made and clouds will lift. If this is too ambiguous, try “Moon to My Sun,” which won an Indie Music Award for best love song. She’s also written another love song titled “Once in a Blue Moon” that should not be confused with the similarly named classic falling out of love song from Nanci Griffith, though this one has a little edge to it as well. This Worcester-based singer fronts a quintet and you can hear both youth and optimism in her voice. Her current repertoire could use more diversity, but she is a talent worth watching. ★★★ 

Texas native Aaron Jackson is now ensconced in Johnson City, Tennessee. He fronts a five-piece band called the Aaron Jaxon Band that throws a bit of everything at you on Light on the Inside. Jackson’s heroes include the Allman Brothers, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, so that ought to tell you something. His songs, as he puts it, seek to be deeper and darker than boy-meets-girl. Check out “Dreamers,” which is where quiet country morphs into rock n’ roll. He offers a bit of gospel-tinged Americana folk on “Grace AmongHoly Gifts,” and the title track of his new project opens with a splash of organ as prelude to a catchy melody with solid guitar riffs. Some have praised Jackson’s lyrics. You’re on your own with that one as his voice doesn’t mesh well with compressed MP3 files. He can fire it up on the guitar, though. ★★★

Let’s round this off with a dud. Daniel Johnston played a Paste Studio Session last summer. He’s a lo-fi cult figure and old-style rock n’ roller whose guitar has grit and grab. That’s what he has: good licks. But he’s no songwriter, as you can hear is offering such as “I Had Lost My Mind,” “Take the Records of Rock and Roll,” and “Speeding Motorcycle.” It’s this simple: He.Can’t.Sing! His voice is filled with breaks and he’s off-key more often than he’s on. This session feels like a basement band that should have stayed there.

Update: Johnston died at the age of 58 on September 11. I am sorry he has passed, but my critique stands as written.

Rob Weir


Classic Films: The Caine Mutiny

The Caine Mutiny (1954)
Directed by Edward Dmytryk
Columbia Pictures, Technicolor, 122 minutes, Not rated.

Add this one to your bucket list of Hollywood classics you should see. It is the morally ambiguous tale of a U.S. Navy minesweeper crew’s rebellion against its commander–a sort of World War Two era Mutiny of the Bounty, if you will. The Caine uprising is fictional, though, and is based on a 1951 Herman Wouk novel of the same name. The Caine Mutiny was critically praised and was nominated for numerous Oscars. In most years it would have been a big winner, but it came out the same year as On the Waterfront and settled for a few lesser awards.

A modern viewer needs to know a few things to best appreciate this film. First, the psychology of the day was a bit different. Freudianism was all the rage, though most people’s understanding of it was a bit like that of Caine communications officer Thomas Keefer (Fred MacMurray, who later starred in TV’s My Three Sons). In other words, it was much discussed, but little understood–sometimes even by psychologists themselves. There are a few now-embarrassing sequences of mother-fixation/girlfriend conflict that only make sense within the pop culture reading of Freud en vogue in the early 1950s. PTSD fell into the same category, an unfortunate consequence of which was that battle fatigue and mental illness were often misdiagnosed as cowardice.

To introduce still another matter, director Edward Dmytryk was one of the original Hollywood Ten indicted in 1947. He was accused of being a communist at a time in which the Second Red Scare had broken out and early Cold War paranoia and swept across the land. Dmytryk served time in jail for Contempt of Congress for refusing to testify. In 1951, however, he changed course, fingered several alleged communists, and resurrected his directorial career. Dmytryk’s life and times make it hard to escape the parallel levels of suspicion in the film script and those raised by Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose reign of error reached its apex at the same time as The Caine Mutiny was being filmed.

The film is a character study and drama. Ensign Willie Keith (Robert Francis), a child of privilege, has just be assigned to the U.S.S. Caine, a motley rust bucket with a lax crew under the command of William DeVriess (Tom Tully). The timeframe isn’t pinned down, but we can tell it’s the waning days of the War in the Pacific. Willie is shocked by the lack of proper military discipline and initially welcomes the change in command that brings Lt. Commander Phillip Francis Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) to the helm to crack the whip on sloppy sailors such as “Meatball” (Lee Marvin) and “Horrible” (Claude Atkins). Queeg’s behavior, however, becomes increasingly erratic and Keefer begins to plant the seed–based on having read Freud in college–that maybe those ball bearings he twirls in his hand when he’s nervous are his missing marbles, if you catch my drift. He also goads Lt. Steve Maryk (Van Johnson), an ill-educated but fine officer, to consider he might have to take over if Captain Queeg cracks.

The ball bearings, an incident with a towed target, an investigation into missing strawberries, an escort duty, and a raging typhoon factor into the story, and are famed scenes within the film. When Queeg is finally removed from command, the film cuts to the court-martial trial of Maryk, Keith, and Keefer to determine whether they are heroes or if they illegally mutinied. Ironically, the prosecutor is E. G. Marshall, who three years later would co-star in another famed courtroom saga: 12 Angry Men. But The Caine Mutiny trial’s star is José Ferrer as Lt. Barney Greenwald, who defends the Caine crew–though not as you might imagine.

Bogart was nominated for Best Actor, but looking at the film now, we see it’s actually MacMurray’s film more than Bogart’s–even though Bogie left us with an enduring portrait of a man who cracked under too much pressure. The Caine Mutiny certainly shows its age in its stereotypical sequences, mannered acting, and telescoped narrative arc, but it remains one of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 films because it is such a timepiece, not to mention that it was something of a template for a what-you-see-isn’t-necessarily-what-you-get movie. In The Caine Mutiny, lots of questions are open for interpretation: cowardice, loyalty, and even insanity. Plus, it’s filmed in Technicolor and I’ve yet to see digital color that can match it.

Rob Weir