Talisk, James, Gooding, Jesse Malin, Queen of Jeans, Austin Plaine, Porangui

The find of the fall was Talisk, a trio from Glasgow, Scotland that can raise the dead. Both BBC2 and the Alba Scots Trad Music Awards proclaimed it the band of the year for 2017 and it didn’t take long for the word to get out; Talisk has been playing sold out shows around the globe. It is a trio, but only in the sense that it has just three members: concertina wizard Mohsen Amini, fiddler Hayley Keenan, and acoustic guitar player Craig Irving. Lest you think I’ve forgotten the definition of a trio, give them a listen and you will suspect they must have a few more musicians hiding in their instrument cases. “Crooked Water Valley” is a track from their latest CD, Beyond, and one of numerous tracks you can hear online. It’s briefly a quiet almost pastoral tune with a down-home feel, but don’t get comfortable. Keenan’ fiddle takes us to jig tempo while Amini’s concertina pulses in the background. Eventually he shifts us to a fast reel tempo. At the 4-minute mark there’s a brief lull but if you think there’s going to be a loft landing, forget about it. It’s not for naught that the band name is derived from a term that means “land of the cliff,” and what good is a cliff unless something goes over it? Most Talisk tunes–they seldom resort to vocals–are paced by Armini’s concertina, an instrument generally not associated with rollicking music, but Armini assaults his humble box like Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire. Check out “Montreal” from the new album, or “Abyss,” the title track of their second recording. Another stellar offering is “Echo,” one is which Keenan fiddle is something between a pulse and a drone before Amini explodes into the mix. The tipoff for when Talisk is about to leap off the cliff is when you hear Amini’s foot begin to stomp like a mad carpenter with a wooden mallet. This is band that doesn’t waste time before shifting into high gear. I generally pay little attention to how performers label their own material, but Talisk aptly calls theirs “ScotSlam.” ★★★★★

Remember the English rock band James? They sold 25 million albums, were mainstays of college radio shows in the 1980s and 1990s, and were big heroes in their native city of Manchester. James broke up in 2001, but reassembled in 2007, when lead vocalist Tim Booth decided to supplement solo projects–shamanistic dance, acting, MTV criticism–with a return to the band. He again fronts what is currently a seven-member lineup. James features wall-to-wall sound and, as a recent Paste Studios Session shows, they sound as good as ever. Booth is his powerful self on “Coming Home (Part Two),” crooning against Mark Hunter’s keys on a bittersweet song: My life is always leaving somewhere away from here…. “All I’m Saying” is a jazz/pop/rock mash that’s adorned by Adrian Oxaal’s cello, whose notes he bends in ways reminiscent of a musical saw. Andy Diagram’s trumpet adds to the bright arrangement of “Leviathan,” though the song itself might be called pre-postapocalyptic: Before they drop the bomb make sure/We get enough/Fucking love…. “Broken By the Hurt” is about the fragility of life and heart and implores us to Find what really matters and let those kicked-in-the-teeth moments give us shape. Okay, so maybe this isn’t la-de-da cheerfulness, but it’s honest and it’s good to hear these guys again. ★★★★

Gooding is another band that may have fallen off your radar. The Nashville-based Gooding–named for front man Steve Gooding–never really went away, but it has concentrated on charity work in recent years. After a 5-year hiatus, its back with a new record, Building the Sun. It’s a tad uneven, but there’s plenty of good stuff on it. The album title comes from the refrain of “House is Not a Home,” Bring down the sun/I don’t care anymore/This house is not a home tonight. Gooding says he messed with it to make it sound less country and more like Tom Petty, though to me it has the frenetic pacing (though not the sound) of New Wave. “Horses of War” is a classic rock song with crashing guitars that tamp down the noise for vocals and then amp up for the instrumentals. “Last Train Out” features deliberate noting on the guitars and big bang percussion from Jesse Reichenberger. If Billy Driver’s bass sounds ominous and the song haunting, that’s because the song is about running out of time. I also enjoyed “Troublemaker,” which is rock n’ roll stripped to the bones–fuzzed out guitar, hard-driving, and unpretentious. To add a small note of criticism, many of the vocals are competent but not compelling. ★★★ ½

Short Cuts

I only heard two cuts from Sunset Kids, a new project from Jesse Malin: “Room 13” and “Strangers and Thieves.” Malin frequently haunted CBGB in the ‘80s and ‘90s when he was the punk band Heart Attack and glam punkers D Generation. His new project was produced by Lucinda Williams, who is no shrinking violet, but she is more melodic. Malin lowers the volume and we discover that he has a really nice voice. He’s also introspective. Both of the songs are reflective love songs, with “Room 13” gentler and “Strangers” done with a harder edge.  ★★★

An act with a name like Queen of Jeans must be a Texas country band, right? Or at the very least a Tennessee bluegrass act. Nope. It’s three-piece ensemble from Philadelphia that describes its sound as “crockpot pop.” They have a new album title If you’re not afraid, I’m not afraid. It’s a young band with room for growth, especially instrumentally. The three tracks I heard sounded pretty much the same, some jangly guitar and some echoey electric texturing. I liked “Bloomed” and “Obvious to You,” both of which are about bad relationships, the first one that fell apart; the second one in the process of doing so. The vocals of Miri Devora and Mattie Glass remind me a bit of The Nields. They also do a nice cover of “Teenaged Dirtbag,” which they borrowed from the alt-rock band Wheatus.  ★★★

A young man from Minnesota named Austin Plaine is now in Nashville, where he has released his second project, Stratford. Plaine is a singer/songwriter whose music could be called enhanced folk in that it’s more acoustic than electrified folk rock. Plaine has a very pleasant light tenor voice and a lot of the songs from the new release are upbeat. Both “Honey” and “Lucky Ones” are love songs, the first about a traveler trying to sort wanderlust and the other kind; the second an enduring love that shines on the dance floor where cares are put aside. “Something More,” though, lives up to its title. Plaine has said that the first song that grabbed him when he was a lad–he’s all, of 23 now–was Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather.” “Something More” borrows themes from that one: It might be a long long time/You wrote me a letter in riddle and rhyme/Secretly so I wouldn’t find you anymore… Several of his songs end and then redux for a few seconds. I’m not sure this is necessary, but I like what I’ve heard of Austin Plaine. ★★★★

Have you ever been to Sedona? If so, you know it’s a place where non-mainstream spiritualism thrives. It’s an ideal place for a shamanistic body healer musician named Poranguí. His self-titled latest download is a collection of remixes of past work and (apparently) some new ones. Poranguí is enigmatic and would have it no other way. “Ganesha” is very much meditation music and would be at home in a yoga studio. But Poranguí is best known for his prowess at looping, which allows him to be a one-man band when he wishes. “Cantode la Selva” is an example of this. You hear him on a small Brazilian ukulele/guitar hybrid called a guitalele, but also hand drums, and voice all at the same time, courtesy of said looping. But you might also hear him on didgeridoo (“Tonantzin”), wooden spirit flutes (“Danza del Viento”), or caught up in ringing tones suggestive of a gamelan (“Oxum”). Ashley Klein provides spoken word to Poranguí’s trance grooves that are part music, part healing ceremony. His music feels like a soundtrack to a Carlos Castaneda book. ★★★

Rob Weir


Lost Children Archive Both Moves and Sputters

Lost Children Archive: A Novel (2019)
By Valeria Luiselli
Alfred A. Knopf, 375 pages.

Lost Children Archive was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, which generally means that it’s either brilliant or a book only other writers love. This time it’s a bit of both. Luiselli was under Man Booker consideration even though she lives in New York. She was born in Mexico, and grew up in South Korea, South Africa, and India, the latter two being British Commonwealth nations.

The first thing to say about the book is that it’s ambitious; the second that it’s unorthodox. Lost Children Archive is many things: the portrait of a failing marriage, a multiple point-of-view novel, a meditation on U.S. immigration politics, a musing on literary sources, a ghost story, and a drama about imperiled children. It is also an exceptionally literate book that’s often not very literary. In fact, were it not as literate as it is, it would invite the charge that it’s really a big mess.

At the center of the book is a nameless family of four, referenced in the book as Mama, Papa, the boy, and the girl. The closest they come to proper names are identities they assume during a family game; respectively they refer to each other as Lucky Arrow, Papa Cochise, Swift Feather, and Memphis. They are on the road from New York to the Southwest where the boy, who is 10, realizes his parents will separate. Although both parents are in media production, they have incompatible goals; Papa is “documentarian” and Mama a “documentarist.” Translation: He is obsessed with recording all the sounds he encounters, but she is more of a “chemist” who wants to use sound and stories to illumine the plight  of immigrant children seeking to sneak into the United States. Moreover, he is of Native American ancestry and is going to the Southwest to stay in Apacheria, the land of Geronimo, the last Native to surrender; she wishes to visit the Borderlands and return to New York. The girl, who is 5, doesn’t realize it, but it’s likely that Papa and the boy will remain in Apacheria, and Mama and the girl will part with them there.

The family sets off with just the basics, plus 7 boxes for whatever collections are made along the route, books and tapes in Papa’s boxes; tapes, maps, and writing in Mama’s. Each child has one box. The boy becomes a Polaroid photographer whose shots document random events; the girl collects odds and ends. Each individual narrates chapters, though Mama has the lioness’s share. At one juncture she laments the dangerous journey of children to the border and ponders, “Were they to find themselves alone crossing borders and countries, would my own children survive?” Uh oh. That line is a classic Chekov’s gun and readers immediately know that this will turn into a more personal lost children’s tale.

As noted, it is also a road trip, but this is no amber waves of grain/purple mountains majesty journey. Luiselli exposes America as it often is away from its cities and well-heeled suburbs: dusty, dirty, dangerous, and desperate. Among the untold stories of illegal immigration is of the intolerable conditions that drive individuals toward a land where hope American-style is on life support. In one of the novel’s more lucid passages Luiselli writes of child immigrants, “They weren’t looking for the American Dream…. The children were merely looking for a way out of their daily nightmare.”

Luiselli’s novel is timely and often poignant, but it’s an open question if she’s also overly enamored with trying to write an “important” book. Interspersed with an already loose narrative are oblique references to everyone from Ezra Pound, Rilke, and Homer to Joseph Conrad, T. S. Eliot, Galway Kinnell, and Juan Rolfo. In the afterword Luiselli tells us that her work is “built of a dialogue with many different texts, as well as with other nontextual stories…. [It] is both an inherent and visible part of the central narrative” whose references and materials, “function as intralineal markers that point to the many voices in the conversation that the book sustains with the past.” Okay, that’s just intellectual posturing!

Lost Children Archives works best when Luiselli seeks clarity and coherent narrative; it goes astray when she tries to channel her inner Susan Sontag. She has written what is sometimes a deeply moving examination of identity in modern America, but is too often a monologue delivered into a mirror. Luiselli is aware of, but does not clearly articulate, the ultimate irony of the immigration crisis: the horse has already left the barn. By this I mean that the United States is a multicultural and increasingly non-white society whether or not anyone likes it. Put another way, the targets of ethnocentrism and xenophobia conform to the old Pogo cartoon quip, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

I was glad that I read this book, but I think it wise that the Man Booker committee dropped this one from prize consideration. Lost Children Archive is too ambitious for its own good. Ultimately too much is stuffed into those 7 boxes and Luiselli is forced to jettison the one thing all novelists need: deep connection to their readers.

Rob Weir


The Irishman is Good, but not Great

The Irishman (2019)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Netflix, 210 minutes, R (language and violence)

Several things before I delve into The Irishman. I recently lamented that Martin Scorsese has never won an Oscar. I was wrong; he won for directing The Departed (2006), a fact I had forgotten as I didn’t think much of it. (It was a remake of a movie made in Hong Kong, for heavens sake!) Second, there is no good reason why The Irishman needs to be 3 ½ hours long. Finally, there are women in The Irishman, but they are mere window dressing in a very testosterone-driven movie.

Many predict Scorsese will collect another Oscar for The Irishman, but I see it as a decent movie but not a great one. It follows the succeed-no-matter-the-cost career of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). We come in on Sheeran immediately after World War II. He is driving a refrigerated meat truck and has a chance encounter with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the head of the Teamsters union. Sheeran parlays that into ways to ingratiate himself with Hoffa. Back then, getting close to Jimmy required cozying up to (mostly) Italian mobsters, especially those associated with the Bufalino crime syndicate. For reasons never entirely explained, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) takes a shine to Sheeran and the two become fast friends. Run with the mob and you end up doing dirty work that gets dirtier by the job. The title of Charles Brandt’s non-fiction book, I Heard You Paint Houses, upon which Scorsese’s film is based, references the splatter of blood caused by being shot in the head.

Scorsese has long been fascinated by (obsessed with?) sin and temptation. His Frank Sheeran digs himself into a pit of corruption and murder. Like any good mob leader, Russell delegates gory assignments, mostly to Frank. We see doubt and confliction etched upon Sheeran’s face, but we also observe how he carries out his instructions without hesitation. His ‘contributions’ lead to his rise within the Teamsters union and into Hoffa’s orbit. That’s not necessarily a comfortable place to be in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Robert Kennedy (Jack Huston) is doggedly pursuing corruption in labor unions,*especially the Teamsters.

Anyone who knows about the Teamsters or has seen the 1992 film Hoffa (with Jack Nicholson in the title role) knows what comes next: Hoffa’s 13-year prison sentence imposed in 1967, his 1971 pardon (by Nixon), his attempt to reassert control over the Teamsters, and his disappearance in 1975. Hoffa was declared legally dead in 1982, though officially his case remains open. The Hoffa mystery has stoked rumormongers and conspiracy nuts everywhere. Most assume Hoffa was bumped off by mobsters. Depending on whom you believe, Hoffa’s body was burnt in an oil drum, dissolved in acid, compacted with a junked car, or buried–perhaps in Giants Stadium. Scorsese choses to believe Brandt, who allegedly got his details from Sheeran.

Pick your favorite conjecture. You need not accept Scorsese’s explanation to learn a lot about organized crime at a time in which much about the “Mob” was speculative.** Most of what we see in The Irishman is indisputable. In exchange for muscle, Hoffa allowed the Mafia to treat Teamster pension funds as a bank to underwrite all manner of enterprises, most of them crooked. Bufalino’s syndicate was centered in Northeast Pennsylvania and was friendly with the Genovese family, especially Tony Provenzano, a Teamsters vice president. The film also avers–though not very clearly–that organized crime was a nationwide web whose various threads often warred with each other, such as the Genovese and Gambino families.

My digressions point to a flaw in Scorsese’s film. Scorsese wastes time intersplicing a goes-nowhere road trip with Russell and Frank and their wives, and assumes viewers already know about Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), Frank Rizzo (Gino Carfelli), Tony “Pro” (Stephen Graham), “Fat Tony” Salerno (Domenick Lombardozzi), and Frank Fitzsimmons (Gary Basaraba). These names are familiar to me because I am a labor historian and I’m closer in age to Scorsese (77) than to average movie goer. Others may be lost. All you need to know is that there were Mob turf wars that were mostly between Italian-Americans, but with a few Irish-Americans like Sheeran also involved.

Let’s cut to what’s good about the film, starting with Joe Pesci who absolutely deserves a Best Supporting Actor nod. Bufalio was the ultimate behind-the-scenes puppet master. Pesci plays him as a quiet man behind oversized black frame glasses that rested upon a ruined nose that looks as if Russell had been the bum-of-the-month in dozens of undercard prize fights. Mostly, though, Pesci’s Russell is the soft-spoken type who could convince a crow to hand over its carrion. De Niro is also strong as Sheeran and will probably garner a Best Actor nomination, though his laconic performance may cost him come Oscar time. He essentially plays Sheeran as a savvier version of Mob heavy Chuckie O’Brien (Jesse Plemons). But really, all the performances are all excellent with the exception of Al Pacino as Hoffa. Pacino chews so much scenery when portraying Hoffa’s legendary bombast that we see Pacino, not Hoffa.

Robbie Robertson certainly deserves Oscar consideration for his musical direction. He composed and performed the film’s theme song and does a superb job of splicing in period music from everyone from The Five Satins, Percy Faith, and Jerry Vale to Jackie Gleason, Fats Domino, Flo Sandon’s [sic], and Glenn Miller.  

Currently The Irishman isn’t on track to recoup its $160 budget. This might not matter as Netflix released it for streaming on November 27, though if you want to see this film at all, you should view it on the big screen. I recommend it, but know that it’s no GoodFellahs. Note to Martin Scorsese: If you have any more movies in you, consider the crime genre done and dusted.

Rob Weir

* In the 1950s/60s, several labor unions were nailed for racketeering, the Teamsters by far the largest. Alas, all labor unions suffered an undeserved reputation for corruption. The Teamsters forged a Mob connection at a critical time when a conservative backlash sought to dismantle New Deal labor protections. The thinking at the time was that government was in cahoots with Big Business and only organized crime had the might to be a countervailing force. These thigs were true, but Hoffa unleashed a wild horse he could not ride as easily as he could the Teamsters rank and file.

**This changed when, in 1963, incarcerated gangster Joe Valachi spilled the beans of the existence of the Mafia and the FBI was able to connect the threads of its history.