Mastersons, Railroad Earth, Asleep at the Wheel, and More

Just before COVID shut down live music for the foreseeable future, I attended a show headlined by Wilco. They were merely okay, but I was quite taken by The Mastersons, who opened the evening and enlivened its ending when they joined Wilco on stage. You might recognize the husband/wife duo of Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore, even if you don’t know their solo work; they’ve been part of Steve Earle’s band The Dukes, and have also worked with Jack Ingram and Son Volt, among others. The Mastersons have got a new album coming out, No Time for Love Songs, which has a pretty good pedigree; it’s produced by their friend Shooter Jennings (son of Waylon and Jessi Colter). Unlike Shooter, though, their music tends to be more optimistic than the usual outlaw country fare. The title song touches on holding onto a relationship when the world conspires against it, but also leaves some wiggle room for hope. As Red House Records puts it, the album “explores the emotional challenges of a morally compromised era.” There is great energy and synergy throughout, with a typical song built around Masterson’s robust guitar and Whitmore’s let-‘er-rip vocals. On “Spellbound” she sings: I told you nice and I’ll tell you again… Some say life is a means to an end…. We’re all looking for answers and I know that you’re hurting/Tell me what you’re searching for. She hits similar themes on “So Impossible” when she challenges, Everything that goes up must come down/No one is immune to what goes round/More lost than found/You’re so impossible. That one is sung atop Tyler Chester’s piano and is like a blend of torch music and Melanie Safka. I have a slight criticism of the record. The first four tracks have the same high octane feel and blend into each other, though I did like Masterson’s guitar swirl on “Circle the Sun,” which gives it a subtle country acid rock feel. The last six–beginning with “The Last Laugh”–mix things up more by taking things down a notch. “There Is a Song” to Sing” is acoustic and folky, “The Silver Line” is dynamic, and “King of the Castle” a backdoor love song. Perhaps it’s best to think of the first half as music to make you move and the second, music to make you muse.  

Railroad Earth has a devoted following among bluegrass fans. If you’re not familiar with them or if you are and wonder what’s next, you can catch three songs from an upcoming project All For the Song. Railroad Earth is a large ensemble–often as many as seven for tours–so they can make some noise, though they are generally more of a jam band that lays down melodies crisscrossed with keys, percussion, and lots of strings (fiddle, mando, banjo, guitar, bass). They’ve released a single from the new album titled “Great Divide” that showcases exactly what I’ve just said. The tune is catchy, instruments flow in and out with ease, and Todd Sheaffer’s vocals are solid and inviting. “Slippin’ Around” has the hard-driving edge of a runaway train song, though if you watch the performance, you’ll be surprised by what inspired it! You also get to hear the title track, which is a nice slow waltz tempo.

It seems like a million years ago when I saw Asleep at the Wheel. I think that founder and front man Ray Benson is the only remaining member from that concert. The band is the pride of Paw Paw, West Virginia–I’ve been there. Don’t ask! –but Asleep has been viewed as a Texas band since it first took the stage back in 1970. Fifty years on, Brown is still doing his thing and doing it well. A Paste Studios concert consists of three songs, including their 1976 hit single “Route 66,” which is actually a cover of a Glenn Frey composition. They do it a bit like a backroad version of Manhattan Transfer. “Miles and Miles of Texas” is evocative of Bob Wills, and “I Guess I’ll Call It a Day Tonight” sounds like something out of a late 1950s variety show. Retro ought to be Benson’s middle name. As you might expect, this is one tight band.

Remember "Teenage Dirtbag?” It was a cult hit for Wheatus in 2000 and you get to hear it again. Much like Asleep at the Wheel, only its lead vocalist and guitarist Brendan Brown remains from the original lineup, but Wheatus now features what it calls its “classic lineup.” (Can an alt.rock band have a ‘classic’ anything? Just asking.) Karlie Bruce and Gabrielle Aimée Sterbenz are back to anchor backing vocals, which is a good thing. You’ll also hear “Break It Don’t Buy It” and “Valentine,” the last two from their 2013 record Valentine.

Agnes Obel is a Danish singer songwriter whose music is a Venn diagram of folk, classical, indie pop, and New Age genres. Her new album Myopia is about epistemological perceptions. How do we know ourselves? How can we trust what we perceive and value? “Broken Sleep” is Enya-like in that it is layered, lush and more atmospheric than melodic. Drone-like instruments stand cheek by jowl with rain-like keys, sonorous strings, and enigmatic lyrics such as: Twisted rope, defies all I know/It holds my dreams. “Island of Doom” is more in that vein; “Won’t You Call Me” is smoky and melancholy. Obel has a lovely voice, though it lacks clarity–possibly by design. Is her music cerebral and arty, or just vague and overly processed? You decide.

I loved an Eileen Carey sampler I ran across last year so much so that I said I was looking forward to her upcoming release Finally. Perhaps I spoke hastily. Finally isn’t a bad record, but I was underwhelmed by Taner Tumkaya’s production work. Carey has a strong voice and her past work is marked by grit and a dollop of country bad girl. I couldn’t help contrast that work with the title track and single from Finally, in which Carey sings a paint-by-the-numbers tune in a higher register more befitting a pop star. “Hearts of Times” lifts the opening riff from “Beast of Burden,” and “Don’t Get Me Wrong” is decidedly retro. The one that works the best for me is “That Was Her, This is Now” which has some country attitude, though it could use some lyrical editing to make it tougher. From what I gather, Carey’s career is on the uptick, but from where I sit, she’s taken a step backward artistically.

Rob Weir


Things I Couldn't Get Into

 “The Gambler,” a famed song from the late Kenny Rogers has a line that goes, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em/Know when to fold ‘em/Know when to walk away.” Good advice. Here are four things I started but never finished,­ and a fifth I wish I hadn’t.

The Topeka School: A Novel (FSG Originals, 304 pages was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award. It’s a bildungsroman­—a work that explores the psychological development of a character—but reads more like automatic writing. The opening spotlights highschooler Adam Gordon, a skilled debater, aspiring poet, and an-oft ignored child of two professional psychologists for something called the Foundation. Once the book jumps from Adam to other characters—each his or her own narrator—it’s hard to connect the strands. Author Ben Lerner was inspired by A Man Named Zeigler, a lesser known Herman Hesse work. I got a third of the way in before bailing on The Topeka School. It's not that I don’t like complex writing; I’m currently re-reading Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, which is no one’s idea of a quick read. To me, though, Lerner seeks to impress rather than entertain. It’s also a bit like Adam: prone to pretentiousness. Adam’s mother, by the way, is allegedly an expert on toxic masculinity. Is that an inside joke? No female character in the book has agency—another reason to avoid this over-hyped piece of self-indulgence.

L.L. Bean is my idea of high fashion. That added to my apprehension about McQueen, a documentary about Lee Alexander McQueen (Bleeker Street Media, 2018, 111 minutes, R for language and nudity). I was prepared to laugh at runway scenes in which the tragically hip oohed and aahed as anorexic models strutted frippery and flashed peek-a-boo looks at their breasts and butts. What I didn’t expect was that the documentary would be so damned boring! McQueen’s family initially rebuffed directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, and their film has the earmarks of being hastily put together before the family changed their minds again. McQueen is a totally conventional pastiche of interviews, home movies, interviews, and runway footage. McQueen (1969-2010) enjoyed a reputation as a flamboyant gay icon and brilliant designer, but he comes off mostly as a bland one-dimensional East End bloke lost in the decadence of the 1980s and ‘90s. After 40 minutes I wondered why I should watch a film about someone I wouldn’t want to engage in a five-minute chat. That’s when this Elvis left the building. 

I love Elizabeth McCracken, but Bowlaway: A Novel (2019, HarperCollins, 407 pages) just didn’t do it for me. It is set in the fictional small Massachusetts town of Salford and opens with promise: Leviticus Sprague, a black doctor and poet originally from New Brunswick, encounters a dazed white woman, Bertha Truitt, sitting in a graveyard. The two eventually have a midlife marriage of the unconventional variety. Alas, the title tells you how the novel spins. It really is about bowling. Bertha owns a bowling alley and the novel becomes a multi-generational Our Town confessional of those who come to the alley and why they bowl. Some stories are discrete; others connect to Sprague, Truitt, and Salford. (Salford is apparently near Boston; the city’s infamous 1919 molasses flood gets some ink.) For reasons not entirely clear, I just couldn’t get into this book. Maybe I struggled with the bowling alley device, or maybe McCracken rolled a 7/10 split.

I was also disappointed by The Starless Sea, the sophomore novel from Erin Morgenstern (2019, Random House, 512 pages). I adored her delicious debut, The Night Circus, which messed with our perceptions of illusion versus magic. The Starless Sea has been compared to the game of Myst. Cross that with an unrealized version of Alice in Wonderland and a bloodless Neil Gaiman fantasy and I’d agree. Zachary Ezra Rollins is the son of a fortuneteller who reads a misshelved library book called Sweet Sorrows, concludes it’s about his own childhood, and grows obsessed with reaching the Starless Sea, which might be his imagination or might be an otherworld. There are pirates, portals to other worlds, a sea of honey, a cloak made of ice, and tons more. I suspect all of this made more sense in Morgenstern’s head than on the page. There was nothing in the 100 pages I read that made me wonder about the next 400.

Have you ever watched a classic film and wondered if “classic” meant “antique?” The Searchers (1956, Directed by John Ford, Warner Brothers, 119 minutes) was one of the first 25 films the Library of Congress added to the National Film Registry. Some consider it one of the 100 greatest American films of all time. There is a prairie full of ways that this film is now offensive: glorification of the Confederacy, whites portraying Native Americans, racism, macho males, docile women….

John Wayne is Ethan Edward, a loner who shows up at his brother Aaron’s West Texas ranch years after the Civil War. He’s psychologically damaged and filled with hatred for Yankees, Indians, and non-whites, including his brother’s adopted son, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) who is half Indian and is courting a white woman (Vera Miles). Ethan is fond of his nieces Debbie and Lucy, but a Comanche trick sends Ethan and Texas Rangers led by an ex-Confederate captain (Ward Bond) on a wild goose chase. They return to find that Comanches burned the ranch, killed Aaron, his wife, and son Ben. Lucy and Debbie were abducted. Thus begins Ethan’s long journey to find his nieces and confront his inner demons.

It would be wrong to say he overcomes them. Imagine his rage when he finds that little Debbie is now a grown woman (Natalie Wood) assimilated into Comanche culture. The Searchers is at best corny and much of it is deeply offensive. I had also forgotten what a wooden actor Wayne could be. Wilson Hoch’s cinematography dazzles, but the archives is where The Searchers belongs. 

Rob Weir


The Joker a Surprisingly Good Film

The Joker (2019)
Directed by Todd Phillips
Warner Brothers, 122 minutes, R (language, violence, brief sexuality)

I grew up with comic books and still enjoy them, even though they’ve been upgraded to “graphic novels.” I’m not, however, a fan of tinkering with established franchises, especially all the Superman multiverse narratives. For me, Batman was the only reboot that worked. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight is more compelling than the original DC Comic Caped Crusader, and is infinitely better than the campy TV show (1965-68). Still, I avoided The Joker when it was released for fear it would be another alt.universe tale the likes of which I’ve had my fill. Mea culpa. The Joker is a really good flick and I can see why Joaquin Phoenix won a Best Actor Oscar.

The Joker gives Batman’s nemesis a credible backstory that makes him more than an evil clown. Is evil in-bred or the result of bad socialization? In the case of Arthur Fleck–The Joker’s identity–it’s a toxic mix of both. He lives in a squalid apartment with his disabled mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), who writes endless letters to her former employer: Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), whom she insists is Arthur’s father. Arthur also carries a physical handicap that’s like a reverse Tourette’s; he cannot control the impulse to laugh manically in inappropriate situations. (I had to look this up; it’s a real thing: pseudobulbar affect, or PBA.) Arthur’s cackle is about as pleasant as the sound of a dental drill and invites thrashings. His disabilities even impact his demeaning job as a party clown. He’d like to be a stand-up comic, but he has no aptitude for it, though his single-mother neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) encourages him. Arthur’s one gig is so bad, though, that someone filmed it and it airs as a can-you-believe-this-guy? segment on the popular Murray Franklin Show. (Robert De Niro plays Franklin.)

Toss in rejection from Wayne, betrayal by a colleague, and discovery of his mother’s secrets, and Arthur is a classic case of a guy getting kicked around until he snaps. Phoenix is brilliant in his portrayal of a troubled man on slow burn. He plays Arthur as a man leaking weirdness all of a social carpet that he’s about to pull from under our feet. An old sociological maxim holds that social outcasts react across a spectrum of options that stretch from resignation to lashing out. Arthur chooses the latter path and allows himself to descend into a madness made manifest by an amoral and sanguinary disregard for human life.

Director Todd Phillips also offers a look at the anomie-filled petri dish that breeds Arthur. Phillips’ Gotham is 1970s New York on crack–garbage strikes, looting, and street violence so rampant that the Joker’s earliest bloody rampages are embraced by rioting anarchists. (Dressing them in Guy Fawkes masks was an inspired choice.) Not since Day of the Locust has an out-of-control mob been so scary.

The Joker is made when Bruce Wayne is still a child, but the Wayne family is not heroic in the film. Thomas Wayne is a disinterested millionaire and political huckster seeking to disguise his need for self-aggrandizement behind hollow promises that he alone can fix Gotham’s problems. (Sound familiar?) Batman fans will recognize that Bruce’s witness of his parents’ murder is where the comic book and movie intersect. DC Comics didn’t harp on what Frank Miller illuminated in The Dark Knight: The Joker is pure id doling out pain and Bruce Wayne/Batman is a conflicted superego dispensing vigilante justice.

Don’t make my mistake; see The Joker if you’ve not already done so. You can, if you wish, ignore the sociological and psychological dimensions and view Arthur simply as the making of a monster. But revel in Joaquin Phoenix’s astonishing performance and in Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Oscar-winning score. Any way you play it, though,The Joker is a dark card.

Rob Weir