August 2020 Music: John Prine, Great Big World, The Dead South, Kevin Krauter, Rose Hotel


Sometimes being a music reviewer sucks. I’d love to tell you that The Tree of Forgiveness is a great album. Alas, it may be the worst album John Prine ever made. Prine–who died of COVID-19 on April 7–is in my list of top five favorite songwriters of all time. Few had his mix of wit, poignancy, and earworm melodies; he was a classic laugh-your-rear-off/cry-your-eyes-out guy who kept things simple on the surface so he could bore into your soul. The last song he ever wrote, “I Remember Everything” grabs onto that. Alas, it’s not on The Tree of Forgiveness. The album starts with promise, but doesn’t sustain it. “Knockin’ On Your ScreenDoor” both honors and mildly lampoons country music: I once had a family/But they up and left me/With nothin’ but an eight track/Another side of George Jones…. He goes for this vibe again on “Egg & Daughter: Nite, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1967,” but it’s more forced and relied upon a lot of backing instrumentation to cover the rasp in his voice. A calypso “I Have Met My Love Today” was not his métier and not even Brandi Carlile’s backup vocals help. “Summer’s End” is a sweet song, but linking metaphors appear to have been chosen because they scan rather than make sense. I liked the dark “Caravan of Fools,” though it’s more like something Townes Van Zandt would have sung. Likewise, you’ll hear echoes of Leonard Cohen’s “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” with Prine’s words in “No Ordinary Blue.” “God Only Knows” just isn’t a very good song. It’s an expression of Prine’s faith, which I respect, but comes off as a Christian camp singalong that probably would have sounded better around a camp fire. He ends with “When I Give to Heaven,” from which the album title derives, a combination of spoken word and a barrelhouse chorus. Prine’s wry comments bring a smile, but musically it’s run-of-the-mill. I wish Prine had left us with a bang instead of a gravely whisper.     


Epic Records’ A Great Big World is the New York-based duo of Ian Axel (keys) and Chad King (lead vocals, guitar). Many know of them because they recorded two singles with Christina Aguilera, “Say Something” (2013) and “Fall On Me” (2019). They recently visited Paste Studios to sing those two, plus “Darling It’s Over,” which will presumably be on an album scheduled to release soon. Maybe it’s heresy, but I like the first two songs better without Aguilera. “Say Something” is a gorgeous and deeply moving song anchored by Axel’s somber piano and vocals. It’s about letting go for various reasons (dead relationship, depression, impending death). Live, the focus is on the song; in the video version with Aguilera, she’s so busy vamping I thought she was going to make love to herself. The Paste version of “Fall On Me” is another tear-jerker with tight harmonies and a slow build that becomes lush and dramatic almost imperceptibly. It’s a plea to, fall on me with all your might, but tempered with the knowledge that, I want to believe in a world we can’t see. As for “Darling It’s Over,” the title says it all!


Sometimes social media works the way it’s supposed to. Back in 2014, The Dead South vaulted from obscurity to the limelight when its single “In Hell I’ll Be in Good Company” went viral. In case you missed the party and think this black-hatted band pays homage to the Confederacy, members are actually from Saskatchewan and the costumes are affectations for a group they jokingly refer to as the “evil twins of Mumford and Sons.” That’s a great way to describe a style we might call “darkgrass.” You can see them in a short Paste Studios concert. The first song is “Black Lung,” and if you know anything about mining, you know this one will be tinged with tragedy. It’s soulful, bluesy, has hints of gospel, and is paced by Colton Crawford’s banjo. He’s most prominent on the breakdown “Blue Trash” in which Nate Hilts’ baritone vocals are essentially the bridge to instrumental flourishes from Crawford’s banjo, Scott Pringle’s mandolin, and Danny Kenyon’s cello. (Kenyon often plays the cello as if it’s a guitar.) The set rounds off with “Broken Cowboy,” a bluegrass tragedy of a man slowed by age, regret, and the passing of an era. Good stuff from a fine band.


Kevin Krauter began his career as an indie pop performer, but his recent Paste set was an acoustic one with folk flavorings. He’s adroit in either genre, as you can hear in “Surprise,” both live and on the official video of the studio recording. As a solo act, Krauter keeps things simpler and allows his light tenor voice to dance amidst his guitar’s higher tones. This is gives it a fragile feel that fits the song’s themes of self-discovery. (He was raised in a Christian home and was home schooled, but recently came out as gay.) His new CD is called Full Hand, and features a jangly title track. With lines such as It’s time to reveal my full hand, it too plumbs the personal. “Pretty Boy” is a rare song in which the male gaze is toward another male. I really like Krauter’s voice, but it must be said that his set could have used more variety; the four songs were pleasant, but needed contrasting color.


There’s a Biblical parable often paraphrased as don’t hide your light under a basket. I admire the voice of Atlanta’s Jordan Reynolds aka/ Rose Hotel. I’m less enamored with the production on her debut full-length album I Will Only Come When It’s a Yes. There’s way too much going on, and it overwhelms Reynolds’ voice. “10 K” has a retro romantic ballad feel, though the song’s lyrics are about not knowing herself, the future, or what’s right. Reynolds has a big voice, but not big enough to punch through “Write Home,” which has a chanteuse feel but with too many layers. The guitar in “Running Behind” has kick, but again if the mix was punched down, Reynolds wouldn’t have to try so hard to provide mystery and ambience. “Honestly” is what Reynolds could become. We can hear clear vibrato and marvel at how long she sustains notes and how easily she shifts pitch. It’s just she, an acoustic guitar, and a song that sounds as if it was lifted from an old-style crooner such as Connie Smith or Kitty Wells (sans the twang).  


Rob Weir



Rethinking Mommie Dearest

Mommie Dearest (1981)
Directed by Frank Perry
Paramount, 129 minutes, PG (violence)

All reviewers have weaknesses. One of mine is curiosity about movies proclaimed to be awful. I had never seen Mommie Dearest, the notorious 1981 exposé of Joan Crawford (1904?-77) based on her adopted daughter Christina’s memoir. Although the film was not a box office bomb, it was savaged as camp, crap, or totally concocted. After all, it made a Hollywood legend into a monster at a time in which Crawford was not yet four years dead.

In my view, it’s worth watching, though it is campy in parts. Some critics praised Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Crawford. Dunaway was herself nearing the end of her reign as a Hollywood idol, so the role of Crawford seemed to fit like a glove. In retrospect, it was more like a mitten. Her performance often pushes the needle into the red on the histrionics meter and one wonders if director Frank Perry lacked the courage to make her dial it back. Dunaway had a reputation for being very difficult. In Mommie Dearest she munched scenes like a koala in a eucalyptus grove.    

For the unknowing, Crawford desperately wanted a child, but suffered miscarriages. She was deemed an inappropriate candidate for adoption, because she had been divorced–a disqualifier back then–and she and her current husband, actor Franchot Tone, were said to be too busy to care a child. With the help of Hollywood lawyer Gregg Savitt (Steve Forrest), her lover after she divorced Tone in 1939, Crawford adopted Christina, a blond cutie pie. For a time, Christina and her adopted brother Christopher were doted upon. If Christina is to be believed, their dream world became a nightmare. Hollywood queens often sit upon the throne less time than one of Henry VIII’s wives; in 1938, studio head Louis B. Mayer (Howard Da Silva) declared her “box office poison” and pushed her out of MGM. She went on to Warner Brothers  and won an Oscar for Mildred Pierce in 1945, but in the interim, Christina claimed her mother became a violent authoritarian drunk who abused her, most infamously by beating her with wire hangers, and by forcing her brother to strap himself in bed so he wouldn’t walk to the bathroom at night. Christina grew up sullen and defiant, so Crawford sent her off to private schools. Did any of this happen?

First, let’s talk about what’s good in the film. Mommie Dearest certainly gives insight into how Hollywood royalty lived. It is a world that could have been clipped from Newport society, except filled with celebrities instead of upper-class twits. Note that the elaborate lawn and pool parties you see took place near the end of the Great Depression and through World War II, so call them glamour, privilege, and tone deafness on the part of pampered stars. Second, a few of the secondary roles were well played. Forrest plays Savitt deftly in his attract/repel/recyle relationship with Crawford. Rutanya Alda maintained the same balancing act as Carol Ann, Crawford’s assistant, but tread-softly protectress of Christina. In the just-for-kicks department, the Redbook reporter whose puff piece on Crawford an angry Christina disrupts is Jocelyn Brando, Marlon’s older sister.

On the minus side, the actors playing adult Christopher and Christina (Xander Berkeley and Diana Scarwid) are outshone by the child actors. Quite a bit in Scarwid’s case; young Christina (Mara Hobel) is so vivacious that we too hurt when she is abused. By contrast, Scarwid is too flat to make us believe in her anger, and simply lacks the chops to turn sweet when the role called for it.  The biggest flaw, though, came from trying to do too much. The last quarter of the movie is like a Crawford career coda, including nods to later films, her involvement with Pepsi, and subbing for her twenty-something daughter in a soap opera when she was in her sixties. These things happened, but this wasn’t supposed to be a Crawford biopic. One odd omission, though, is that Crawford adopted two other daughters, who got the bulk of her estate when she died.

This inevitably raises the question of how much one should trust Christina’s book. I don’t know. Much of Hollywood rallied to denounce Mommie Dearest as a fake; others vouched that it was accurate. I can only say that Christina’s life—she is 81 now—followed in her adopted mother’s footsteps in that she was divorced three times and flamed out as an actress. She ultimately enjoyed more success as a writer. Mommie Dearest won awards, but not of the Oscar variety; it claimed five Golden Raspberrys, which are “awarded” for bad movies. It’s not a terrible movie; merely incomplete and unconvincing.

Rob Weir


Extinctions a Charming Novel about Sad Things

Extinctions: A Novel (2018)
By Josephine Wilson
Tin House Books, 349 pages

A few days ago, I posted a review of Weather, which featured a character who worried about the end of human time. I found it trite. Let me offer what I perceive to be a far better book about things passing away, Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions.

It is set in 2006, though there is no particular reason for that, and centers on 69-year-old Frederick Lothian. He will immediately put you in mind of Frederick Backman’s titular character in A Man Called Ove. Fred was born in Scotland, moved to Australia, and married an American woman whom he met at JFK Airport during a trip to the States. He is a retired engineering professor with a great love of concrete. Why? Because it represents solidity, longevity, and simple design unadorned with frippery. How he managed to attract a vibrant woman like Martha and raise two kids—an adopted daughter and an unexpected biological son—is a mystery even to him, though he doesn’t spent a lot of time musing upon abstractions such as feelings. He’s clueless that there could be such a thing as a gay architect, or that his alleged best friend Ralph was an untrustworthy jerk. He also has a lot of trouble with metaphors.

Fred has spent his life surrounded by things built to last, and bound to remain that way if one doesn’t actually use them, like a Wassily tubular chair, a Braun SK6 turntable, and a classic electric shaver. The solidity of Fred’s world begins to crumble when his wife dies and he finds himself a recluse living in a retirement village cottage into which he has crammed books, files, and furniture from his former house. He might get by on his own, were it not for the woman next door with all those noisy budgies (parakeets), or witnessing the troubling sight of an elderly resident falling to the ground.

The title aside, Extinctions is funny, affecting, and thought-provoking. Fred’s neighbor, Jan, a retired primary school teacher, will challenge Fred to consider that maybe his life has been as rigid as rebar. His adopted daughter, Caroline, is a half-caste (Australian term) Aborigine who has issues Fred has never considered. She’s a curator who lives in London, but has made trips back to Australia about which he was unaware. Nor was he tuned in to the many of the things his wife did, especially in caring for their son Callum, whose auto accident left him brain damaged. How could Fred have never noticed how self-centered he is, how angry Caroline grew up to be, or what racist bastards some of his former colleagues are? Indeed, how could he have so thoroughly buried his own youth? And why does Jan seem perpetually exasperated by him?

Whereas Jenny Offill’s Weather relied upon written thought bubbles and aphorisms, Wilson uses photographs and blueprints that force us to see things that have proven transitory. One of the most heart wrenching is one of Martha, the world’s last passenger pigeon. It’s doubly poignant, as Martha was the name of Fred’s deceased wife. Others challenge our definition of durability, including pictures of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in collapse and after. Not much is made of it, but the picture of a World War I tank looks an awful lot like an electric razor!  

In a quiet way—and men such as Fred or Ove don’t have skyrocket revelations—Extinctions asks us to consider what we cherish and how we act. What do we value, as opposed to things that have value? The opening epigram, a snippet from a W. H. Auden poem, puts it much better than I could ever hope: Column by column in a cloud of dust/They marched away enduring a belief/Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.

Rob Weir