Music: Brian Johannesen, Lone Bellow, Chris Mardini, and More



There always seem to be more in my in-box than can get reviewed promptly, so it’s clean out time once again.


An increasing number of country singers sit on the right side of history these days. Count Brian Johannesen among them. His newest record, Holster Your Silver, has the rasp, twang, and tempos associated with country music, but his is more the soul of a folksinger imploring listeners to pay attention to things that matter. This is most obvious in “Copper Queen,” which sets a serious mood from the start and invokes the 1917 Bisbee Deportation, one of the most egregious violations of civil liberty in labor history. Bisbee was a company town ruled as the personal fiefdom of the Phelps Dodge copper trust. When members of the Industrial Workers of the World struck for better conditions and pay, they were loaded into boxcars, shipped out of town, and dumped in the desert. If you know that, you will appreciate the line “I’ll never bend my knee to the Copper Queen.” Johannesen, who lives in Iowa, uses idioms and vernacular language, but they do little to disguise the literacy of his pen. “If I Thought I Could Win” is a heartbreak song, but it doesn’t wallow. Instead, it’s subtle advocacy of knowing when to fold your hand. That’s something that should have been done by the protagonist of “Fremont,” who dreams of being a country star. Many of your favorites get a nod in the lyrics–Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, and others–but our antihero doesn’t have the sense to know the things Johannesen reveals in “Music Business Blues Breakdown.” It’s a great takedown of the music industry and the corpses it strews: I’ve been working on these songs/No, I ain’t going back to school/I’ve been working like a dog/Yes, Mama, this is a job/But this business is like the mob…. Listen also for the lines that skewer Donald Trump. You can catch Johannesen’s quieter side on “Damn These Saints,” with its cowpoke tempo and its rejection of faux optimism. Anxiety also comes into play in the title track, which might be subtitled “winter is coming.” This is Johannesen’s second release and if he ends up a music business victim, there ain’t no justice.

Lone Bellow
is from Brooklyn, but if you listen to “Good Times” and think Mississippi delta, you can be excused. Brian Elmquist and Kaene Donehey Pipkin wail like the Apocalypse is just around the corner. Zach Williams, the band’s founder, airs out his baritone on “August” while his bandmates slice into the seams. Check out Pipkin on “Just Enough to Get By.” She’s a mite, but a mighty one with a huge voice. She also has some righteous anger going on as the song is about her mother, who was impregnated by a rapist when she was 19, and was sent away to have the baby. Four albums in and 7 singles down, The Lone Bellow has won a devoted following–rightly so. They are generally viewed as an Americana band. Fine, but they are much more. And I love a band that pours energy onto the stage and doesn’t leave until it’s all gone.


The Springs
, the husband/wife duo of Stewart and Holly Halcomb, have made some ripples on the country Billboard chart. This well-scrubbed Nashville-by-way-of-Alabama act is in the acoustic country vein of The Civil Wars, except they are on the ins rather than the outs. Their songs are catchy and most of them are love letters to each other. “Old-Fashioned” is Holly’s declaration that she’s a traditional kind of gal or, as she puts it, “like an 8-track player in an old Chevy.” “Someone,” “Right Kind of Love,” and “Sweet Spot” are in the same ballpark. I like the last of these the best. It’s infectious and Stewart’s quick patter makes it distinctive. They feature tight harmonies. I prefer Stewart’s leads to Holly’s because his voice is clearer, a quality I always value over sweetness.


Chris Mardini
can bring the noise and he’s all of eighteen. His is a blend of hard rock, pop, and on “Retrospective Outlook,” some rap. His single “Sleepless” has gotten some airplay. It’s a softer song, but it has a New Yorker’s tough edges: So here I lie on my side/these sleepless nights/chaos in my head, doused in dye/won’t let you win. The vibe is similar on “Something’s Going On.” His tracks are loud but also dreamy. His is teenage angst, but with, I might, something going on that makes his music more than sturm und drang.


Leif Vollebekk
is a Canadian who has Juno nominations in the category of adult alternative music. He’s of Norwegian and French Canadian descent, who accompanies himself on guitar, piano, and fiddle. His “Blood Brother” is an electric delight in which he raises his voice into falsetto range. The small but poignant twist is that his blood “brother” is a she. Vollebekk has a way with words: You know your lips whenever they kiss me/It’s like a gun against my skin.  “Transatlantic Flight” is a soulful yearning for a lover separated by an ocean. “Apalachee Plain” (filmed in Iceland) also yearns, but this time for a love that has broken apart. It even has a touch of yodeling to add to the pathos. Vollebekk is an interesting talent whose “alternative” label wears well. Damned if I know what else to call him.


Emily King
is billed as an R & B/soul/post-disco singer, whatever the blazes the last term means. Her newest album is titled Sides, acoustic versions of songs that appeared on previous recordings. I’d call her new approach jazz-laced folk and soul. Ms. King has a very supple voice. I just wish the songs grabbed me more. “Look at Me Now” is typical, in that King’s vocals are impressive, but not much lingers when the song ends. In her recent Paste concert, “Teach You” was the song I liked best, as it has the most structure; it’s like a cross between the drama of a show tune blended with café-style moodiness.


The Souvenir: One You Don't Need

The Souvenir (2019)

Directed by Joanna Hogg

A24, 119 minutes, R (nudity, drug use)



When I was on the selection committee for the Northampton Independent Film Festival, I found that autobiographical films were often problematic. about the problems a director had in making a film, and autobiographical stories. There were some very fine efforts, but quite a few faltered because many filmmakers couldn’t get enough distance from things that happened to them. Invariably, they failed to think like a viewer, not the subject. Critics occasionally suffer from a different malady, that of thinking that if a project is artful, it must be good.


The Souvenir has a curious resumé. Both the London Critics Circle and Sight and Sound Magazine chose it as its best film of 2019, director Joanna Hogg won a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and critics have raved over it. Audiences haven’t shared their enthusiasm and it earned a paltry $1.7 million at the box office. Seldom have I seen such a gulf between acclaim and acceptance. Ninety-one percent of critics on Metascore liked the film, but audiences gave it a 6.5 rating, which is how IMDB users scored it as well. On Rotten Tomatoes, 89 percent of critics praised the film, but 64 percent of audience disliked it. I see what attracted critics, but I am more inclined to roll with the masses on this one.


The Souvenir involves a young film student, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), who wishes to make a film about her hometown, the played out former shipbuilding center of Sunderland in Northeast England. Few things are grittier than postindustrial English cities, but Julie comes from bourgeois comfort. She wants to make her own way by sharing a flat and not taping into her parents’ money. She is also a lovely person, but is so painfully shy she almost doesn’t make it into the filmmaking program because she couldn’t articulate her project’s vision. She has friends, but there are also people who take advantage of her and she has trouble detecting the obvious.


Enter Anthony (Tom Burke), a cultured, well-dressed, slightly older man who works for the Foreign Office. He is arrogant and self-centered, but like Julie, he’s such an oddball that the two are drawn to each other. Or, at least, Julie is so enamored of him that she is at first unaware that he is a heroin addict. Anthony’s also a sponge with a taste for fine things and guess who foots the bill? Julie is soon lying to her parents, especially her mother Rosalind (Tilda Swinton) for loans–ostensibly for cameras and supplies for school, but mostly to feed Anthony’s appetites. It helps that Julie’s parents like Anthony and fail to see beyond his facade.


Julie’s toxic relationship with Anthony is on and off–even when he steals her stuff–but he has a gift for making Julie feel as though she’s at fault for everything. There’s a cloud of doom hanging over them and one wonders why Julie keeps returning like a moth to the flame. It’s hard to say that it’s an unbelievable love affair given that Hogg claims it’s largely autobiographical. Hogg often films with sometimes grainy, sometimes gauzy stock. It’s an interesting tactic, though it’s too often difficult to know what we are seeing. Is it a film within a film, with Julie’s project interposed with her character’s experience? Or is the haze a retrieved memory of long-ago events? The time period is never specified, but it appears to be the late 1970s or early 1980s, a time in which London suffered IRA bombings, which make loud cameos in the film.


Honor Swinton Bryne and Tilda Swinton are real-life daughter and mother. Each is excellent in The Souvenir. It might take you a few moments to recognize Tilda, who appears rail thin and sporting grayed out Margaret Thatcher-like hair. At times it’s unclear whether her Rosalind is Julie’s supporter, enabler, or provider of stuffed animals, but there’s always a quiet intensity to her performances, which she turns on at exactly the right moment. Honor is much more vulnerable and naïve, as the script commands. I was less enamored of Burke, who plays Anthony as though he wandered into a tryout for an Oscar Wilde biopic. His mannerisms are exceedingly fey and raise questions of why a sheltered waif like Julie would invite him into her bed.


The film is also marred by scenes that need more background to make sense. What’s the deal with the frilly lingerie, something that couldn’t be more unlike Julie? There’s a scraggly guy who Anthony supposedly left into their flat, but we never find out thing one about him. And who is the man who goes Full Monty and has sex with Julie? We never saw him before and never see him again? I suppose one might call these arty memory fragments, but again this is Hogg thinking inside her own head rather than consdering what viewers might wish to know. Nor is it clear what the film’s title has to do with what we see on the screen. It’s the title of a 1788 painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard that Anthony and Julie discuss. I gather, we are supposed to see Julie as the pampered girl in the flowing dress, but why?


My first thought was that The Souvenir was flawed but interesting, but the more I pondered it, the less I liked it. Fragonard is among my least favorite painters of all time. Does this mean anything? Not much, and I fear that’s my verdict on The Souvenir. A sequel is in the works. Again, why?


Rob Weir







Small Towns: Falls Village, CT

Falls Village fits anyone’s definition of a small town. It’s located in a relatively unexplored section of northwestern Connecticut, the Litchfield Hills. That’s the name given to the Connecticut extension of the western Berkshires. The latter, in Massachusetts, have such an exalted reputation that it’s hard to compete. Officially, it’s the northeast part of Connecticut that carries the moniker of the “quiet corner,” but Torrington’s population of 36,383 easily makes it the largest town in Litchfield County. That’s a metropolis compared to Falls Village, a hamlet of just 538 souls. It is indeed a quiet place.  

Falls Village is actually part of North Canaan, but if we add it to that town and Canaan Village, you collectively have just 3,315 residents. The Canaans are the first town one enters west of Sheffield, Massachusetts, and the center of the main town feels more like an ex-town. That is, it’s pretty much hollowed out of anything other than essentials and parts of it are a down-market contrast to what one encounters in New Yorker summer towns such as Great Barrington, just 19 miles distant. Canaan does have an its old railroad depot, which houses a small museum and the Great Falls Brewing Company. 

Falls Village is leafy, quiet, and appears more prosperous than the rest of Canaan. Because of COVID, not much was going on when we visited a few weeks ago, but there is a nice-looking craft studio on Main Street, a toymaker, a coffee shop, an old library, and other attractive homes and buildings. There’s an old rail caboose at the foot of Main that you can peek into and maybe explain to kiddos that these used to be on the ends of trains! In a normal summer, there’s also a chamber music festival. The village sports a 19th century inn of the sort where people lounge on the verandah, if you’re inclined to nestle in. Those with a taste for more action travel 8 miles down the road to Lime Rock Speedway.

The main attraction, though, is the Housatonic River. The Housatonic is one of the more varied rivers in New England. In some places it’s just a concrete trough with a few inches of water; in others it’s scenic, swimmable, and a kayak superhighway. I wouldn’t recommend paddling in Great Falls unless you are a competition-level kayaker. The aptly named village is where one finds an impressive waterfall on the Housatonic.

In the summertime, much of the water is diverted by an upstream dam but, as you can see, it’s still a lovely spot easily accessed by a very short stroll–several hundred yards–along the Appalachian Trail. Further downstream there is a whitewater slalom course for competitive kayakers, but only when water is released from the power dam. We weren’t there to see that and suspect that the dry summer has kept the flow down. We hope to go back in the spring, as apparently the winter runoff turns the river into a five-story torrent that fills the mostly dry gorge.  

I’m not sure I’d want to stay in Falls Village, but it’s a nice side trip. Plus, the minute you cross the border into Massachusetts, things get busier. There is a nice-looking café in the village called the Toymakers Cafe, though it was closed by the middle of the day, so I can’t comment on the roast. The menu looked good, though. The next time you find yourself in the Great Barrington/Sheffield area, check out Falls Village.

Rob Weir

This tranquil section of the Housatonic River is about 10 miles upstream in Sheffield, MA