Isbell, Waldon, Tenpenny, Lanco and Also Rans


The reviewer’s conundrum: How do you write about everything else when several of the artists in your queue are on a different level than everyone else?


Case Number One: Everything I hear from Jason Isbell comes from the top drawer. I recently got my hands on another 4-song sampler of material from his early career (2009) that was already more polished than 90% of the current pretenders. “Alabama Pines” is mildly evocative of John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” in that it’s tender without being sticky toffee. “Tour of Duty” has shopworn country images–a train, pain, settling down–yet coming from Isbell, none of it rings false. I absolutely adore “Codeine,” with its litany of things he can’t stand. But hone in on his juxtapositions of the banal and important things, such as bad cover bands and the sound a woman makes after her heart breaks. Check out “DaisyMae,” an acoustic tale which you could be forgiven for thinking was a lost mountain ballad. All of this was 11 years ago and all Isbell has done since is take things to higher levels.


Case Number Two: Kelsey Waldon. Her 2019 album White Noise, White Lines deservedly shot up the charts fast; this Ballard County, Kentucky singer songwriter is the real deal. Her Appalachian origins invite Loretta Lynn evocations, but I’m going with young Dolly Parton. From the moment Waldon opened her mouth on “Anyhow,” I was hooked. Her backwoods tones are robust and the way she works with her band is very impressive. The song’s boldness matches its mantra: You just do it again…You do it anyhow. On “Kentucky, 1988,” Waldon sings about where she’s from with a refreshing and unapologetic candor. There is no attempt to tone down her nasal accent, and hints of nostalgia are counterpunched with doses of reality and a stoic shrug. The title track is another take on this. But just when you think you’ve got Waldon pegged, she throws out “Very Old Barton,” which is old-time country from the roadhouse era.


Mitchell Tenpenny
looks to be a fast riser on the country scene. His 2018 CD Telling All My Secrets climbed to #5 on country charts. He’s working on a new project, but details are sparse at present. Tenpenny is that rarest of birds, a country singer who is actually a Nashville native. His single “Drunk Me” path-to-sobriety message sounds autobiographical, especially given that he’s also composed “Alcohol You Later.” I’ve heard two versions of “Drunk Me”–album and unplugged–and it’s as if they are two different animals. I like them both; the album version is catchy and jangly, while the acoustic is more earnest and suits his voice better. Tenpenny has a sweet voice with a country pop/John Mayer in feel. When I hear songs like “I Love You All Over” or “Unravel,” some of the accompaniment seems like overkill. But let’s reserve judgment until we see how they sound when they make it out of the studio.  


is a quintet fronted by lead vocalist Brandon Lancaster–the band name is shorthand for Lancaster and Company­–and is billed as a country band. It is, though “Born to Love You” evokes indie rock with twang. It does, however, trade in country nostalgia in incongruous ways. Lines like I was born in a town full of red pine trees/ County sign says "follow your dreams"/ Westbound train makes the whole town shake/ Friday night lights decide your fate don’t exactly jibe with a video of a rooftop stage and a city skyline in the background. Lancaster is charismatic and has a powerful voice, but after listening to other songs– “What I See” and “Greatest Love Story”–his stroll through yesterday’s values could be viewed as artifice. Some grit wouldn’t go amiss.


I have mixed feelings about the Los Angeles band Magic Giant. Lead singer Austin Bisnow is gutsy. On the new single, "Outta My Head,” he slides into falsetto, though he’s actually an on-the-light-side tenor, as we hear on “Jesse’s Song.” That one flirts with a folk/folk rock vibe rather the alt.rock label the band has assumed. If you poke around you can find a “campfire version” or “Disaster Party,” their 2019 single, as well as the airplay cut.




I’d never heard of Australian pop/rock performer Ali Barter and was surprised to learn she’s charted Down Under and is often as explicit as Ani DiFranco used to be. Mainly I was gobsmacked to find she’s 34, not 20 as I had her pegged. On “January,” she sounds young, or maybe I was thrown off by her (very) minimalist guitar work. Was she aiming for satire on “History of Boys?” To me, the lyrics sound immature. Not sure what I think of Barter. 





I have a low-bar standard for young bands: The lead vocalist has to sing way better than I was that age. So, it’s thumbs-down for the London band Honey Lung; Jamie Batten simply doesn’t have the chops. The band was apparently inspired by Jesus & The Mary Chain, though “Name” and “Be My Friend” come off as low-fi. But maybe that’s because I kept hearing flat notes.


Rob Weir



Just Like You is Childish


Just Like You (2020

By Nick Hornby

Riverhead, 368 pages.




Once upon a time there was a promising writer from Britain named Nick Hornby. He wrote a fine debut novel, High Fidelity, and followed with another good one, About a Boy. When the second one came out, Hornby was 39. Apparently, someone forget to tell him that About a Boy should not be an aspirational goal. In his latest novel, Just Like You, the 63-year-old Hornby has gone full bore Peter Pan.


The subtitle of the book could be The Cougar and the Black Kid. It centers on a middle-class Londoner named Lucy. She’s an English teacher and a not-quite-yet divorcee with two sub-teen sons. Her husband Paul abuses alcohol and is a total jerk when plastered; there is no salvation for their marriage. Lucy is 40ish, but is still “hot”–a word that Hornby uses a lot–and friends and associates urge her to get back in the game. What they are mostly saying is that she should get laid. Quite naturally, Lucy recoils at such childish talk–until she doesn’t.


Lucy buys nice cuts of meat from a local butcher, one of whose employees is a good-looking young man named Joseph. He’s 20, loves football–that’s soccer to Americans–dreams of being a hip-hop deejay, and is a black youth who still lives at home. On the spur of the moment Lucy asks Joseph to babysit her sons. They adore him because of his love of football and Xbox video games. Before you can say rib roast, though, he and Lucy begin to have sex. And why not? Joseph thinks she’s “hot,” she thinks he’s “hot,” and together they have lots of hot sex. Besides, she was set up for a blind date with Michael Marwood, an urbane, successful writer with kids. He’s also almost divorced, but is in his 50s, seems more appropriate as an intellectual friend, and admits he sometimes can’t rise to the occasion, as it were. Well, that’s not “hot.”


This novel seeks to be a 21st century update of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner set against a background of Brexit and a 20-year age gap. Joseph, by the way, doesn’t follow politics and plans to vote “out” just because his construction worker father Chris–who is estranged from the family–says it will get rid of foreigners and create more jobs for working-class stiffs like himself. Lucy and all her middle-class circle are voting “stay,” and her pleas (sort of) sway Joseph. Like I said, he doesn’t follow politics, though he does have a unique way of resolving his confusion over Brexit. Nor does Joseph read much that isn’t about music or football, and he surely doesn’t peruse the highbrow stuff Lucy likes. But there’s always the hot sex. It’s so hot that he moves in. Lucy thinks it will be a short-time thing until he finds someone his own age–until she doesn’t.


See a pattern here? What an awkward novel! How can it be other that, aside from a random cop, the white people in this book–including Paul–never mention color? The biggest discussion of race takes place inside Joseph’s family, but they’ve never actually met Lucy. Let’s see: Lucy is in a deep relationship with a guy who has more in common with Lucy’s kids than with her, sets up house with a black guy in a London neighborhood that’s entirely white despite the objections of his family, is sleeping with someone closer in age to her students, doesn’t know much about Joseph’s age cohort or interests–though she’s willing to learn–and thinks she can hang out in his world. And I’ve not even begun to catalog the absurdities of Just Like You.


I suppose the title is supposed to be ironic, as everything about the book shouts out that Lucy and Joseph are not alike. Not in age, not in life experience, not in interests, not in social class, and not in race. Any one of those themes explored in a serious way could redeem an otherwise lamentable work. Too many reviewers have been kind to Just Like You, perhaps because they imagine it as a frothy farce; the word “funny” appears frequently in those reviews. Maybe others simply think race shouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t, but I’ve spent time in England and it damn well does. What’s the “joke” in this novel? When it’s not being Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? it comes off as a gender-reversed My Fair Lady that crosses the patronization border.


Just Like You is a WTF novel that becomes more unbelievable and condescending as it goes on. The less said about its contrived 2019 code the better. The best adjective to describe this work is immature. Grow up, Nick!


Rob Weir






Pain and Glory: An Almodovar Autobiography on Screen


Pain and Glory (2019)

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Sony Pictures Classics, 113 minutes, R (sexuality, drug use)

In Spanish with subtitles



There are many more good biographies than autobiographies. That’s because individuals are often not the best judges of their own lives. This is magnified on screen, where time constraints limit how even skilled filmmakers can explain themselves. Pain and Glory is Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s thinly veiled autobiography. It won two awards at Cannes and several publications–including Time Magazine–hailed it the best film of 2019. In my estimation, it’s more middle of the pack than top of the heap.


We come in upon Almodóvar’s avatar, Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), an aging director whose signature film Sabor (“Flavor’) has been dusted off after 32 years for a showing at a film festival. A longtime friend (Cecilia Roth) has asked him to appear at a post-screening Q & A along with the film’s lead actor: Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia). That’s a problem, as they had a major falling out over Alberto’s heroin addiction and haven’t spoken since the film’s release. To further complicate things, Salvador’s identity is so tied into making movies that he can’t cope now that excruciating backpain and a complete lack of ideas have shelved him. Nonetheless, he seeks out Alberto and makes odd amends by beginning to smoke heroin himself. We also learn that Salvador is gay, but has been celibate for a long time. 


There’s nothing like nostalgia, discontent, and the Big-H to induce flashback memories. The film’s title is ironic in that it reverses the usual scraping bottom-to-redemption formula. Salvador’s “glory”–that is to say, 71-year-old Almodóvar’s–lies in the past. We go back in time to meet Salvador as a sunny, precocious child growing up poor in Paterna (Spain’s Valencia Province). His father keeps losing jobs, but his doting mother Jacinta (Penélope Cruz) does her best to maintain dignity–even when the family moves into a cave. (This is a thing in parts of southern Europe and isn’t quite as bad as it sounds.) We get hints of young Salvador’s sexual stirrings and love of film before we are thrown into Madrid in the 1980s, a time in which Salvador’s identities crystallize.


The film’s narrative is non-linear, though most of it focuses on the present. Think of it as a disassembled book in which beginning, middle, and end are snipped apart and partially reassembled in an order that’s neither entirely random nor entirely logical. We hear of a serious former lover, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), who exists only in name before showing up in Madrid for a quick visit after decades living in Argentina. He is now married with children, yet still comes on to Salvador. Since we know little of their previous time together other than a few jovial tales over glasses of wine, the “now” doesn’t cohere. There is another tale involving a drawing done by a peasant lad whom young Salvador once taught to read that is abruptly dropped and just as abruptly resurrected. The same is true for Jacinta, whom we meet as young and vital, but not again until she is elderly.


The charitable thing would be to say that memories are like that; they form, get shoved aside, and reappear when we least expect or desire them to do so. Another way to look at it, though, would be to compare Almodóvar’s filmmaking to looking at a photo album in which the images are inserted out of chronological or contextual order. As often happens in autobiographies, authors/auteurs forget that their memories may not make sense to those whose who haven’t lived those experiences. It should also be said that, though Almodóvar has never hidden his sexual preferences, screening them no longer packs cinematic wallop. No one watching an Almodóvar film is shocked or cares any more. If you know his oeuvre, you also know that he has often explored–either overtly or via a surrogate–his relationship with his mother. This suggests that Mallo’s director’s block is an admission of Almodóvar’s own conceptual staleness.


Why bother watching? First, there is Antonio Banderas as you’ve never before seen him. He won best actor honors at Cannes, a prize he richly deserved for a note-perfect portrayal of a man on the verge of an ennui breakdown. Why does he do heroin but pass up a sexual conquest? Why does he take no pleasure in his amazing home filled with art and wonders? As Mallo, he couldn’t explain, but it takes serious acting chops to make us care about someone just marking time.


Another reason is the score from Alberto Iglesias, which won for best soundtrack at Cannes. When you’ve had your fill of obtrusive soundtracks, it’s a joy to hear one that actually fits the film you’re watching. Penélope Cruz doesn’t have a big role, but she’s always luminous and strikes the perfect balance of fire and ice. Plus, Almodóvar films always look stylish, even when they’re total rubbish. If I might return to the photo album metaphor, you might not like all of Pain and Glory, but there are images that jump off the page/screen and force you to take notice. But maybe it’s time for Almodóvar to stop making movies about himself.


Rob Weir