January 2021 Album of the Month: Karen Matheson


Karen Matheson

Still Time

Compass Records


It’s hard to believe, but Capercaillie vocalist Karen Matheson is on the cusp of her 58th birthday. Her voice has dropped a bit over the years, but it’s still a glorious instrument. In addition to her work with the band, Matheson also drops the occasional album that spotlights her voice; Still Time is her 5th solo album.


Of course, when you’ve been performing since high school, front a celebrated band, have recorded with scores of others, and possess an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for your contributions to the arts, the term “solo” just means collections of material chosen by the artist. Still Time is packed with band members and longtime friends, including her husband Donald Shaw (accordion, keyboards), Ewen Vernal (bass), John Doyle, Sorren MacLean (guitars, vocals), and others. Call Scottish songwriter and fretted artist James Grant a co-conspirator, though, as he penned four of the album’s 11 songs. This includes the album’s single “Cassiopeia Coming Through,” which is arranged with the jazz-influenced folk ornaments that’s long been a Capercaillie trait. The song’s blue notes resonate to moody effect courtesy of Ryan Quigley’s flugel horn, but mostly it’s Matheson’s calming tones that carry the piece. In this case, the lyrics owe more to yearnings beneath the magnificent nighttime constellation than to the vain Greek beauty whose name it bears.


“The Glory Demon,” a self-descriptive antiwar composition, is another terrific Grant song. Matheson spins it as a quasi-lullaby, though bass, percussion, and electric guitar disrupt our peacefulness, which is precisely the point. It is one of several songs that throw curves. Another is “Orphan Girl,” which lulls us to a tender place, though it’s about a parentless lassie about to be shipped from starving Ireland to Australia–if she passes inspection. Shaw’s tasteful piano, Rudi Di Groot’s cello, and Matheson’s emotion-laden voice throw us off balance. Is this a sad song? Tragic? Hopeful? A cover of Si Kahn’s famed “The Aragon Mill” parallels it. On one hand, the mill has closed and jobs have disappeared; on the other, textile work is arduous, dirty, and poorly compensated.


Most of the songs on Still Time are down tempo. Objectively speaking, the record could use more changes of pace. It’s not until track five that we get Shaw’s arrangement of “This Diamond Ring,” the most Celtic-flavored song on the album, though one with some Appalachian flair, with Shaw’s accordion jousting with Hannah Fisher’s lively fiddle and Dirk Powell’s banjo. North Americans will likely find the tune evocative of “Shady Grove,” though it too is actually an older tune. Matheson gives a slowed down cover of “Recovery,” a Runrig song, its folk styling enhanced by Matheson’s precise cadences and Michael McGoldrick’s whistles. It and her version of Robbie Burns’ “Lassie wi' the Lint White Hair” are simply drop-dead gorgeous. (Note: Concert clips have different personnel.)


In many ways, though, Shaw’s Still Time defines the album. The recording was done during the current coronavirus lockdown. How many of us feel as if 2020 was a calendar page ripped out of our lives? “Still Time” is soaked in the ambience of a late-night club where jazz and folk musicians have sat down to find common ground. Shaw’s keys tinkle softly, Fraser Fifield’s sax blows forlorn notes, and Matheson gently catalogs all the things that will happen: If you’re still here when the morning comes around…. 


Rob Weir


The Searcher Another Superb Tana French Mystery

The Searcher (20200

By Tana French

Viking, 464 pages.




Irish mystery writer Tana French has a devoted following and yours truly is a long-time member of the pack. Unlike most within her genre, French doesn’t have a go-to detective, thus most of her novels treat us to a new cast of characters. Few can rival her when it comes to building new settings into which she places them. The Searcher was partially inspired by American Westerns, hence French’s decision to set the action in the West–of Ireland. Her village, Ardnakelty, is fictional, but internal clues suggest it’s near the coast, perhaps in County Clare. It’s a stunningly beautiful place, but also a hard and wild land.


Most French novels move at a crisp clip. The Searcher is a departure in that its main character, Cal Hooper, is trying to slow the pace of his life. He is a recently retired Chicago cop attempting to build life anew by moving to an Irish village, restoring a small cottage, and settling into rural life. Locals can’t imagine that a big city Yank actually wants to live in their village and most assume he’s either secretly working with the Garda (police) on a big case or renovating the abandoned cottage as a rental for summer tourists. Actually, Cal is a classic burn-out case fed up with violent crime, corrupt cops, and drug-infested neighborhoods. He’s also divorced and has a grown daughter, Alyssa, who lives in Seattle. Cal telephones her regularly, though there is tension between them.


Cal’s first mistake was assuming that a remote Irish village would somehow be immune from the problems he left behind. The second was imagining he could simply ease his way into the rhythms of Irish life. That’s hard to do when you’re tall, single, and your very attempt to keep to yourself makes you a curiosity object. Not that anyone with a neighbor like Mart can expect ‘round the clock peace. Mart has a dog named Kojak, a sweet tooth that Cal feeds every time he goes to Noreen Dunne’s store, and he’s Cal’s entrĂ©e into the local pub. Mart’s also a bachelor, though he doesn’t approve of such a life for Cal and is keen to match him with Noreen’s divorced sister Lena. But the biggest irritant in Cal’s life is his suspicion he’s being spied upon.


He’s not wrong about that; he catches a kid named Trey Reddy red handed. Trey comes from a dirt-poor home with too many kids headed by a single mum. Soon Trey and Cal form an odd bond of sorts. In exchange for some free labor, Trey can hang around, learn things from Cal, and get fed. What Trey really wants, though, is for Cal to find older brother Brendan, who disappeared. Trey is so persistent that Cal agrees to make queries.


If The Searcher has a moral, it’s don’t mess around in things you don’t understand using methods that don’t immigrate. Cal’s Chicago-style investigations are not nearly as clever or as effective as he imagined. My only real criticism of the novel is that Cal’s questioning techniques were too ham-handed to be believable. As anyone who has lived in a small place can tell you, you are seriously deluded if you think you can keep secrets or ask questions without word getting around. They’d probably also tell you that drugs, gangs, and shady characters are not just big-city problems. And they’d surely tell you that no one takes kindly to being considered a yokel.  


The worlds of Cal, Trey, Lena, and Lena will attract, collide, clash, and resolve, though resolution comes in messy and open-ended ways. This is the first French novel not written with a first-person narrator, as she wanted to focus on Cal the stranger via his relationship with and impact upon others. In this way, Cal is analogous to Wild West movie loners who drift into a new town cloaked in mystery. Will Cal stay or, like the title character in Shane, ride off in the sunset?


The Searcher takes time to develop, but its slow traipse across moors, hills, and bogs heightens our sense of Cal adrift. He is a man looking answers about Brendan, but also seeking life-affirming footholds.


Rob Weir


White Heat a Sizzling James Cagney Gangster Film


White Heat (1949)

Directed by Raoul Walsh

Warner Brothers, 114 minutes, not-rated (gangster violence)



Cody Loves Ma Best
Cody Loves Ma More than He Loves Virginia Mayo

2020 was a bizarre year, so this December, while many Americans were busy with tinsel and colored lights, we went on a film noir binge. Others were singing “White Christmas;” we watched White Heat. I’d say we got the better end of the stick. The American Film Institute ranked White Heat the fourth best gangster film of all-time. Such lists are always contentious, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone would dispute that it deserves to rank high.


First, a little background. It stars James Cagney, which seems like a natural–except that in 1949, many considered him a has-been. He was 50-years-old, which was (and is) ancient by Hollywood standards, and his previous four pictures were turkeys that flopped with little notice. Cagney was sick of gangster films and Jack Warner’s greatest desire was that Cagney never again appear in a Warner Brothers picture. Nonetheless, writers Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts thought he’d be good in the lead role of Arthur “Cody” Jarrett and convinced Warner to yield. He did and then contracted with the legendary Raoul Walsh to direct the film. The result is why one should never say “never.”


Cagney is riveting as an amoral sociopath. From the opening scene wherein he kills four people on a train to the very end, Cagney’s Cody makes Donald Trump look like Mother Theresa. His performance presaged characters in films such as Psycho, Bonnie and Clyde, and The Usual Suspects. Cody is married to Verna (Virginia Mayo) and has a gang, but the only person he cares about is his mother (Margaret Wycherly). He tops the most-wanted list but, when not suffering crippling migraines, Cody outsmarts his pursuers, including a unique way to avoid a murder rap. Just as investigators think they have the goods on him, he pleads guilty to an Illinois robbery that occurred at the same time. You can’t be in California and Illinois at the same time, right? Cody is willing to pull a few years hard time; it beats the gas chamber.


Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) has a job few would rush to take. As a trusted Treasury Department underground investigator, he is assigned to pose as an inmate in the same Illinois penitentiary as Jarrett to collect intelligence and ingratiate himself into Cody’s gang. Cody has plenty of incentive to return to his sanguinary ways after prison. An underling, Big Ed Somers (Steve Cochran), has deposed Cody, taken up with Verna, and tried to engineer his assassination inside the Big House. And Cody goes absolutely psycho when he learns his mother is dead, possibly by Big Ed’s hand.


White Heat plays out as a rampage film whose open questions concern Big Ed, Verna, and Hank’s efforts to maintain his disguise before Cody gets wise. The film’s denouement inside a chemical refinery is everything a noir film should be: full of dizzying perspectives, shadows, skewed angles, tension, and surprises. Walsh filmed White Heat in semi-documentary style. That choice, plus Sidney Hickox’s creative cinematography, lend an air of verisimilitude that’s particularly obvious in the prison material and in the film’s closing moments. White Heat’s final scene has been rightly hailed as one of the era’s most impactful. I shall merely observe that Cagney is involved in one of film’s most dramatic exits.


I was surprised to learn that Cagney was not nominated for Best Actor for White Heat. He had worthy competition, but who today remembers Richard Todd in The Hasty Heart or Gregory Peck in the overwrought Twelve O’clock High? O’Brien’s performance also warranted an Oscar nod, but he too was overlooked. Mayo is suitably duplicitous, but the most fascinating woman on screen is Margaret Wycherly. You can definitely detect her impact on Estelle Parsons’ take on Blanche Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde.


As is always the case with older movies, one must take into account that the values of the past were not those of today. Mayo’s two-bit double-crosser falls into that category. In today’s crime films, there is hell to pay if the female lead isn’t at least a co-conspirator, but Mayo is a stock figure of Hollywood’s Golden Age: a femme fatale who makes bad things happen to others. You need not condone such roles, but you should not expect to see your version of political correctness on the screen.


You can deflect your discomfort by watching a different take on the Trojan horse legend. There is also great amusement in experiencing high-tech 1949-style, as police track Cody via a vintage directional finder while triangulating with a protractor and ruler. By any measure, though, White Heat still sizzles.


Rob Weir