1/29/21

Maya Beiser, East of June, Siren Songs, Riley Green


 

 

The cello has long been a staple of drawing room music, but a lot of folks are letting it explore. Count Maya Beiser among them. She has been involved in 13 recording projects that vary so widely in style that the New Yorker simply labeled her “the reigning queen of the avant-garde cello.” Her “Cello, Woman, Bed, Camera TV” demonstrates why she defies pigeonholes. It’s classical, but also experimental, dramatic, sexy, bold, and a little bit goofy. What else are we to make of a composition attributed to Ludwig Van Badguy? Or listen to those dark notes in her take of David Bowie’s “Lazarus” as other musicians bounce passages “Eleanor Rigby”-like in the background. before she attacks her instrument like an enraptured rock guitarist. Well, damn, it would empty anyone’s tomb, and if you know what to label all of this, please get back to me. She’s done a cello opera on Bowie and if that doesn’t make her far enough removed from the mainstream, sample her cover of Bowie’s “Life on Mars.” Don’t let the pastoral opening fool you. You’ll hear a bit of everything on this, including what sounds like echoes of the “Star Wars” theme. Her 11-minute trippy multimedia investigation of “Blackstar” will convince you Beiser isn’t from this planet. Zowie Ziggy!

 


East of June
is an expandable Los Angeles band whose core is bass player Dirk Lance (Incubus), guitarist Kyle Mortensen, and vocalist Emily Rath. They are an object lesson is why you shouldn’t make snap judgments. If you listen only to a song like “Little Bird” you might think sunny, California, pop band. But delve deeper into the band’s superb Website and try “Count on Me.” It is moody, Rath’s voice has an edge of desperation, and the song is more enigmatic than the title suggests. Rath has been compared to Stevie Nicks. You can make up your own mind about that, but Rath is dynamic to be sure. The Nicks comparisons are most obvious in two songs with a disco vibe: “Weight of My Sin” and “I Can’t Feel It.” The first flirts with darkness; the second is upbeat with splashes of old-time soul as filtered through a 21st century dance club. If they haven’t impressed you with their 70s-laced eclecticism yet, they offer the catchy song “Rebel” in acoustic and full band versions.

 


There are two types of cover bands: Those who perform recognizable material, and those who perform little known material. Alas, Siren Songs falls mostly into the first category. Their nine-track debut album–also titled Siren Songs­– has just three original songs, six familiar songs, including “For Good,” from the Broadway musical “Wicked.” The last makes sense; Merideth Kaye Clark is half of the Oregon-based duo and she’s mostly done theatre work. Her presence also explains why we also hear the Rogers and Hammerstein chestnut “Edelweiss.” Clark and musical partner Jean Grinels sing like angels, but aren’t heavenly enough to make us forget Bonnie Raitt’s cover of John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery.” I also wonder why on heaven or on earth a debut recording invites comparison to Dolly Parton (“Jolene”), Cyndi Lauper (“Time After Time”), or Joni Mitchell (“Chelsea Morning”)? These are songs one inserts into concert set lists as lagniappes. Grinels penned the three originals. “Goodnight Sun, Hello Moon” is a love song with sweet harmonies, “100” spotlights attention-grabbing patter changes, and “Gray” has some blues tucked in around the edges. These three suggest Siren Songs should have worked out more original material before entering the studio.

 


I heard several Riley Green songs and came away knowing that he really likes trucks, beer, hunting, Dixie, and misses his grandpa. And, though his single “There Was a Girl” is catchy, the label is problematic. T’is a shame, because the dude can sing and his arrangements really grab you. I have no idea of his politics, but his songs have too much thematic similarity and his good ole’ boy from Alabama take on country music comes off as more outmoded than outlaw.

 

Rob Weir


1/27/21

Leave the World Behind Unsettling and Dynamic

Leave the World Behind (2020)

By Rumaan Alam

Ecco Press, 256 pages.

★★★★★

 

If something undefined but ominous occurred, where would you wish to be? Most people would probably say “home,” and in a roundabout way that’s what Leave the World Behind is about.

 

The novel begins innocently, if annoyingly. We meet a white family headed by Amanda, an advertising maven, and Clay, an English and media studies professor at City University of New York. They have two children, lank 16-year-old Archie and spoiled, slightly chubby Rose, who is 13. Like many bourgeois Brooklynites, the family is comfortable, but they focus more on what they don’t have. This is especially true of Amanda who, to be charitable, is hard to stomach.

 

Summer vacation is an Airbnb rental in the Hamptons (Long Island) that underscores that they are not among the super elites. The sprawling home is tucked into a wooded glade near the ocean and sports granite counters, top-quality furnishings, a hot tub, and a swimming pool. Amanda spends a small fortune on more fancy food than can possibly be consumed in a week, while simultaneously feeling self-important, put upon, and covetous.

 

The family is settling in and enjoying themselves, though odd things startle them. A huge herd of deer appears at the edge of the forest, the sky crackles, and a loud boom is heard. Even worse, their devices stopped working. They are the sort who are so tied to them that they can’t find their way into the town five miles away without GPS.

 

It’s about to get worse. In the middle of the night, there’s a knock at the door and a frazzled and terrified elderly black couple stands outside. They introduce themselves as a George and Ruth Washington, who own the home. As George explains, something weird is happening and they fled New York because they felt a deep impulse to be in their country home rather than in their Park Avenue apartment. George opens his wallet and offers $1000 cash if they can just stay in the house as well.

 

If you imagine this is a race drama you are correct, but only a few yards down the country lane. As it transpires, something might be seriously wrong, but to quote an old Buffalo Springfield song, what it is ain’t exactly clear. There is a disconcerting hum in the air, more booms, and more unnatural phenomena occur. Animals stir, but people are mostly ensconced in their homes or absent.

 

Imagine being cooped up with strangers. Imagine not having the faintest idea what’s going on. There is no Internet, no TV, no radio, and no newspapers. Electricity still works, but New York City is rumored to be completely dark. Is it a hurricane? A blackout? An attack? The Rapture? Concrete and glass crack. Terror mounts, but at what can it be focused? What if everything you think matters–careers, investments, possessions, money – suddenly mean nothing? How to explain unusual sicknesses – Archie vomits, several of his teeth fall out, and then he feels fine – or things that shouldn’t be, like a flock of flamingos on a Long Island lawn? Where would you turn if, “You demanded answers, but the universe refused?” Alam writes, “Some people started to realize that they had a na├»ve belief in the system. Some people tried to maintain that system. Some people were vindicated that they had stockpiled guns and those filter straws that made water safe to drink.” Which one is you and how would you reconcile it when, “However much happened, so much more would happen?”

 

Leave the World Behind is the spellbinding and unsettling novel that is worthy of its National Book Award nomination. Think of it as a cross between Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and On the Beach. When things seem to be falling apart, Ruth understands “that … everything [is] held together by tacit agreement that it would…. There was no real structure to prevent chaos, there was only a collective faith in order.” Is her faith misplaced? This page turner will leave you trembling. It would be wrong of me to say if you should be!

 

Rob Weir

 

 

 


1/25/21

The Bass Rock Has Rocky Parts

The Bass Rock  (2020)

By Evie Wyld

Knopf Doubleday, 368 pages.

★★★

 


The Bass Rock
is a saga set in North Berwick, Scotland. It cycles between three different time periods and emphasizes the violence, psychological and physical, inflicted upon women. Bass Rock, which sits in the Firth of Forth, is a silent witness to tragedies. Author Evie Wyld labels each new chapter I, II, or III, but they are not sequential. This makes for rough going until readers sort characters and relationships.

 

III is actually the oldest of the stories and is probably set during Scotland’s persecution of suspected witches, probably in the 18th century. It involves a red-haired girl – a defining characteristic of main characters in the book – about to be killed for suspected witchcraft, until the town’s ex-minister takes her into his household. Sarah’s entire family is dead, including a sister who was raped and murdered. The minister’s decision was not a popular one and his household flees from local wrath, though Sarah does not escape tragedy.

 

Chapters marked II are the best developed and involve a World War II widower, Peter, whose new wife Ruth is English. She finds herself uprooted to a big house in North Berwick, where she serves as a surrogate mother to Peter’s sons, Michael and Christopher. She tries to fit in, but she doesn’t know the lay of the cultural landscape and is viewed with suspicion by the minister and most of the local women. Peter mourns his dead sister more than he cares about Ruth, drinks too much, expects her to be a dutiful housewife, and has secrets. He is, in short, a jerk. Only the maid Betty, who seeks a safe haven for her niece Bernadette, gives Ruth the time of day. To top it off, the house seems to be haunted.

 

Chapters marked I are set in the present and center upon Vivian, the daughter of Michael and Bernadette. “Viv” is a mess on many levels. She has rotten luck in relationships, has a tense relationship with her sister Katherine, has low self-esteem, and has a penchant for attracting oddballs. When she agrees to housesit the North Berwick home for her uncle Christopher, she runs into Maggie, a local self-proclaimed witch and occasional sex worker. Both detect a presence in the house.

 

The novel’s female bondings – Sarah and her dead sister Agnes; Ruth and Betty, Betty and her sister Mary; Vivian and Katherine, and Vivian and Maggie – parallel each other. Bass Rock is a character in its own right. It is a constant in the flow of time, and the witness to atrocities perpetrated upon women. Its silence befits a barren lump a mile from shore that has served as a monastery, prison, lighthouse, and setting for numerous novelists, including Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s also the roosting place of 150,000 gannets, which makes it ghostly white in appearance.

 

Perhaps Bass Rock is also Wyld’s second ghost. Viv speculates, 

 

                        I wonder, if this ghost everyone sees, is in fact 100,000 different ghosts? It’s only possible to focus on one at a time. They spill out of the doorway…. They fill the house top to bottom, they are locked in wardrobes, they are under the floorboards…. The birds on Bass Rock, they fill it, they are replaced by more…. They nest on the bones of the dead.

 

We wonder also what Maggie sees as she stares out to sea and remarks,

 

What would it take? What if all the women that have been killed by men through history were visible to us, all at once? If we could see them lying there. What if you could project a hologram of the bodies in the place they were killed?

 

The Bass Rock will not be everyone’s cup of herbs. Wyld doesn’t paint all women as victims and all men as potential rapists, but it’s not too far off the track. Each woman in the book deals with male-inflicted grief in some form and each wrestle with a combination of male subjugation and bad decision-making.

 

Wyld leaves herself open to having written an misandrous novel. To quote Maggie again, “The reason men want women is to fuck them…. And sometimes … they kill them because they weren’t allowed to fuck them and don’t want to get into trouble.”

Many men have been drunken, philandering, violent thugs whose personal validation is tied to processing women. Too many, but by no means most. What does it tell us when the only kind man in the novel is gay? This novel has been enormously popular, so clearly it strikes a resonant chord. But a rant is not necessarily truth.

 

Wyld’s unorthodox organization is also problematic. I applaud her desire to dispense with conventional structure, but it might have worked better in this case. Sarah’s story is detectably incomplete. Wyld needs a ghost, but it would have been better to give us one at the outset and move on. It is also detectable that Ruth’s story is so well drawn that the others pale by comparison. At the risk of being dismissed as a discomforted male reviewer, I view The Bass Rock as an incompletely realized effort.

 

Rob Weir