Albert Freixas, Delgres, Alisa Amador, Left Vessel, Dirty Snowman, Fernando, Grace Womack



Albert Freixas
cut his teeth in the jazz scene of his native Barcelona before spinning off into other genres. Chroma, his third solo venture, shows us both the foot inside the door and the one stepping out. He calls his music “hard bop” and John Coltrane comparisons pop up, but Chroma covers too much turf for that. The “Every Time We Fall” video opens to rising smoke. It has a pop vibe and we witness Freixas playing a lap electric, a straight up electric, and a bass guitar. We notice his smooth voice and well-patterned melody lines. By contrast, “Personal Light” is atmospheric and enigmatic, a blend of pop and elements of Catalan jazz. “My Well” is soulful, and “I Call” a short a capella with backing vocals. “Broken Song” is bluesy, moody, and supplemented by spoken word, rap, and horns. Get the point? Freixas is always controlled, but seldom constrained by categories.


is a dynamic “power trio” based in France, but with Caribbean roots. Most of the songs on 4:00 am are sung in Creole, and the band is named for mulatto French officer Louis Delgrès, who switched sides during an 1802 rebellion in Guadeloupe. “Mo Jodi” (“I’ll Die Today”) is where funk meets swamp blues and a New Orleans funeral band. As you will hear, most of the songs are just Baptiste Brondy’s drums, Rafgee’s sousaphone-acting-as-bass, and Pascal Danaë’s guitar and booming vocals. “Lundi Mardi Mercredi” has a more delicate opening, but it doesn’t take long till they unleash the grunge that backs Danaë’s singsong rap-like lyrics. You’ll not make out most of them, as Delgrès is more about groove and move. They so deemphasize clarity that a song like “L’ecole” evokes lo-fi music. (Could we say they give it the old-school try?) Mostly it doesn’t matter, but on “Just Vote for Me” it would help to hear the lyrics more clearly. The video is ironic and poignant. Watching world leaders past and present (including George W. Bush, Trump, Yeltsin, Putin, Boris Johnson, Theresa May, Kim Jong-un) trying to prove their “commoner” statuses via “dance” moves is hysterical, but Delgrès makes a deeper point by juxtaposing white candidates making rather obvious overtures to people of color. Newsreel footage of violence drives home the message. Still, it would be nice if we could make out lyrics like these: If you give me your hand/I can take you anywhere/You know I am your friend….


Alisa Amador
comes from solid musical stock. Her parents founded the award-winning pan-Latin Sol y Canto, of which Alisa is a sometimes member. She is, though, very much her own person and possesses the chops to grab your attention in English or Spanish. On Narratives, she serves delights such as “Burnt and Broken,” an exploration of the fragility of life and love. “Timing” is shot through with vintage Motown, and, yes, she can pull it off. If you want to hear something in Spanish, listen to “Nada quever” (“Nothing to See.”) You’ll notice that Amador likes to loiter on chanteuse benches. She also tosses in occasional notes that skirt the borders of atonality. The latter make them moodier than a lot of folk music.


Left Vessel
is the stage name of Nick Byron Campbell, and was inspired by being plunked on the noggin by a falling pine cone. It’s also the name of his former band. On One (and Driftless), Campbell exchanges his rock and roll duds for a shaman’s soft goods and an ever-present knit cap. The music is often atmospheric and electronically New Age-like, as heard on “Arrival” or “Empty Frame” in which his voice climbs into the falsetto range. One (and Driftless) is a concept album that Campbell calls “sound art.” I generally dislike such made-up appellations, but it fits, if we allow room for songs such as “Your Winter” and “Hold Your Laughter,” which some might label folk. I wouldn’t. Both are a bit too oblique, but Campbell is up to some intriguing things. He won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, though, so listen and see what you think. 


If need to get loud, Colorado’s Dirty Snowman Society is a potage of punk, psychedelic, and arena rock. Its recent record is called Snowblind. If titles like “Kiss Me or Kill Me,” conjure grunge, you wouldn’t be wrong. It’s where big bass, wailing guitar, high-octane, pounding drums, attitude, and danger collide. “Once” sounds softer, but not really. The instrumentation throttles between simulated vibes and jam band riffs that stuff Frank Costantini’s vocals into a wall-to-wall sound envelope. “Mirror” is everything you’d ever want, if you like your decibels high. Slide the volume to the right and rock on. This one reminded me of Black Sabbath with a better singer. (Yeah, Ozzie was always overrated.) 


Looking for something different? Try Anuang’o Fernando and Maasai Footsteps. It’s an appropriate title as Fernando is as much dancer as musician. I wish there were more videos of him dancing, as the songs draw inspiration from the traditional music of Kenya’s Maasai people. “Source” (and source-like) recordings are often less interesting out of context. Movement is crucial for the Maasai, whose dance styles are at once grounded but airy. Watch this video if that statement sounded contradictory. The songs are often drone-like behind keening lead vocals. “Emburkoi” and “Mukula” are in this vein, though “Eranjoi” has what could be incongruously labeled an old-time revival sensibility.  


Grace Womack
is a junior at the University of Texas. Her Yellow Cowboy Hat introduces a voice with promise that’s not yet ready to graduate. The title suggests country music, but Womack mixes of pop, R & B, and piano bar jazz inevitably draw comparisons to Lake Street Dive, Kacey Musgraves, and Billy Joel. I’d call these aspirational rather than descriptive labels. “Pity the Fool,” an infatuation-gone-bad tale, showcases songbird vocals and piano, but the melody fails to land. “Oblivion,” her second single, has similar virtues and drawbacks. We must go to the title track before Womack’s soulful tones and energetic backing music command attention. In a word, Yellow Cowboy Hat lacks solid hooks, which is precisely what a new singer needs in a market flooded with pretty voices.   


Rob Weir



The Guide a Mediocre Good Book?


THE GUIDE (2021)

By Peter Heller

Alfred A. Knopf, 257 pages.





Let’s talk really good mediocre book. Peter Heller’s The Guide is a sequel to the more polished The River (2020), an echo of the British film Never Let Me Go (2020), and selective culling from recent news stories, such as that of Richard Cooke, the world-class jerk who killed a tame lion inside a Zimbabwean game reserve. It has other issues as well, but Heller gets away with things that would raise alarms were they offerings from writers of lesser skill.


Heller fans have met Jack before. He and his best college buddy Wynn went on a tragic canoe trip in northern Canada in The River. He blames himself for Wynn’s death, as well as that of his mother, whose horse slipped off a mountain trail. In short, Jack suffers from a double dose of PTSD. His father and uncle assure Jack he is blameless, but the sprawling Colorado ranch feels so claustrophobic that he needs to get away and clear his head, a search that lands him at Kingfisher Lodge, a retreat for the elite on on Colorado’s Taylor River near Gunnison National Forest. Kingfisher needs a “guide,” though not of the backpacking sort. The Taylor is famed for trout fishing, and Jack’s job is to be a glorified babysitter for wealthy folks coming to angle in the Billionaire’s Mile, a section of well-stocked waters.


Day One is just what the doctor ordered: solitude, jaw-dropping beauty, a small cabin, and Zen-like fishing. Jack is leery of Kurt Jensen, who manages Kingfisher and has niggling little rules and threatens to dismiss those who can’t follow them, but Jack is here to heal not rebel. One command gets his attention: stay clear of the sign warning “Don’t Get Shot,” the explanation being that a cranky neighbor named Kreutzer doesn’t tolerate trespassers. But Jack enjoys an amazing dinner, which compensates for an odd meeting with the laconic Cody, another guide.


 On Day Two, he meets the person he will guide, Alison K*, her surname suppressed because celebrities coming to Kingfisher want to escape the fame game. Good luck with that when you’re dropped off by the head of your security detail. They’re in the Rockies, but it only takes a New York minute to determine that she is a famed country singer. Luckily for Jack, she’s also down-to-earth. Her fly-fishing technique requires fine-tuning, but Alison’s a natural, loves the outdoors, and relishes both Jack’s company and deep silences.


Too good to be true? Duh! Jack and Alison notice that none of the other guests are fishing and Cody doesn’t do any guiding. Nor does it help when Alison and Jack must duck for cover when she goes beyond the sign when landing a large trout. Jack is dressed down for that when they return to the lodge, but how does Kurt even know about it when Jack, Alison, and whoever shot at them were the only ones on the river? They observe that some of the guests seem spacey, perhaps ill. Jack also keeps getting warnings to play everything by the book, as the autocratic Jensen is really following the orders imposed by Kingfisher’s owner, Mr. Den. Only housekeeper Ana seems genuine around Jack. When she discovers he speaks Spanish, she whispers four numbers to him. Why would she whisper inside his cabin? Why was he hired in midseason? What happened to his predecessor?


Jack might be a Colorado rancher’s son, but he’s also a Dartmouth grad and there are simply too many things that feel wrong. A foray into the mountains affords an overview of Kingfisher and adjoining properties. If Kreutzer is a rival, why are the chain-link fences surrounding Kingfisher, Kreutzer’s, and another lodge interconnected? Why do the barbs face inward rather than toward the river? More to the point, why does Jack see a person in a hospital gown running from Kreutzer’s and witness Cody, Jensen, commandos, and the local law enforcement on the grounds? Alison has similar questions, and the two begin to spend personal time with each other, another rule violation. In a drive to Crested Butte for dinner and Wi-Fi connectivity, Alison learns a distressing fact about Mr. Den.


At this juncture, the cowboy and the songstress tale mutates into a Covid-era thriller. (Covid factors into the plot, but in an unusual way.) Frankly, the final third of the book stretches credulity, especially when Jack transforms into James Bond-as-cowboy. The novel’s denouement is abrupt and contrived and, in my view, Heller adds an unnecessary subplot about what’s happening at Kreutzer’s.


For all of that, The Guide is a chilling page turner that is so hard to toss aside that I read it in just two sittings. Heller ropes us in through vividly sketched characters–not just Jack and Alison, but also minor ones such Ana; Shay, who oversees food services; and guests such as the Sir William Barron and Teiji and Yumi Takagi. Moreover, Heller’s love of wilderness comes through on every page and he makes you feel nature’s majesty–right down to a simple description of nighttime clouds parting to reveal skies “freckled” with stars. I don’t fish, but Heller’s river sequences are like liquid meditation. The Guide is not a patch on The River and it’s certainly not The Dog Stars, Heller’s stunning debut, but it will reel you in.


Rob Weir


*I immediately wondered if this character was a veiled Alison Krauss reference, but neither Krauss’ age nor profile fit.






Winter Counts is a Bit Obvious, but Holds Fascinations



By David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Ecco, 336 pages.

★★★ ½ 




The skinny on Winter Counts is that it's a fascinating look at Lakota (Sioux) culture, but an easy-to-crack mystery.


The title references a calendar reckoning game common on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, southwest of the more famous/infamous Pine Ridge Reservation. Both, sadly, lie in parts of the state deemed less desirable by whites living in places such as Rapid City, sometimes dubbed “Racist City” by Native Americans.


At the center of the story is Virgil Wounded Horse, an “enforcer” on the rez. That's a thing. Reservations are, in theory, autonomous nations onto which outside law enforcement seldom venture unless a serious or federal offense takes place, and even then, they only respond about half the time. Tribal police are notoriously ineffective and reservation governments are too often dens of corruption. If a score needs to be settled, enforcers like Virgil are the ones who take care of it. Virgil does the dirty work that others won't touch and that’s okay in the minds of most, as he’s only half Lakota, an iyeska (roughly, a “half-breed).


Virgil is also the guardian of his nephew Nathan. Virgil doesn't have many parenting skills, but what can he do? His sister was killed in a car crash and Nathan has no one else. Nathan seems like a good kid– until he overdoses on heroin. He survives, but when a lot of oxycodone is found in his locker, Nathan is headed off to jail and the Feds are ready to adjudicate him as an adult and send him to a penitentiary, though he's just 14 years old. Nathan swears the pills were not his, but he's caught in the middle of a campaign to get serious drugs off the reservation at a time in which Ben Short Bear hopes to become Council president and won’t pull strings for Nathan.


Ben is, however, willing to bargain. He thinks a drug peddler named Rick Crow is smuggling heroin into Rosebud and wants Virgil to nail him. In the interim, Virgil has to try to get Nathan out of jail, which isn’t easy for a guy who drives a Pinto and has no valuable property for collateral. A former girlfriend, Marie, who is Ben's daughter, recommends a good lawyer, Charley Leader, but that's a money issue as well. Small wonder that Virgil is interested in the $5,000 that Ben offers to put Crow out of business.


There are side stories involving an indigenous foods guru; disputes between Marie and her supervisor Delilah Kills Water; battles over commodity beef allocations; and deep suspicion that tribal money is being siphoned by graft. Virgil also discovers it’s one thing to think about going after Rick Crow; it's quite another to venture to Denver and into neighborhoods controlled by drug syndicates. It looks as if Nathan's only shot is to cooperate with the Feds, wear a wire, and make a heroin buy on reservation land.


Winter Counts could use more red herrings. I sorted out the baddies before halfway through the book and read on to see how it played out. With minor twists, it was just as I had imagined. Again, the primary fascination with the novel is learning more about Lakota life – yuwipi vision quests, contested battles over the Badlands, the long historical memory of indigenous peoples, spirit names, and (sadly) the appalling conditions on the reservation. For those on the rez, life is often a series of compromises and the hope that the right ones have been made.


I doubt that the author intended an anthropology lesson, but it is a major takeaway from the novel. Many mystery writers unnecessarily complicate their plots.; this one over simplifies by too starkly sketching good and bad. Nonetheless, I recommend it. You will like Virgil, Nathan, Marie, and their extended network of family and friends. The thing about tough places like Rosebud is that you learn who greases your fry bread.


Rob Weir