March 2023 Music: Mark Erelli, Karan Casey, Iberi Choir, Duplex, VRi, Cucchi , ARAR




Mark Erelli
named his newest record Lay Your Darkness Down and he wasn’t just dealing in metaphors; he’s been diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. He’s already legally blind in that he has lost his night vision and his overall prognosis prognosis is uncertain. That’s quite a blow, but Erelli has opted for optimism and clarity: Lay your darkness down/… Show us where the light is shining through. Though he came through then folk music ranks, Erelli has long been a hard act to classify. “The Man I Am” is bluesy and, though acoustic, dipped in Motown sprinkles. “Is It Enough” has some of the same flair, but is more blues/folk rock in construction. My favorite track is “Sense of Wonder,” which is summed by the line: If you ever lose you sense of wonder/Honey it will be too soon. It’s a paean to nature, but Erelli’s vocal style evokes Bob Dylan in stress and cadence. By contrast, “Up Against the Night,” whether acoustic or with a full band, is a driving rocker that would be at home on a Springsteen album. He rocks out some more on “Love Wins in the Long Run,” but “You” is quiet and tender. It’s impressive that Erelli has maintained his equanimity in the wake of what most would say is a tough break but, as he reminds us on “You’re GonnaWanna Remember This,” we all try to hang on to memories and glory because: it happened once and it might not happen again. The quality of the record alone impresses but coupled with courage, Lay Your Darkness Down makes Mark Erelli my March artist of the month.


Erelli will perform a 3 pm concert at the Parlor Room in Northampton, MA on March 25.



Karan Casey
has released her first solo record since 2018. If you can believe it, the former Solas lead vocalist is now 54, and Nine Apples of Gold continues her shift toward a diversified approach that often strays beyond a purely Celtic repertoire. The Irish press has made much of Sinéad O’Connor influences and you can certainly pick up flashes of mutually defiant feminism in Casey’s “I Live in a Country” that plumbs some of Ireland’s bleak past: We are the daughters of the witches you could not burn for centuries /We are the daughters of the Magdalene laundries when you had us down upon our knees. That’s Pauline Scanlan assisting on the track. Casey asserts sisterhood on other tracks such as “Daughter Dear,” upon which Ríoghnach Connolly guests. Though it’s a mother/daughter song, melancholy piano and Casey’s emotive vocals give it a mythic feel, which is a good time to mention the album’s title track Like many during Covid lockdown Casey took time to reconnect with nature and listen to bird songs. This took her back to an ancient Irish tale of Tonn Clíodhna, a goddess of love, who escaped her pursuers by turning herself into a wren. She is also associated with birds with magical apples that heal illnesses. Though it’s a new song, “The Rocks of Bawn” is the most traditional-sounding song on the record. It’s an accompanied track, but I’ve attached an a cappella performance that highlights Casey’s vocal prowess. My personal preference is for songs such as this, but I begrudge neither Casey’s powerful politics nor her more contemporary musical explorations.



And now for a change of pace. The Iberi Choir hails from the mountainous eastern region of the nation of Georgia, Iberi being the ancient Roman and Greek name for it. It is a place where polyphonic (many voices) choral singing is a hallowed tradition–so hallowed that a former professional rugby player leads the choir. Their latest album Supra features feast songs, lullabies, work music, and ballads. At first hearing it might remind you of Gregorian chant, though there’s more dissonance and overlapping melody in Georgian music. Here are three songs to sample. “Shen Khar Venakhi” is a gentle song evocative of a lullaby, though the title translates as “The Vineyard.” “Kutaisi Mraralzhamieri” is more spirited and you’ll hear a booming dissonant voice. It’s similar to the strong call out voice you’ll hear in “Arkhalalo”


Duplex is the Belgian duo of Didier Laloy (accordion) and Damien Chierici (violin), who ably assisted by guest artists on Malestrom. The title track literally builds a storm. Some gentle keys lead into rolling violin and resounding percussion brings the piece into full force, the melody unfolding within a mix that is slightly cacophonous in places. They head out to Western Canada for “Wapta Falls” with a drum machine and create a piece that sounds more like the Russian steppes than the Rockies or the prairie. “Magic House” opens like a gentle rain shower but weaves in other sounds that take us on a sonic journey. There are 14 tracks in all, which I found fitting for either quiet contemplation or pleasant background music whilst puttering about. Though Duplex might be considered New Age music, I found it more experimental and less structured. Maelstrom really grew on me.


might look like a hook developed by some hipster-wannabe marketer, but it’s legit. It’s an old Welsh word that means lifting or levitating. As anyone who has been to Wales knows, the only way to escape Methodism is to board a ferry for Ireland. The trio VRï (Patrick Rimes, Aneirin Jones, Jordan Williams) does the next best thing by taking the chapel tradition in new directions, in their case a mix of chamber and folk music. “Y Gaseg Feln,” for instance sounds as if it could be a slow sea chantey. “Glan Meddwdod Mwyn” has lovely fiddling that falls somewhere between classical and a slow Celtic air. And it’s hard not to admire the vocal purity and dexterity of “Brithi I’r Buarth.” Their newest album Islais a A Genir is a welcome change from bands playing to formulae..


It would be inaccurate to call Flavio Cucchi an Italian guitarist. He’s been thrilling festival and concert audiences around the globe for so long he has become an international virtuoso, a master of classical guitar, folk, and avantgarde offerings. The very name of his latest project, Flavio Cucchi Plays Dances, says it all. Want a slow sensual Cuban habanera? “Habanera para Maria” will fit the bill. How about a tango? “Tango da Balera” showcases his amazing fingering. Once you watch this live clip you don’t need me to tell you that man knows his way around, up, and down the fretboard.



Let’s stay on the quiet side. ARAR is the Barcelona-based duo of Marina Tomás Amado (voice/guitar) and Maria Cruz Millet (sax/piano/voice). Their self-titled album is explores topics such as creativity, youth, love, and the glories of the Catalonian language and culture. Some of it is as languorous as a lazy Sunday morning. The translation of a line from “Simulacres” is suggestive of their worldview: Tell me what we should do/So the sky does not fall on us. Gamma Velorum” references a star cluster with two binary systems that consist of one visible and one invisible star. The five-beat instrumental “Eclipsi Lunar” has a jazzier feel. There’s even a song (“Cucut”) in which voices emulate a cuckoo.



Rob Weir


In the Lives of Puppets: Imagination Tops Repeated Structure


By TJ Klune

Tor Books, 432 pages.




In the Lives of Puppets, the forthcoming novel from TJ Klune, delves into one of fantasy’s most intriguing questions: What makes an individual fully human? He comes down on the side of those who doubt that biology is the sole (or even main) determinant. You’ll find echoes of familiar sources in Klune’s book: Pinocchio, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Data (and the Borg) from Star Trek, and Philp Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? from whence Blade Runner movies derived.


Klune takes us to an indeterminate future in which machines have taken over the world. Insofar as the AI Authority knows, Earth’s human contagion has been eradicated. That also renders a lot of machines obsolete, which are decommissioned and scrapped.  As you no doubt anticipate, there’s at least one human left. Victor Lawson lives near a salvage yard but deep in the forest with his “father” Gio/Giovanni and his friends Rambo and Nurse Ratched. Their arrangement is, shall we say, unusual. Gio Lawson is an android, a tinkerer, benevolent, loves old jazz, and his fatherhood has nothing to do with sex. He and Victor scour the junkyard for parts for their hidden compound, taking care that Victor doesn’t bleed as even a drop of blood would set off alarms.


Gio is actually a General Innovation Operative, an android inventor/builder that became a renegade with a distinct personality. He does a great job raising Victor, courtesy of the wooden heart animated by a drop of blood. Rambo was once a vacuum cleaner that Gio rebuilt and reprogramed, a Roomba whose lettering wore off. So why not give him a few arms, the ability of speak, a Piglet-like personality, and a love of the musical Top Hat? Ratched was a medical device that used to serve humans: Registered Automation To Care, Heal, Educate, and Drill. She has an empathy protocol, but she prefers to turn it off and drill!


To say this is an unusual grouping, but Victor sees nothing weird about having two machines for friends; you take what you can get when you’re the only homo sapiens. Part One, the Forest” details some of these relationships and introduces one of Vic’s salvage efforts, the grumpy HAP, whom Rambo dubs Hysterically Angry Puppet. HAP is powerful, ominous, and stutters. It’s a good thing his systems were corrupted. Unbeknownst to Victor, the R on his chest has worn off and he’s actually a HARP, a Human Annihilation Response Protocol android like the ones that wiped out humankind. Instead, he becomes Victor’s protector and, we sense, the two are falling in love, after HAP is given the spare heart Vic had built for Gio. (Klune is an icon of gay literature.)


Part Two, “The Journey” occurs when Gio is captured and the others must flee their destroyed refuge. They encounter a strange machine known as The Coachman who, after playing a different role, helps them get inside the City of Electric Dreams, where Gio has probably been taken to be reprogramed. The city is Part Three of the novel and a weird one it is. Gio once told Victor that the Blue Fairy (a “they”) might or might not help if danger arose. First, they must gain entry to a glass pyramid where, legend holds, “unchained” machines follow their electric dreams. It’s not clear whether the Blue Fairy and their helper are benevolent, volatile, or flat-out dangerous, nor does Klune spell out exactly why the Authority allows them to exist. Let’s just say that things inside the pyramid are strange. I could say the same for the entire book, part four of which resolves various dilemmas.


In the midst of this idiosyncratic work Klune raises a few universal questions. What does it mean to be “alive?” What makes a family? What gives purpose to existence? Where, if at all, do we place the parameters of desire? Shades of the Tin Woodsman of the Oz, Klune also asks us whether poets and ancient philosophers were right to locate emotion and memory in the heart rather than the brain.


I won’t pretend this novel will light up every reader’s circuits. I enjoyed it quite a bit because it’s so odd. I admit, though, that Klune is guilty of repeating stories he has previously told and has merely dressed this one in metal clothes. The overarching moral is that a vivid imagination serves authors and characters equally well.


Rob Weir



Till a Good Film, but not a Great One



TILL (2022)

Directed by Chinonye Chukwu

United Artists, 130 minutes, PG-13 (disturbing images, racism)





Is it possible to make a Hallmark-like film about one of the most stomach-churning episodes in 20th century history? Allegations of racism ensued when neither Till nor director Chinonye Chukwu received Academy Award nominations. For once, though, the Academy was on target.


We should not confuse a compelling subject with a great movie. For instance, Pearl Harbor: Day That Will Live in Infamy (2001) was a loud romance with bad dialogue, The Help (2011) was a white girl fantasy, and Winnie Mandela (2013) a mess. Till is much better but it’s a decent movie, not a distinguished one.


First, a bit of history. In August 1955, Mamie Till-Bradley reluctantly allowed her 14-year-old son Emmett to travel from Chicago to Mississippi to visit his cousins. He was warned about Southern racism and told to be polite and deferential to whites. Alas, Emmett was said to have wolf-whistled Carolyn Bryant at her husband’s small grocery store in Money, Mississippi. Her husband Roy and his half brother J. W. Milam abducted Emmett from his uncle’s home. His bloated and decomposing body was discovered in the Tallahatchie River. He had beaten, shot in the head, and sunk into the river with a cotton gin fan. Emmett was so badly disfigured that many local whites denied it was his body. Mamie had Emmett’s body sent back to Chicago and displayed in an open casket to call attention to racism. Nonetheless, an all-white jury barely deliberated before acquitting Bryant and Milam. During the trial, Emmett was also said to have assaulted Carolyn and aspersions were also cast on Mamie’s character. (Thereafter, Bryant and Milam bragged of having slain Emmett.)


Till is more Mamie’s story than her son’s, though Jalyn Hall gave a convincing performance as Emmett. His was a nice mix of a 14-year old’s charm, naiveite, and presentation as more world-wise and mature than he actually was. Danielle Deadwyler was terrific as Mamie, whom she transforms from protective mother to activist. We watch her simmer as she tries to bite her tongue during the Bryant-Milam trial, then regains her voice in the civil rights movement.


Till ultimately trips over a flawed script and Chukwa’s conservative direction. Call it a missed opportunity. Emmett Till’s murder galvanized the civil rights movement so thoroughly that the event has become a familiar narrative. Chukwa could have shed light on Mamie, whose post-1955 life is less known. Perhaps Chukwa was stymied by how to dramatize her story. Mamie was initially fiery and outspoken–presented in the film as a brief addendum–but most of her work was organizational and educational.


To circle back to the film’s conservatism, there is a lot of time wasted in presenting the extended Till family as a black counterpart to the white Golden Fifties myth. Mamie is such a doting mom that today we’d call her a helicopter mother. Whoopi Goldberg and Frankie Faison appear as her parents to add additional dollops of domestic bliss, and the script infers that Emmett’s father was killed in action. In truth, Louis Till went into the Army instead of jail after abusing Mamie after they separated. In Italy he was accused of rape, was court-martialed, and hanged. His was probably another miscarriage of justice, but the film sidesteps the impact on Mamie and barely mentions that she divorced her second husband when Emmett was 11. One might think such matters are personal, but they were not in 1955; both came up during the Bryant-Milam trial.


How do we explain that most critics praised the film and most who saw Till recommended it? First, not many have seen it; Till’s box office returned just half of its cost. Second, audience scores stripped from critic responses are not as enthusiastic. The Metacritic audience rating is 7.1, which is hardly a ringing endorsement in our age of grade inflation.


Chukwu’s focus suggests a “family” picture, but it’s ultimately tepid where it should scorch. If the idea was to avoid making a voyeuristic murder drama, why resort to grisly images (a realistic mannequin) at all? Especially at the expense of giving short shrift to the courtroom misjustice? Or truncating the Medgar Evers backstory?  


Till is an unstirred mix of domesticity, brutality, racism, and triumphalism (see the scroll over at the end). I admired Mamie Till-Bradley-Mobley, but it’s hard to get past the fact that her son was and always shall be the center of this great American tragedy.


Rob Weir