Archive for August, 2006

DVD Review: Missing in America

Tuesday, August 29th, 2006

Few first-time directors get to work with such a stellar cast as Gabrielle Savage Dockterman did with her 2005 independent film Missing in America, now available on DVD. Danny Glover anchors the movie as Jake Neely, a crusty Vietnam vet who has fled his demons to a solitary life in the Pacific Northwest woods. David Strathairn is the ailing army buddy who tracks Neely down and leaves his half-Vietnamese daughter (Zoë Weizenbaum of Memoirs of a Geisha) in the care the only friend he feels he can trust. Linda Hamilton brings earthy humor to the role of a widowed shopkeeper whose life is also transformed by the arrival of the little girl. And Ron Perlman is heartbreaking as Red, a permanently traumatized, mute vet who lives like a wild man in the backwoods.

Yes, it’s a cliché: the unexpected arrival of a child giving meaning to the lives of sad, withdrawn adults. But the film largely overcomes that handicap, thanks mostly to three factors.

First, and least important artistically, is the film’s antiwar message. There’s no explicit reference to current events, but the bitterness expressed by these vets at the senseless destruction of life makes the filmmakers’ point of view quite clear.

Second, Dockterman’s richly atmospheric depiction of the way these people live resonates powerfully not just with veterans but with anyone who has known loss. There really is a community of Vietnam vets, permanently injured emotionally, mentally and physically, who have decamped from society to nurse their wounds in the woods. Vets who’ve never met really can recognize each other without speaking, as those in the film do. Adapted from a story by Vietnam vet Ken Miller, who co-wrote the screenplay with Dockterman and Nancy L. Babine, the film captures the loneliness of life in those rainy woods for war-damaged figures like Neely and Red.

Third, and most important, are the performances, especially by Glover and Weizenbaum. The former breaks somewhat from his more typical action and humor roles to portray the embittered, self-hating, but ultimately salvageable soul at the center of this sentimental drama. He conveys the character’s woes, and the awakening of fatherly love, through expressions and body language more than words. It’s quintessential movie acting, a performance that would probably be mentioned in Oscar speculations if there were a theatrical release.

The catalyst for Glover’s best work here is the talented and adorable newcomer Weizenbaum, a marvelous discovery in whom Dockterman can take great pride, especially since the actress had only been in a few stage productions prior to this film (it was made before Geisha.) Her portrayal of the abandoned girl, Lenny, is funny, touching, and as broad or subtle as the scene requires. (In the commentary Dockterman points out several inspired moments the actress improvised.) The onscreen chemistry between her and Glover is irresistibly heartwarming.

Yes, we’ve seen this kind of thing before, but in Dockterman’s hands – abetted by Sheldon Mirowitz’s mercifully tasteful score – we get our catharsis without feeling overly manipulated, even after a shocking plot twist. And we also learn something about a subculture I, for one, had no idea existed. What I didn’t like was the set-up. Strathairn is a fine actor and has some very touching moments as the little girl’s doting father, but the way his character arrives, reconnects with Neely, and sets the story in motion feels contrived. It’s not until he takes off, leaving the two main characters to get acquainted, odd-couple style, that the movie comes to life.

Another, smaller flaw is an out-of-character display by Lenny, during a scene with Hamilton’s character, of a seemingly supernatural level of empathy. It relates to an alternate ending that was wisely left for the Special Features section.

The Special Features also include a few deleted scenes and the very detailed and enlightening director’s commentary. The short piece about the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC is also worth watching.

Mel Call!

Monday, August 28th, 2006

I got my Mel call this morning.

It was surprisingly early – only 6 AM in Hollywood, 9 by me. Of course, I just assume West Coast – Mel could have been calling from anywhere. It was a 666 area code, a cell phone I guess. But the signal was five by five.

“Hello, is this Jonathan?”

See, right there I knew it wasn’t somebody I knew. My friends call me Jon, my family, Jonny. But something in the caller’s voice told me it wasn’t a sales pitch or collection agency. (They usually ask for “Mister Sobble.”) Also, the guy sounded strangely familiar.

“Speaking,” I said redundantly.

“This is Mel Gibson. We’ve never actually met, but – maybe you’ve seen some of my movies?”

Actually, we had met. Mel had stolen my girlfriend during a locally famous dust-up at the Wyoming State Fair back in the 80s. But I couldn’t really expect a big star like him to remember – it was probably nothing to him. Anyway, water under the bridge and all that.

“Sure,” I said. “You’re that crazy guy from Lethal Weapon.”

“Right, right, good on ya. Anyway, I got a lot of calls to make so I’ll get straight to the point.” He took a deep, sexiest-man-alive kind of breath. “I’m calling every Jew in the world to personally apologize for my recent conduct. It’s not a plea bargain or community service or anything like that – I just feel it’s the right thing to do.”

“Thanks, Mel,” I said, tearing up. He might be a crazed anti-Semitic non-Holocaust-denier-denier, but I’ve always said he’s a great actor.

“I said some things,” he went on, “well – you’ve said some things, we’ve all said some things” – here he barked one of those cute little half-Aussie, half-nuts giggles – “but I really stuck my foot in it this time and I wanted to personally apologize to you. Ah, Jonathan.”

“I appreciate the gesture, Melvin,” I said, “but you know, in my experience, what people say when they’re drunk and angry is a reflection of what’s in their deepest soul. They don’t blurt out things they don’t mean. It’s exactly the opposite. They say things they really think but normally would put a lid on.”

There was a long pause. I could hear Mel breathing. I was imagining him with face paint, on a horse. What a guy. What a stand-up, sit-down guy.

“What’s that you say?” he mumbled. I heard a clattering noise, like a pint of Australian-for-beer hitting the floor.

“Mel,” I said. “Mel, are you drunk?”

“Well, sure,” he replied. “A little. You know how much pressure I’m under, mate. It’s like, probably the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. I mean it could be my career at stake here. So, ah – are you, ah – gonna accept the apology?”

I stroked my weak Jewish chin. Mel probably couldn’t hear the stroking – but I did wonder if maybe he could. I hadn’t shaved in two days so I was kind of stubbly, and you want to look cool when you’re talking to Mel Gibson. Stubbly, or something. Even just on the phone. Wouldn’t you? Guys?

“Let me think about this a minute, Mel,” I said slowly. “You’re apologizing for making some fairly vicious anti-Semitic statements. Are you also apologizing for not speaking out against your father’s Holocaust denials? ‘Cause, you know, we haven’t forgotten about that. What do you say, Braveheart? I’m not one of your groupies. With me it’s all or nothing.”

“Jonathan,” Mel said. “Will you hold on a second?”

“I’m pretty busy – will this take long?”

“No way. Be right back. I swear.”

Mel put his expressive hand over the phone and I heard a muted conversation on the other side of it. Probably talking to one of those Jewish lawyers or managers he keeps on staff. I couldn’t make out much, but I did hear Mel growl something about “trying to Jew him down.”

Twenty or thirty seconds later he came back on the line. “I’ll make you a deal, Jonathan. “I’ll admit my dad is wrong, if you – hey, Jonathan, do you know I’m a big supporter of animal rights?”

“No, I didn’t know that,” I said, wondering where he was going with this.

“Well, I am. Now, if you promise to eat only vegetarian matzoh from now on, I’ll admit my dad was wrong to deny the whatchamacallit.”

“Vegetarian matzoh?”

“Yah. You know – made without the blood of Christian babies.”

“Oh, that kind. Nah, it really doesn’t have any flavor.” And I hung up. I had no more time for that drunken idiot.

Ain’t that just like an Aussie. God, I hate those people.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up for August 24 2006 – Bennett, Swann, Angelo

Thursday, August 24th, 2006

In which an American masters a traditional Japanese instrument; American singer-songwriters keep doing the same old thing, but really well; and Whisperado, the self-proclaimed Greatest Band in the World, sends an emissary to the wonderful wilds of upstate New York.

Elizabeth Reian Bennett, Song of the True Hand

Song of the True Hand is the first CD from the first woman to be certified a Grand Master of the shakuhachi. Elizabeth Reian Bennett’s mastery of the traditional Japanese bamboo flute is evident in every moment of this fascinating hour of music. No recording can replace the experience of sitting in a room (living room, concert hall, cockroach-infested basement, it doesn’t matter) listening to a live shakuhachi performance, but Bennett’s haunting, sliding tones and seemingly infinite variations in attack, volume, and breathiness are quite capable of taking the listener on a deep sonic and spiritual journey even through a pair of stereo speakers.

Shakuhachi

It’s no accident that this hoary instrument (it may date as far back as ancient Egypt) has been a substitute for Buddhist chanting as sui zen (“blowing zen”). Shakuhachi music can be both meditative and emotional, somatic and abstract, and Bennett makes her selections from several traditions, playing compositions and arrangements from modern times as well as centuries past. She includes a “modernistic” work that bends western melodies to the purposes of the shakuhachi, and ends with an improvisation rooted in her 25 years of immersion in the ancient monk pieces. The patent-pending Indie Roundup cost-benefit music index indicates zero downside to buying this CD, and, especially if you’ve never heard a shakuhachi, you’re in for a treat.

Available with extended clips at CD Baby.

Gregg Swann, Everybody’s Got To Be Somewhere

Gregg Swann make delicious power-pop with a punk snarl swirled in. He records his raspy tenor low in the mix, but one quickly gets used to that, and it ends up actually making the melodies more powerful since you have to listen a little harder for them. Artful harmonies frequently sneak in to the clean, uncluttered arrangements. The songs are brief and to the point, and every single one has a real hook – I kept waiting for the filler, but there isn’t any. Highlights include the mid-tempo “Let Me Get This Straight” with its piano and banjo; the two-minute kick in the butt “Darkness is Cheap” which opens the CD with a bang; the Kinks-like anthem “Hollywood”; and the Americana-leaning “Unremind Me.” But you could sing along with all ten. Swann’s lyrics are as straightforward and well-crafted as his tunes: “When the day is just a sigh/And you’re cold, you don’t know why/Don’t be afraid ’cause when it’s through/The truth hurts, but not as much as it used to.” His meaty guitar work serves the songs well, and the always tasteful and solid drummer Ethan Hartshorn anchors a tight group of backing musicians. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked with Ethan.) This CD is a real find. But crank it up loud to get the full effect.

Available with extended clips at CD Baby.

Nathan Angelo, Through Playing Me

If you’re a fan of blue-eyed soul, Atlanta’s Nathan Angelo is well worth a listen. Hitting the piano like Randy Newman, working his smooth vocals and flowing melodies like Stevie Wonder, crafting dense arrangements like Don Henley, and wrapping emotions around emotions like Kevin So, Angelo has a timeless adult sound that could find a wide audience. As you move through this long CD, great songs like the wry, bouncy “Love Sucks” and the epic title track give way to some in which wall-of-sound bombast threatens to outweigh substance, but even the weaker material is interestingly complex and sweet to listen to. The dramatic “Leigh,” for example, seems to owe something to Coldplay, and “Road Home” is pretty even if there isn’t much to it. In songs like the romantic “Someday Soon” and the verging-on-prog-rock “Twilight” Angelo and his collaborators create entire little worlds.

He doesn’t have the vocal power of some of his predecessors in the genre, but he’s got good control and seems to know, for the most part, how to make the most of his instrument, which includes a supple falsetto. The lyrics, which deal with common themes, are well crafted to fit the music, gluing together common images, terms and phrases with just enough art: “It gives us hope/It gives us faith/That life won’t always be this way/To change the world/To seize the day/Dreams don’t have to fade away.” And he and his co-writers do get more inventive at times, as in “Mary Poppins’ Birds” which is about getting ahead versus what’s really important in life: “I cannot forget about Mary Poppins’ birds/Haven’t you heard/They need some food not just smiles and words… Everytime I think about it, Mary Poppins’ Birds/Reminds me of the words, ‘you gotta give to love’ y’all.” Amen, brother.

Available at the artist’s website.

OUT AND ABOUT: Your intrepid reviewer is taking the music of Whisperado on a mini-tour to the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York this weekend. Wish me luck on my first ever solo tour.

Book Review: Why Christians Don’t Vote for Democrats

Thursday, August 17th, 2006

As a public-school-educated, secular Jew living in an overwhelmingly religious and Christian country, I have often wondered where some fundamendalist Christians get the notion that their religion is in any way threatened here. Recently word spread of a lawsuit by Jewish families against a school district in Delaware where non-Christians were essentially run out of town.

“We have a way of doing things here, and it’s not going to change to accommodate a very small minority,” a local businessman told the New York Times. “If they feel singled out, they should find another school or excuse themselves from those functions. It’s our way of life.” A Jewish mother who complained about other students using slurs against her son was scolded at a school board meeting thus: “If you want people to stop calling him ‘Jew boy,’ you tell him to give his heart to Jesus.”

I’ve traveled enough to know that the US population is not on the whole mean-spirited or even overtly racist. But I do believe that the above story illustrates an important fact: where one religion – even a very factionalized one – dominates a society, public institutions (including schools) must be governed and enabled so as to act as a firm check on the tyranny of the majority. In the US, that majority is, loosely-defined, Christian. If his public school won’t even try to protect him from discrimination, where can a little non-Christian boy turn?

Richard Miller’s sharply-worded polemic, Why Christians Don’t Vote for Democrats, presents a different perspective on the nature and value of public schools (and other secular institutions) than what I had imagined was the general view. Without mentioning vouchers per se, it helps explain why the issue has been so polarizing.

Put simply, some Christians – call them fundamentalist, evangelical, or, as Mr. Miller would have it, simply Christians – view state-run public schools as a form of taxation without representation. Just as senior citizens sometimes protest paying taxes for schools in which they have no children, Miller objects to funding schools he believes are filling Christian children’s heads with anti-Christian ideas and being forced to pay again if he wants to put his kids in a private religious school.

This raises the question: if we allow parents to use their tax dollars to put their kids in non-public schools, wouldn’t it be logical to also exempt the aforementioned senior citizens from school taxes? And while we’re at it, shouldn’t a family with six children in the public schools pay higher taxes than a family with only two? This path is strewn with dangers for a society that values egalitarianism.

Fundamentally, are we, as a country, to consider ourselves a single community that puts a high value on education? I can’t legally withhold my income taxes just because I don’t approve of the wars the government is spending them on, or not pay sales tax at the corner store because my state has a corrupt legislature. If we consider education to be a different sort of public good, to be treated specially, and we allow individual families to withhold taxes because of religious beliefs, then what is the justification for public schools anyway? Simply to educate the poor? It’s hard to imagine even basic educational standards being met by the broken stub of a public school system that would remain under that philosophy.

While he reserves his most urgent rhetoric for the school issue, Miller has a whole raft of reasons Christians shouldn’t vote for Democrats, most notably the “values” issues that came to the fore in the 2004 Presidential election. His arguments are carefully organized and obviously deeply felt. But his terminology, and its underlying assumptions, require scrutiny.

Right off the bat, he conflates the terms secular and atheist. A great many Americans believe in the secular state without being atheists, but this book confuses the two terms. That’s more than semantics – it betrays a misunderstanding of what secular means, and of what it means to this country.

As commonly used today, secular has two related meanings, neither of which implies atheism. First, it refers to worldly as opposed to spiritual matters. Second, it means “not specifically relating to religion or to a religious body,” as in secular music. The word simply denotes that part of a life, society, or culture that is not spiritual or religious.

Miller believes Christians are inadequately represented in our secular government because they are not united in their voting habits. Discussing the 2004 exit polling that uncovered the famous “values vote,” he calls it “one hint of a division occurring between secular, or atheistic, Democrats and Christian America.” Through the book he “hopes to communicate to the Democratic Party why Christians don’t vote for Democrats. How do Christians communicate to atheists their legitimate objections to the Democratic Party in a mature and loving way?”

Miller’s stress on communication and kindheartedness is laudable. But the statements quoted above use more terms in questionable ways: Christian America and Christians. In his use of these words, Miller fails to take into account the many who consider themselves Christian but disagree with his take on what Christian really means. The monolithic Christian voting bloc he imagines cannot exist, at least as the American public is currently constituted. For a great many people of faith, religious values are only one aspect of their lives. They have many – and indeed, sometimes conflicting – factors on which to base their voting decisions.

Terminology is also telling in the chapter called “Secular Journalists,” in which Miller objects to the use of the term fundamentalist. “Do fundamentalist Christians,” he asks rhetorically,

have a different theology than other Christians?… Secular journalists seem to indicate that they believe fundamentalist Christians are a small part of Christian America… [but] to suggest [that] only a few Christians believe in the fundamental teachings of the Bible is insulting and offensive to all Christians. The term fundamentalist Christian, as used by secular journalists, is intended to project a derogatory, negative image of all Christians.

It’s true that anti-religious bias exists in some intellectual circles. But Miller’s parsing of the term fundamentalist ignores one whole dimension of its modern meaning, which is “one who believes in the literal truth of a scripture.” This “f-word” may have taken on a derogatory cast for some, and it may not even be the best term for what it describes, but as long as there are many millions of Christians who do not believe in the literal truth of everything in the Bible, we need a word for those who do.

To many, it is the philosophy and teachings of Jesus that matter most. For example, although today’s Republican party is identified with the Christian right, many Christians – indeed, enough to form a majority of Americans – oppose its policies on both moral and practical grounds. Case in point: clergymen of many stripes have united to oppose Republican warmongering, while among the laity, bumper stickers ask “Who would Jesus bomb?” and broadcast convictions like “Jesus was a liberal” and “When Jesus said love your enemies he didn’t mean kill them.” Everywhere you look you see religious Americans joining nonreligious ones in calling for peace. In doing so they explicitly support the positions of the supposedly anti-Christian Democratic party.

Miller concisely states the heart of his complaint in a chapter called “Freedom of Education:”

Secular Democrats want the wall of separation of church and state to be low enough for the state to reach over and confiscate the Christian community’s wealth, but high enough to prevent Christians from benefiting from the very same taxes Christians pay. Secular Democrats do not want the school tax dollar to go to individual students, but to a self-perpetuating, tax-subsidized, secular school, which works to convert Christian students into atheists.

It’s interesting to note that while the law does require him to pay property taxes to fund his local public schools, it exempts his church from those same property taxes. That, in turn, penalizes the nonreligious property owner who must pay higher taxes to make up for all that exempt church property. (And I live in Brooklyn, the “Borough of Churches.” They’re everywhere, man!) Maybe, in some indirect way, the church on my block provides a service for me by feeding some homeless people who might otherwise turn criminal. But in the same sense, doesn’t his school tax dollar provide a service for him by paying for schools to educate all the kids from the parts of society that do not share his beliefs? We have many divisions in our society – but shouldn’t we at least strive to be one nation?

Also, Miller’s conception of what public schools are like does not reflect reality. Almost anyone who has been to public school (and paid any attention in class) will recognize as absurd his claim that the schools try to “convert Christian students into atheists.” Public school curricula, by design, have little to say on the subject. Yet his point does illustrate a conflict in educational philosophy. In the traditional “liberal arts” philosophy to which I and many Americans subscribe, the main point of education is to teach children to think. In Miller’s view, it’s to teach them doctrine. Yet both of these attitudes include their own friction and contradictions.

Church doctrine has been arrived at over two thousand years of debates, compromise, decrees, political wrangling, and wave after wave of horrendous violence. Miller is aware of that history but dismisses it with the simplistic claim that “the theological table of debate has discovered a vast agreement concerning the teaching of the Bible.” (And if you believe that, you probably believe Donald Rumsfeld’s claims that things are getting better in Iraq.) The point is that the doctrine taught in a religious school governed by one particular sect reflects just one perspective among many. Even in a country where Christian sects live peaceably, their disagreements about how to interpret the Bible, live their lives, and worship their deity or deities persist. Although “evangelical” Christianity has certainly been on a roll lately, America remains a multicultural stew of dozens of Christian sects, along with several types of Jews, Muslims, atheists, and others. The voting bloc Miller calls for is a pipe dream.

Our nondenominational public schools too live with doctrinal tension. They have often been used to slant children into specific biases, notably with respect to American history and the relative value of non-Western cultures. Religion creeps in too, in the insertion of “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance, in attempts to put nonsense like “creation science” (now rechristened “intelligent design”) into the curriculum, in holiday celebrations that presume Christian religious beliefs to be universal, and, in extreme cases like the Delaware travesty, in outright persecution. So, Miller’s contention that state-controlled schools are, like state-controlled newspapers, “a form of thought control” cannot be fully denied. But the “thought control” is not, as a rule, anti-Christian.

I do not for a minute question Miller’s sincerity, but I fear that he, like many of his less articulate brethren, has fallen prey to the sort of top-down propaganda that recently brought us the much-hyped (and justly ridiculed) idea of a “War on Christmas.” Just like frightened, insecure politicians, some Christian leaders use fear to assert their rule over their flocks. One example is the fear of homosexuals reflected in Miller’s “Values” chapter, where he makes the execrable but all-too-common leap from homosexuality to evil acts:

“Secular Democrats may believe sexual orientation is genetic, but we have yet to identify the gene for pedophilia. Some adults’ sexual orientation is toward children, but this does not necessitate giving the same minority protections to pedophiles we now give to age, sex, color, or creed. Rape is natural in the animal kingdom, but it is also unacceptable to civil society.

He does it again at the very end of the book, predicting that legalized abortion will be followed by legalized infanticide. Intentionally or not, he is engaging in the same form of denigration by association that enables slave societies to view certain types of people as subhuman and not worthy of common rights, including even the right to be alive.

Miller’s other bugbear is the Supreme Court, which, he says disapprovingly, “controls entire areas of law. The President and Congress can make a law, only to have the Supreme Court disagree with it, or effectively veto it.” Well, yes. That’s the whole point. But since Miller doesn’t like some decisions that have come down from recent Courts, he proposes to scrap the whole system of separation of powers with a constitutional amendment to allow the President and Congress to overturn a Supreme Court decision by a two-thirds vote. In effect he’d like to use the Constitution to nullify itself.

“Christians,” he says, “will unite their vote because the political agenda of the secular Democrats is obviously motivated by deeply intrinsic, internalized, and imbedded religious prejudice.” You may need to read the book to decide if you agree with Miller’s claims about prejudice. But you need only look around you to see that his vision of a united “Christian” vote can’t come true in any foreseeable future. And his perception of the Democratic party as the enemy of “Christian America” is looking more wrong by the day, as Americans of all creeds, whatever they may believe about abortion or school vouchers, raise their voices (and prepare to cast their votes) against the Christian-right-backed Republican government that keeps using their hard-earned wealth to kill innocents abroad.

CD Reviews: Indie Round-Up for Aug 10 2006 – Reischel, Weary Boys, Vladeck

Friday, August 11th, 2006

This week: three artists who sound just right for summer. Then some pontificating, followed by some gallivanting.

Jason Reischel, Brown Bridge & Green Bridge

Reviewers are imperfect creatures. How we hear and react to something can vary with circumstances. When I first listened to this CD a couple of weeks ago it barely registered on my consciousness. Then I listened to it while slogging through a smelly, 100-degree New York City heat wave, and it was positively refreshing even through crappy speakers. “A Lullaby” and “Roses” set the folky tone with Reischel’s gentle Paul Simonlike vocals and dexterous acoustic guitar work. The feel is Elliot Smith meets Tim Buckley, but there is also an outsider quality to the loose, almost sloppy way in which the instrumental tracks are put together. Reischel’s voice is so wrong for bluesy songs like “Down & Out,” “Torn in Two” and “Acres of Diamonds” that he casts a skewed little spell, while gloomier tracks like the haunting “Locked Door” and the spare “Where Are You Tonight?” are heirs to Townes Van Zandt’s sad songs. Reischel’s pretty melodies do not aim for hookiness, but the CD works as irony-free parlor music.

The Weary Boys, Jumpin’ Jolie

The Weary Boys’ fifth CD in as many years shows the hardworking guitar-and-fiddle roots band in fine form. Though based in Austin TX, they sound much more like backwoods stompers than Austin-Americana scenesters. Thirteen mostly jolly two-and-three chord folk songs, some written by the band members, driven by full-on harmonies, fiddle, and Telecaster, should be enough to bring anyone out of a funk. There’s a variety of styles on display, from love songs (“Your the One I Care For”) and country-bluegrass dances (“Hoot Owl”) to Chuck Berry rock and roll (“Baby’s Got a Hold On Me”) and Hank Williams-style Western soul (“California Sunset”), plus local color via straightforward versions of “Jambalaya” and “Vaya Con Dios” – but every song sounds like the Weary Boys, and that’s fine by me. They know how to write ‘em and they know how to pick ‘em. The energy is a wee bit more laid-back than you might expect from a band with two guitars, bass, drums and violin, but they are called weary after all. Just remember your bug spray, and you’ll like cooling off with the Weary Boys’ latest.

Available at the Weary Boys website.

Andrew Vladeck, self-titled

New York City banjo icon Andrew Vladeck’s vivid story-songs are made of the best elements of rock, soul and American roots music. In his shaky but cutting vocals and graphically descriptive lyrics you can hear a little Dylan, a little Springsteen, and some blue-eyed soul a la Leon Russell (“3,000 Miles,” “What We Gonna Do!”) “Ringaleevio,” named after a run-and-hide game I haven’t thought about since third grade, sounds like Lou Reed (and he’s even got a song called “Coney Island Baby.”) One could go on picking out specific influences in other songs too, but that wouldn’t do Vladeck justice because they stand on their own. His “Coney Island Baby” is an intense paean to the ancient beach and amusement strip that never ceases to inspire songwriters, novelists and other romantics. Vladeck is a musical citizen of the world and an original voice, crafting appealing songs that twist and turn in surprising ways, both musically and storywise. Imagine if Dylan’s “Hurricane” had a happy ending, and you mind get Vladeck’s “Justice Is Served.” These lyrics from “Chinatown” encapsulate both his New York-centric sense of place and the universality of his stories and images: “You can go to China/or wherever you think will do/But you’re not gonna find happiness unless you bring it with you/You got a long way to China and I got Chinatown.”

Available with extended clips at CD Baby.

OUT AND ABOUT: Heard a story the other day about an indie artist, who shall remain unnamed, being shopped to a major label A&R person (who shall remain unnamed) by an artist rep (who shall remain, etc.) The first question the A&R person asked was not “How old is he?” or “What does he look like?” – which, sadly, are what we’d expect – but rather, “How many Myspace friends does he have?” Now, we all know that people at major record labels don’t have a clue about music, and are concerned instead with looks and with whether a band has gotten a good-sized fan base on its own. But this particular A&R lackey didn’t seem to have a clue about promotion and popularity either. It should be common knowledge among those in the business of popular culture that anyone who has a litle persistence and a bunch of time to sit in front of a computer can amass tens of thousands of Myspace “friends” faster than you can say “Love Potion Number Nine.” No wonder signed artists are fleeing the labels just as fast as their contracts end, while up-and-coming bands are avoiding them like the plague… Speaking of indies, last night folk-blues master Pat Wictor brought a group from his Manhattan Songwriters’ Circle to my local Brooklyn haunt, Night and Day, and while Pat’s and Meg Braun’s sweet music was no surprise, the discovery of the night was the solo performance by singer/songwriter and Dobro player Abbie Gardner, known to me previously only as part of Red Molly. Gardner has an arch bluesiness, and a voice that’s warm as ice and cool as a New York summer, but she can sure write a song too. (Note: her dad is jazz trombonist Herb Gardner who is affiliated with the Smith Street Society Jazz Band. When I was a kid my own dad used to take us to Nathan’s in Oceanside, NY – the huge old Nathan’s with the separate counters for each item of food – to see that very band on Dixieland Night. How ’bout that!)… The Animators rocked up the Living Room last week. A band to seriously watch… Katell Keineg, whose praises I’ve been singing, mostly unheard, for years, has suddenly leapt from playing the aforementioned Living Room to the much bigger Bowery Ballroom, all because of this New York Times Magazine profile (unfortunately it’s “Times Select” so you have to pay for it if you don’t subscribe to that service). I’d be there on August 18 to see Katell if I didn’t have a gig the same night with my band, Whisperado, at the legendary Hank’s Saloon. 9 PM, by the way.

Until next time… happy listening!

Theater Review: Creation: A Clown Show

Tuesday, August 8th, 2006

Creation: A Clown Show is just that: Lucas Caleb Rooney, playing a childlike, imaginative naïf, clowns through a depiction of the Book of Genesis’s creation story using props, lights, sounds (many emitted by himself), and music. The music is played sparingly by Peter Friedland and Javen Tanner like an orchestral Vladimir and Estragon on drums, bass guitar and ukelele. Unlike Harpo Marx, Rooney’s clown also speaks – more than the mostly silent Mr. Bean, but less than the hyperkinetic Pee Wee Herman – in a magnificently facile voice that he uses almost like a musical instrument.

creation

Timmy creates the Universe. (Photo by Jill Jones)

Antically he resembles some of the above-mentioned clowns of the past, but he has his own teddy-bearish clown persona – mugging, banging about, alternately asking the musicians for help and bossing them around, and in the process charming and entertaining the adults in the audience at least as much as the children. As the text is read by a booming, sometimes exasperated offstage voice (Samuel Stricklen), our hero must by hook or by crook (or by hammer and nail) demonstrate the events of the six days of Creation. The point is not whether he succeeds but how he uses his imagination to cast off his initial shyness and fear to become a crowd-pleasing storyteller.

Underneath, it’s a tale of growing up a little and finding one’s voice a lot. On the surface – and what a delightful, madcap surface – it’s a smartly paced, inventive, musical, altogether first-rate family entertainment.

Creation: A Clown Show runs through Sept. 10, 2006, at Theater Five, 311 W. 43 St., NYC.

Theater Review: Anaïs Nin: One of her Lives

Saturday, August 5th, 2006

Australian playwright Wendy Beckett directs her play Anaïs Nin: One of her Lives at New York City’s Samuel Beckett Theater in a limited engagement this month. Like her distant relative for whom the theater was named, and like most artists, the prolific Beckett aims to be known through her work. There are others who, though perhaps intending to become artists, actually achieve fame because of how they live their lives.

It is the rare artist, however, whose life truly becomes her art. Such was Anaïs Nin, a gifted writer of avant-garde and erotic fiction whose most substantial contribution to literature turned out to be her diaries, which run to eleven volumes and cover her life from 1914, when she was eleven, until just a few years before her death in 1977.

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Photo by Richard Termine

If the examined life is worth living, Nin’s must be valued as considerably more than her weight in gold. The erotic content of her writing (and of the life upon which so much of it was based) can tend to obscure her artistic accomplishment, but in the end it was her life itself that became her greatest work, making her story ripe for telling and retelling. From Deidre Bair’s scholarly and popular biography to Philip Kaufman’s exploitative film Henry and June, Nin’s life story, particularly her time in Paris in the 1930s with Henry and June Miller, has become part of popular culture.

Beckett evokes Nin’s own language – perfumed as it was with both flowers and pheromones – in the literate, emotional dialogue she gives to the triumvirate in this stylized but passionate and sexy staging. A little over an hour and a half suffices to relate, primarily from Nin’s (Angela Christian) and secondarily from Henry Miller’s (David Bishins) point of view, the story of their encounter, the famous menage-a-trois, and its breakdown. Interspersed are scenes of Nin’s visits to the psychoanalyst Otto Rank (Rocco Sisto), which at first seem a little gimmicky, but which culminate in a powerful scene in which patient and therapist switch positions. Rank’s personal confessions throw added light on our heroine’s struggle to create work that matters while constructing a life worth living.

Christian centers the talented cast of four. Whether getting drunk and succumbing to June’s seduction, trading passionate readings with Henry, or casting out her prodigal father in a scene that plays like a dream sequence, she’s so focussed we believe every second of her portrayal. The actress’s diminutive size seems to concentrate the extraordinary life force that made Nin the object of Henry’s and June’s affections and the literary world’s fascination, not to mention energized her into keeping two husbands simultaneously for many years. (Her West Coast mate, Rupert Pole, died just days ago at the age of 87, putting Nin back in the news just in time for this production.)

As glamorously portrayed by the tall, slinky Alysia Reiner, June Miller at first overwhelms Nin with her coarse American lust for life, but Nin’s own quieter animating force proves a match for both Millers. Bishins’s Henry explodes onto the stage with a fiery magnetism, reminding one of John Malkovich’s entrance in Burn This but also of the cocksure New York attitude of the young Bruce Willis in the TV series Moonlighting. At times he overdoes the dissonance of poetic language and street-tough machismo, but one appreciates the dangerousness of his performance as a needed foil for Nin’s softer power.

Perhaps particularly in a play about writers, there is a risk of telling instead of showing, and the play’s one real flaw is that Beckett partially gives in to this temptation. The middle of the story seems to drag as Nin’s psychology gets explained instead of dramatized. But for the most part the elements of the play – the gritty performances, the captivating language, the outsize personalities, the beautiful rose-colored set strewn with books and bottles just screaming “I’m Paris, live in me!”, the evocative lighting – make this an effective and worthwhile evening of theater.

CD Review: Karling Abbeygate, self-titled

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2006

Music isn’t like fashion. In fashion, a few tastemakers decide “bell bottoms are back,” and voila, bell bottoms are back. Tastes and styles in music change too, but the dynamics are far more complex – chaotic, one might say, like the weather. No one expected O Brother Where Art Thou to spur a popular revival of American folk music, for example. The producers accidentally tapped into the American public’s dormant need for authenticity – and sold millions of CDs.

A few years earlier, Gregorian Chant was all the rage. No one had plotted and schemed to sell a naveful of Chant CDs – it just happened.

Rootsy, authentic-style country music is currently enjoying a revival. National television broadcasts the Americana Music Awards; the new Roots Music Association just signed up its thousandth member without having done anything yet; and front-porch country music scenes are thriving in places as unlikely as Brooklyn (yes, as in “No sleep till”). And while there are savvy promoters behind some of the milieu’s big-name artists, they’re not creating a market so much as capitalizing on one that had been underserved.

Enter British-born songstress Karling Abbeygate and California indie label Dionysus Records. Raised, so the story goes, on a diet of Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn by a British mother and a Kansan father in Norwich, England, the singer has returned to those roots, changing from an ersatz alt-rock Gwen Stefani into a one-woman 1950s and 60s country music revival. With a vocal style inspired by Cline, a timbre like a higher-voiced Wanda Jackson, and a persona (on record at least) 50% Loretta Lynn, 40% Betty Boop and 10% Emily the Strange, Abbeygate may have just enough sly punkitude to popularize this anachronistic sound, which extends to the clean but deliciously old-fashioned arrangements.

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However, since trends in music can’t be engineered with scientific precision, it’s rather to be expected that, whether she ends up a star, a mere blip, or something in between, Abbeygate will remain a unique artist. She certainly has the talent and charm to become a big success.

The CD is comprised of a set of “lost” country songs of the 50s and 60s with titles like “It Don’t Take Much To Get Me By” and “Many Happy Hangovers To You,” plus a handful of Abbeygate’s originals. The latter prove her to be a skilful songwriter, with a sensibility informed by but not enslaved to the old-time country tropes she sings so naturally. “Beg Steal & Borrow” sounds like something Dolly Parton might have written, with Abbeygate exaggerating her redneck accent to humorous and touching affect and John Pinnella contributing a brilliant Dobro solo. “Home Home Home” is a sweet, disarming new song that echoes the Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me.” “Tonight Is Gonna Last” is probably the most original original here, with a catchy and sophisticated melody that would make any crusty old Nashville songwriter proud: “I don’t care if in the morning you are gone/’Cause tonight is gonna last a whole life long.” Finally, the dark ballad “Someone Else’s Man” shows off both her songwriting versatility and her heartbreaking juxtaposition of girlish voice with adult themes.

And in fact it’s that magical voice and delivery that sells Karling Abbeygate, through originals and obscure old nuggets alike. In spite of her sometimes exaggerated stylings, you believe every word out of her mouth. (OK, call me a sucker.) And she and her band sound so old-fashioned they sound fresh.

Maybe the very existence of this CD indicates a revival of old-time Nashville sounds (though it was recorded in Los Angeles). More likely, it’s just a happy happenstance. Happy, that is, for us who get to listen.

The heck with bell bottoms, anyway.