Archive for September, 2008

Early to Late: The Week in Music, Part II

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

We picked up right where we left off yesterday, which was in Renaissance Spain. The Sephardic Jews are those who lived in Spain and Portugal and were forced to leave, or convert, at the end of the 15th century. Helping to keep the traditions of Sephardic music present and vital five centuries later is singer Mor Karbasi, who played her first ever New York concert this afternoon at Spiegelworld. The music resembled Arabic music at times, flamenco at times, and everything in between. She mixes new compositions with ancient tunes, accompanied by guitar, violin, and percussion. She has a beautiful voice and beautiful moves to go with them.

It was also a good excuse to finally see a show at Spiegelworld, in the big round tent with the round rows of seats and the trapeze hooked on the ceiling. The murky, humid weather kept the South Street Seaport crowds relatively light, although nothing fazes our beloved tourists. The auditorium for the concert was full, though. So hopefully Mor Karbasi will be back again. Meanwhile, British readers have plenty of chances to see her.

Early to Late: The Week in Music, Part I

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

I’ve been remiss in my live music blogging. I didn’t intend this blog to become just a second outlet for the CD and theater reviews that I already publish at Blogcritics. This week has turned out to be an excellent opportunity to change that.

It started with Soul of the Blues, my monthly series at Cornelia Street Cafe. This Wednesday’s show began with a tight set from Halley DeVestern and her band, playing blues-funk-rock songs from their upcoming CD. Halley sounds as great as ever, and you can hear a few of the new tracks at her Myspace page. Then Soul of the Blues favorite Matt Iselin hit the stage with his high-energy, creative piano pop. And finally, sight unseen, I had booked Kojo Modibo Sun, pianist Scott Patterson’s new band. I had played with Scott in Kevin So‘s band, so I knew he was a good musician, but I had no idea what his original project would sound like. It turns out to be a killer blast of soul-rock, largely inspired by Scott’s two-month trek on the Appalachian Trail, which won over a whole set of new fans who’d mostly come to see Matt. Watch for this band in the future. They play tonight at the Harlem Tea Room, 7 PM. Highly recommended.

The next night, Thursday, Elisa and I hit the Music Hall of Williamsburg, where our friend, publicist Crissa Requate, had invited us to catch Matt Morris, an artist on Justin Timberlake’s label, opening for Joan Osborne. Matt, who’s from Denver, played solo, and it’s a fairly big room, but he won over the seen-it-all crowd of Joan Osborne fans with his gorgeous voice and assured songwriting. Rarely will you hear a singer with as much control and sensitivity in switching between his regular tenor and his falsetto. I’ll be writing more about Matt in the near future. Meanwhile, New Yorkers can mark their calendars to hear him on Oct. 25, again with Joan, at the Highline Ballroom.

And on Friday night, they rested.

Then came Saturday, when we heard some of the oldest music (15th and 16th century) in one of the newest venues, the Times Center on 41st St. The Times Center is a strangely situated concert hall: the back wall, behind the stage, is clear, and through it you see, first, a courtyard with birch trees, and behind that, the lobby and elevator banks of the new office tower. It’s all painted a calming light-orange, but while you’re watching the concert you’re also watching, behind the action, the building maintenance staff pushing wastebaskets in and out of elevators. Far to stage right, you can also glimpse racks of suits in a brightly lit clothing store. The whole thing is like some sort of conceptual art-film experience, except it’s not.

The acoustics are excellent, and, because of the design, there are no bad seats. We heard three fine bands. I say “bands” because the GEMS Early Music/Early Season 2008 concerts are structured a bit like rock shows, where several bands play one set each. The first of the three, however, was an all-vocal quartet called New York Polyphony. They sang beautiful old liturgical settings by John Taverner, William Cornysh, and Christopher Tye. The Taverner piece was rather long, and consisted of plainsong sections (all four singing the same melody, as in Gregorian chant) alternating with multi-part (polyphony) sections. They followed it with an interesting modern take on the same structure, a much shorter but similarly designed piece by the modern-day English-Norwegian composer Andrew Smith. This brief interlude of modernistic close harmony made a nice contrast with the old stuff. I love hearing new musical sensibilities expressed with ancient sounds.

The group also makes a point of allowing the individual timbres of their four voices to stand out, rather than trying to blend so much that they sound like four iterations of the same voice. This came out strongly in the polyphonic sections of the music. It’s an effect that helps increase the entertainment factor, and that’s always a good bet with Early Music concerts. One feels a bit like a member of a secret club at these concerts, a club your average classical music listener doesn’t know about. Such concerts also tend to be more informal than classical music concerts, and this was no exception.

Following New York Polyphony came an enlightening performance of Beethoven’s Trio in B-flat, Op. 11, on period instruments in its original arrangement of fortepiano, cello, and clarinet (not violin). Ed Matthew of the Grenser Trio talked about his “classical clarinet,” a much lighter instrument than the modern version, with only five keys. Between that and the very light sound of the old-fashioned fortepiano, one felt one was hearing the music much as its very first audience must have heard it.

After the intermission came the act I had most looked forward to, Ex Umbris, a large group playing music of Renaissance Spain. This sort of thing is always a good time. It’s really party music, and the group treated it as such. Everyone plays a variety of instruments and also sings. There’s dance music, programmatic music, funny lyrics (provided in translation with the program), and an altogether humorous and delightful presentation.


Tell me, Moorish bitch,
tell me, slayer,
why do you kill me
and, while I’m yours,
treat me so badly?

Highlights of the set included Grant Herreid’s wonderful playing on the vihuela (the flat-backed Spanish lute), Nell Snaidas’s sweet soprano, and the playing of a sackbut (an early trombone which I think I’ve only seen before in museums), bagpipes, lots of recorders, and Priscilla Smith’s shawm-playing and pre-Raphaelite hair.


Everyone in the place happily
danced this way for five or six hours,
and at the end of such great fun
the bishop forgave them all.

Ah, the shawm. A concert just isn’t a concert if no one plays an instrument you’ve never heard of before.

Indie Round-Up: Cadillac Sky, Lewis, Dupree, Dunn, Minissale, Vigil, The Break and Repair Method

Thursday, September 25th, 2008

It's been goshawful busy over here at the Round-Up, with summer and fall releases piling up and lots of good music bursting insistently out of the piles of magical plastic. There's something for nearly everyone in this week's edition, from bluegrass innovators and a blues traditionalist to a solo disc from a member of Matchbox 20 and a couple of sharp "comeback" CDs. Onward to the music…

Cadillac Sky, Gravity's Our Enemy

One of the most rewarding experiences a new music aficionado can have is to come upon a band that both fulfills and transcends a beloved genre. Cadillac Sky is every bit a bluegrass band, but the Texas quintet quietly expands the frontiers on its second CD, and the result is one of the best discs to have hit my mailbox this year.

They establish their country and bluegrass credentials right away, with principal songwriter Bryan Simpson's high-lonesome keen opening "U Stay Gone." Close harmonies, banjo picking, a call-and-response section, and a mournful fiddle solo from Ross Holmes all follow, building into and out of hummable choruses – and that's just the first song.

The tempo picks up with the nervously jumpy "Goodbye Story," which is topped with sweet-as-molasses harmonies, another inventive fiddle solo, short features for Simpson's mandolin and Matt Menefee's banjo, and a clever breakdown section. "Bible By the Bed" is a gentle, sad ballad with a standard country music structure under a catchy, pop-inflected melody which devolves into a tasteful, wordless coda.

"My Precious Waltz" brings a spooky Eastern European flavor, aided by a guest appearance from Dan Cantrell on musical saw. It serves as an introduction to the fast-picked "I Hate How Happy She Is," which draws a twisted classic-rock sound from a set of acoustic bluegrass instruments and also showcases banjo wizard Menefee, while Simpson wails, "Why can't she be as miserable as me?"

That sense of humor is one reason these extremely skillful musicians never sound too studiously virtuosic. The CD continues with sad songs, inventive instrumentals, and some very un-bluegrassy moments, like the quirky instrumental break in "Wouldn't Put It Past Love," the old-time jazzy verses of "Inside Joke," and the unexpected minor-chord changes and plucked rhythms in "The Wreck." Simpson's also handy with traditional country-music songwriting rhetorical devices, as evidenced by "It Won't Be Over You," which closes pithily: "When my bones grow weary of this world / And my days are numbered few / I might hang my head down in regret / But it won't be over you."

Donna Lewis, In the Pink

After making a couple of sultry splashes in the late '90s with hits like "I Love You Always Forever" and "Love Him," Welsh-born Donna Lewis took a hiatus to raise a family. Now she's back, picking right up where she left off with an excellent new disc of danceable electronica-pop. Many of the songs have a meditative bent but also just enough catch that one's ears stay perked up. The songs with the livelier beats (like "Shout" and "Obsession") should stand up to any sort of dance-club use or abuse, while the quieter moments (like "Kick Inside" and the folky "You To Me") have a thoughtful and slightly exotic quality, reminding me of Emiliana Torrini.

Lewis's breathy vocals get a little monotonous over the length of a full CD, but with this kind of music we're not usually asked to listen to one artist for 40-plus minutes anyway. Its natural habitat is the dance hall, or to set a mood. Within her chosen style, Donna Lewis, working with producer Gerry Leonard and mixers Kevin Killen (and on one track, Hector Castillo), is top quality.

Robbie Dupree, Time and Tide

You have to go back further than the '90s for Robbie Dupree's splash. The hits "Steal Away" and "Hot Rod Hearts" came on his 1980 debut. Their smooth but rhythmic jazz-influenced pop fit right in with Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, a style you don't hear too much these days.

Dupree has never quit, and his new disc should please loyal fans. Its nine tracks, mostly co-written by Dupree and session keyboardist David Sancious (Springsteen, Sting), sway gently with easygoing grooves. Vocally Dupree sounds as good as ever, if a bit mellowed, and there's a sprightly vitality to the arrangements. Some of my favorites: "Wrapped Around Your Finger," which resembles Sting's soft funk (though the similarity of the title to an old Police song is, as far as I know, coincidental); "Sugar Tree," which has more of a Doobie Brothers vibe; and "Blue Monday," which evokes memories of trips to the beach listening to Steely Dan and Boz Skaggs.

The ballad "Judgment Day" closes the disc on a thoughtful, vaguely haunted note of filial alienation. "My father was a sailor / He lived the life he loved… The years had made us strangers / And scattered us like stars." The character in the song never fully understands his father until the latter's death. Yet contemplative lyrics about the passage of time and resemblances to the sounds of past decades don't make this music an exercise in nostalgia. Dupree's sound and songwriting have a timeless quality. Solid writing and superior musicianship never go out of style.

James Dunn, The Long Ride Home

James Dunn's new record has a retro sound too, this time harking back to 1970s Los Angeles. Backing up the Jackson Browne-style vocals, though, lie classically solid songwriting and a smooth rock sound. The opening track, "Find My Way," is a dense, mostly two-chord drone that sets an effective mood but is a bit flimsy underneath. However, the album strengthens as it goes on. "Oak Tree" recalls Don Henley's "The End of the Innocence," and the disc really hits its stride with the undeniable "Oh My Don't Cry."

"The Long Ride Home" has a minor-key Southern rock flavor, while "Crush On You" revels in old-fashioned 50s-60s charm, which mixes nicely with hard guitars in the chorus. A highlight of the second half of the disk is the contemplative but moving "The Old Woman."

Phil Minissale, Home To Me

Phil Minissale is a young acoustic bluesman from Long Island, NY who's been rapidly ascending the ladder of recognition, and with good reason. Though his youthful voice hasn't acquired the gravitas we associate with traditional blues, these eleven songs are loaded with down-home honesty.

Minissale respects the traditions but writes his own songs. He tickles the guitar with assurance but without excess flash or flab, and happily offers the spotlight to his guest musicians, notably Ken Korb on harmonica and Red Molly's Abbie Gardner on dobro.

His approach to blues guitar traditions is reverent, but not so careful and precious that it sounds academic, as can sometimes happen with students of blues guitar. Finally, lest anyone claim that country blues is a game for the grizzled, let's not forget that Robert Johnson never made it past age 27.

Securely recommended for fans of traditional blues and folk.

Jason Vigil, Sometimes Always

Jason Vigil has matured both as a songwriter and performer since his uneven previous disc. On his new seven-song EP he's reined in the histrionics, resulting in a steady churn of catchy pop-rock. While you couldn't call his brand of earnest, guitar-based melody-making an original sound, it's tasty, well-made comfort food for the ears.

The Break and Repair Method, milk the bee

Matchbox 20 drummer Paul Doucette leaves the skins to Ryan MacMillan and steps out in front for his first solo CD, recording under the name The Break and Repair Method. Richly produced, with heavy emphasis on Doucette's powerful pounding on the piano and his slightly screechy, urgent voice, these ten tracks show a mastery of power-pop style and enough sonic originality to make the project stand out from the pack. (Part of that no doubt comes from co-producer Greg Collins).

Contributing musicians include Veruca Salt's Nina Gordon (whose own solo efforts have been very unjustly ignored) and Jellyfish's Roger Manning. But the disc has a consistent intensity that's all Doucette.

Indie Round-Up: Boggia, Coppola, Saunders, Jezzro

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

Jim Boggia, Misadventures in Stereo

Jim Boggia makes melodic, smart pop that's warmhearted but never overheated. He obviously internalized a lot of Beatles along the way, but he's actually mastered and incorporated a whole range of pop music strains into this engaging collection.

Boggia divides the disc into two "sides" (it's coming out on LP as well) and this doesn't seem like a gimmick, given songs called "8Track" and "Listening to NRBQ." Rather, it's a sign of a songwriter (and a bunch of excellent instrumental collaborators) who have music in their bones, make it for their own pleasure, and convey that feeling to the listener.

Boggia is the type of guy who'll take some background vocals he recorded for someone else's album, lift them out, and stick them between two songs on his own record because he liked them and they were buried in the mix on the other record. Then he'll close with "Three Weeks Shy," as potent an indictment of Bush and the Iraq War travesty as you'll hear in a song.

Lisa Coppola, Wisdom from the Pain

This country-rock EP boasts songs by John Waite and the Spin Doctors' Anthony Krizan. Coppola delivers them with steely determination and a twinkle in her eye. The most "country" song on here is "Your Love is Like a Rodeo," a fun tune on which, however, Coppola's voice sounds pinched. She's more engaging and convincing on the more soulful rockers "When You Were Mine" and "Temporary Heart," both of which are hit worthy. Cheap sentiment sinks the title ballad, but the closer, "Make This Moment (To Love Again)," while sentimental as well, has the charm of a classic pop bauble from the 50s.

Dudley Saunders, The Emergency Lane

Dudley Saunders started as a New York City performance artist, but the music he created for his act took on a life of its own, and now he's a recording artist with three CDs under his belt. This, his latest, is the first I've had a chance to hear, and it bears out some of the flattering words Saunders has gotten in the mainstream press. His voice has a tight quaver and a lot of focused power, like Jeff Buckley's. I didn't like Jeff Buckley – he always seemed to me a great voice in search of something to sing (I did like him when he sang covers) – but I do like a lot of Saunders's material here. A cross between modern folk and art song, it has a timeless quality, a soothing sound partially masking a humming tension. His voice is a finely tuned, subtle instrument, and his images flow like water:

buck-tooth call-girls on the corner
like red-haired roses in the rain
dropped off by a drunken mourner
on the wrong grave like a train
that old west bandits disconnected
from the engines and left scattered
'cross the tracks their vaults dissected
hoping that guy's looking at her

See the way he snaps you back to the scene at hand with that last line, like an actor with an audience in his hand. And then there's "Love Song for Jeffrey Dahmer." The visceral lyrics of these songs sometimes remind me of Leonard Cohen: "take me back home / 'cause you're the only rider / on the highway in my bones," Saunders sings in "Take Me Back Home Again."

Jack Jezzro, Solitude

The latest recording from busy bassist and guitarist Jack Jezzro is this solo guitar collection of standards, played in a relaxed (and relaxing) but not syrupy mode. Jezzro hits all the right notes on the way to striking this balance, in chestnuts like "Autumn Leaves," "Make Someone Happy," and the beautiful title track, a song made famous by Billie Holiday but that we don't hear often enough anymore. This disc would be a perfect gift for someone you love who has good taste in music, but really needs to calm down.

The Politics of “Why”

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

Children are always asking "Why?" They want to understand what they observe. They want to know what lies behind things. They want to be able to read some order and sense into the world.

As adults, we get out of the habit of asking why. Why? Because "Why?" can be a very uncomfortable question. Growing up means learning to function in society, which requires keeping our relationships with the people around us running smoothly, avoiding offense. That's great for greasing the gears of surface society. But it's bad for real mutual understanding.

Those of us who are politically engaged find ourselves arguing repetitively during election cycles and times of controversy. Back and forth we pitch our opinions, our arguments, even allowing them to devolve into insults and spitefulness. Why?

Maybe because we've grown out of the habit of asking why.

Instead of taking offense at one another's convictions, let's ask each other why. Why do you believe what you believe? You seem so sure of it. But how is it possible that you are so sure of your position, while I am equally sure of the exact opposite position?

My view seems so obvious to me that it shouldn't even need explanation. Yours seems the same way to you. Clearly, we're both making false assumptions about what's self-evident and what isn't. So let's stop assuming. Let's put our cards on the table. Let's be honest with those we're talking with, and with ourselves, about why we hold our opinions.

Have we thought them through? Or did we just inherit them from our parents or fellow students or teachers? Do we like them because they're aesthetically appealing? Because they come from rhetorically gifted writers or politicians or fake newscasters? Because they appeal on an emotional level? Or because they make logical sense?

Are they based on current information, or on old information?

While we're at it, let's go further. Let's not be ashamed to admit the validity of an opposing argument. It's not a sign of weakness, it's a sign of using our brains. An argument can be valid, yet weaker than an opposing argument. Just because I'm convinced I'm right doesn't mean everything you think is idiotic, and vice versa.

What makes us disagree about, say, tax policy? If we both possess basic common sense and a normal amount of compassion for the unfortunate – and let's assume we do – what makes you so sure a certain tax policy is beneficial to society, or fair, and me so sure that your policy is hurtful or unfair? Both of us can marshal some evidence to support our positions. But what is it that puts my argument over the top for me, and yours for you? What's our reasoning behind our opinions? And what are our feelings? Feelings are valid too – we're emotional creatures.

To take an even more divisive example, it's "common sense" to me that if a being can't survive outside its mother's body, it's not an individual, so a woman should have the right to end her pregnancy. And even if we do grant the fetus some rights, they obviously have to be subordinate to those of its mother, who is already a functional, independent human being.

I say "obviously" – but what that really means is, it's obvious to me. It's obviously not obvious to everyone. Some people believe that "life begins at conception" – that as soon as there is conception, there exists a new individual being with the full rights of any born person. But if that belief comes from a religious interpretation, which it usually does, wouldn't enshrining it in secular law be imposing your religious beliefs on me? Can't you understand that? I hope you can, because I've just explained the why behind my opinion.

On the other hand, if the law of the land allows abortion, and you believe abortion is murder, how can you help but oppose that law and want to change it? Can't I understand that? Sure I can, since you've explained why.

Let's try to understand. And without getting angry.

We may never agree on some issues, but if we lay out where our convictions come from, we ought to still be able to be civil to each other, get along, and maybe work towards, say, reducing the number of abortions by discouraging teen pregnancy. Or coming up with a tax policy most of us can live with.

It all starts with asking why.

Music Review: The Keith Reid Project – The Common Thread

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

In the age of the singer-songwriter, the lyricist has become a rare creature (outside of musical theater). Yet some of the greatest rock acts of all time had one member or partner who wrote just the words. Mick Jagger, Jim Morrison, Bernie Taupin, and the Grateful Dead's Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow are just a few of the famous lyricists of rock and pop.

Keith Reid is and always has been the lyricist for Procol Harum, responsible for classic songs like "Conquistador," "A Salty Dog," and of course the eternal "A Whiter Shade of Pale." Though it's been many years since Procol Harum's heyday, the band has continued to tour and release new material over the decades, and Reid has also collaborated with numerous other luminaries. It's about time for a Keith Reid Project.

This disc collects thirteen of his non-Procol songs, co-written with big names of pop music like John Waite, Manfred Mann's Chris Thompson, Terry Reid, and Steve Booker (who co-wrote Duffy's recent #1 hit, "Mercy"). Given the variety of collaborators, and vocals from singers as diverse (though all male) as Waite, Southside Johnny, and Bernie Shanahan, it's no surprise that the disc is uneven in style in quality. But there's plenty to like.

Reid and Thompson's "You're the Voice" is a powerful, shimmering mini-masterpiece of sleek pop with a message. (The song was a huge hit for John Farnham in Australia and elsewhere 20 years ago.) "The Heartbreak House" nods towards Americana, as does the folky, haunting "Potters Field" with music by Michael Saxell. "Ninety-Nine Degrees in the Shade" grooves with swampy soul under Southside Johnny's gravelly vocals. Terry Reid gives "Too Close to Call" a touch of Al Green's spirit, while "In God's Shadow" is a strong mid-tempo rocker featuring Waite in an Eagles-like, seventies-style arrangement.

Other songs fare less well. "Venus Exploding" drowns in overwrought 80s-style "St. Elmo's Fire" production, and the title track fizzles out like a Randy Newman throwaway. All Chris Thompson's emoting can't raise the power ballad "It Might Be Your Heart" above average, though one can imagine a generic r&b singer having a hit with it.

"Silver Town" is a good one. Co-written with and sung by Booker, it evokes acoustic Springsteen in populist mode: "We built this town from a grain of sand / Far away from the reach of Washington / Now they say they need the land / And bite the hand that feeds the greed of Washington…." but "though the money's all run out / There's a wealth of folk in Silver Town." The closing song, "Right About Now," looks back ruefully on a lost relationship and demonstrates, as well as any, Reid's lyrical gifts: "Right about now you'll be waking / And making your breakfast / In the cold grey light of dawn / And right about now you'll see my letter / The one that tells you that I'm not coming home."

So far the disc is available in the US only as an import, but you can hear some of it at the label's website or at Keith Reid's Myspace page.

9/11: In Me For Good

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

9/11. I don’t know how to get it out of me.

It’s been seven years since I watched, from across the river in Brooklyn, that acrid smoke billow into a sky-overwhelming blot. By the time the buildings fell, they were no longer visible from Flatbush Avenue, where I had gone out to watch. I did see the towers fall, but inside, on TV, behind the head of a shaken newscaster. Soot and stink and tiny pieces of paper and who knows what else swirled onto our windowsills, but our direct view to Manhattan was choked off entirely.

Where I live now, near Union Square, I have a north-facing view of the Empire State Building. I love the sight of it, especially in the very late afternoon when the light over the city turns gorgeous shades of aquamarine and bronze. That view comes with a slight pang, though. The apartment across the hall, where my fiancee lived when we started dating, used to have the corresponding southward view of the World Trade Center. No longer. New York has its beautiful, overbuilt Art Deco emblem still. But that less beautiful, yet just as iconic pair of towers is – still shockingly, after what feels to me more like seven months than seven years – gone.

The other night I got home late from a gig and my fiancee was watching Paul Greengrass’s powerful film United 93 on TV. I’d seen it when it came out in 2006 – I’d hesitated, but then decided it might provide some sort of catharsis – and I then assumed I’d never want to watch it again. But last night I couldn’t pull my eyes away. For once I was thankful for commercials. The raw energy crackling out from the TV and into my spinal column was spurring me to get up and stride about the apartment as often as possible, thinking up unnecessary little errands: check email, wash a mug, make a note to call so-and-so tomorrow.

As the movie ended, with the passengers rushing the cockpit and the plane spiraling down, she and I were both in tears. United 93 was the plane that went down in Pennsylvania, the only one of the four hijacked airliners that didn’t reach its terrorist target. Greengrass’s reconstruction of events on the flight was speculative, of course, but that didn’t matter to us. The tragic shock of the events, combined with the pride in our fellow citizens who fought back, had gotten us both in the gut. Again.

9/11 is still as alive today in me as it was a week, a month, or a year after the event. Days go by when I don’t think about it. But all it takes is a few images on a screen, or, sometimes, a glance out the window to bring it all back.

Theater Review (NYC): Sa Ka La by Jon Fosse

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

Oslo Elsewhere is a theater company specializing in bringing Norwegian plays to US stages (and vice versa) in new translations. Its current production of Jon Fosse's Sa Ka La is the first time the work has been seen in the US. The company bills the play as "about syllables and expectations, preserving time and wasting it."

That statement is true enough as far as it goes – the title does come from the nonsense syllables uttered by the central figure, Mom (Kathryn Kates), who's been hospitalized by a massive stroke on her 60th birthday. But the deep subject of the story is distance. Fosse, through director Sarah Cameron Sunde's witty translation, effectively explores the distances between even the closest family members. Sunde makes those gulfs manifest by physically separating actors during key exchanges, while cleverly staging alternating scenes, which occur in two settings, in and around each other.

Using the occasion of an illness or death to gather a family and thus set a play's action in motion is one of the oldest and commonest tricks in the dramatist's book. But that's because it has a tendency to work. And Fosse has a very distinct delivery. His language is minimalist and repetitive, Beckettian and (to use a musical analogy) Reichian. The pacing (at least in this production) is slow, sometimes agonizingly so. It's probably safe to say that if you like Ingmar Bergman movies, you'll appreciate this play, but if you don't, there's a good chance you won't.

Marielle Heller and Birgit Huppuch in Sa Ka La
Slow pace isn't the only thing distinctly Scandinavian about the play. Leaving aside the Ibsen references, a certain Nordic stiffness and reserve is manifest, particularly in the character of the older daughter, Hilde (Birgit Huppuch), whose embrace of her more emotional sister Nora (Marielle Heller) in Mom's hospital room positively bleeds excruciating hesitancy and discomfort. That reserve is also found in the short lines of dialogue that dominate the script, clanging with Anglo-Saxon hardness. And it extends even to the funny scenes between the sons-in-law, who, uninformed of Mom's stroke, wait uncomfortably, like Vladmir and Estragon, for their mother-in-law to arrive, with their wives, for her own party.

Henning: Yah that's how we met / yah / we married sisters / you the youngest / and I the oldest

Johannes: That's what happened / yah / [Johannes walks over to the window, stands next to Henning and looks out] / What a beautiful day / [short pause] / it was a beautiful day / the day she turned sixty / [somewhat short pause] / that's good / [somewhat short pause] / because we do love her / don't we

Frank Harts and Raymond McAnally, the two fine actors who play Henning and Johannes respectively, generate a lot of laughs with their arch delivery of passages like this. Their early repartee provides a humorous counterfoil to the sometimes overly drawn-out scenes in the hospital, where the daughters' helplessness in the face of their mother's precipitous decline rides a wave between heartrending and frustrating.

As Mom sleeps, wakes, and utters her nonsense syllables, wordless yet fraught with human feeling, we're moved equally by Hilde's icy repression and Nora's flowery anguish. Yet Mom's personality somehow comes across just as powerfully as those of her putatively more articulate daughters.  That's a testament to Kates's remarkable performance in a role that includes a lot of sleeping, never lets her get out of bed, and permits her no actual words – only syllables and stroke-mangled facial expressions. She's painful to watch, and utterly convincing.

Raymond McAnally in Sa Ka La
We're left with some open questions. Trine, an old family friend, arrives for the party with her new husband. Why, though she is the sisters' age, did she end up in a lasting friendship with Mom? The fact is raised as if it might be a key to understanding the family dynamic, yet it's never addressed.

The frequent use of the syllable "Yah" (halfway between Norwegian "Ja" and American "Yeah") effectively ties all the characters together and replaces the usual "Um"'s and "Well"'s and "Y'know"'s of American idiom. But we can't help pausing to wonder whether it's carried over from the original Norwegian, and if so, what did it mean there?

When a third sibling, Ola, eventually arrives – even more painfully detached from his feelings than Hilde – is his old-fashioned three-piece suit meant to indicate a setting some time in the pre-cell phone past? And does that explain why the characters aren't phoning one another at the first sign of lateness or uncertainty, the way 21st century folks normally do?

Sunde leaves the characters from one scene on stage while the next takes place, with the actors brushing past each other and even occasionally touching, across time and awareness, producing a spooky tingle. In the hospital scenes, the actors string out their lines across what seems every fiber of their beings.  They do the same with their pregnant pauses. Meanwhile, back at the house, the in-laws and friends verbally dance around their mutual discomfort. Through it all, repetition, sometimes excessive, infantilizes the stricken family, especially the daughters.  This process rings harshly true, and is thrown into even higher relief by the light of their mother's tragic reduction to a creature of nonsense syllables.

Finally, the production values are high, matching the skill of the excellent cast.

Problematic but thought-provoking, and intermittently fascinating, funny, and insufferable, Sa Ka La is – or maybe isn't – a good introduction to the work of a major Scandinavian artist. Fosse doesn't like to explain his plays. Explaining isn't the point.


Sa Ka La runs through Sept. 27 at The Theatres at 45 Bleecker St. For tickets and further information, click here or call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or (outside the NY metro area) at (800) 432-7250.

Photos by Jim Baldassare. 1. Marielle Heller and Birgit Huppuch 2. Raymond McAnally

Book Review: The Likeness by Tana French

Saturday, September 6th, 2008

Amid the sprawl of the crime fiction genre, Tana French has mapped out a subcategory in which the detectives get emotionally involved in their cases and things blow up in their faces. In French's Ireland, just as in the real one, the cops may get their man, and they may not; a good yarn is a good yarn either way.

In The Likeness, just as in her first book, In the Woods, the particulars of an unusual murder draw a detective in so closely that solving the case becomes far trickier than the police might have imagined. Here, our heroine and narrator is Cassie Maddox, erstwhile partner of the last book's Detective Rob Ryan. In the aftermath of that book's harrowing events, Cassie is off the Murder squad and working Domestic Violence. (The traumatized Rob is out of the picture). But Cassie's old line of work beckons when the body of a young woman turns up – a woman who not only looks just like Cassie, but had adopted the identity of Lexie Madison, a fictional junkie Cassie had "played" during an undercover operation years before.

Cooking up a story that the victim actually survived her stabbing, Cassie's manipulative former Undercover boss convinces her (with the very reluctant OK of her Murder-squad boyfriend, the devoted Sam) to enter the bosom of the "Lexie"'s old life, specifically the academic circle of her eccentric housemates, and pretend to be the recovering victim while trying to suss out what happened to the murdered imposter.

Preposterous? Pretty much. But once we've bought in to the premise (and plowed through a rather too long set-up), French delivers a giddy, suspenseful ride. Is one of the housemates the killer, and if so, how much danger is Cassie in? What will happen if her cover is blown? What weird bond holds the housemates almost cultishly together? Might the killer be one of the locals, whose resentment of Whitethorn House and its owners goes back generations? Or could it be the disappointed relation who wished to inherit the house and turn the property into condos?

Real estate plays a significant role in the plots of both of French's mysteries to date, and that's not a coincidence. She's a keen observer of Ireland's dizzyingly rapid modernization and the painful conflicts that arise between traditional interests and those fueled by the country's economic boom.

Both books also delve into the complex psychology and procedure of police work.

The cold fact is that every murder I've worked was about the killer. The victim… was just the person who happened to wander into the sights when the gun was loaded and cocked. The control freak was always going to kill his wife the first time she refused to follow orders; your daughter happened to be the one who married him. The mugger was hanging around the alleyway with a knife, and your husband happened to be the next person who walked by… if we can figure out the exact point where someone walked into those crosshairs, we can go to work with our dark, stained geometries and draw a line straight back to the barrel of the gun.

Most readers, myself included, won't know enough about police work to tell whether all of Cassie's observations ring true, but French makes them feel real as rain. And she's good with noirish metaphors. "The words sent a slim knife of something like homesickness straight through me." "Lexie blew down the grass like a silver shower of wind, she rocked in the hawthorn trees and balanced light as a leaf on the wall beside me, she slipped along my shoulder and blazed down my back like fox fire." The dead Lexie, who wasn't even Lexie, comes to creepy life as brightly as any of the living characters in Cassie's intrigued and eventually obsessed mind.

But in spite of its unlikely plot, this is a more satisfying book than In the Woods (which you needn't read before this one, though it is enjoyable and would provide a bit of context). The Likeness has more richly drawn characters, a more satisfying conclusion, and most important, a more sympathetic and believably complex narrator. Maybe with Cassie Maddox the author has found her muse; maybe she'll move on to another lead investigator next time. Either way, she's raised her bar.

Indie Round-Up: Mojomatics, Duane Andrews, Brandie Frampton, Alex Statan

Saturday, September 6th, 2008

The Mojomatics, Don't Pretend That You Know Me

The Mojomatics make a lot of noise for two guys, and a joyful noise it is. Their hype makes much of the country and bluegrass strains in their hard-driving pop-punk, but despite the presence of harmonica and a certain hillbilly Kentucky Headhunters vibe, the music fits right in with the post-Green Day likes of the Hives.

Like a good basketball team – or maybe more like a pair of beach volleyballers – the Mojomatics execute their fundamentals just right: short, speedy songs with big beats, some punchy hooks, and just as important, a sincere sound. The best tracks, like "Wait a While," "Miss Me When I'm Gone," and the countrified "Askin' for Better Circumstances," are keepers.

I wish the disc boasted more songs as good as those. But the beat and the high-spirited energy never flag. This is juicy garage punk that means what it says – and it comes from two Italian guys who can play the hell out of their guitars and drums.

Duane Andrews, Raindrops

Canadian guitarist Duane Andrews grafts strains of the traditional music of his home province of Newfoundland onto the Django Reinhardt-inspired "gypsy jazz" stylings in which he specializes. The result is endearingly homespun, but also surprisingly smooth. Andrews's originals mingle with traditional songs, plus here a tune by Mingus ("Fables of Faubus") and there a tune by Django himself ("Blue Drag"). Abetting his woody acoustic guitar are a number of supporting musicians, most notably the soulful trumpeter Patrick Boyle and the energetic Atlantic String Quartet. This will be a happy addition to anyone's rootsy jazz collection.

Brandie Frampton, What U See

Brandie Frampton is from Utah, which, despite the odd rituals favored by some of its denizens, is not "international" from the US perspective. Still, like the above acts, Frampton comes from something like a foreign country: namely, the age of fifteen, definitely a distant land as the crow flies from these fortysomething parts.

This girl doesn't have a huge voice, but she can sing, and she thankfully refrains from overdoing the belt or the twang as most teenage "future Nashville stars" do – rather, she sounds blessedly sincere. She's also got a great team of producers, musicians, and songwriters behind her (she co-wrote three of the tracks on this short, sweet nine-song disc).

The predominant flavor is Nashville country. There's some crossover pop appeal as well, but not to the point where it seems calculated. And there's no filler – all nine songs are good. Holy Nashville skyline, Batman!

Can it be that an artist barely into high school is going to find her way on to your humble correspondent's keeper shelf? Yes – yes it can.

Alex Statan, Go Big or Go Home

Alex Statan's pop nuggets are hard to resist. With a touch of ska and a punch of rock, the songwriter-vocalist delivers the five songs on his debut EP with conviction and plenty of humor. The only partial failure is "Interference," where he tries to get too heavy and "alternative" and ends up making something of a thud. "Future Luver" has a heavy sound, too, but it's funny and a little scary; Statan puts a little Todd Lewis quaver into his voice there and elsewhere. "Don't Hold Back (The Ass Song)," "High Note," and "A.D.H.D." all hold promise of a solid career delivering fun times for all.