The Literary Shadow of 9/11

In the four and a half years since the September 11 attacks, New Yorkers’ lives have changed in a number of ways, some obvious and predictable, others not so much.

Even as we go about our daily business we’re conscious, of course, of the potential for an attack at any time. Naturally we’re inclined to think “terrorism” whenever there’s a sudden infrastructure problem such as a power outage. And we’ll never look at our firefighters in quite the same way again.

But another change has crept up on me in the past couple of years: a change in my life as an audience – as a watcher of movies, a collector of TV shows on DVD, and above all, as a reader of books.

As it turns out, 9/11 has drawn an indelible line across the modern storytelling oeuvre. Works composed before the event differ from those composed after – not necessarily in their content, or even in any inherent quality, but in the light in which – or shadow under which – I will read them.

I don’t read a great many new novels, but I did read Nicholas Rinaldi’s New York tale Between Two Rivers, published in 2004. Only a small part of the book dealt directly with the attacks, but the whole story seemed suffused in a consciousness of destruction, of endings. Just as a New York apartment is classified as pre- or postwar, so must a New York novel now be called pre- or post-9/11. Rinaldi’s was the first post-9/11 novel I read.

Just today I picked up a copy of Paul Auster‘s The New York Trilogy. Auster is one of those writers I have always intended to read but never gotten around to, mostly because I’m very contrary in my reading habits and hate to be reading what everybody else is. (I resisted The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy precisely because all my college buddies were going apeshit over it; and to this day I haven’t read the damn thing. My loss, I suppose.)

Still, Auster has always seemed an obvious choice on whom to spend some of my limited novel-reading time. Local not only to New York but to my own Brooklyn neighborhood, usually featured prominently on the “Local Authors” shelf of the Barnes and Noble stores around here, he is also considered a Major Literary Author on a national scale.

So, picking up the book, which was written in the mid-to-late 1980s, I read the intriguing first sentence:

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.

So far so good: like any good story, it evokes a place, a situation. Specifically, I’m in somebody’s head as he remembers how something started: how the thing, whatever it was, started with the phone ringing while he, whoever he is, was in bed, and how it was a wrong number.

About the period, the sentence tells me only that the action takes place sometime since the advent of the telephone. The thirties. The fifties. The eighties. The present. Prior to 9/11, I would simply have absorbed what I could from it, and continued reading,

But I know something else, something that five years ago wouldn’t have seemed so important: when the story was written.

I know it is pre-9/11 – from modern times, but before the attack. I also know from the title that the story’s going to take place in New York. Hence its fictional New Yorkers will not have experienced the defining New York moment that was 9/11. They’ll inhabit a version of the city that no longer exists. Still “modern times,” but no longer the same times today’s reader is living. 9/11 hadn’t informed the author’s imagination. In this book, it will not have happened.

Today, and maybe until I die, I will be approaching any book – and even a pre-9/11 movie or TV series, if I’m not familiar with it – not simply as a modern story about a familiar world or city. Rather, I will be approaching it in the shadow, or in the light, of a great divide. I will have to know: was the story imagined and birthed prior to the attack? Or does it have that smoke in the lungs, that soot on the face, that shock hardened into the bones of the 9/11 survivor?

Of course this won’t apply to older stories, those set in a time that from the vantage point of September 10 2001 already felt like another era. If I revisit a classic – Herman Melville, Humphrey Bogart – or check out some Nabokov or Billy Wilder I’ve missed, then no sweat.

But if it’s from the world that I myself knew prior to 9/11, my interest may be just a little bit less.

In fact, I might feel like turning to my friend and bandmate Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who edits science fiction and fantasy, and ask “What have you got that’s good lately?”

Ahhh. Faeries.

CD Reviews: Indie Round-Up for Mar 23 2006 – Retrospectro, Waldron, Chevrette


Retrospectro, Anodyne

This Brooklyn band is a real hoot. A curious and original mix of power pop and garage rock, with nasal vocals halfway between Bob Dylan and Lou Reed and a Velvet Underground vibe in songs like “Anna Anna Anna,” Retrospectro represents creative New York City at its snottiest. Backing up their simple yet satisfyingly twisted songs are humming layers of acoustic and electric guitars with an element of trance, along with subtle surf licks and organ chords – familiar parts, with recognizable bits of sixties, seventies and nineties styles, making up an altogether fresh sound.

“Sleepwalking” and “Rapid,” which open the CD, are especially catchy. “Peace and Love” and “Anna Anna Anna” are also very good songs, and I liked the closer, “Take It Or Leave It.” The remaining three are weaker. But there’s a lot to like in any handful of this music.

Listen and buy at CD Baby.

Mala Waldron, Always There

Mala Waldron‘s cool, sophisticated work is just the sort of thing that could nudge jazz closer to the mainstream. With hummable melodies, grown-up but accessible chord changes, and a weave of smooth R&B flavor (especially in songs like the ballad “Because Of You” and the up-tempo “Maybe It’s Not So”), some of these tracks should by all rights find a home anywhere that plays the lightweight likes of Alicia Keys. Yet even the smoothest of these tracks, though eminently CD-101-worthy, are real jazz.

That, and Waldron’s superior keyboard skills, should be no surprise considering she’s the daughter of jazz legend Mal Waldron. One of the elder Waldron’s claims to fame was his association with Billie Holliday, and Waldron fille is a supple, fanciful singer who makes everything sound easy. Jazz vocals generally aren’t my favorite corner of the music universe, but Waldron’s are dead-on in tune, pleasingly shaded, easygoing, neither cloying nor precious.

Waldron wrote all the tracks except one, and it’s clear she has a finely calibrated sense of what kind of material is ideal for her voice, although one gets the feeling she could credibly sing, and certainly play, almost anything. Even the fluffy lyrics aren’t bad – and “not bad” is pretty damn good for jazz lyrics. Finally, her imaginative, funky version of The Doors’ “Light My Fire” demonstrates her ability to make unexpected material her own. If I had to pick a favorite track, it would be the impassioned ballad “Proud Lion,” which Waldron dedicates to her father. “Proud Lion/think he knew deep inside/that I never did like/long goodbyes.” Nothing lightweight about that.

Being such a knockout on both piano and vocals, it’s only fitting Waldron should have ace musicians backing her up, and bassist Miriam Sullivan, guitarist Steve Salerno and drummer Michael “T.A” Thompson are every bit her match. In fact one of the CD’s best points is the organic sound of the band, as if they’d played together for a million years.

Mala Waldron appears at the Jazz Standard in New York City on March 27 for her official CD release, and at Night and Day in Brooklyn NY on June 8 as part of the Soul of the Blues series.

Roberta Chevrette, Miss America

Roberta Chevrette makes a powerful statement with the first two songs on her new CD, Miss America. The instrumental introduction to “Country Girl” establishes her and her band’s bluesgrass credentials. The song itself is a two-chord chant about a girl the singer admires – an older sister or someone in that capacity, who “has this easy/way with words…she’ll tell me little sister/would you quit your worrying/you know you can do/anything that you want” – but then comes the kicker: “and i remember back/to all those years ago/to when she tried to kill me/on the living room floor/with a pair of scissors/in her hand.” Then the song closes with a verse about “going out to the country/where i belong” and a dog in the backseat, “to the country/where we feel/complete.” No more mention of the older girl. It’s like a miniature experimental novel in a few verses.

“Every Wind” is even more powerful, a drony Led Zeppelin-style folk song about a relationship going cold, which is the stuff of millions of songs but expressed with exceptional intensity here. Chevrette’s voice, not little-girlie yet usually small and childlike, soars to anguished heights on the choruses.

In “Miss America” the singer rejects artifical glamour in favor of inner beauty; she doesn’t “want to be demure or lovely/sweet or nice/or sit back quietly/while others think for me.” But then Chevrette goes one step beyond the expected, adding a final line: “i don’t want to be pretty.”

If you’re detecting an Ani DiFranco influence, you’re not imagining it. “Your Words,” in fact, is a poem directed straight at DiFranco, acknowledging a debt. Sounds a little tiresome, I know, but something about Chevrette’s laser-focussed delivery makes it not so. Though the poem swerves into an indictment of Bush’s Iraq war, the political theme is picked up at greater length in the slightly too obvious “Long Long Day.” The minimalist, spoken-word “How Long” is a more effective protest song. And in the midst of it all, the bluegrass romp “Bear Tracks” reminds us that this singer-songwriter isn’t all lasers and ice.

The grim banjo returns in “Anymore,” which features Jefferson Airplane-style harmonies that deepen a plainspoken refrain. “Inside,” like a number of these tracks, is more poem than song, in this case a self-referentially free-associative lyric: “i think i am addicted/to the resonance of chaos…the hectic beauty/of my surroundings/makes me feel/that the world/is the prize.”

This CD takes a couple of listens to appreciate, but it’s well worth it.

Available at CD Baby here.

OUT AND ABOUT: Paul DeCoster (of Bobby Stewart and the Contraires) is turning into a ferocious front man, as evidenced by his show at the Underground Lounge last Saturday night. His mix of 80s pop-rock covers (Eddie Money, Corey Hart) and originals in a similar vein kept the crowd grooving until – well, until they had to quit to make way for a comedy show… Dave Isaacs, up from Nashville, knocked ’em dead at Cornelia Street Cafe last night with his blazing guitar chops and bluesy roots-rock… Last but not least, my own band, Whisperado, plays this Saturday night at Hank’s Saloon (Brooklyn’s infamous “Bucket o’ Blood”) with Coppersonic and The New Heathens. Get there early – the more you’ve drunk, the better we sound!

Theater Review: Shiloh Rules by Doris Baizley

Doris Baizley’s play Shiloh Rules is farce in the best sense of the word. With humor – including the physical kind – and high spirits, it shines a light on serious matters of culture and history. It’s an April night’s fever dream of the beasts and angels of war – specifically the American Civil War, and more precisely the women who bore water to the soldiers and nursed the injured and dying during the bloody Battle of Shiloh.

Kate Weiman and Cordis Heard play veteran re-enactors, for the North and South respectively, who have each brought a new recruit to the field. As the older women’s reasons for participating are gradually revealed – each, in very different ways, goes well beyond merely being a history buff – their young protegees (Janine Kyanko and Judi Lewis Ockler) see their own, shallower motivations replaced by sometimes frighteningly transformational depths of involvement. In their most gripping scenes, these four – joined by an African-American park ranger, played by Samarra, who loses her objectivity as her grip on civic order loosens – smoothly convey the easy slippage between self-conscious role-playing and actually becoming the characters they’re portraying.

Kate Weiman as Clara and Janine Kyanko as Meg. Photo by Kila Packett.

Michaela Goldhaber’s fast-paced and artful direction aid the wonderful cast in the creation of this magic. Lights, music, and especially sound help create the fog of war without any actual fog – or even soldiers (although, in a fine Shakespearean touch, the spunky LucyGale Scruggs – as perfectly named as she is played by Ockler – goes undercover as one). The script moves brightly along, vividly painting the characters as it tells their multilayered story. Rounding out the cast, Gwen Eyster sparkles as the Widow Beckwith, an unaligned capitalist who keeps a cool modern eye on the proceedings even as she plays her part in the re-enactment follies. Though there is perhaps a whiff of the Mary Sue about her, the Widow provides a grounding force that helps keep the proceedings honest.

The play isn’t perfect. The way the no-nonsense Ranger Wilson gets drawn into the dialogue and action against her better judgment seems a little forced (though she does get some of the best lines). And the denouement drags as the characters spell out lessons learned and revelations that were in some cases already adequately conveyed by the preceding action, in others not really “earned” at all. But those are minor flaws in an entertaining, thought-provoking, and beautifully acted production.

Through April 9 at the Gene Frankel Theatre, New York City. Tickets at Smarttix or call 212-868-4444.

New York Notes: Irish and Gay, City’s #2 Official Sits Out St. Patrick’s Day Parade

The annual controversy over the barring of gay groups from the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade has taken an added dimension this year with the ascension of Christine Quinn, who is both Irish and openly gay, to the Speakership of the City Council. Now the city’s second most powerful elected official, Quinn has decided to sit out today’s event, having tried and failed to reach a compromise with its organizing body, the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

New York’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade – the oldest and largest in the world, dating back to 1762, according to – does not bar openly gay individuals, but prohibits gays from marching as organized groups under gay-themed banners. Yet, having been for many years one of the city’s biggest annual parties, the Parade can arguably be said to have outgrown its ethnic-religious origin and become a civic and partly secular event. It is certainly a march that local politicians rarely dare to snub, whatever their ethnicity or political views.

Still, even if we grant leeway to the religious sensitivities of the Ancient Order – the Parade is, after all, named for a Catholic saint, the patron of an overwhelmingly Catholic nation – Parade chairman John Dunleavy went beyond defending his creed and uttered what borders on hate speech when he told the Irish Times, “If an Israeli group wants to march in New York, do you allow neo-Nazis into their parade? If African-Americans are marching in Harlem, do they have to let the Ku Klux Klan into their parade?”

Dunleavy’s very pointed analogy implies that gays are to the Irish what the Nazis were to the Jews or the KKK to blacks: murderous, genocidal enemies. Council Speaker Quinn has been politic, admirably taking the high road with her efforts at compromise and principled but measured response to its failure. I’d be seething with anger if I were gay and Irish – or gay and anything, for that matter – and a civic leader compared me to a Nazi just because of my sexual orientation.

If Dunleavy didn’t mean such a thing – if he was merely making a poor analogy – I’d be interested to hear it from him.

Book Review: Perfect Passwords by Mark Burnett and Dave Kleiman

How often do you change the passwords that protect your financial information, personal files, important corporate data, wireless network, online properties, or email privacy? Rarely? Never? Only when (and if) some systems administrator forces you to?

And what kind of passwords do you create? Ones that are easy for someone who knows you to guess? Simple dictionary words, maybe with a number at the end? The name of your pet or a sports team? Your phone number or zip code?

Those are all bad, bad answers, as Mark Burnett (with technical editor Dave Kleiman) makes clear in this valuable new monograph. The book presents a number of simple techniques you can and should use to come up with passwords that are very hard to crack yet easy to remember. Most of us have experienced the failure of imagination that hits when we’re asked to come up with a new password on the spot. So we throw up our hands and use something we’ve used before, or something very simple like the examples above – a dangerous and unnecessary practice.

The book also dispels some commonly held beliefs. A simple fact about you that’s unknown to strangers (e.g. your city of birth or mother’s maiden name) does not make a strong password. Long passwords are not only much, much safer, but can be made easy for you to remember while remaining extremely difficult for an intruder to crack, the book also dives into malware a little, for example the zeus malware. For example, you can create a strong, unique password that meets all of a system’s requirements (many systems now require a mix of lower and uppercase letters, digits, and/or other keyboard symbols) by combining words and numbers that rhyme, e.g.: 425 Take a Drive! (Yes, most systems accept spaces in passwords – that’s just one fact among the many I didn’t know until I read this book – and I’m a computer professional.)

It’s no game. You have to assume that someone is, or will be, trying to crack your password. There are threats out there many of us aren’t aware of, and sooner or later, by some means or other, most of us will be targeted. Maintaining strong passwords is critical in defending against attack, whether it’s by someone who bears you or your company ill will, a criminal enterprise that wants access to your bank account, or a brute force password-guessing attack by a relentless computer program that wants to commandeer your computer for use as a spamming robot. (Can you tell I’ve had some relevant personal experience?)

Burnett writes in plain English, illustrating his concepts with examples, analogies, and stories from his career as a computer security expert. You don’t need to be technically minded, or even especially computer-literate, to understand what’s in this short book. Anyone who uses passwords – and that’s pretty much all of us – could benefit from a sprint through Perfect Passwords. Computers can be very vulnerable if they do not have the correct software to keep them secure. There needs to be tight security, high performance and be able to remain reliable in case of a power outage or other disruptions that may come around. Investing in some good network management software will help your computer achieve all these things.

CD Reviews: Indie Round-Up for Mar 9 2006 – Golay, Rivkin, Rentler

This week’s round-up demonstrates the enormous variety of what we call, for want of a better term, folk music.

Mike Golay, Across the Bridge and Half Pint (solo acoustic guitar)

Fans of the acoustic guitar, get thee to thy record store and pick up one or both of these CDs from six-string master Mike Golay. Virtuosic but not flashy, soothing but not new-age precious or background-music boring (although they’ve been serving as excellent relaxing background music for me in my office), Golay’s pieces express the soul of the often taken-for-granted instrument.

One can hear Hawaiian strains and Celtic touches here and there, and many of the titles are evocative or quirky (“111 Archer Avenue,” “Somewhere I Have Never Travelled,” “Baby With a Hammer”), but overall the music is a-cultural, its language the universal tongue of plucked strings. Some songs are more melodic, others more atmospheric, and Golay will throw in an unexpected bend or chromatic line in places. But there’s not a sour note to be heard.

Though both CDs are thoughtful and the songs varied, the more recent “Across the Bridge” is perhaps the more contemplative of the two. It’s also longer, so if quantity is your goal and your budget allows for only one solo acoustic guitar album, go for that one. If you can’t get enough acoustic guitar, get both. You can sample the tracks at CD Baby (or iTunes, though as yet it has only Half Pint) before you buy.

This style of music doesn’t get a whole lot better. Highly recommended.

Irina Rivkin, upwelling

Although we are in a richly creative time marked by cross-pollination of musical styles and traditions, this CD stands out as something really different. In a mere 36 minutes Irina Rivkin pulls together aesthetic, emotional, political, sexual, and social justice themes into a contiguous and unique artistic statement. Despite the coffee cups in the cover photo, Rivkin’s work is very far from the “lesbian coffeehouse music” that I anticipated. Instead it’s a kind of world-folk spawned from the artist’s Russian folk-music background and acute sensitivity to personal and political injustice, and informed by a crossover-jazz sensibility a la Leonard Bernstein and a mildly experimental bent akin to that of Kate Bush or Meredith Monk.

It’s all that, and it’s pretty to listen to too.

The instrumental accompaniments are light to nonexistent, as Rivkin’s voice is the prime instrument here, bolstered by those of the excellent Maria Quiles and Rebecca Crump (who together with Rivkin comprise the group Making Waves). Rivkin sings her angular melodies in a voice that switches easily from soft to sharp. Where the other voices jump in, the sound becomes more universal and more exotic at the same time: discrete moments could have come as easily from a North American roots-revivalist group like the Be Good Tanyas as from an exotic, arty hitmaker like the Bulgarian Women’s Choir.

Her lyrics, for the most part, manage to be both pointed and poetic. Political music is hard to pull off, especially if it’s not satirical, and, except in “Welfare-to-Work Blues,” which is musically creative and elegant but lyrically forced, Rivkin accomplishes the difficult task very well. “See Through Bush” is clever and light-handed and the more cutting thereby; the Spanish-language “Sobrevivientes” raises a fist of musical beauty against oppression; and the chantlike “Taking Our Freedom” deepens its message with hypnotically intense music while personalizing it with a dollop of family history.

The non-political songs are rewarding too. Rivkin’s reflections on love and its accompanying troubles range from the imagistic (“Little Silver Packets,” “River & Volcano”) to the painfully explicit (the Outmusic Award-winning “Ya Eyo Lublu”), and, unlike most lyricists, who are at home only in one mode or the other, Rivkin can convince with words both clouded and clear.

Russ Rentler, Scarecrow’s Lament

The new disc by Russ Rentler, who was an early bandmate of the folk stars John Gorka and Richard Shindell, is really three CDs in one. First, it boasts three beautiful instumentals: two traditional tunes and an original, in which Rentler’s consummate skill on a wide array of stringed instuments (too many to name, but dulcimers are prominent) takes center stage. Then there are the humorous songs, including “New Car Smell,” which has been heard on the syndicated NPR show Car Talk, and the autobiographical (and hysterical) “One-Eyed Grandma.” Finally there are thoughtful and earnest songs of love, family and the ways of the world.

Rentler’s singing, and to some degree his writing, are throwbacks to the Folk Revival period of the 1950s and ’60s, specifically the plainspoken voices of artists like Oscar Brand, Pete Seeger, and the Kingston Trio, who gave audiences a sincere but somewhat whitewashed refraction of the traditional music of Appalachia and its antecedents in the British Isles. That mode is entirely out of fashion in today’s folk revival, which goes by names like Americana, Alt-Country, and Rick Rubin, and which prizes authenticity, whether native (Ralph Stanley, the Blind Boys of Alabama), studied (Old Crow Medicine Show, Alison Krauss) or transformed (Devendra Banhart). Rentler sings with much heart and little art, but after a couple of songs one gets used to it and goes with his honest and ultimately refreshing sound.

There’s one big problem: clunky lyrics. Rhymes that don’t rhyme, words that stick out awkwardly from their melodies, and references that are just a wee bit off (“those times they’re a-changin'” isn’t exactly what Bob Dylan said) come too frequently to fall under the protection of artistic license.

Fortunately, formal flaws are often forgiveable – and can even have a naïve charm – in funny songs, of which Rentler has several. It’s the more serious lyrics, like the love songs “Waltzing Amelia” and “Moravian Street,” that don’t trip lightly into the ears.

Rentler’s previous CDs are available at the iTunes music store and presumably this one will be too once it’s processed by the great big Apple music chomper, so I’d recommend – unless you’re already a fan – that you listen over there, check out the instrumentals first, and then the rest, before laying out for the CD. I’m lucky enough to have a review copy, but iTunes gives you the choice to download the songs you like. For sure, the instrumentals are going into my iTunes library. Folk revival or not, it’s a brave new world out there for music fans; happy downloading.

Available at CD Baby here.

Various Artists, The Independents

Norine Braun was kind enough to send me a copy of her company’s first compilation, straightforwardly titled The Independents. As with any collection of this type, the quality of the music is uneven, but it’s a well-chosen assortment that flows better than most, opening with three strong tracks: Braun’s own epic-pop number “Alberta,” Dudley Saunders’s literary, electronic-traditional hybrid “Truck of the Rising Sun,” and Maya Solovey’s international pop gem “Dissolving.”

Skinflick does a good job aping the Foo Fighters, while Krescent 4 similarly worships Soundgarden. The UK’s The Papers aim for Neil Finn territory with their catchy pop-rock nugget “Lonely Being Beautiful,” and Anton Glamb’s “Subway” is lighthearted and amusing. Tracy Stark – an in-demand session keyboardist in New York indie circles and beyond – nails a nifty, jazzed-up adult contemporary vibe in “So Cool.” Patti Witten evokes Roseanne Cash’s smooth country-pop-rock style with the lovely, atmospheric “Black Butterfly,” and Salme Dahlstrom’s “Hello California” is crystalline, guilty-pleasure pop.

OUT AND ABOUT: When is a concert a community? When it’s Meg Braun (no relation to Norine Braun) and Sharon Goldman’s fundraiser for the Summersongs non-profit adult songwriters’ camps, with which more and more top-shelf folk musicians are associating. Last night’s concert at Makor in New York City included mini-sets from about a dozen artists, among them the monstrously talented Sloan Wainwright, who writes sophisticated and captivating songs and gives a singers’ clinic every time she opens her mouth; bluesman Scott Ainslie, who held the audience spellbound with his Allman-esque voice and what may be the only song about the Vietnam War ever written for a children’s record; and – she’ll forgive me for this characterization – modern folk’s eminence grise Christine Lavin who had the crowd in stitches as she often does. Spotted in the crowd were other tour-circuit stalwarts like serious funnyman Eric Schwartz and jazz-pop original Allison Tartalia… Speaking of Allison, she’ll be performing tonight when my Soul of the Blues series continues at Night and Day in Brooklyn, along with Ian Thomas ( “Best Nostalgia-Free Revival Act of 2005,” NY Press) and Adam Payne whose soulful “sound is as big as his afro.” If you’re in the NYC area tonight, it’s a show – and a mural – not to be missed.

New York Notes: High School Follies

Oh-so-amusing things have been happening in the New York City schools.

Brooklyn Technical High School (“Brooklyn Tech”) can be proud of its many eminent graduates, including Nobel laureate George Wald, computer baron Charles Wang, world’s saddest songwriter Harry Chapin, bodybuilder-actor Lou Ferrigno, and Congressman (and recent mayoral candidate) Anthony Weiner. But Principal Lee McCaskill did not do these notable alumni proud when he resigned under pressure after it was discovered that his wife had falsified residency documents in order to get their daughter into a prestigious Brooklyn public elementary school. The actual smoking gun: a lease with a date earlier than the lease form’s copyright date! The should-have-been smoking gun: the rent. Anyone knows you can’t even live in a box on the sidewalk for $200 a month in Brooklyn, much less rent a one-bedroom apartment.

Now, not content with purging the disgraced Principal, the City’s Department of Education is moving to fire his wife, a social studies teacher at another Brooklyn high school. I say these menaces to society, who actually live in New Jersey, are getting what they deserve. Life’s Lesson Number One is to read the fine print, and people who call themselves educators shouldn’t have missed a detail like that. After they’re done paying the four years of out-of-state tuition they owe, they’d better set up a trust fund for their poor daughter’s future years of therapy. (Unless, of course, the daughter – now aged nine – has all along been the evil genius behind the plot. Probably not, though.)

In another boon to New York City’s therapeutic counseling corps – already a fourteen billion-quadrillion-godzillion-dollar industry, according to The Bagel and the Rat’s latest information – the ever-vigilant Department of Education has fired a janitor who’s been indicted on 360 counts relating to his hobby of secretly videotaping girls’ locker rooms and bathrooms in two high schools, one of which – and this can’t possibly be a coincidence, can it? – was Brooklyn Tech. 46-year-old Michael Conte also set up a secret camera in the bathroom of a female friend who lives in Long Island’s Suffolk County – where he’s being held on $50,000 bail – and in his own bathroom, which he shared with his mother and sister (now that’s just sick). There’s one piece of good news for Conte’s family, though, which has already bailed him out of Rikers Island. If they go broke defending him, there’s a $200 one-bedroom available somewhere in Brooklyn.

And finally in school news: if the state doesn’t cough up $6.5 billion soon, twenty-one school construction projects will have to be scrapped. Fortunately for Brooklyn Tech, it already exists, but other much-needed facilities will not come to be, and, as the teacher’s union president sagely notes, “you can’t lower class size without more capacity or fight obesity without gyms and playgrounds.”

In a pinch, the DOE could try fighting obesity by hiring well-known auteur Michael Conte to install locker room cameras, and telling the kids their fat bellies will be posted on the Internet for all to see if they don’t shape up.

Indie Round-Up for Feb 23 2006: Beautiful Girls, Gordone, Kurdian

I just scored myself some tickets to Cate Blanchett in Hedda Gabler at BAM, so I’m in a great mood. Let’s just get started, then. I’ve got three good indie CDs to tell you about this week.

The Beautiful Girls, We’re Already Gone

Perhaps one of the best eclectic acts to come along since Beck, The Beautiful Girls are at home with dub, reggae, blues-rock, lo-fi pop and roots. It isn’t the individual songs but the sum total that makes this Australian band so interesting and potentially important. Guitarist and principal songwriter Mat McHugh sings with wry circumspection, and there’s no fancy production; the songs are arranged and played with elemental rather than mechanical precision, like basic reggae. When the sound gets big, as in the rave-up at the end of “The Biggest Lie I Ever Told,” the effect is mighty; throughout, the band skilfully employs layering and dynamics to get the most possible impact from simple forms.

Plus you can dance to it.

Despite the band’s somewhat self-consciously modern sound, there’s very little “how cool are we!” attitude; these guys have internalized many styles, but their synthesis seems to come very naturally. End result: subtle, twenty-first-century eclectic-pop gold.

Leah-Carla Gordone, Dancing On The Dragon

Leah-Carla Gordone has matured appreciably since her last album, Butterfly Child. Stylistically, her r&b-flavored folk-rock puts one in mind of Melissa Etheridge (minus the off-key singing) crossed with Gwen Stefani (minus the pandering to the male libido). But Gordone holds forth in a husky baritone like Nina Simone’s, backed up with her own acoustic and twelve-string guitars and some highly funky support musicians, notably Mike Unger on electric guitar, violinist Yiling Tien, and a crack rhythm section.

No longer dependent on peace-and-love homilies, Gordone’s lyrics mingle hopeful idealism (“Can we get it back to how it used to be/When everything was pure and free”) with relationship realpolitik: “When you open up and let someone in/It’s like peeling back a layer of your skin/And it hurts at first but then you grow to like it/That is when the tragedy begins.” Melodies flow, harmonies soar, and choruses glitter. Gordone remains an earnest, serious and consciously inspirational singer-songwriter, but the style and art of her songs, and her production of them, now make a fine match with her lyrical themes, with hooks that are organic to the songs and also strong in pop sensibility: “This Moment,” “Get It Back,” and “The Dragon” are especially good examples of Gordone’s ability to come up with tunes both meaningful and catchy.

Melineh Kurdian, From Where You Are

Folk-rocker Melineh Kurdian takes inspiration from the Indigo Girls and Ani DiFranco as well as the traditions of American roots music. Nothing unusual there; umpteen folk-rockers meet that description. What sets Kurdian apart is the sheer beauty of her songs and of the voice that brings them to life, a voice with a measure of Patty Griffin’s ability to wrench the heart. “Santa Maria” almost knocks you over with loveliness; “Devil’s Child” is a poignant, almost achingly generous response to intolerance.

On the technical side, Kurdian’s own superior guitar skills seem to have inspired the supporting musicians – including lead guitarists Rob Endicott (a name new to me) and Ann Klein (who’s played with just about everyone) to excellent work.

Klein’s leads fire up “Cowgirl Love Song,” whose lyrics neatly capture life’s biggest dilemma with a musical metaphor: “That’s a tough chord, that’s a hard question to play/That’s a lot of love that you shove in my direction every day.” “Goddamn n’ Just Do” is a muscular take on the “Hit the Road, Jack” theme: “I am the unexpected man that can, I am a wild woman you don’t know could/I am what you could and should but won’t ’cause you won’t follow through… So, pack your heartache, put away your bellyache/Goddamn and Just Do.” Put that in your pipe and smoke it, [insert teenage pop moppet here].

What Kurdian doesn’t have are big hooks. That’s no fatal flaw in music with this rare combination of airy beauty and earthy grace, but it’s the one thing (other than dumb luck and the unfairness of the world) that could keep Kurdian from reaching the level of folk-rock royalty like the Indigo Girls and Shawn Colvin.

Catch her at Invasion of the GoGirls at South by Southwest in March. Buy the CD at CD Baby here.

CD Review: Jessi Colter, Out of the Ashes

Jessi Colter released her first solo album in 1970, shortly after her marriage to Waylon Jennings, but except for a couple of children’s releases, she hasn’t been heard from in over two decades. Yet her new Don Was-produced CD is every bit as vital as her early self-penned successes, like “Storms Never Last” and the 1975 hit “I’m Not Lisa.”

As the first release after the death of an iconic loved one – Jennings died in 2002 – Out of the Ashes bears comparison to Roseanne Cash’s powerful and elegiac Black Cadillac, but Colter’s voice, though supple, bears the honorable stamp of age and weather. In the hypnotic title track, which alone is worth the price of the CD, Colter’s voice fades in and out among fussy piano arpeggios – typical of the casual, slightly messy production. She does the same thing in the Patsy Cline-like “You Took Me By Surprise,” keeping her voice low, J.J. Cale style, among the rocking piano chords, forcing the listener to lean in to hear. The song’s mix of old-style Country & Western with turn-of-the-21st-century alt-country (cf. the Be Good Tanyas) shows us two things: there’s nothing new under the sun, and the sun should shine brightly on Jessi Colter’s comeback.

The elder Jennings’s voice (son Shooter also appears on the CD) emerges from the past on a duet of the Tony Joe White classic “Out of the Rain.” This slightly off-kilter but moving treatment can stand proudly with those by Joe Cocker and Etta James. The gentle, artsy “So Many Things” is a small glowing treasure. Colter gets down and bluesy in “You Can Pick ‘Em” and “Velvet & Steel,” devotional in the opening and closing hymns, playful in her cover of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” and back to country music basics with “Never Got Over You,” a duet co-written with Ray Herndon. The CD is a consistently sparkling constellation of American roots music.

With Rosanne Cash’s latest, knowing the backstory is an aid to appreciating the music. But Jessi Colter’s new CD, though it has a melancholy tone that suggests loss, demands no knowledge of specific lives. Its pure, raw, deeply human music is full of sweetness but entirely saccharine-free.

And The Crowd Goes Wild!

Our new Whisperado EP, Some Other Place, has received a couple of really nice mentions in the blogosphere. [Is that still what it’s called? The blogosphere? I often find myself fallen several days, weeks even, behind the times in virtual circles. Must be all the time I spend reading those old-fashioned “books.”]

“The musicianship is excellent and varied and the songwriting solid. It doesn’t waste time with homage to the American roots music tradition. It just goes about adding to it. ‘Some Other Place’ is the kind of song Greg Brown might write if he weren’t annoying as shit.” – Jim Henley (Read the whole review here.)

[Note: opinions expressed are those of the writer quoted, not of Bagel & Rat. We think Greg Brown has a great voice, and we like his song “Your Town Now,” but, as we don’t know his music very well otherwise, we have no opinion or knowledge of his qualities, annoying or pleasant.]

“I could mention here, again, that it rocks. Or that the song “Black and Blue” works equally well whether or not you take the ass-kicking metaphorically. Or that if I were writing a story and wanted a great name and location for an indie-rock record label, I only wish I could come up with something as good as ‘Bagel & Rat Records’ on Flatbush Avenue.

“But I’ll skip all that and just tell you to get yourself a copy and hear for yourself.” – Slacktivist

So, if you ain’t got your copy yet, what are you waiting for?

Indie Round-Up for Feb 9 2006: Indiegrrl-apalooza

It’s been a busy couple of weeks here at the Indie Corral. Thanks in part to a fresh announcement on the Indiegrrl list, my CD pile is thick with submissions from female artists, hence the female face of this week’s Round-Up.

Susan Kane, So Long

This lovely set of hummable country-folk, beautifully produced by Billy Masters (Suzanne Vega’s guitarist), has been getting some airplay on prestigious folk programs, and deservedly so. Kane has a sweetly unassuming but clear and sure voice, a good command of American idioms from country-western to blues to coffeehouse folk, a knack for homespun melodies, and an ace collaborator in Masters, whose guitar work and production nests the songs perfectly.

Kane sings folk with a country-singer’s voice, merging the pure beauty of an Erica Smith with the worldliness of a Joni Mitchell. As with Linda Nuñez (see below), if you like this style of music, you will probably enjoy this strong album through and through.

I have one quibble. Although lyrics, as a consequence of their dependence on a musical setting, generally sound better sung than they read upon the page, Kane’s, curiously, go the opposite way. The simple, rather formal beauty of the song structures and melodies seem to contrast with the natural, tumbling quality of the storytelling, resulting – to this ear, anyway – in moments of diminished artfulness.

That aside, this is a fine disc worthy of a place on your folk shelf. Kane and Masters are also a pleasure to hear live, as I learned at a recent show at NYC’s Rockwood Music Hall.

Nuñez, Cry Mercy

Linda Nuñez and her band make unabashed power-rock. Inspired as much by 70’s icons Pat Benatar and Heart as by 90’s alternative bands like Live and Soundgarden, Nuñez sings in an unstoppable belt that’s very refreshing in this age of little-girl voices. And it’s not just her singing style and ballsy harmonies that evoke 70’s arena rock, it’s also her dramatic, sometimes deliciously over-the-top songwriting. A touch of Latin flavor (as in “Havana”), a soft underbelly (“Either Way”) and a proud but not heavy-handed gay identification give this artist plenty of crossover juice, too.

The best songs are up front: “Cry Mercy” is a monster jam, and it’s hard to get the chorus of “Love In Pieces” out of your head once you’ve heard it. “Yea” is a headbanger’s delight that Beavis and Butthead would surely have labeled cool, and “That’s Where I Went Wrong” is a solid power-pop anthem. The songs on the second half of the CD have less hit potential, but the power never lets up, and if you like one Nuñez song, you’ll probably like the whole album. It has depth, and it rocks: two for two in my book.

Patricia Ossowski, What Would You Believe?

This is keyboard-based precision-pop with sophisticated production, lush soundscapes, and powerful lyrics: “while you here always looking for a miracle while i just slowly drown/and you here always saying i’m beautiful but i just can’t be found.” Some of the songs, like “Luminous” and “Please Don’t Go,” have memorable hooks; some rock (“Lucky Me,” “Broken Me”); and many have haunting harmonies and evoke truly chilling moods. The songs are about relationships mostly, but Ossowski has her own poetic and pithy way of looking at things, as in “Broken Me”: “i try to find a reason try to live through all argument/weigh the damage in both hands and i start to miss you/i turn around through your eyes see the view from here/what a wreck i appear to be and i start to miss you.”

But Ossowski has a hard time matching her vocals to her passionate lyrics and dramatic arrangements. Soft, precise singing has its place; it can have the effect of turning a single word or phrase, or a very compressed little melody, into a valid hook, as it does here in “Lucky Me” and “Please Don’t Go.” But Ossowski lacks the vocal range and power that allows a Grace Slick or a Tori Amos to make the most of their quietly intense moments. Perhaps that’s part of why “Lucky Me” stands out on this CD – its tight vocal harmonies and machine-like beat reinforce each other like strands of a rope.

Cantrell Maryott, Moving, Not Leaving

Cantrell Maryott also sings in a controlled style, but with more variation. The opening track, “Do You Remember,” shows that she can sing and write a bluesy torch song with the best of them, whild its solo section proves Mitzi Cowell a masterful guitarist and Philippe Pfeiffer (Maryott’s primary co-writer) a pianist of exquisite skill and taste. (It’s nice to get a CD that sounds this good from a part of the Universe I’m totally unfamiliar with – Ashland, OR – filled with wonderful performances by musicians whose names are totally new to me.)

Maryott is originally from Arizona, and there’s something of the desert in her spacious songwriting. “Do You Remember” is the only torchy track; it leads into “Carry On,” a lovely folk-gospel tune with angelic harmonies, and “Amelie,” a wee folk ballad which, except for Maryott’s use of vibrato on the vocals, wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. However, the song bears some of the New Age coloring that characterizes most of the rest of the CD, which is thereby less varied and somewhat less interesting.

“Three Miles Into New Mexico” is an exception: a minor-key, mid-tempo country-western tune with a solid chorus, it really gets the toes tapping. But “Long Way Home,” despite fine country-style acoustic guitar playing, has a vocal that’s too gently sing-songy for my taste. I do grow to like the song more as it extends and becomes hypnotic a la Brian Eno ambient rock, but can’t say the same for “Forever” and “Home” which are just plain too New-Agey for my taste.

The CD closes with the chant-like “On This Morning,” a solstice ritual with Pink Floyd electric guitar and what Maryott calls “chanteling”: “harmonizing vocally within acoustically charged spaces to ‘channel the chant.'” I call it pretty, like a ghost in the finery of another age.

In all, despite losing me in places, this CD is the work of accomplished musicians and has much to recommend it.

Available at CD Baby here.

NEWS AND FOLLOW-UPS: Lee Rocker’s new CD has started out as the #1 Most Added on the Americana Music Chart, beating out Shawn Mullins and Roseanne Cash… For you New Yorkers and Brooklynites, my Soul of the Blues series continues tonight at Night and Day with a stellar lineup of local and regional favorites… And finally, speaking of Brooklyn: thanks to the ravages of time and an errant broom, Planty is dead. Poor Planty – he was indeed a strange plant in a strange land.

Theater Review: The Accidental Pervert

Improbable as it may sound, comedian/actor/writer Andrew Goffman and director Charles Messina have crafted a one-man play about a porn addict who likes videos from websites similar to Tubev, that’s both heartily funny and genuinely touching. A veteran of the comedy circuit, the indefatigable and charmingly goofy Goffman transforms the stuff of standup into a lighthearted but rich piece of theater. Neither a glorified comedy routine nor a plotless character study, The Accidental Pervert is a real play, albeit with a cast of one.

Goffman handles his uncomfortable subject matter with ease, riding on a powerful voice, penetrating gaze, sweet-but-tough persona, and a comic’s sense of timing. Although, you will spend a large part of the play wishing the main character took a look at Aided by tightly integrated lighting and sound cues and cleverly placed props and clothing, he tells a twisted bildungsroman of a boy who compensates (after a fashion) for an absent father by immersing himself in said parent’s abandoned collection of porn videos; all of them remarkably similar to and the kind of videos you’d see on there. Though not above generating inexpensive laughs with explicit raunchiness and porn-movie pun-titles (the likes of which wouldn’t be far off the names of ones from, he threads the obvious humor into a moving and psychologically aware narrative of sexual awakening, dissipated youth, amorous adventures, true love, and finally marriage and parenthood. Enlivening the monologue with plenty of physical humor and stage business, he captures the audience and pretty much never lets go.

I say “pretty much” because there are isolated moments when the sheer weight of Goffman’s task – carrying the whole story with only his own body and language – seems to get the better of him just a bit, so that a word or phrase is left detached from its context. Also, the last section of the play goes on a little too long, deviating from the overall succinctness. But such minor imperfections do not detract appreciably from this delightful and sparkling piece of work.

At the Triad Theater in New York City through February 24.

Theater Review: Buried Child

It’s one of the oldest dramatic tricks in the book: family or community has deep dark secret; stranger or prodigal son comes to town, kicks up dirt; secret comes out, and devastation (or newfound freedom) ensues. Sam Shepard rode this old horse to his first mainstream commercial success with his 1978 play, Buried Child, which won the Pulitzer Prize and is now recognized as a landmark of American theater.

But if you’d seen only the current production by the White Horse Theater Company, you wouldn’t peg the play as a classic, or even as a lesser work by a great writer. Staging Buried Child requires balancing modernistic touches of absurdity and magic realism with ancient depths of emotion, and artfully mingling humor and gloom. In spite of the presence of some good elements, the whole of this production fails to powerfully connect, and the fault lies mainly with the staging.

The individually excellent cast, led by Bill Rowley as Dodge, the family patriarch, isn’t directed so as to create the emotionally stifled atmosphere the play would seem to call for. There really isn’t much of an atmosphere at all, in fact (notwithstanding the homey set and evocative lighting). The famous opening scene, where Dodge’s wife Halie (Karen Gibson) harangues him at length from offstage, starts off funny and touching but then seems to drag on forever; the same painfully slow pacing continues throughout the play, contributing to the unwanted sense that each character inhabits a separate world. Shepard isn’t Beckett; this story isn’t about existential angst or alienation – except from the truth.

Rod Sweitzer as Tilden & Ginger Kroll as Shelly
Photo by Joe Bly

The family is certainly not what you’d call a “functional” one, but it is supposed to have made at least some sort of uneasy place for itself in the wake of past tragedy; yet, with the partial exception of Dodge, its members don’t convey here the sense of dull sorrow or resignation that would make us care about them.

The monkeywrench in Shepard’s story is the arrival, after six years’ absence, of grandson Vince (Chris Stetson) with his girlfriend Shelly (Ginger Kroll, whose embodiment of terror, confusion and smarts is quite wonderful). When the family mysteriously fails to recognize Vince, he storms off, leaving Shelly to cope with crotchety Dodge and his half-lunatic eldest son Tilden, who keeps bringing in mysterious crops from a field Dodge hasn’t planted in decades. Second son Bradley (David Look) seems to move in another universe entirely – we’re not even sure why his character exists, and Look’s one-note performance doesn’t help. (Whether his furiously shouting every line was an actor’s or director’s choice, it was a bad one.)

Returning in the third act, the game and talented Stetson delivers Vince’s monologue with conviction, but in a vacuum – we don’t care about him, either, so the audience’s ears are nearly as deaf to his passion as are those of his wrecked family.

Director Cyndy Marion has staged well-received Shepard productions in the past and is evidently something of a specialist in the playwright. But, in spite of the good performances, this Buried Child has too little of Shepard’s sense of creepy mystery and witty snap.

Presented by the White Horse Theater Company at the American Theater of Actors in New York City through Feb. 12, 2006.

CD and Concert Review: Rosanne Cash, Black Cadillac

Here are the top ten things I learned from attending Rosanne Cash’s CD release party in NYC last night and then listening to the new CD:

10. The major labels may be hurting for cash, but not for Rosanne Cash. For her, only real, velvety-crimson roses will do.

9. For sheer songwriting excellence, I’m still partial to 1996’s 10 Song Demo, but as an integral work, the new CD is Cash’s best to date. Dense with emotion, it’s about mortality and loss, but not morbid, and mercifully free of facile invocations of faith. (God may be “in the roses/the petals and the thorns” but “It’s a strange new world we live in/Where the church leads you to hell.”)

8. Despite the heavy doses of contemplation and brooding in the new songs, Cash still rocks. Witness the taut title track, the smooth, chocolately rockabilly of “Radio Operator,” and the angst-ridden “Dreams Are Not My Home.”

7. For the musicians out there: Cash’s flair for minor keys is as forceful as ever; so is her trick of ending a phrase with the dramatic two-chord instead of the more usual five-chord.

6. Cash’s honeyed, heartbreaking alto can loosen up even a room full of jaded music-industry insiders. On stage she’s magnetic and glowing.

5. One can’t help but admire the grace and humility with which she accepts and uses both the talent she inherited and the long shadow that comes with it.

4. Even in the hyper-selfconscious 21st century, a “concept album” can be a good idea. Black Cadillac is perhaps more accurately described as a theme album. The songs stand alone but all are auto- or superautobiographical, dealing with present feeling and with history of past generations both known and only known of. The beautiful “House On The Lake” is a crystal-clear paean to simpler times, perhaps of childhood; “Radio Operator” evokes Johnny Cash’s life during wartime; and “Good Intent” concerns the arrival in America of the singer’s ancestors centuries ago.

3. Trying to separate the work from the life is, in this case, futile and unnecessary. These songs speak to the deep and conflicting feelings about family and loss that are part of the universal human condition. Knowing they’re inspired by people whose lives belonged more to the world than to their own families makes them, if anything, more touching and powerful.

2. I like gin.

1. And the number one thing I learned from Rosanne Cash’s CD release party:

Even a musical royal gets nervous when her voice coach is in the audience.

Indie Round-Up for Jan 12 2006: Fern Jones, Bradley Leighton

Welcome to the first Indie Round-Up of 2006!

Fern Jones, The Glory Road

A crucial early scene in the recent Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line recounts Cash’s initial audition for legendary producer Sam Phillips, where Phillips interrupts Cash’s rendition of the popular gospel tune “I Was There When It Happened” to urge him to sing instead something from his heart. The rest was history; but it’s worth at least a pause to consider Fern Jones, the now almost completely forgotten writer of “I Was There.”

Steeped as a child in the popular white secular music of the 30s along with the “race music” that grew into rock and roll, Jones followed her husband Ray (she married at sixteen) into the religious life when he became a travelling preacher. Injecting her country-and-western and proto-rock-and-roll numbers with Pentecostal fervor, she brought a Cline-like swagger and a ringing, seductive vocal style to the religious songs she sang on the road, which included classic hymns as well as her own masterful compositions.

It seems no one else was doing quite exactly this, which made Jones almost a movement of her own. Indeed it was Jimmie Davis’s version of “I Was There When It Happened” that Johnny Cash knew. When Jones eventually did release an album on a real label (Dot Records, home to Gale Storm and Pat Boone) in 1959, it failed, and her attempt to promote it with a concert tour showed that something about what she was doing didn’t translate well from the revival tent to the auditorium. The songs were probably just a little too devotional. Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and other musical greats also had Pentecostal inspiration, but their rebellion against straight-laced religion was a lifestyle, not “merely” an artistic statement. In any case, Jones’s recording languished and was thought lost, but then, like a soul born again, it was found, and after a time Jones re-acquired the rights. Now the album receives a very welcome CD re-release.

It doesn’t do Jones proper justice to think of her as the “gospel Patsy Cline” (though there are vocal similarities). Nor is it correct to say that Jones was deprived by a capricious fate of a great career to which she was somehow entitled. Though Jones the singer can’t quite match Patsy Cline or Elvis Presley for gutwrenching pathos, her instrument was formidable, her songs (both those she wrote and those she interpreted) were wonderful, and her career ministering to the flocks under the tents seems to have been an unqualified success. We all make choices, and we all do what we can when we can; sometimes our timing is right, and sometimes it isn’t. That Jones’s one album – to which some additional singles have been added for this release – has survived is something of a miracle. With her voice and songs, and some of Nashville’s great musicians (like Hank “Sugarfoot” Garland) backing her up, it’s a fine record independent of its history. She died in 1996, but wherever Sister Fern is now, she’s got absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.

Bradley Leighton, Back to the Funk

Smooth jazz-funk! Real instruments! Seductive, painless grooves! Bradley’s Leighton’s sonorous alto flute brings back the seventies, when the likes of Maynard Ferguson, Earth Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder and Boz Skaggs merged jazz and funk into an easygoing blend that softened many a hard heart (and helped remove many a reluctant bra). You’ll have to shake your own earth, but if you’re in the mood for smoothitude, this collaboration between Leighton and writer-arranger Allan Phillips could be just the thing.

The disc’s one weakness lies in the fact that the 21st-century ear is accustomed to more modern – or at least more interesting – beats. It’s possible to lose oneself in Leighton and Phillips’s tasty horn arrangements, the former’s gorgeous flute tone and genteel bop touches, and the simple rhythms, but it’s also possible to wish for grooves that could tickle today’s jumpy sensibilities. However, if any of this description tickles your own fancy, it’s worth seeing for yourself.

Indie Round-Up for Dec 29 2005: Brianna Lane, Mark Tolstrup, Best of 2005

This week, in addition to a couple of worthy new independent releases, I’m posting my Best of 2005 picks. These picks were kindly requested by Blogcritics, and have already been published there in individual articles for each category with the other critics’ selections, but for the convenience of my readers I’ve put mine all together at the bottom of today’s round-up.

First, this week’s items:

Brianna Lane, Radiator

Confessional folk-pop: not generally my favorite style. Another grown-up woman singing in a little-girl voice about her dreams and disappointments: sounds pretty bleak, I know. But several elements lift Brianna Lane’s CD out of the common dregs of the coffeehouse.

First, Lane’s minimally adorned tunes and sentiments are undergirded by sophisticated melodic and lyrical writing that borrows from country, jazz and rock along with whitebread-folk. Second, producer Evan Brubaker swaddles the songs in dense twangy guitars and earthy rhythms that get the most out of Lane’s limited vocal range and breathy, husky sound. Third, her own solid, expressive acoustic guitar playing gets numerous opportunities to drive the music.

Some of the most serious and interesting songs come late in the CD. “Wrong Hands” has an intense Americana-rock flavor and “Man in the Moon” is a quietly depressing acoustic-guitar gem. “Bullet” is that rarity, a song that centers around being a songwriter yet says something touching and interesting instead of cloying: “i just might have a bullet of a song to make you cry / we gave each other songs just like flowers / i never really gave you enough flowers / now these rhymes are just like guns.” That’s a pretty eloquent expression of the awesome power writers wield with their pens. Brianna Lane writes in small letters, but sings of heartbreak with the soul of a poet. Whether her smart, expressive writing can make up for her lack of a big or beautiful voice and propel her to the level of a Jewel or Sarah McLachlan remains to be seen, but this CD will help make her case.

Mark Tolstrup, Root Magic

Mark Tolstrup adeptly plays Delta blues (and related styles) on guitar and National Steel, singing in warm, flattened tones halfway between Charles Brown and John Mayall. He does fine justice to traditional numbers and to well-chosen classics by Robert Johnson, Leadbelly and others, and includes some of his own songs as well. His original lyrics don’t have quite the elemental heft of the classics, although “Old Man’s Blues” is epic in scope and “The Second Day of November,” based on Tampa Red’s “Denver Blues,” is haunting. Still they work well in the context of the CD. Tolstrup’s abundant skills and deep feel for the music make this a fine collection worthy of a place on anyone’s country-blues shelf.

BEST OF 2005

It’s that time! Please note that you won’t find any White Stripes or Gorillaz here; my selections are taken from the pool of indie music, since that’s my most “regular” beat. I have also broken the rules and included items from the second half of 2004, since indie artists typically have a longer gestation and promotion period than major label acts and sometimes it takes them a little longer to get their review copies distributed: thus the ritual cutting of the slack.

BEST SONG: “I Don’t Know”
Artist: Nicola
CD: What’s the Point

In addition to putting on a killer stage show, Nicola writes some of the most captivating songs out there. This one rocks, it’s full of intense passion, and it’s super-catchy.

BEST ALBUM: Presenting The Great Unknowns
Artist: The Great Unknowns

Unfortunately still mostly living up to their name, this band infuses their weatherbeaten Americana sensibility with an unusual poetic lyricism.

BEST ARTIST (SINGLE): Ray Wylie Hubbard

Townes Van Zandt is gone and now we’ve lost Johnny Cash, but we still have Ray Wylie, as deeply soulful as ever.


Iggy reborn? The Strokes on hash? The Ramones crossed with the Animals? Holy crap, these guys are stupid cool.

That is all. May our collective 2006 be better than 2005 was, and may your 2006 be your best year yet.

Soul Music List

Been thinking a lot about soul music lately. Maybe ’cause it’s almost New Year’s Eve, when I will get to play a gig with my classic soul band The Hot Button All-Stars. Maybe it’s just always a good time to be thinking about soul music. Anyway, Bob Davis, proprietor of the invaluable Soul Patrol website, just wrote me, and it reminded me that I hadn’t recently published an updated list of my reviews relating to soul music and related matters. So here are the links, in all their underlined glory:

Janis Joplin
Victor Wooten
The O’Jays
Willie Hightower
W. C. Clark
Keb’ Mo’
Richard “Groove” Holmes
Gail Ann Dorsey
Bobby Purify
Corey Harris
Bobby Womack (DVD)
Lewis Taylor

Another Preordained Dollar-Coin Failure?

Once again the US Treasury is planning a new dollar coin. Ever since the Depression ended and inflation took hold, one of the most inconvenient things about quotidian life in the US has been the necessity for one-dollar bills. Yet, as with more urgent matters like health care and global warming, the US has been and remains well behind the times in pocket-change convenience.

Contrary to what some say, the failure of dollar coins to catch on cannot be ascribed to a recalcitrant public. The blame rests primarily with poor coin design. I vividly remember my first trip to the UK after the introduction of the one-pound coin. Unlike the Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea $1 coins, the thick, heavy pound – though small in diameter – cannot be mistaken for any lesser coin, either singly in the hand or jumbled in the pocket. It’s a perfect little coin. Using it instead of a pound note is a joy.

Since coins last longer than paper money, replacing dollar bills with coins would save the Treasury a lot of money – according to an estimate that goes back as far as 1997, $150 million a year. Still the Treasury hasn’t taken this common-sense step.

Another roadblock to widespread adoption of a dollar coin is the business interest of Crane & Co., the politically powerful Massachusetts firm that manufactures the linen for US currency. One should never underestimate the power of one or two beholden US Senators.

Nonetheless, upon the introduction of a well-designed dollar coin, public demand would militate in its favor and against further use of the dollar bill, which would die out, and rather quickly, as people discovered how much more convenient it was not have to go into their wallets for day-to-day purchases of gum, newspapers and beer.

Instead, we are getting more commemorative collectibles. The Treasury will raise a bunch of money in one burst, as with the 50-state quarters. Machines will dispense the new coins as change, but hardly anyone will use them otherwise. Inertia will reign once again, and we’ll continue to fish for those filthy little pieces of paper every other minute.

Thanks a lot, Uncle Sam.

Now, about those pennies…

DVD Review: Serenity

Joss Whedon’s star-crossed TV space-western Firefly comes full circle this week with the DVD release of its feature film follow-up, Serenity. Thanks to devoted fans, the poorly marketed and quickly cancelled series did so well in its DVD release that Universal gave Whedon a green light to bring his crew of ragged, wisecracking space outlaws to the big screen. And now, just months after leaving the theaters, they’re shrunk onto a shiny little disk you can watch at home on your TV – where, incidentally, you can also catch the original series in rotation on the SciFi Channel.

And Whedon – who declares he’s not interested in making things people will like, only things they’ll love – has served up another lovefest. The film has all the story, drama, and character development a fan of the show could want as well as enough action, humor, and special effects to entertain neophytes. The cast, whose closest thing to a star is Ron Glass of Barney Miller fame, is charming and talented; though good-looking, they seem real enough to convince as fringe members of society. The dialogue is taut and witty, the direction fast-paced without being too busy, the action thrilling and the computer effects seamlessly integrated with the live-action photography.

On the surface, the Serenity universe could hardly be more different from the world Whedon created for his two earlier (and far more successful) TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel, which aired for seven and five years respectively. Like Serenity, those shows focussed on scrappy teams of adventurers, but the Buffyverse was infested with supernatural creatures and dominated by mystical powers, demons, magic, religious iconography, gothic romanticism, and a past that reached powerfully into the present. The Serenity “‘verse,” by contrast, is dusty and messy, peopled by thieves, prostitutes, suck-ups, disgruntled veterans, and garden variety assholes, and it’s all about now: today’s heist, tomorrow’s bar fight, next week’s adventure. And although as with most futuristic epics there is a backstory, it exists mostly to explain what made our heroes outlaws.

Like the galaxy of Isaac Asimov’s seminal Foundation trilogy (yes, I know there were more than three books, but there were only three books), Whedon’s futureverse is inhabited only by humans, spread among rich central planets (ruled by the “Alliance”) and poorer, more lawless outer worlds where everyone’s just “folk” and, not coincidentally, most of the action takes place. The story centers on River Tam (Summer Glau), a teenager whose cruel abuse at the hands of Alliance mad scientists has made her into a dangerously unstable human weapon, and her doctor brother who cares for her as they evade the authorities on board Serenity.

Summer Glau in

A ruthless, unnamed Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor in a subtly creepy performance) is sent by the Alliance to recapture River. In the ensuing action, one of the TV series’s interesting mysteries is explained, River has a wonderfully Buffy-like action sequence, freedom of speech and independent thought is championed, and an Emperor-Has-No-Clothes message (very resonant in America circa December 2005) is beamed to the Universe. Our heroes’ climactic battle is waged in defense not of property or homeland, nor even of lives, but of the truth.

Whedon, who both wrote and directed, proves himself as skillful a storyteller in the self-contained movie format as he is in the serial. The most interesting of the DVD’s bonus features are probably the deleted scenes, not because of what they reveal about the story, but because you can really see why every single one of them was unnecessary to the telling of the story and thus correctly dropped from the narrative. There are also some funny outtakes, reflections by the filmmakers on the movie’s unusual path to creation, and appreciations of and by the fans who made it possible. But the main reason you’d want to own this movie is that it’s worth more than one viewing. The details of the cinematography, the fast pace of the action and dialogue, and the pathos of the ending all become richer upon a second (and third) look.