Thursday, August 26, 2010

Music Review: Acoustic Project Laura Cortese

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Acoustic Project is an eclectic seven track EP for a most unconventional string quartet put together by fiddler, vocalist Laura Cortese. The other musicians are Natalie Haas on the cello, Brittany Haas on the five string fiddle, and Hanneke Cassel on the fiddle. Cortese wrote the music for five of the songs, as well as the lyrics for two. The varied tracks echo with traditional fiddle Blue Grass and Cajun influences as well as pop and jazz lines. Lyrics cross genres as well, with nods to traditional folk ballads as in "Wade on In" and pop disillusion in "Overcome." Cortese has a voice that can drip with ironic sweetness or soar with driving passion at times complementing the pulsating strings, at times struggling against them. Her EP is a masterful blend of sound and sense (with apologies to Alexander Pope. Acoustic Project is the work of a true artist.

Two of the tracks are instrumentals: "5 Tune" which features Brittany Haas' five string fiddle and "Du Petit Sarny et Reel a Deux" two pieces in the traditional mode by French Canadian fiddler, Eric Favreau. There are also some nice opportunities for solo work in the arrangements of many of the other tracks. The traditional "Greasy Coat" ends the EP with a kind of homage to the fiddle's Blue Grass roots. "Women of the Ages" contrasts prettily plucked strings with John Beaton's bleak lyric spoken by mothers who have lost sons, widows, and women who have been left pregnant. "We're the women of the ages," wails the chorus, "wooed to walk the aisles of grief;/we're the wear on well worn pages/where posterity retraces deeds of men in bold relief."

Corteses' lyrics can be equally bleak. "Overcome" is the quiet assessment of a relationship when the passionate moment is over. The lover has left the bed and remorse has set in. Ironically the singer listens to the traffic "whispering my indiscretion" as the lover gazes out the window looking for an answer that he can't find. "Wade on In" is a seduction ballad that looks back in its dialogue form to the Middle Ages and the Popular Ballad. "Perfect Tuesdays" is a kind of modern plaint over loneliness and sham relationships:

                   To all you strangers out there listening
In vintage suits, printed tees and straight fit jeans
It's not the same when I know it's just game
You're not the one just the boy of the weeks it seems.

According to her press release, Acoustic Project is the second release in a three part EP series to be followed by a full length album. The first of the series Two Amps, One Microphone came out earlier this year. Cortese teamed with Jefferson Hamer and recorded a program of "Celtic-influenced American rock songs" after a year of performing together. Hamer's website says that the EP, which contains nine tracks, is only available as yet at live concerts. The play list includes Cortese's "Wade on In" and "Overcome" as well as songs by Hamer and Gram Parsons' "A Song For You." Some of the songs from the album are available free on the "KCBS In-Studio Performances Podcast" from iTunes.

You can check out "Perfect Tuesdays" on Cortese's website as well as one of her duets with Hamer: "Let's Get Rowdy." Check it out. If you like the fiddle, if you like modern folk rock, hell if you like music, you'll like Laura Cortese.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Book Review: Ablutions Patrick deWitt

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Think of a novel like William Kennedy's Ironweed; think of Eugene O'Neill's play, The Iceman Cometh. Put them in a painting by an artist like George Grosz, and you've got a good idea about what Patrick deWitt's debut novel Ablutions is like. Set most of the time in a Los Angeles bar peopled with a cast of drunks and lowlifes, it is narrated by an alcoholic barback whose own life is rapidly falling apart. These are not mild mannered drunks played for laughs. They are not even Falstaffian reprobates that are at least jolly good company, if not very admirable human beings. These are the dregs and outcasts drowning their misery in booze and drugs.

Presented as notes for a novel, the narrator seems to be jotting down little reminders of things he needs to talk about when he gets around to writing this novel that more than likely will never get written, or at least to understand these people and perhaps at the same time understand himself. Many times a section will begin with the imperative, discuss. "Discuss the regulars," the book begins. "Discuss the ingesting of pills in the storage room. . . ." "Discuss the effects of the full moon on the weekend crowds. . . ." It is as if the act of putting things on paper will somehow get at truth. "It bothers you to know that the truth will never reveal itself spontaneously and you keep on your toes for clues."

Many of the passages are little character sketches of the 'regulars' and the staff. Curtis is a black man with a "law enforcement fetish." He sports an empty holster and mirrored sunglasses. He started as a model customer tipping freely, but gradually became annoying looking to freeload. Simon, the manager, is a South African with pretentions to an acting career and a coke habit. Sam is a drug dealer who brings his kids with him when he conducts business at the bar. Raymond draws furtively on napkins which he keeps hidden from prying eyes while he sits at the bar. There are crack addicts, whores, petty thieves, transvestites, has been actors, and actor wannabees, and what they all have in common is the need to find some kind of excitement, some kind of escape from the emptiness of their lives.

And although, as the narrator begins to record his observations, he seems to be looking at these people as a kind of freak show, but it isn't long before he finds himself in much the same condition. His is the story of a man's descent into the depths of an alcoholic oblivion and then his somewhat futile attempts to dig his way out.

While the subject matter here smacks of 19th century naturalism, Ablutions is no Zolaesque social treatise. This is black comedy. These may not be loveable drunks of the Foster Brooks variety, but they are ridiculously laughable in their inadequacies. Attempts at relationships disintegrate into ineffectual sexual encounters at best and disgusting humiliations at worst. Friendships last as long as the drinks and money hold out. More often than not a night's drinking ends up in vomiting and passing out, bleeding and passing out, or just plain passing out. Vows to quit drinking are treated as jokes one beer at a time. Whether it is the narrator or the people he describes, these are not tragic figures; they are overwhelmed by a world they can't handle. Drugs and alcohol merely disguise their inadequacies, and not for very long, at that.

Ablutions is a nightmare vision that will have you chuckling and then wondering what you were laughing about. The story reeks of honesty, but it is the honesty of nausea and excrement. It gives you a view of the nightmare from a distance, and from a distance is most surely the best way to view it.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Music Review: Live in Vienna Lang Lang

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Charisma, flair, drama, passion—these are the terms most often used to describe 27 year old Chinese pianist virtuoso, Lang Lang. He has star quality. He steps out on stage and the atmosphere is electric. And besides all that, he can play with the best of them. It is not all that strange then, that at a time when the audience for classical music is aging and seats in concert halls are often going unfilled, a musician like Lang Lang would be touted as the great hope for the future of serious music. It is not all that strange that Sony would sign him to a three million dollar recording contract.

Live in Vienna is the first fruit of that contract. The two disc CD was recorded during February and March of this year at Vienna's historic Musikverein, perhaps best known to American audiences for the annual PBS broadcast of the New Year's concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic. The venue is of interest because Sony is also releasing the recital on DVD and Blue Ray, and the venerable setting is a visual symbol of classical music's traditions. The Blue Ray will include a 3D video in an attempt to merge tradition with new technologies.

The first disc contains two of Beethoven's sonatas, the early Sonata No. 3 in C Major, Op. 2 and the much more well known Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57, the "Appasionata." In the notes to the CD, Lang Lang says that although Sonata No. 3 is an early work, it already shows signs of the composer's maturity and the strength of his personality. The "Appasionata," on the other hand is one of those works central not only to Beethoven, but central to the repertoire. Although some may ask why another recording of such an old chestnut, it is truly a work that has the kind of emotional impact especially suited to the bravura style of the pianist. Lang Lang says: "It's like an enormous volcano beneath the surface, a dark environment, hidden and needing to be explored." And explore it he does, both with evocative dynamics and rhythmic nuance.

Disc 2 begins with Isaac Albeniz's Iberia, Book I in three movements. The pianist emphasizes the varied rhythms in the work and notes the folk influences as well as the soft focus coloring of the French Impressionists. This is followed by Sonata No. 7 in B-Flat Major, Op. 83 by Prokofiev, sometimes called the "Stalingrad," one of the "War Sonatas." As passionate in a modern idiom as the Beethoven's are in the Romantic, the piece gives the artist an opportunity to recreate what he calls a "warlike mood."

Three Chopin encores conclude the recital. There is an etude and a waltz, but the central piece is the Polonaise No. 6 in A-Flat Major, Op. 53, the famous "Heroic" Polonaise. This, of course, is one of the great piano show pieces. Like the "Appasionata," it offers the pianist an opportunity to showcase his skills in the context of all those virtuosos who have gone before. Lang Lang's performance has all the drama of the best of them.

Live in Vienna offers a nice variety while focusing on the strengths of the artist. There is a mix of the less familiar and the well known. There is plenty of opportunity for skilled dexterity. There is a range of emotion. Lang Lang knows how to choose his repertoire, and it is all played with a consummate skill and technique. If this CD is any indication, he may indeed be just what is needed to develop a new audience for classical music; he is without doubt just the tonic necessary to reinvigorate the old one. Three million may be just about the right price for such a talent.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Music Review: Sa Belle Belle Ba Leni Stern

This article was first published at Blogcritics

I guess the first time I really got interested in the fusion of the pop music aesthetic with world music was back in the eighties when Paul Simon resurrected himself with his award winning Graceland album. Certainly there had been world music influences in some of Simon's earlier music, "Mother and Child Reunion" for example, but the new album suggested a commitment beyond a single here and there. Collaborating with musical groups like Ladyship Black Mambazo and Los Lobos, he combined multicultural rhythms with his trademark poetic lyrics to produce gems like "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" and "All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints." The Rhythm of the Saints which followed never had the same success, but it did show a similar cultural outreach.

There is a lot about Leni Stern's new CD Sa Belle Belle Ba that reminds me of Simon's landmark album. She comes to world music with a successful resume as a jazz guitarist and infuses track after track with swinging guitar riffs and mellow highlights. Listen to the twanging guitar punctuating the vocal on "Nan Jeya" and the electrical improvisation on "Born Bad." There is also some nice improvisation on the kora (a 21 string West African lute like instrument) by Yakouba Sissoko in the Arabic flavored "Yakhai Bi Khali" and the lilting "Souma Chamon." She makes it her business to collaborate with authentic voices. Guest musicians include Haruna Samake, Ami Sacko, Bouba Sacko, Bassekou Kouyate and Zoumana Tareta. They join Stern in chorus and with individual solo work, most often providing an African counterpoint to her English lyrics. For example listen to the choral background to the bluesy "Smoke's Risin'." It is unfortunate that individual solo work isn't always credited in the album notes.

Her English lyrics range from the deceptive simplicity of "Souma Chamon" and "Sera" to the poetic eloquence of "Now I Close My Heart" that begs comparison with Simon at his best. There is a prayer like quality to her paean to Africa the motherland of humanity, "Farafina Cadi." She combines English lyrics with African and Arabic lyrics, in a sense illustrating the need to go beyond linguistic barriers and find the humanity that fills us all. In the same way her fusion of musical genres symbolizes her desire for cultural fusion. So, for example, there is the combination of traditional African chants with rap on the title song, "Sa Belle Belle Ba." She melds jazzy blues and a swinging electric guitar solo to a backdrop of African rhythms in "Born Bad."

Leni Stern has explained that the title of her new CD is a warning about the dangers of snakes, both the reptilian and the two legged variety. "Sa" means snake in what I assume is Bambara the official language of Mali. "Ba" means big, and "belle," very. The world, it seems, is filled with very big snakes, and we would do best to be on our guard. In notes provided in the promotional material for the album, Stern tells a lengthy story about how she was encouraged by singer Ami Sacko to go to see particularly powerful sorcerer to assure the success of their work on the album. The sorcerer advised that she needed to ride a wild white horse every morning for seven days. She took the advice and one day she discovered a boa constrictor near the sorcerer's home. She became frightened until she was assured that the snake was dead. It was then that she began writing the song, "the image of the snake," she says, "etched" in her mind. The story is another testament to Stern's commitment to cross cultural pollination: a passion that is the theme of her album.

Jazz, folk, blues, rock, pop, rap, world music—pick your poison; it's all there on Leni Stern's new CD, Sa Belle Belle Ba. Whether she's singing in Arabic or Bambara or riffing on the electric guitar, Stern's work is emblematic of the South by Southwest World Music Festival motto: "all music is world music." Her songs bridge languages. Her CD is an eclectic collection of fused musical styles and genres. Leni Stern is all music.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Music Review: The Chronicle of a Literal Man Rob Morsberger

This article was first published at Blogcritics

I would imagine singer, composer Rob Morsberger must be getting tired of reading all the comparisons that critics are so constantly making as they attempt to define and label him and his music for the audience as yet to hear him. He is a "Tom Petty/Bob Dylan hybrid," says one critic. He has the kind of "hyperliterate" style that "went out of style when Warren Zevon died," says another. His latest is done with "an Elvis (Costello)-esque mix of wit and grit." And that's not all, there's Tom Waits, Rufus Wainwright, Robbie Robertson and a touch of Randy Newman. But if he is, he's just going to have to live with it, because in each and every one of these comparisons there is much more than the proverbial granular truth.

Witness his latest CD, his fourth, The Chronicle of a Literal Man, a compilation of ten richly original compositions ranging from the anthemic title track to the lilting rhythms of "Stroke of Insight," from the introspective "Nebraska in Winter" to the rumbling passions of "Old Jolly Farm." His lyrics are dense with allusion, metaphor and creative rhyming. He writes lyrics that will reward the kind of explicative analysis usually accorded to the finest of poets. Often he seems to create so many voices not his own (to paraphrase one of those fine poets) to speak the speech, or more appropriately to sing the song (as in "Nebraska in Winter"). Moreover, he embeds his lyrics in tunes with melodies that will as often as not keep listeners humming.

Certainly his lyrics are literate; indeed they may be too literate. They are filled with references that will be meaningful to most listeners only with some kind of gloss by way of album notes, album notes that are not supplied with the CD, although all the lyrics are provided. While no doubt he isn't writing for the typical pop audience, his lyrics tend towards the kind of idiosyncratic allusion that sends one to Google. "Where is the Song" refers to an unnamed revolution in 1848. The speaker cries out from exile to a Natalia. In a recent interview, Morsberg says that the song is about Russian revolutionary, Alexander Herzen. Of course without his comment, I'm not sure how the audience is supposed to know that. "Old Jolly Farm," burial site of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman may be more identifiable to some. "Modestine," it turns out is the name of a donkey in Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, certainly not among that author's most well known works. "The Chronicle of a Literal Man" deals with the motion picture, Papillon and morphs into a riff on McCarthyism and the screen writer Dalton Trumbo.

Is it necessary to understand all these allusions to enjoy the music? That is the question. While there is no question that understanding the lyric adds much to the enjoyment of music, it is also true that musical success has never depended solely on the comprehension of the lyrics. We don't have to understand what we are hearing to find it powerfully moving. Indeed, one might argue that not completely understanding the composer's intentions allows the listener to read his own meanings into what he is hearing.

A case in point: before Googling Modestine, I heard the line, "You're my beast of burden." My first thought was The Rolling Stones. At the end of the song come the lines: "You're the queen /of my world/please don't make an ass of me/Modestine." What I heard was a love song. The fact that it later turns out that it's a love song to an ass, only adds to the irony.

Morsberger's metaphors and similes remind me of nothing so much as the conceits of the seventeenth century Metaphysical poets, poets like John Donne and George Herbert. Depression, "the density of sadness" is "just like eating a stone." Life should not be like "an independent movie," a speaker in the song of the same name advises. Another song tells a friend complaining about his life: "If your life is God's idea of a sick joke/at least it’s a joke he's playing on you."
He likes creative rhymes: "them or us/Spartacus," Steve McQueen/ final scene," "pay your debt/cigarette," all in the title song. Scattered through the others are rhymes you might not ordinarily expect: "of vision/derision," "defective/perspective," "alter/falter," "a while/exile." He also gets some nice effects with off-rhymes. I should note that he tends to shy away from these kinds of poetic indulgences which focus more on wit than sincerity when he is looking for something more emotionally charged as in "Old Jolly Farm" and "Nebraska in Winter." These are written in a much more straightforward manner.
Morsberger does the lead vocals and plays keyboards. Robin Gould is on the drums, Jon Herington, electric and acoustic guitars, and Paul Ossola plays electric and upright base. Listen to them wail at the end of "You Don't Get It," the last of the album's songs. Jim Hynes does some nice work on the flugelhorn with the syncopated rhythms of "Modestine."

If you miss the late Warren Zevon, if you're looking for some of that Costello-esque wit, if Tom Waits or Bob Dylan or Rufus Wainwright is your thing, give Rob Morsberger a listen. You won't regret it.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Top Chef Tops

hioiThis article was first published at Blogcritics

I've been a fan of Top Chef ever since its first season in 2005 when Harold won out over Tiffani and the host was Katie Lee, and I've been following the show religiously as it is now in the middle of its seventh season. Occasionally I have dallied with other cooking reality shows, but never with the kind of devotion I have lavished on Top Chef. What is that cliché about first love?

Iron Chef America has glitz, but these are master chefs on parade. They would seem to have little on the line. They are more or less showing off. Hell's Kitchen is more about Gordon Ramsey's sadistic humiliation of contestants, than it is about cooking. Chopped and its mystery basket with anything from jelly beans to sardines has a kind of surreal appeal, but it since each episode is self contained, viewers are not likely to bond with individual contestants as they do when chefs are eliminated over a period of weeks. The Next Food Network Star solves that problem, but then the judges are as much concerned with a chef's star quality as they are with her cooking. Critiques of their on camera performance are as important in keeping contestants around as the taste of their food.

In a way you would think this should be a plus for the show. After all those of us watching at home, as none other than Top Chef host/judge Tom Colicchio pointed out in an interview on a Salon Magazine podcast awhile back , have no way of knowing how the food the chef's produce tastes. He was talking about the critical mail they often received complaining that the judges had made a mistake deciding which of the chefs should be sent to "pack their knives." At least when it comes to on camera personality, viewers have a reasonable basis on which to make a judgment. While this may well be true, I don't know that rationality has anything to do with the popularity of these shows. Moreover, it is clear that a reality show contestant's personalities are more likely to depend on selective editing than on anything else.

This is not to say that Top Chef doesn't indulge in creative editing. The show is as much concerned with creating heroes and villains as its cooking and non-cooking relatives. They just seem to do it so well. There hasn't been a show where I haven't found someone to dislike, sometimes someone to detest. In that first season there was Stephen. In the second season there was the smarmy Marcel. Season five had the know-it-all Stefan. There are the loveable losers: Miguel in the first season, Ron in season six, and of course, Fabio in season five. Then in the end when it comes to choosing a winner, it usually turns out to be one of the good guys, Hosea in season five, or one of the good gals, Stephanie, the first female winner in the fourth season. No question manipulation is the name of the game, but manipulation so adept who could wish away (with apologies to Samuel Johnson). The Next Food Network Star isn't in the same league.

And now we're in season seven. The chefs are in Washington DC. John, the strange man with the hair, was gone quickly. The outspoken Tracey was sent packing in the third episode. Stephen, the jokester, went last week with over cooked rice. The seemingly inept Amanda and the accident prone Alex are still around. There is a possible cheating scandal over some vanishing pea puree. The alpha males Kenny and Angelo are battling for top dog. Maybe we can't taste the tamales that beat out Kevin's attempt at Indian cuisine and Kelly's carpaccio and won thousand dollars for soon to be married Tiffany, but it sure feels like the right person won. And after all is said and done, isn't feelings what this is all about? Besides, I don't have the vaguest idea what carpaccio is and I couldn't tell a real curry from a fake on a bet.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Elephant Keeper Reviewed

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Christopher Nicholson's new historical novel, The Elephant Keeper, is set in England in the second half of the eighteenth century. It begins in 1773 when, Tom Page, the keeper of the title, is asked by the current owner of the elephant and his employer to write a history of his association with the animal including an explanation of his own capability to communicate with it. Unsure of his abilities with the pen, Tom demurs for awhile, makes a couple of false starts and is finally encouraged to tell the story in his own way without worrying about literary niceties. With that he goes back to his beginnings and his first acquaintance with the elephant and her brother when they arrive in England and are purchased by the wealthy merchant he works for as a groom. The novel follows Tom's experiences working with at least one of the elephants for a number of different owners, as he devotes his life to her care. Their relationship is less one of animal and trainer than it is of friends. In a very real sense, this is the love story of a man and an elephant.

Nicholson's depiction of eighteenth century England is spot on. Class differences are clearly marked. Servants and villagers are subject to the whims of the upper classes. Benevolent aristocrats may treat them well, but all the wealthy are not benevolent. Rural life for the lower classes tended to be insulated. Cities were dirty and crime infested. Sickness and disease were constant worries, and medical treatment was more than likely to be simple quackery. Rich landowners were enthralled with a new craze for romantic landscaping, eschewing the formal gardens of earlier periods in favor of a wilder scenic vista including things like a hermit's cottage equipped with its own hermit, a man-made lake, an obelisk. For those with a scientific bent there might be a collection of extraordinary flora and fauna. British ships were bringing new undreamed of exotica back from their journeys: everything from monkeys to bananas; though they never were able to bring back one of the mermaids so often seen by sailors. Superstition was rampant.
Not quite a picaresque novel of the kind written during the period, the novel is more a collection of incidents in the lives of Tom and the female elephant he calls Jennie, than it is a coherently plotted story. Although one might well see Tom and Jennie as a post modern commentary on the more traditional combination of the picaresque hero and his companion, Don Quixote and Sancho Pannza. Indeed, in some respect this may not be that much of a stretch. The somewhat controversial ending of the book where a modern author appears in a research facility surveying the remains of elephants that died in captivity in England reads much like something you would expect to see in modern meta-fiction. Undoubtedly there is something in the novel's inconclusive conclusion that will remind readers of John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman.

Moreover, the novel raises an interesting aesthetic question about the relationship between truth and fiction. At the start, Tom Page is constantly concerned with providing some kind of objective truth in his writing, but he can only begin to write when he is assured that he need only deal with what he determines to be the truth. He must learn the value of subjective truth, a value that was becoming more and more prevalent in the period in which the novel is set. Add to this the idea that often you can get at truth more effectively through falsehood—a thesis set forward by a painter commissioned to paint a portrait of Jennie, when Tom complains that the painting is a purposeful misrepresentation, and later repeated by the owner of a menagerie creating tall tales about his animals. This paradoxical view of the nature of truth becomes a staple of the next century's aesthetics.

Indeed, Tom's own narrative gradually seems to move away from any attempt at objective truth in favor of a more subjective reality. Early in his writing, when he is credited with being able to speak to the elephant, he is quick to deny it, and explain her training. As the years go on, he begins to speak to Jennie and Jennie answers. Not only does she answer, but she comforts him when he is troubled, philosophizes about life in captivity and its parallel to the human condition. More and more as the novel progresses, she becomes the voice of wisdom. While certainly, Tom is putting his own thoughts and feelings into the mouth of the elephant, the power of those feelings is emphasized dramatically.

The Elephant's Keeper is the story of one man's devotion to the creature he loves, his refusal to listen to the complaint that she's "only an elephant." It is not a case of merely attributing human characteristics to animals. The world of The Elephant Keeper is one where as often as nor men behave like beasts, and animals behave with honor. It is a story of a man who comes to see that there is little to distinguish between man and beast: "I feel a kinship with these creatures. We inhabit the same world; we breathe the same air, beneath the same sky. . . . Why do philosophers always look for differences instead of likenesses?" References throughout to the fourth book of Gulliver's Travels are not without relevance. This is a story that may well get you too talking to elephants, or horses if no elephants are handy.