Saturday, February 19, 2011

Voices That Pine: The Civil Wars' Barton Hollow

The Civil Wars is a new duo featuring singer/guitarist John Paul White and singer/keyboardist, Joy Williams. He is from Alabama and she is from California and they debuted 2 years ago at a club called Eddie’s Attic in Atlanta, Georgia. Barton Hollow is their first full-length studio album and it’s a very impressive debut.

I was immediately charged by their sound, which is a delicate balance of Nashville country and Mississippi swamp. The song “Barton Hollow” talks about a “dead man walking” with no hope of forgiveness or redemption: “Won’t do me no good washing in the river/Can’t no preacher man save my soul.” The last line is not in the form of a question with its double-negative despondency. The vocal rather draws you in with great empathy; it’s a tribute to White and Williams’ sensitivity as singers. This is particularly true, as well, for the opening track, “20 Years,” where the character in the song asks for deliverance, even if it takes 20 years. It’s a thoughtful number and one that first appeared on their debut album Live at Eddie’s Attic in 2009.

Pop music has always had male-female duos such as Ian & Sylvia and the more recent Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, aka The Swell Season. The dynamic usually works when the sexual chemistry of the couple is heard in the music. For Williams and White, who are married, but not to each other, that chemistry is remarkably strong. On the song “Poison and Wine,” first heard on their EP in 2009, we feel every yearning note as Williams and White trade alternate lines in the verses. It’s a song about a couple connected at the hip (for better or worse) as they sing in unison, “Oh, I don’t love you/ But I always will.” I’ve never heard a song about the rawness of love quite like this one. The performance is at once intimate and painful.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Good News: Four Promising New Sitcoms of 2011

Click here for a look at the sitcoms of the September 2011 fall season.

While the 2010-2011 television season has given us some extraordinary new dramas, comedy lovers haven’t been as lucky. In 2009-2010, the US networks gave us a number of critical and popular successes, most notably Modern Family, Cougar Town, and Community. But this past fall, the only comedy standout has been NBC’s Outsourced. And Outsourced, despite doing consistently well in the ratings, has generated an almost unanimously poor critical reception – one which, in my opinion, is wholly undeserved. Considering the largely disappointing crop from the first half of the season, I awaited this new batch of sitcoms with a mixture of both eagerness and trepidation. Fortunately, it would seem that the networks were saving the best for last!  Below, I review some of the sitcoms that have debuted in 2011 that I believe are worth checking out: Bob’s Burgers (Fox), Traffic Light (Fox), Mr. Sunshine (ABC), and (for our Canadian readers) CBC’s new spy spoof, InSecurity.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Newfoundland's Finest: In Praise of The Republic of Doyle


Never has a show made a city look so lovely. One of the many pleasures of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's TV series The Republic of Doyle is that it has made the city of St. John's, Newfoundland look absolutely gorgeous. From Signal Hill to the multi-coloured downtown buildings to the charm of the harbour and landscape around it, St. John's looks ravishing. It makes you want to go visit it like now, right now.

But that's not the only attraction. Pretty pictures does not a TV show make. What is so appealing about The Republic of Doyle is its wonderful combination of comedy, action, mystery and heartache. Created by and starring native son, Allan Hawco (his co-creators are Malcolm MacRury and Perry Chafe), the show is, as Hawco freely admits, inspired by the classic James Garner series The Rockford Files. Jake Doyle (Hawco) is – along with his father, Malachy (Sean McGinley) – a private investigator working on whatever cases he can get in the small city of St. John's. Sometimes it's a missing person, sometimes it's a blackmail case, and occasionally it's a murder mystery. The plots, such as they are, are often very incidental to the relationships between Jake and a terrific cast of characters that surround him. What's more important here is his gentle bickering with Malachy, his often moving but so-far unconsummated relationship with police detective Leslie Bennett (the effortlessly beautiful and charming Krystin Pellerin – she's currently on stage in Toronto in Soulpepper Theatre Company's production of the musical The Fantasticks), his attempts to protect his young niece, Tinny Doyle (Marthe Bernard), or his constant rescuing of his screw-up older brother Christian (Jonathan Goad) from himself.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #13: William Diehl (1982)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton of On the Arts. 
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

Author William Diehl
The interview with author William Diehl (Sharky's Machine, Chameleon, Primal Fear), a writer who wrote luridly powerful pulp with a political tinge, became a fascinating exercise in self-examination. When I discovered that Diehl was a pacifist who once marched with Martin Luther King in the South during the demonstrations against segregation, I was compelled to find out how such a peaceful man reconciled his polar opposite. To both my surprise and satisfaction, he was more than happy to comply while providing a vivid examination (through his thriller Chameleon) of the growing political mercenary movements in the eighties that would ultimately lead to Waco and Oklahoma City. Diehl would die at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta on November 24, 2006, of an aortic aneurysm. At the time of his death, he was working on his tenth novel.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Looking Within and Without: An Experimental Artist

The back of Wafaa Bilal’s head, for The 3rd I.
The tiny digital camera has been removed from the back of Wafaa Bilal’s skull.

Let’s allow that image sink in for a moment.

OK. The 44-year-old Iraqi, an assistant professor of art at New York University, is a creative provocateur. For an entire month in 2007, for example, visitors to his website were able to splatter him with a remote-controlled paint gun and watch as he tried to dodge the yellow-colored attacks while sequestered in a small room at a Chicago gallery. The piece was titled Domestic Tension. In the anti-Arab fervor still sweeping the country after 9/11, many strangers gleefully wielded this symbolic Internet weapon of personal destruction.

But Bilal’s latest project, called The 3rd I, surely ranks even higher on any pushing-the-cultural-envelope meter. At the end of 2010, he had a waterproof titanium plate inserted in his head. That made it possible to magnetically attach a camera that could transmit photos minute-by-minute to the notebook computer he carried at all times, a process the world could observe online. (On campus, he agreed to protect the privacy of students and faculty with a lens cap.) But, recently, his body began rejecting part of the apparatus, which caused constant suffering despite the steroids and antibiotics he took in hopes of solving the problem.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Philip Roth’s Nemesis: The Way We Live, Then and Now

Author Philip Roth
Is Philip Roth’s America’s greatest living novelist? He's certainly one of them. Although there are other contenders for that title, including Richard Ford and Richard Price, without question, I'd argue that Roth is the U.S’s most significant writer. He has created an ambitious body of work that, as he enters his late 70s, seems determined to lay bare all the significant eddies and flows of American history in the years since his birth in 1933. His latest novel Nemesis (Penguin, 2010) continues in that incisive vein, revisiting a little remembered slice of American life: the devastating polio epidemics of the 1930s and 40s.

The fourth and final book in a series called Nemeses: Short Novels; Nemesis is, as indicated, a short novel (280 pages) but it's not a slight one. Having read only one of the other three books in that series, Indignation (2008), I can safely say that their themes are what occurs when bad things happen to good people. Roth, however, doesn’t examine that idea in a trite or obvious way but in such a manner that you’ll ponder the disturbing vicissitudes of fate and the supposed existence of a god who allows horrible events to happen to innocent people. That, at least, is the thinking of one Eugene Cantor, better known as Bucky, an athletic 23 year old, who in 1944 is a playground director in Newark, New Jersey (not coincidentally Roth’s birthplace, too).

Because of his weak eyesight, Bucky has been deemed ineligible for combat during World War Two, a state of affairs which troubles him deeply. He’s determined, though, to do right by his young charges, and teach them lessons in good health and fitness. That goal, however, is impacted when some of Newark’s young teenagers come down with polio, with two of them dying of the disease. (The disease is not always fatal, but it often cripples or maims those who get it.) A panicked Bucky now has to weigh his options; does he stay put in Newark out of responsibility and risk getting polio himself or listen to the increasingly desperate entreaties of his loving girlfriend, Marcia, and take up a post in a Jewish summer camp in rural Pennsylvania, far away from the disease that is laying waste to his city? His decision will play out in an unpredictably tragic manner.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Impressive Impressions: Ted Nash's Portrait in Seven Shades

Composing for jazz orchestra is not for the timid. You have to be original, accessible and most importantly, the music has to swing. The challenge of composing music based on the visual arts is even more intimidating. Duke Ellington was a master of writing and arranging for his orchestra and coming up with suites for people and places. One his most interesting was the Degas Suite written in 1968, based on the artist’s racetrack paintings. Ted Nash has now raised the bar one more time with his remarkable composition called Portrait in Seven Shades, a suite about 7 painters: Claude Monet, Salvador Dali, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Marc Chagall and Jackson Pollock.

Imagining music for artists obviously wasn't intimidating for Ted Nash. "Many parallels can be drawn between the two forms of art,” he remarks. “Like painters, musicians talk of colors, layers and composition." On this recording, Nash was asked to compose a long-form piece for the Lincoln Center Orchestra led by Wynton Marsalis. The only requirement from Marsalis was that it should have a theme. Nash, who's been a member of the band for the past ten years, was ready for the challenge. "It didn't take me long to come up with a concept that would truly inspire me to write an hour-long piece of music...each movement would be dedicated to a different painter." The challenge was narrowing down the list to 7 and going from there. For Nash, the criterion was simple: select an artist over the past 100 years that reflected transformative changes in painting. The character of the artist was then reflected in the music.