Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Seamless Tapestry: The Chieftans' Voice of Ages

It's hard to believe that 50 years ago, The Chieftains released their first album. Their tenacious passion to bring ancient Irish folk music to a wider audience was especially brave considering the approaching debut then of a new band from Liverpool, a group that was about to change the sound of the planet. I'm happy to report that Voice of Ages (Hear Music, 2012), The Chieftains new record, is about to do the same in the 21st Century. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, Voice of Ages is a glorious record that captures the unassuming and unpretentious sounds of a band still able to cut through the noise of pop and offer up a genuine, original, non-synthetic sound.

Voice of Ages also features collaborations of the finest order. Unlike the high-strung, record exec match-ups these days, such as Duets II with Tony Bennett, this record brings together musicians whose Celtic sensibility is matched by their respect for the band and its history. Imelda May, the bright new pop singer from Dublin, opens the set with a straight-ahead version of “Carolina Rua,” a traditional Irish folk song. Her buoyant performance of a tune she probably learned at an early age, sets the tone. Right from the start we know this is going to be a serious recording and not simply a frivolous commercial release.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Ferocious and Precocious: Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers

Author Patrick deWitt.

Since I’ve begun writing for Critics at Large it’s become apparent that negative reviews garner a lot more attention than positive ones. Since I love attention, I had my mind made up to dislike this novel. I thought it was a sure thing. Superficially, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers (Ecco, 2011) is a violent, empty western, dominated by male characters and curtly short chapters. But ultimately, it’s an insightful novel filled with the themes that drive each one of us – family, money, sex and the pursuit of happiness. There are some parts where I cackled garishly; others where I clutched the book to my chest with an understanding sigh.

Having a brother myself, one of the things I most understood was the tacit communication between the Sisters brothers. Throughout the narrative, Eli and Charlie simply have to look at each other to have a conversation. For professional hit men who often find themselves in complicated situations, this is a real asset. Because they are family, the relationship between Eli and Charlie is complex and deWitt does a superb job of depicting this relationship. Particularly in the opening chapters, the characterization of the Sisters brothers is magnificent. We’re naturally drawn to Eli, who narrates the story and attempts to villainize Charlie. However, since deWitt paints Charlie as so full of the logic that Eli seems to lack, it’s impossible to wholeheartedly accept Eli’s portrayal of Charlie as bad guy. Within a few short pages, the reader is shown insights into both Eli’s and Charlie’s individual personalities as well as the way they interact. Eli himself says it best early on as he ponders “the difficulties of family, how crazy and crooked the stories of a bloodline can be.”

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Future of the Printed Book?

Over Christmas, one thing I put on my list was a Kobo e-book reader. My decision was purely pragmatic. As a lifelong reader, I will always prefer the traditional book. Nothing can replace the feel of an old or new one in your hands. One of my favourite sounds, too, is the slight cracking of the spine as you open a brand new book. Two of my favourite smells are the inky smell of new books and the slightly musty one you get with older ones. So, my love affair with this tradition will continue regardless if I finally get an e-book reader (Santa wasn't kind this past Christmas).

So, why do I want one? Certain books in the world I just want to read and let them go. Most thrillers, even the good ones, are generally pretty disposable, so though I still like to read some of the better ones (such as The Assassini by the late Thomas Gifford which I wrote about here), I don't necessarily want to have them gathering dust on my bookshelf or stuffed in a box somewhere. On e-book, once I've read it, if I have no intention of reading it again, I could simply delete it. Novels like Arthur Phillips' The Tragedy of Arthur (2011) are a different kettle of fish. Phillips’ book was a wonderful piece of literary fiction with fantastic characters and a compelling plot. It is the type of novel I would happily return to again and I'm glad I have it as a real book. And besides, it's a real first edition. (How can book collecting even be possible if only e-books exist?)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Inspiring and Frustrating Harry Belafonte

When The Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, they were awarded 13 minutes of air time. A month later, one man would be granted nearly double it. At the time, Harry Belafonte was an even bigger star in North America than The Beatles. He brought calypso music to the fore. His gentle, melodic voice soothed the airwaves whether singing about “Scarlet Ribbons” or complaining about the long hours loading bananas (“Day-O”). He appeared in movies, and on television. He headlined in Las Vegas. And yet, somewhere near the middle of his elegant new memoir, he makes the following claim:

“I wasn’t an artist who’d become an activist. I was an activist who’d become an artist. Ever since my mother had drummed it into me, I’d felt the need to fight injustice wherever I saw it, in whatever way I could. Somehow my mother had made me feel it was my job, my obligation. ‘And don’t ever give in,’ I can hear her say still. ‘Don’t let them get you. You fight boy. You fight.’ So I’d spoken up, and done some marching, and then found my power in songs of protest, and sorrow, and hope.”

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Facing the Hard Truths: Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts

From the vantage point of the present day, it seems odd that anyone, other than hardcore racists and anti-Semites, could ever find anything positive to say about Nazi Germany. But back in the 1930s, many people in the West, for various reasons, only sometimes having to do with negative feelings about Jews, did indeed feel receptive to the rise of fascism. For many, it was a movement which they excused as a force that was instilling German confidence, making for a vibrant society and, not incidentally, in a world mired in a great depression, seeming to embody a prosperous economic model that was worthy of emulation, Those views were certainly held by William E. Dodd, the newly appointed – and neophyte – U.S. Ambassador to Germany. It is his slow, horrifying realization that all was not rosy in that seemingly idyllic country that forms the basis of Erik Larson’s powerfully gripping book In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin (Crown Publishing, 2011).

Monday, February 20, 2012

Soured Lives: Merrily We Roll Along

Betsy Wolfe, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Colin Donnell, Celia Keenan-Bolger & Adam Grupper in Merrily We Roll Along.

The Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along, which was revived over the last two weekends at New York’s City Center by Encores!, flopped on Broadway in 1981, closing in two weeks after receiving punishing reviews. In the intervening decades Sondheim aficionados have struggled to reclaim it as a lost treasure wrecked in the original production by disastrous production decisions. (It ended the partnership of Sondheim and director Harold Prince, who had staged all of his seventies musicals: Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd.) The source material is a play of the same name that George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart wrote together in 1934, their second of their half-dozen collaborations and a distinct comedown after their classic hard-boiled comedy Once in a Lifetime. The subject is the ruined friendship of three once-inseparable comrades, a playwright, a painter and a novelist, and the gimmick is that the action runs backwards, beginning when all three are middle-aged and miserable and winding up with a glimpse of who they were when they started out. It’s a terrible play in which almost every one of nine scenes ends with a melodramatic punch, and the reverse flow of the narrative – the idea that drew Sondheim and book writer George Furth to the material nearly half a century later – is intractable. The characters are so dislikable that by the time we discover what bright-eyed idealists they were in their youth we’ve already written them off.

In the musical the protagonists have become Frank Shepard, a composer, Charlie Kringas, his playwright-lyricist collaborator, and Mary Flynn, a novelist turned theatre critic. Their story, looked at chronologically, centers on Frank’s quickness to trade his integrity for the promise of fame and fortune. First he persuades Charlie to put the political musical they’ve put the best part of themselves into on the back burner and write a commercial musical comedy for producer Joe Josephson and his actress wife Gussie Carnegie. Then he coaxes him to help him turn it into a movie. Finally he abandons songwriting altogether to put his name to superficial Hollywood pictures. Meanwhile his personal life is a shambles. His wife Beth, at one time the third member of a satirical revue trio with Frank and Charlie (which Sondheim and Furth may have based on The Revuers, made up of Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Judy Holliday before they all landed on Broadway in the 1940s), divorces him when he begins an affair with Gussie and she gets custody of their little boy. He ends up marrying Gussie but by the time he’s joined the Hollywood elite their relationship is dead, and so is her career. By this time Frank and Charlie no longer speak to each other because of the public trouncing Charlie gave him on a talk show, satirizing his slavish devotion to financial success and his indifference to the creative process that brought them together in the first place. And Mary, at one time a bestselling fiction writer, has become a helpless drunk embittered by a long unrequited passion for Frank that everyone seems to know about but him.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Comic Book Men: AMC’s Kinder, Gentler Reality Show

Kevin Smith (centre) and the rest of the Comic Book Men

AMC has come a long way since the premiere of Mad Men in 2007. Firmly establishing itself as a destination for original programming, the channel has had its ups (Breaking Bad) and downs (Hell on Wheels). But last Sunday, it stepped decisively into television’s 21st century with Comic Book Men, its first unscripted series. Yes, AMC now has a reality show.

For all the television that I regularly watch, I have to admit that reality shows rarely make the cut. I’ll watch (and enjoy) the odd episode of Amazing Race, but most of the unscripted shows currently on the air are often just too plain loud for me. The shows are too often populated by poorly drawn, unrealistic characters whose problems are usually the result of their own narcissistic reality distortions – quite simply not people I want to welcome into my home, at least not voluntarily. Nevertheless, the best of those shows can often be genuinely entertaining, and, like good film documentaries, can provide insight into people, worlds, and situations beyond the average viewer’s everyday experience. With Comic Book Men, AMC opens the door to the slightly mysterious kingdom of the comic book store. And now that it’s here, it feel almost like an inevitably. The world of comic book and sci-fi nerds is much more fashionable now than it ever has been. After all, the boys of The Big Bang Theory have been making comedic fodder of it for five successful seasons.