fjb, local currency: solo 1992-1998 (fayettenam)

the human hearts, civics (tight ship)

the human hearts on myspace

nothing painted blue, taste the flavor (shrimper)

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Less important than the weather

Not bothering with images to save space and time, but here's the news:

Another (Shrimper Records), the new Human Hearts album, is now available on CD and as a digital download through Midheaven (my recommendation) and other online retailers. The double 10" vinyl edition, funded through a Kickstarter project (sorry, Joshua), will be available on tour (see below) and (once we're back) mail order.

The Accordion Repertoire (Edge Books), my first full-length collection of poetry, is available through Small Press Distribution (again, my recommendation) and other online retailers.

3) The Human Hearts - that is, Matt Houser (drums) and myself (guitar, songs) - are going on a week-long tour of record stores, living rooms, and, where we couldn't figure out anything else, rock clubs in November. Please come and bring an unconverted friend if you're in the vicinity; we're quite enjoyable.

Mon. 11/12 - Pittsburgh PA - 
Sound Cat Records (6 pm)
Tue. 11/13 - Columbus OH - Used Kids Records (6 pm; with Aloysha Het, Randall Douglas Matson)
Wed. 11/14 - Cincinnati OH - The Comet (with Matthew Shelton, Dana Ward)
Thu. 11/15 - Louisville KY - Solidarity (1609 Bardstown Rd.)
Fri. 11/16 - Durham, NC - Motorco, with Pretty and Nice, Gary B and the Notions
Sat. 11/17 - Washington D.C. - Big Bear Cafe (7:30 pm, with the Tinklers)
Sun. 11/18 - Philadelphia, PA - Kung Fu Necktie, with Gashcat
Don't expect anything new here until after we're back. I know I'm playing all this activity down with my usual measured tone, but I'm proud of both the album and the book, pleased to have them out in the world, and excited to see some old and new friends in a bunch of towns I like. (Actually, I've never been to Cincinnati, but Chuck Cleaver said something nice to me once about 15 years ago.)



It's a few more weeks until the Human Hearts album, but here is a digital-only EP of four other songs recorded during or after the album sessions. (They're just as good, they just didn't fit, in one or several senses.)  This was also part of some Kickstarter rewards, so please check your email for a download code.


"Pussy Riot" (detail; acrylic on canvas) by Jean Smith (of Mecca Normal)


The February House, The Public Theater, 5/18/12

Some of the press on this new show, based on a non-fiction book of the same name by Sherill Tippins, spends so much time on the admittedly interesting source material that it never gets around to assessing the show.  So let's dispatch that.  In 1940, fiction editor George Davis rented a dilapidated brownstone in Brooklyn Heights.  Somehow, he charmed Carson McCullers (23, coming off The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and in flight from her husband in Georgia) and the recently expatriated W. H. Auden (all of 33) and his young lover Chester Kallman to room there.  Auden enticed Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears to join the household; Gyspy Rose Lee, the thinking man's ecdysiast, also lived there while writing her only novel, The G-String Murders (which later became the Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Lady of Burlesque).  McCullers wrote little there, and may have had an affair with Erika Mann, daughter of Thomas and, at the time, still Auden's wife-of-convenience.  Auden and Britten worked on Paul Bunyan, to be sung by Pears.  (In Tippins' book, which I've only flipped through, Auden insist that he doesn't want the American-themed oratorio to come off like Earl Robinson and John Latouche's "Ballad for Americans," the WPA-era "patriotic cantata" with which I've long been fascinated.)  Davis presided, though he apparently tended to spend money intended for utilities on campy decor.  The micro-colony dissolved within a year or so, not long before the U.S. entered the war.

A good bit of the background is covered by George Davis (played winningly by Julian Fleisher, whose background in drag is evident) in direct address to the audience, and the necessity of covering all these comings and goings, and of making sure we have a few Wikifacts on each famous personage as they appear, makes parts of the book (the book of the show, I mean) as wooden and schematic as the five-sided frame that hangs above the set throughout, or the preceding paragraph.  The "shadow of war" material, meanwhile, acts as a kind of load-bearing wall.

I'm more interested in the music and lyrics, both by Gabriel Kahane, a fast-rising Brown-educated composer who also makes singer-songwriter records (which I haven't heard, but would now like to).  He also has an interesting blog; I like this recent post on pop v. classical form (because it reinforces a couple of ideas in my bridge book.)  I believe this is his first widely-aired foray into relatively traditional musical theater.  He's dauntingly talented and resourceful, though I'm not sure if a unified style can be extrapolated from this particular score.  I doubt he's showing off as much as probably could, and really does seem to be more interested in serving the material than his own brilliance, but the adept eclecticism still distracts, even as it impresses.  Most of the songs (I'll call them) fall into one of three families.  

(1) Tonal but "advanced" and seemingly through-composed art-songs.  Several of these are settings of Auden's poems, sometimes delivered by the ensemble as the poet writes in a notebook.  "Funeral Blues" (not a blues) here used when Chester splits (temporarily, as we know), is very good, and technically smart, letting the metrical irregularities of the text do their expressive work rather than "solving" them in the melodic rhythm of the vocal line.  Working with these poems is doubly ballsy, first because having Auden's lines in one's show is apt to make one's own lyrics seem inelegant by comparison; and also because "Funeral Blues" ("Stop all the clocks...") is already kind of a pop-hit as poetry goes, via its use in Four Weddings and a Funeral.  (Which led, by the way, to the publication of As I Walked Out one Evening, a 1995 edition of many of Auden's most accessible poems, and still the most convenient place to locate his own attempts to write cabaret songs like the Porter-styled "I'm a Jam Tart" with Britten in the 1930s.)

(2) Show-tunes, written in a fairly recognizable mid-century Broadway harmonic language, with some more complicated Sondheimy development in the ensemble numbers.  Most of these were on point musically, though not memorable after the fact on a single hearing.  Kahane's lyrics in this mode tend toward the patter-y; this could be quite effective, as when Pears and Britten break into anxious, rapid-fire strings of eighth-notes: "We've been living in Long Island and pretending that we're brothers and not lovers..."  The uneven technical polish is another matter; far too many off-rhymes are allowed in a stylistic context where, as far as I'm concerned, they're simply forbidden.  If you can't get away from "own" or "alone" rhymes for "home," you need to find a different hook for your refrain.  "A Little Brain," the one solo number for Gypsy Rose Lee, is particularly frustrating -- comic rhyming of this kind requires more precision than "tibia" and "trivia."  The whole song, about Lee's attraction to tweed-and-herringbone types, is too convoluted by half -- though I'll admit that it "landed," largely because Kacie Shaw, as Lee, sings her ass off.  To be fair, Kahane a near-impossible task here, as the perfect "intellectual stripper" song was already written in 1940: Rodgers & Hart's "Zip," from Pal Joey, which was intended and understood to be a satire on Lee's pretensions.  (Not linking to anything here --  online versions of the lyrics have too many errors, and Rita Hayworth's rendition in the 1957 movie is bowlderized.)

Other than the Auden settings, the two strongest individual songs, one sad, one funny, are on the border between (1) and (2): "That Awkward Angel,"  ballad with a fairly "composed" (not conversational) vocal line than is nonetheless a "standard" AABA ballad; and "A Certain Itch," a comic duet about bedbugs for Britten and Pears, with mock-operatic touches suiting the characters (or the way the show conceives of them; see below). It's also smartly placed, as the second-act opener.

(3) Then there are less harmonically rich strophe-refrain songs, scored with prominent acoustic guitar and/or banjo.  In other words, "folk," more in an AC sense (think Mary Chapin Carpenter or Shawn Colvin) than an indie- or (luckily) freak- one.  I'm not certain whether the songs are in this manner was supposed to read as Southern-tinged (most but not all are given to the McCullers character), or as a kind of neutral no-style.  Either way, they struck me as well-crafted (except for the somewhat inchoate "Georgia," an uncomfortable duet for McCullers and the heavily German-accented Erika Mann character), but a little static and strained in their pursuit of poignancy and wistfulness.  That said, some of the melody of "Goodnight to the Boarding House" has stayed with me.  

Other thoughts: Though she's an appealing, not overtly "musical theater"ish singer, Kristen Sieh's McCullers doesn't quite come off.  In the dialogue, the Southern accent she uses -- while not exactly unconvincing, and pretty close to the clips I've heard of the real McCullers' speech -- is just so effortful that not much else comes through.  Erik Lotchfeld's Auden is fine, though it sometimes felt as though he was playing an older/more eminent version of the poet.  Stanley Bahorek and Ken Barnett, as Britten as Pears, are the standouts, both comedically and vocally.  They're extremely good at what the show gives them to do, but there's a problem here as well -- Britten has a few serious exchanges with Auden (compare Alan Bennett's recent The Habit of Art, which takes up their relationship at a much later point), but when they appear together as "second leads"/comic foils, there's something untoward about portraying artists this dedicated and accomplished (even if young at the time of the action) as a pair of silly-billies who appear, near the end, in shorts and sunhats to deliver the news that they're going to "California" -- an ill-conceived attempt at an 11-o'-clock number that dilutes the otherwise somber leave-taking mood of the show's last twenty minutes.  It's not that I demand reverence -- it just seems like the liberties taken are out of step with the show's overall aim of humanizing (rather than satirizing) its real-world figures.  (Gyspy can be broad, of course; she was.)


Wonderful Town, Gallery Players, 5/12/12

I'm not sure why My Sister Eileen - a collection of mid-1930s New Yorker stories by Ruth McKinney, which follow the author (sharp-tongued budding writer) and her titular sister (dippy-sweet budding actress) from Columbus to Greenwich Village, has had so many dramatic incarnations: a 1940 non-musical play, a 1942 movie with Rosalind Russell, this 1953 Bernstein/Comden & Green musical, which also starred Russell on Broadway, a different movie-musical adaption in 1955 (mainly remembered for Bob Fosse's choreography, and probably made because Columbia still owned the rights to the play and was too cheap to pay a premium for the extant score), and a short-lived TV series.  However creakily the material comes out now (though I understand that the original stories are more interesting), it probably gets its "legs" from being a straightforward (and extremely light) treatment of the innocents-in-Bohemia archetype: any movie or sitcom where square aspiring artists contend with urban "types" owes it a small debt.  References to one or another version crop up in unexpected places: the apparent allusion in the Guy Cointet play I talked about last week might be coincidence, but I was surprised two nights ago to pick up an anthology of New York poems and find the Fugs' Tuli Kupferburg at "The Charleston on Charles St./featuring my Sister Eileen/& the Kronstadt Sailors."  (Does that mean the movie was a double feature with Potemkin?)

The fact that Wonderful Town is somewhat remembered - its best-known song, "O-H-I-O" ("maybe we'd better go home") is a charmer, not a showstopper - but less canonical than West Side Story or On the Town, perhaps because the score never made it into a movie, means that it's most often revived in modestly-scaled productions like this one.  We went out of solidarity with Bree's cabaret fellow-traveler Molly Pope, who we first encountered at an open mic several years ago, singing the Cranberries' "Lovefool" as Ethel Merman might have done it.  Her huge, almost vibratoless alto is pretty distinctive (especially at a moment when boringly Gleeful pop-soul sopranos are the norm), and made to order for mid-century musical-theater.  Laurie Sutton's Eileen, and the rest of the cast, are unobjectionable-to-good, but I doubt anyone involved would deny that Molly carries the show, comically as well as vocally.  (The most amusing thing in the play-as-such are the brief dramatizations of the terrible fiction her character has been writing in Ohio, which parody Hemingway, Odets, and Coward.  Of course, it turns out that when she writes about her and her sister, it's Alive and Warm and Real - per Little Women and I Remember Mama, the moral is "write what you know.")

Unfortunately, the nature of the assignment (as the "plain" sister, though, like Roz Russell, Molly isn't plain, just tall) means that she's compelled to sell the inordinately sexist "100 Ways to Lose a Man" (all of which reduce to: be smart) and the extended cod-jive of the "Swing" number, in which she gradually grasps the downtown "rhythm" and "message" while shilling for the "Village Vortex" nightclub.  This number has always puzzled me, even on the cast recording, as it seems to conflate big-band jitterbugs with proto-Beats --  Comden & Green, who got their own start as writer performers at the Village Vanguard in the late '30s, surely knew better.  It's also odd because much of Bernstein's score, simply taken as music, is precise and covertly sophisticated, using mildly modernist devices -- broken-record effects, dissonant stabs -- to convey the "urban."  I might not have noticed some of this if I hadn't heard Raymond Knapp talk about it in March at EMP -- and certainly wouldn't have registered that the horn line beneath the unassuming character song "Pass that Football" is a perfect serialist tone row.


Matthew Welch, Borges and the Other, Roulette, 5/11/12

I went to this, as opposed to a hundred other new music events I know equally little about, because Karen Waltuch, our go-to violist for Poor Baby Bree projects, also plays in composer/conductor Matthew Welch’s ensemble Blarvuster, among many others; she had been playing some of the (audibly technically demanding) parts during the soundchecks for our April shows.  The piece, a “modular dance opera” by description though the dance element was minimal, is, in essence, an elaborate setting of a couple of late Borges texts (in translation), related to but less celebrated than “Borges and I,” in which the poet, in 1969, encounters his younger self (or older self, depending on which Borges you take to be the really-real one), once in Cambridge and once in an atopian space; each Borges attempts to convince the other that he is not a dream.  In the piece’s present incarnation, the sections written for “two Borges” (two male tenors in the first half, two female mezzo-sopranos in the second) alternate regularly with choral passages for an entire quartet of Borgeses – the text for these may have been original.
I can't speak to the fit between Welch’s compositional style and this material, but it’s distinctive and impressive in its own right, and more consonant and “followable” than I expected (whatever subtleties I might have been missing).  One of the key “sounds” was a kind of cellular repeating line, too rapid to register as melody, played by the whole ensemble (2 guitars/bass/kit/piano/vibes/flute/viola), at once recalling Reichian minimalism (with gamelan in the background), math-rock, and Scottish reels – which I think would have registered even without knowing that Welch plays bagpipes with other versions of this group.  Some of this was harmonically static, though something like “chord changes” were more evident in the second half of the piece (which, being me, I enjoyed more overall); there were also slower passages, less easily described.  I might have taken it for the handiwork of a recovering rocker with some scoring skills, especially given the anchoring role of Ian Riggs’s electric bass, if not for the vocal writing -- most of all in the quartet sections, which began with individual voices intoning Borges’ key theme-words (“mirror,” “double,” and so on) before weaving together, quite gorgeously and, well, classically.  Another intriguing device: cold stops in the rapid-fire sections, followed by silences and conducted re-entrances that simply picked up where the last bit had left off – this may be fanciful, but the effect was a little like the “black leader” sections of Celine and Julie Go Boating, another disorienting study of unreal space.
My only reservation about the music was that it could have used more textural variety; nearly the whole ensemble was playing, it seemed, 80% of the time, and only near the end were there some moments when enough of the musicians dropped out to create a contrast – more of this would have helped foreground the intensity of Welch’s musical signature.  Some of the sung dialogue was lost for dynamic reasons as well, though the overall arc was clear enough.  One moment – not overtly connected to the metaphysics that seem to be Welch’s main attraction to the text – stood out: in explaining the current political situation to Past Borges, Present Borges characterizes America as “hobbled by the superstition of democracy” and unwilling to own up to its imperial status.  I think many of us would say that the second part of this is no longer true, at least in the corridors of power; the first comment, coming from one who suffered considerable indignities under the Peron regime, is sufficiently surprising that it makes me wonder what’s been written about Borges’s later politics.


Guy de Cointet, Espahor Ledet Ko Uluner! and Five Sisters; MoMA, 5/10/12

I missed a recent screening of a related documentary (Who’s That Guy), and haven’t seen MoMA’s current language-as-art-material show, but I did make it to this reconstruction of two performance pieces by the late Guy de Cointet, a French artist who did most of his work in Los Angeles in the ’70s and ’80s.  Scripted and staged with professional actors (I believe this production originated in Amsterdam), these were really theatrical pieces that happened to have been made in an art-world context.  (They weren’t body art, or durational work, for example.) The shorter of the two, Espahor Ledet Ko Uluner! (1973), has a more obvious connection to the visual works of Cointet’s that I’m familiar with, with their grids of letters that imply but withhold “meaning”: a woman walks out with a book, put on reading glasses, tells us its title and author, and that the heroine is seeking a job, and then gives a short, dramatically inflected reading from the text, which is written in a Hugo Ball-like invented language.  An etude in displaying form by emptying it of content - not an original gesture, but brief enough to remain engaging.

Five Sisters (1982) is a fuller piece, really a one-act play.  Here, the language was perfectly comprehensible, though stylized in delivery, while the logic of the blocking and gestures were less easily grasped.  On a white set, bare, sometimes bathed in primary-colored light, four women -- leggy, modelish (the actresses, who could have stepped out of a Patrick Nagel print, where perfectly cast and coiffed), also entirely in white -- pass in and out of doorways in their family home (usually, no more than one or two were on stage at once), monologuing or conversing about: one sister’s idyllic visit to Africa; the allergy to sunlight she developed on her return to Southern California (Escondido and Garden Grove are mentioned - the ‘action’ seems to be set south of L.A. proper); another’s workaholism and identity crisis; a red painting by a third (hanging in the never-seen “mood room”); the anti-aging regimen (“Sardines are loaded with RNA!”) recommended by the doctor and lover of a fourth. In fact, health, beauty, self-help and a disgust with aging seem to be the characters’ major concerns. And this did make the piece feel very much of its Pacific-Standard-Time and place (that is, Greater L.A., during that part of the ’80s that still felt like the ’70s), as did the references to radio call-in therapists of the period, especially Dr. Toni Grant, who dispensed somewhat authoritarian post-feminist, proto-Rules advice on KABC for years, and who my dad (a psychologist) used to listen to in the car out of professional interest.

Godot-like, the fifth sister of the title is mentioned, but never appears; the phrase “my sister Eileen” occurs a couple of times - perhaps a reference to the 1940s play of that name (and the now-better known musical version, Wonderful Town - which, oddly enough, I’ll be seeing a revival of in Brooklyn on Saturday). The text also quoted lines, famous ones, from "Prufrock": this was a bit much.  Like the first piece, this was diverting and well-performed, though I would have to go back and connect it with more of Cointet’s work to see what its sororal rites were meant to add up to, beyond a transplanted European’s snapshot - arch, but not contempturous - of the skin-deep mores of his adopted city.