A Philadelphian singer-songwriter straddling the sounds of Kate Bush and heavy-metal, Melissa VanFleet’s new EP, “Ode to the Dark,” is atmospherically arranged, executed, and produced, a lush feast for the ear. An EP always seems to me a slight offering, and this EP’s four songs can meld into each other, but any offering with a track titled “Raven” appeals to this birding Corvus fan. “Raven,” with its opening piano figure and blazing chorus, is in fact the standout track. Against the album’s positives, the seemingly dark-and-dark lyrics and the super-slick dark-themed cover/website imagery failed to hit a chord with me. An impressive if manufactured release.
Grab this as soon as it hits the street. Jamail, a seasoned journalist and mountaineer, stuns with “The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption.” Weaving in riveting accounts of some of his top-of-the-world mountain adventures, he sets out to explore the spots on Earth where climate change can be seen to be happening. In Alaska and Montana, he sees firsthand how glaciers are retreating, and in Alaska’s northernmost village, he learns how Arctic sea ice is vanishing “so fast, we’re having trouble keeping up,” in the words of one scientist. In the Bering Sea, he talks to people baffled at how fishing is threatened by fast-warming ocean waters. He checks out dying coral reefs in Palau and Guam, visits the sickly Great Barrier Reef. As have a number of writers, in Florida he is flabbergasted that property investors still thrive in Miami, already subject to regular flooding. He examines trees and the Amazonian rainforests. Throughout, he is evocative yet precisely factual; the effect is overwhelming. Throughout, a constant theme is the utter inability of dedicated scientists to understand how the human race ignores their messages. When I read this – “A child born today will see an Everest largely free of glaciers within her lifetime” – I was shattered. Jamail’s final moving call to action cements “The End of Ice,” in my view, as an essential modern overview of climate disruption.
After years of sterling service as climate change activist and media personality, Tim Flannery has returned to his beloved field of paleontology (he’s also described as a mammologist) with “Europe: A Natural History.” Displaying a natural storyteller’s suppleness and daring, he relates the hundred-million-year tale of Europe’s physical form and fauna and flora, the land formed out of clashing continents, the animals and plants arriving from Africa, Asia, and North America. His narrative strokes are broad indeed – 100 million years down to 34, then down to 2.6 million years, then the stretch down to 38,000 years, and the human eras since. Yet the level of detail deftly summarized, often leavened by quirky discoveries that obviously pique his interest, is stunningly informative. Using a narrative lens of entertaining biopics of key fossil scientists, often odd indeed, brings a human dimension to the story. Historical spans greater than decades leave me befuddled, so much of the detail of species long gone didn’t lodge in my head, but Flannery’s writing chops carried me through. I was fascinated to be brought up to date on the evolutionary emergence of human beings: “The Europeans themselves are hybrids, created about 38,000 years ago when dark-skinned humans from Africa began interbreeding with pale-skinned, blue-eyed Neanderthals.” The book concludes with modern topics such as the re-wilding of Europe’s hinterlands, deliberate or not. “Europe” is a tour de force of synthesis, imagination, and exposition.
The first Australian high budget series from Netflix, the eight-part Tidelands disappoints from the first scene, an ocean action sequence that promises nothing good. I watched Episode 1 with some anticipation, being an Aussie myself, and I found myself impressed by the sumptuous camerawork and a tight script that moves along. But the basic plotline – an ex-con back home, drug running, and a half-siren gang queen – hardly inspires and all the major characters are woefully miscast. The dialogue has a certain snappiness to it, but it’s unintelligent fare delivered with Australian accents in a way that imbues each scene with the feel of a soap opera. The end of Episode 1 is a cliffhanger that should entice me onwards but I won’t bother. For the first time, I’ll not give a series its full rein… such a shame.
A mash-up between an alterna-world sci-fi riot-fest and a gritty brother-brother road trip flick, “Kin” promises much, scene by scene, but sat uneasily in my mind after the closing credits. The brain child of the talented Baker brother combo, we see a fourteen-year-old adoptee (played well by Myles Truitt) plunged into the deadly affairs of his much older, just-released-con brother (Jack Reynor, in a mixed performance). They flee, young Eli hiding a strange stocky weapon straight out of video games. Pursued or beset by garishly horrid crims (James Franco hams his heart out) and robotic beings on super-fast motorbikes, the bonding brothers (“kin,” get it?) drive day and night across plain and mountain range. If it sounds like I’m taking the piss out of the plot, that’s what watching felt like on too many occasions. The sci-fi action is cartoonishly blasty, many scenes ring true, and even a strange sequel-beckoning plot twist towards the end entertained me, but my disquiet with the plot’s arc overrode all the pleasures. Oh, I should mention the Mogwai sountdrack, which I’ve reviewed and which lured me to the underlying film – it also disappoints, rarely imposing its grandeur on the scenes, a notable exception being the fabulous driving tune gracing the closing credits. Overall, fab prospects promised but not delivered.
Olen Steinhauer creates spy thriller magic. His Milo Weaver trilogy finished, he has a new thriller out, The Middleman. But at the same time he’s created two kinetic seasons of Berlin Station, which I loved, and now here’s Season 3. Can it maintain the pace and characterisation verve of the first two outings? I can happily report that it most certainly can. In fact, Episode 1 rushes into the new backdrop, Russian incursions into its tiny neighbor Estonia, with such rapidity that I’m tempted to recommend you ground yourself first with at least Season 2. The familiar characters – spy Daniel Miller (ably portrayed by Richard Armitage, a better actor in motion than in repose), profane spy boss Kirsch (a standout performance as ever by Leland Orser), and spy boss Valerie Edwards (terrifically acted by Michelle Forbes) – are shoved straight into action, along with many regular or new bit players, so you need to pay heed. But the scriptwriting and direction are so assured that I think you can come to this tale with no prior experience. Tallinn in Estonia is a wonderful locale for mysterious nefarious activities (I’m biased, my parents came from there), action shocks abound, and the episode’s climax leaves one gasping for more. Once more a winner.
How on earth did this brilliant singer-songwriter slide past me for so long? Andrew McMahon is an inspired word painter and melody creator and “Upside Down Flowers“ is his third solo after two successful band stints. He looks like full-on American white bread but make no mistake, there’s magic in every one of these eleven tracks. The musical style refers back to classic 70s and 80s high-blown rock, arranged beautifully enough to fit into that old sub-genre of “baroque pop-rock,” but none of it feels careworn, and perhaps that’s due to the way McMahon anchors most songs with his lovely piano figures. Butch Walker’s production (he’s also one of those multi instrumentalists) is sonically intelligent. Vocally McMahon can echo Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, or Billy Joel, but once again, there’s something aching and true about his voice that transcends those cheap “sounds-like” comparisons. Is “Upside Down Flowers“ an ode to lost times? It certainly said that to me, with its songs of family moves, tree houses, Vegas gambles, short-fling heartbreak, and new starts. Amongst the many highlights are “Ohio” with its road trip images and ornately worded chorus; the sweet-but-not-saccharine “Penelope,” and the cryptic, developing, lovely “Everything Must Go.” And if you love rock, I defy you to grace your ears with “Teenage Rockstars” without your heart swelling with half a century’s musical hopes and joys.
I rated the TV series “Bodyguard’s“ opening episode as only 5/10 but gave 8/10 to the next two episodes, so I had high hopes for the final three chapters. It seems the scriptwriters were determined to not only pile the pressures on bodyguard Budd (Richard Madden maintains his solid centrepiece acting), but to veer the plot in almost unbelievable directions. Me, I rode with the flow and relished the many complete surprises. The bit players rise to prominence over these three episodes; particularly notable is Pippa Heywood as the questioning cop. A finale bomb-related scene ratchets up the tension to screaming point. I rarely binge watch but I slammed the final two episodes. The closing plot wrap-up lets the clever overall script down and the closing scene annoyed me with its vacuity, but overall “Bodyguard” is a quintessential gritty British thriller that should achieve success.
The fourth in the series starring journalist Danny Churchill and fashion photographer Anna Burgin, “Fade to Silence” is an engaging, immersive adventure involving Balkan thugs, British corporations, crooked cops, and a complex murder. Danny and Anna are wonderful, engaging leads and the interplay between them is nuanced and absorbing. The plot is Byzantine, the locales strike true, and Bradwell has a sure sense of pace and plot. For all that dire situations abound, this “thriller” is not gritty, indeed it has the feel of a semi-cosy, if that’s a correct term, but I didn’t need blood and guts and terror to thoroughly enjoy the tale.
The second in a series featuring Washington reporter Beck Rikki, “Naked Truth” has a plot more twisty than any I’ve read this year, which should have been a boon. The story revolves around a dead U.S. chief justice and seems to involve every major politician and lawyer in the country, and the sequences of doublecrossing rivals some of those old Ludlum thrillers. The various settings are pithily described, the dialogue froths with wit and energy, and the unwinding of the plot is pleasingly relentless. But our hero Beck, while dogged and smart in the way that crime solvers need to be, rarely came alive to me, and Pullen’s machinations with different points of view merely moved from one cardboard character to another. I liked the intricacies of American reportage and, until towards the end, enjoyed trying (unsuccessfully) to second guess the plot surprises, but the one-sitting reading left me cold.