“The Imperial” is modern Americana that sits on the edge of real country and western, a music genre anathema to me, but I enjoyed my numerous listens. Willy Vlautin, of Richmond Fontaine fame and one of the best novelists around, has penned ten melancholic tales of down-and-out tragics, and the band’s singer, Amy Boone (sidelined by a car accident for three years) has a wonderful careworn, yet generous, voice. Standout tracks include the gentle title track with its slide-enriched chorus; the warm-in-spite-of-the-story “Cheer Up Charley”; and the bleak kinda torch song “Holly the Hustle.” A nuanced, unusual album.
Top marks for atmospherics to Krissy Kneen, whose “Wintering” is set in the south of Tasmania, near the famed South Coast Walk, and features eerie, foreboding caves. The partner of cave tour guide Jessica disappears from his car one day, leaving Jessica to seek his traces amidst a local community that appears to know more than she does. Alongside the brooding interiors and coastline, everyone seems charged with portent. For some authors, we’d be talking psychological thriller territory here but Kneen is more ambitious, and this is a gothic, literary effort that works well. I felt the structural plot creaked towards the end but enjoyed the read enormously. Recommended.
Chef and food critic turned smallholding farmer in Tasmania and television explorer of farming, meat, and modern agriculture, Matthew Evans could never not have written “On Eating Meat: The Truth About Its Production and the Ethics of Eating It.” This is a dense, sometimes chaotic, but always fascinating and extremely personal look at the worst and best of modern meat production. Evans decries mass-production, “the animal is a production factor only” beef and chicken farming, writes about his love of pigs, and digs into the nuances of ethical meat eating, as he sees it. Evans’s honesty is impressive. He often describes himself as “conflicted” and describes in vivid language the sadness in killing his farm animals for food. Any reader will find plenty to agree with and plenty to rail against; in my case, I question his analysis concluding that veganism kills as much life as meat eating (though he is correct to decry excessive moral absolutism and grandstanding), yet I applaud his “take no prisoners” judgement that feral cats need to be wiped out. In the end, “On Eating Meat” offers no simplistic rules but asks for honest dialogue: “the place and time for this conversation is, rightly, before we go out to eat.” I highly recommend this book to prod such conversation within yourself. For example, I’m a vegetarian to cut carbon footprint, and I’m sure Evans’s chapter questioning my underlying assumption is wrong but he argues well, using evidence, and I’ll be spending time over the next months working through “On Eating Meat” as carefully as I do the major climate change references.
Album Number 17 for ultra creative John Darnielle (his novel Wolf in White Van was one of my 2014 standouts), “In League with Dragons” is odd enough and subdued enough to almost be a curio. Continuing Darnielle’s recent phase of semi-jazzy arrangements (again drummer Jon Wurster breathes life into every moment) and quietly enunciated vocals, at first listen this can seem bland. But the left-field song topics and lyrics – we’re talking tales of marsupials, wizards, rock singers, Ozzy Osbourne, cadaver sniffing dogs, and more – ensure a fascinating eleven-song offering. And “Going Invisible 2” reminds us of the declamatory old Goats, with Darnielle building up to sing “I’m gonna burn it down one day.” A genuinely strange but intriguing set.
What is the nature of evil? Fussing over that question can seem an impossible quest but genocide and serial killers remain perennial subject of scrutiny for me. The first season of “Mindhunter” offered a unique entry into the latter category of evil, by adapting the same-name true crime tell-all by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, recounting the FBI history of developing serial killer profiling, which I read over two decades ago. Mucking around with the characters a bit, the first TV season was horrifying, troubling, but strangely, effectively informative and revealing. So I approached the second season with trepidation: could it possibly continue the high standard? Well, I can trumpet that the first episode equals or betters its predecessors. Quickly refreshing the plot and re-introducing the core three characters, the intelligent script plunges us into a new, apparently supportive boss and a new horrific crime and, of all things, an in-jail interview of Son of Sam. Moody cinematography, great acting, edgy music, and the promise of more to come … I can’t wait to get to Episode 2!
A brainy, nerdy, free-wheeling private eye who out-Sherlocks the great man himself, what could there not be to like? Joe Ide’s “IQ” burst onto the crime fiction scene like a missile; it was truly one of 2016’s great reads. Follow-up “Righteous” dropped back a notch but was still a work of art. Now the third outing of Isaiah Quintabe, “Wrecked,” finds IQ formally partnered with flamboyant opportunist Dodson, a heartfelt character as memorable as the locally loved detective himself. When Isaiah falls in love with a mysterious young painter whose mother needs tracking down, he finds himself arrayed against a rambunctious, deadly paramilitary gang but also Seb, the man who once killed his brother. Ide writes in fulsome, colorful prose, the LA locales are down and dirty, all the supporting characters breathe as if alive, and the conundrums requiring IQ’s mental prowess are captivating. All up, this ranks as high as the debut and is mandatory 2019 armchair fodder.
“John Wicks: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” is an ultra-violent, elegant, smart confection. I came to it without having watched the first two outings in the franchise, and I came to it with trepidation, but the word of mouth was so good that I had to see it, and I’m delighted to have done so. The action kicks off immediately, with super-assassin Wick “excommunicated” by the secretive High Table, and within a couple of minutes, seemingly thousands of assassins are pursuing our hero, who plunges through the wet, dark streets of New York, then progressively heads to Africa to somehow track down the boss of them all in order to have any chance at all of staying alive. Keanu Reeve has always been an underestimated actor and here he excels, suitably direct and simple yet with touches of irony and a core of decency. Supporting roles and cameo appearances are provided by a stellar cast, well suited and all on song, with particular mentions needed for Ian McShane and Mark Dacascos. Dan Lausten’s cinematography stuns again and again. The choreographed mayhem is video-game-stylized and offers the kinds of spills and thrills that the last half decade of superhero movies has relinquished. In summary, “John Wick 3” is a lush, kinetic, smart treat.
Scandi-noir queen Karin Fossum brings familiar Inspector Konrad Sejer to an interview room in “The Whisperer.” There he spends much of the novel probing a dormouse of a woman who has clearly done something bad. Fossum delicately interleaves the charged discussions between cop and prisoner with the recent days of the woman, who had begun receiving threats. The interrogations are nuanced, the daily histories increasingly pregnant with violence. I enjoyed the cat-and-mouse very much, and the author’s masterful withholding of information works a treat, but there is only one problem. The final denouement reveals a tired plot that limps to a boring end. A pity that the technically adept construction is in aid of so little.
Bruce Springsteen has always tested the bounds of his brand of guitar-based singer-songwriter music. On the thirteen songs of “Western Stars,” he upends his normal tropes into a mix of C&W, Americana, and sixties crooning. It can be a shock. The first track, “Hitch Hikin’” begins with a plaintive “thumbs stuck out as I go” and an earworm C&W melody yoked to Bruce’s bruised voice, and all seems normal if muted, so that when the song concludes with a gentle orchestral wash … what the? The next track, “The Wayfarer,” turns on a full symphonic sweep and voice, honeyed up, ignites a memory of Al Martino, yet it is imbued with that Springsteen gravitas that instantly makes it memorable. “There Goes My Miracle” is direct from the Gary Puckett 60s. The title track, an elegy for cowboys, is barely recognisable as the “man who was once the next Dylan,” but it is as sweet as. The aching “Stones in My Mouth” ends with a Springsteen refrain over a long twangy orchestral section that works magnificently well. Overall, it’s an emotionally strong, adept exploration of a new palette.
Doesn’t the world shine more brightly with imaginative tales like “The Umbrella Academy” out there? I rated the first episode as 8/10 and then felt the next four episodes drifted a little. But from the start of Episode 5 through to its (literally) cataclysmic finale, the viewer is in good hands. The pace sprints, each plot component is expertly wrought, and every scene is filmed gorgeously and artfully realized. All seven of the superheroes are perfectly cast for seven actors in fine form; let me resist praising Ellen Page and instead carve out Tom Hopper in the nuanced role of Luther, Robert Sheehan pitch perfect as Klaus, and Cameron Britton as villain turned penitent. After eight episodes, “The Umbrella Academy” feels how a superhero movie should: cartoonish yet mythic and a thrill.