Wednesday, June 25, 2014


I, Ed, witness now poorly standing, do herewith and hear-abouts, by means of quick peeks at certain under-praised (if not outright overlooked) peaks of Pop Culture, impartially recommend the following items for your pleasure and attentive consumption:

1) Child Ballads (Wilderland Records CD WILDER 002) presents vocalists Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer reviving, entwining, and breathing new harmonic life into seven of those expansive, even epic, medieval-and-after British Isles tales of passion, savagery, and magic--musically mesmerizing story-songs most frequently set in the Border Country between Scotland and England, over 300 of them as compiled in the 19th century by Francis Child, but the diverse texts only, with folk singers before and since supplying suitable tunes both ancient and modern to match the words, and the combined ballad songs then transmitted/sung/"handed" down orally rather than read on the printed page. To the distinguished mid-20th century lineage of recordings by Anne Briggs, Ewan MacCall and A.L. Lloyd, Joan Baez, and then Fairport Convention, Nic Jones, Maddy Prior and June Tabor, we must now add Mitchell and Hamer, whose
heartfelt readings and gorgeous harmonies will make your trumpet sound and your welkin ring.

2) Muscle Shoals (Magnolia Home Entertainment DVD 10634): From Child ballads to Deep Soul ballads is more quiet hop than giant leap--love requited or un-, passion spent or new, living easy or hard and sometimes tragic, and usually bearing some of that old Black magic... well, I've written often about the simple unsegregated synchronicity of music made in Memphis and Muscle Shoals and captured in the grooves of recordings cut in those two locales during the Sixties and Seventies, when Black singers and White session cats and horn players of all stripes and colors worked (played!) happily together, creating hits for Stax and Hi and Fame and the bigger labels that hired their soulful skills.

Think Booker T and the MGs, Aretha loving a man her way and gaining Respect, Percy Sledge both loving and respecting his woman, Wilson Pickett beating the Beatles' Jude by grace of guitarslinger Duane Allman, the great long separate careers of (husband) Clarence Carter and (wife) Candi Staton... all but the first in that role call came courtesy of the tiny, funky Muscle Shoals recording studio
simply named Fame. Watch this artfully photographed, intelligent yet emotional documentary film to see and hear from all the folks mentioned and then some--Bono, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Etta James, Atlantic's Jerry Wexler, Dan Penn and Spencer Oldham both, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Stevies Wonder and Winwood, the famously mostly-anonymous Shoals session men themselves, Fame studio head Rick Hall, and marvelously more.

3) and 4) All the attention accorded the dark, cold, often snowbound mystery-thrillers written by folks with last names like Mankell, Nesbo, Indridason, Larsson, Sigurdsdottir and, for all I know, Yggdrasilsden--these and others lazily lumped together as "Scandinavian Noir"--has stolen the thunder due a duo of police-detective series set in the sunnier climes of the boot-shaped peninsula farther south. If you're weary of grey skies, bleak lives, and serial killers, I commend to you Donna Leon and Andrea Camilleri, two masters of... let's call it... "Nero Italiano,"
meaning cop-shop mysteries marked by awakened taste buds, passionately expressive personae, political corruption Mediterranean-style, and writing that mixes subtle plotting and deceptively sweet passages, but also resigned irony and bitter sarcasm--a blend that seems just right for Italy in the Berlusconi Era.

Leon's lead is the decent and clever Commissario Guido Brunetti, who loves deeply, but casts a cold eye on, the blind alleys, clogged canals, touristed squares, and nightmare bureaucracies of slowly sinking Venice; his feisty academic wife, teenage children, and trusted equal-if-underlings at headquarters all contribute to the often heartbreaking "solutions" that end each novel. (The latest, By Its Cover, involves stolen maps, scarce manuscripts, and soulless murder. Book 'em, Donna!) Meanwhile, ex-newspaperman Camilleri keeps his Inspector Montalbano busy on the Africa-facing seacoast of Sicily, in a fictional town called Vigata--a sun-drenched sleepy region
that still manages to produce sufficient Mafiosi, official greed, illegal immigrants, varied smuggling, and careless murder to whet the imagination and appetite of perennially hungry Montalbano. A handsome, courteous and crafty, occasionally sardonic man, the inspector is yet hapless around women, who regularly make him sweat and escape for a brisk walk or a long ocean swim.

Montalbano is also played to cool yet vigorous perfection by Italian actor Luca Zingaretti in a terrific series of feature-length films (2 or 3 episodes per MHZ/Rai Trade DVD; 28 wry tales so far), with scenic Sicily, eye-popping food, governmental chicanery, shapely misses, and lively characters to be found in each and every novel and film. (Leon's Brunetti is less well-served by a recent television series shot in Venice but made for German TV--an awkward misfit collision of
languages, kunst und kultur!)

5) File this final recommendation under "Guilty Pleasures." I've become a great fan--via Netflix instant downloads--of the on-going Canadian TV series Heartland, which for eight successful seasons now has combined, oh, say, My Friend Flicka, Little House on the Prairie, and a not-so-nasty Dallas, and gorgeous footage of ranches and Rockies (it's set and shot on location in Alberta). Faithful watchers have witnessed on-going changes in the lives of a handful of main characters--a cute-as-a-button high school girl sensitive to horses and their ailments (Amy), her business-trained older sister Lou, Jack the aging cowboy/gruff grampa who owns the Heartland ranch-turned-horse haven, plus Ty the all-around stable lad who's also Amy's beau, and precocious motormouth Mallory, a young teen who practically lives with them and has become the wiseacre Greek chorus able to see through all obfuscations. A half-dozen other friends and near-lovers provide regular support
for plots that can involve horse healing, bronc busting, or basic stable mucking; a downed small plane, a threatened wild horse herd, or a mountain lion on the prowl; calf roping, barrel racing, and other rodeo craziness; broken-down farms, blizzard conditions, and wedding plans gone awry; rich horse breeders, crooked oil frackers, or troubled runaway kids; teen angst, middle-age muddle, or First Nations wisdom. (You can also just immerse yourself in all that beautiful horseflesh and scenic splendor.) C'mon, newbie... cowboy up!

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