Album Reviews 24/05/23

The Treatment, Wake Up The Neighbourhood (Frontiers Music s.r.l.)

Yep, it’s been a little while since we checked in at Frontiers Music Mercy Hospital, where throwback-arena-rock bands and power-metal dudes get record contracts that most of them don’t deserve. No, I kid Frontiers Music, there’s hope, rockers, and isn’t it past time for a rawk resurgence? I think so, so let’s put this one under the snark-o-scope, the latest from this Cambridge, U.K. hard rock band, which has opened for Kiss and Alice Cooper and is professed to be influenced by Def Leppard, AC/DC and Thin Lizzy. Usually these bands don’t sound like their RIYL suggestions, but this one’s in the right pew, I’ll admit. The dumbly named “Let’s Wake Up This Town” is like a lost AC/DC demo from the ’90s, you know the period; “Back To The 1970s” is more along the hair-metal lines of Poison; “This Fire Still Burns” is Skid Row prostration, and bonk bonk bonk, yadda yadda, the overall effect is Buckcherry (if you’ve never heard that band, I beg of you, don’t bother, but in the meantime this band is a hundred times better than them). B-

John Escreet, The Epicenter Of Your Dreams (Blue Room Music)

Touted as a best-in-class practitioner of Myra Melford et al.’s “free-bop post-Cecil Taylor aesthetic,” this modern jazz pianist herewith tables his second album for Blue Room, a small Korea-based label. It’s not often I’m compelled to use an adjective like “relentless” when covering jazz, but there’s no better one to describe opening track “Call It What It Is,” in which Escreet’s keys alternately explore mechanically precise syncopation and busy waterfalls of 64th notes. Returning to this quartet from Escreet’s 2018 Seismic Shift album are bassist Eric Revis and drummer Damion Reid, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner adding the final piece to a world-class group. The arrangements are bold and dominating except when they’re not, in gentle but resolute chillouts like the title track. Don’t miss this one. A+


A seriously abridged compendium of recent and future CD releases

• Here we go, kids, summer’s a-comin’, we’re staring down the barrel of the May 24 music-CD release date, doesn’t it seem like it was 10 degrees out like a couple of days ago? Boy, this climate apocalypse really is the dickens, am I right, fam, but let’s see what craziness is in the list for today, my super-secret list of new album releases that cements my status as the greatest CD reviewer in the history of this Granite State, unless Dr. David Thorp moved here because he couldn’t afford the rent in Boston anymore, which has to be, what, $8,000 a month these days for a tool shed in Dorchester? Tell me when everyone’s gotten a grip on reality, but meanwhile let’s talk about music albums, like this new one, Frog In Boiling Water, from Brooklyn slacker-indie quartet DIIV! These guys look like Kiss, if Kiss were 98-pound weaklings and all of them except for the Peter Criss wore $5 mail-order eyeglasses from But eyewear fashion aside, what say we go investigate this nonsense and plumb its depths for aesthetic verisimilitude, in other words let’s see what bands they rip off, I’m as excited as you are, trust me. I’ve got a simply capital idea, folks, let’s listen to the title track to get a general gist of what the dilly is, by all means let’s. Wait a second, actually, this is cool, really grungy, like Nirvana, which makes me want to go on a rant about how ’90s music is going to be everywhere before you know it, but you must have figured that out by now. It’s low-slung, muddy and metallic, with an extreme emo-metal tinge to the guitar sound. You’ll probably love it, I’d hope.

• Ha ha, oh no, it’s Old Man Luedecke, with a new album called She Told Me Where To Go! There is no person named Luedecke, by the way; that’s the stage name of alt-country banjo-picker/singer Christopher Rudolf Luedecke, who has won multiple Juno awards, the Canadian version of the Grammys, and shouldn’t they be spelled Grammies, what the devil is going on here. Anyway, the single from this album, “She Told Me Where To Go,” is a jolly good one from this Canadian soy-boy. It definitely borders on Muddy Waters territory, except with, you know, kind of wimpy singing. He’ll probably win another Juno for this, and I wouldn’t begrudge him for it.

• You may recall that America started swirling down the cosmic drain when reality TV shows started getting 100 times worse than they’d ever been, and House of Carters led all those shows straight to the vortex, like some sort of demented pied piper. It only lasted eight episodes but hoo-wee was it awful, lol. Along with former Backstreet Boy Nick, all the other Carter siblings were there, being cringe, including Aaron Carter, whose new album, The Recovery Album, is a posthumous affair, because he died in 2022. “Blame It On Me” is a heart-tugging boyband ballad that isn’t completely awful, may I go now?

• We’ll bag it this week with Columbus, Ohio-based alt-hiphop/indie/electronica/whatever duo Twenty One Pilots, whose new LP, Clancy, continues the dystopian-fantasy conceptual trip they’ve dabbled in for years now (they promised to stop after this one, but I don’t believe them). Once again the lyrics are set in the metaphorical world of Trench and the horrible city of Dema; the single, “Backslide,” evokes a futuristic Eminem with enough underground hip-hop vibe to make it non-barf-inducing.

Worry, by Alexandra Tanner

Worry, by Alexandra Tanner (Scribner, 290 pages)

If there’s a twentysomething in your life, or if you are one, you will love Jules and Poppy, the anxious and squabbly sisters in Alexandra’s Tanner’s debut novel, Worry.

And also, at some point, you’ll just want to throttle them.

Tanner has bottled the nervous essence of youthful TikTok and spilled it out on the page in a quirky, pre-Covid novel that is dialogue-driven and plot-deprived but somehow manages to be fun to read.

It begins — and ends — in 2019. Poppy Gold, the younger of the two sisters and ostensibly the least emotionally stable, arrives at Jules’ rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn, New York.

She takes over her sister’s home office and plans just to stay for a short while until she can find her own place.

Poppy has tried to kill herself and has picked up shoplifting for fun, but she seems to be on the mend emotionally. She, like much of her generation, is highly socially conscious, refusing to let her sister buy a SodaStream because she “doesn’t want to support Israeli apartheid.” She doesn’t have a job but is convinced she can get one and afford the rent on her own place, or else get their parents to subsidize it.

Jules, the narrator, knows better. Jules is somewhat stably employed as an editor for a publishing company that produces study guides similar to SparkNotes, and has a boyfriend with “an MFA in poetry and half a Ph.D. in poetry.”

“He pretends he knows things about wine and I let him. I pretend I know things about Russian literature and he lets me. It’s all very tentative,” Jules says. In her spare time, Jules obsesses over Mormon mommy blogs and picks fights with them in the comments. She calls them her mommies.

Her real mother, and Poppy’s, practices Messianic Judaism, just started an Instagram account (zero followers) and argues with her daughters about whether police are bad or good and is prone to texting them a thumbs-down emoji when they say something she doesn’t like.

“I don’t understand why the three of us can’t ever just have, like, a nice conversation,” Jules says to Poppy, discussing their mother. “Not even a conversation, just a moment even. What’s her deal with us? Why doesn’t she like us?”

“Oh,” Poppy says without looking up, “it’s because she’s a narcissist and we’re her appendages. It says so in the trauma book.”

Soon it becomes clear that Poppy will not be moving out anytime soon, and to the delight of their father, a dermatologist who is always telling his daughters what cosmetic work they need to have done (and does it free), they settle down to housekeeping together. They even adopt a three-legged rescue dog named Amy Klobuchar.

This is the point where there should be some rising story arc, some crisis, some Thelma-and-Louise-esque trip. Astonishingly, there is not. Worry is essentially a book full of snappy dialogue and stream-of-consciousness observations of one millennial and one zoomer. Poppy and Jules are an Algonquin Round Table that seats two.

While they both have dreams — Jules has an MFA and still aspires to be a “real” writer — they are locked in anxiety, self-consciousness and a never-ending loop of videos on the internet that end badly, from 9/11 to a zoo panda’s death. This leads to a conversation about whether watching videos like that changes a person.

Poppy argues yes: “There is a before and after of me watching this video, you know? There’s the me who hadn’t chosen to watch the video, and there’s the me who did. And I’m not the old me anymore.”

To which Jules replies: “The Internet isn’t real, it isn’t experience. It’s moving dots.”

But when Jules ventures out into the real world to watch a writer lecture at a museum, and another young woman tries to befriend her, she refuses to engage and spirals into self-pity. “There’s never been a reality in which I could be a serious thinker, a serious writer. I’m a Floridian. I’m a consumer,” she says to herself.

Tanner disguises the seriousness underlying the women’s unhappiness with her light, comic touch. When, for example, a high-school drama friend reaches out to Jules, Jules admits, “It thrills me to see that she is not working as an actress, that she’s working in nonprofits — the fate of the unremarkable — and that she’s the annoying kind of married where she has her wedding date, bookended with hearts, in her little bio box.”

But Tanner throws the readers under a bus with an emotionally challenging ending that is a sharp and unexpected departure from her modus operandi up to that point. It’s as if she’d been serving cotton candy, and then suddenly left the room and came back with fried alligator. But by that point, it’s too late for the reader to bail.

Worry is, in essence, an anxious monologue that will resonate most with young, under-employed, over-educated Americans who live in large cities on the coasts. B

Album Reviews 24/05/16

Unearthly Rites, Ecdysis (Prosthetic Records)

You know, I don’t know if I’ve ever reviewed an album from the Prosthetic imprint in this space, but they’ve stuffed my emailbox for so long now that it’d be weird if I didn’t hear from them. It’s like that viral video that made the rounds a few months ago, where a little boy’s getting off the school bus and an all-black chicken comes running over to him to get hugs; Prosthetic is one of my favorite hug-seeking chickens, so let’s do this thing. If you haven’t guessed by now, we’re talking about a death metal band, one that comes to us “from the death metal caves of Finland,” and this is their first full-length. They love to brag about their DIY roots, which are verified through their really raw overall sound, which one critic didn’t like, but I do: It’s very punky, folks, just a dilapidated wall of hate atop which sits a workable-enough singer who does a fine Cookie Monster imitation. For what it is, it’s awesome. A-

High On Fire, Cometh The Storm (MNRK Heavy Records)

The mainstream rock press’s love for this mud-metal band has mystified me since the release of their first album, never you mind how long ago it was. I know some people love them some Motorhead, and I appreciate that, but that’s what ex-Sleep guitarist Matt Pike and his boys have always sounded like to me, Motorhead with a side of — well, nothing else really. By the way, they won a Best Metal Performance Grammy in 2019, the last time they could be bothered to put out an album, which speaks more to the distracted, half-informed mindset of the Grammy people than anything else, but let’s get to this one, which opens in fine fettle with “Lambsbread,” a riff clinic that sounds like Motorhead crossed with early Slayer, then the distinctly Crowbar-like grind-a-thon “Burning Down,” which does peg the coolometer. Bassist Jeff Matz (formerly with Zeke) adds some trippiness to the proceedings, specifically by playing a Turkish lute, so some of this sounds like Motorhead playing with Ravi Shankar. OK, anyway, there we are, Motorhead, um I mean High On Fire everyone. A


A seriously abridged compendium of recent and future CD releases

• Hoo-rah, look alive guys, the May 17 music-CD drop-date, and look at this, I’m already out of my element, because the first thing I have to deal with in these proceedings is a new album from Cage the Elephant, called Neon Pill! I am one of those professional music journalists who was sent the first Cage The Elephant album and thought it was boring and stupid, which led to a 20-year journey of having no friends, but it was worth it just to see the look on people’s faces. I still don’t get it, and I still don’t like this band or Portugal [curiously placed period] The Man either. But one of my associates really likes Cage The Elephant, and so for them (because I really, really care) I will heretofore forthwith proceed to put my current stomach contents at risk by listening to their new single to see if they’re still the emperor’s new clothes of skinny-jeans bands. Are y’all ready, that’d be great. OK, so I’m now reporting to you live from YouTube, guys, where I’m about to listen to the title track. Uh oh, wait, is this actually Cage The Whatever, or is it Guster? It sure sounds like Guster, talk about boring. Wait, this just in, folks, there’s some skronky noise in the mix, probably added so people would think the song’s important, but it’s better than nothing. Once again, I’m Eric Saeger, everyone, and this is “Listening To Really Pointless Music.”

• Carefully manufactured fashion-victimizer Billie Eilish is still around, being an unintelligible one-person Insane Clown Posse and doing annoying stuff like resembling my least favorite ex, and plus making albums, like her new one, Hit Me Hard And Soft! No, I don’t mind Billie Eilish, if people want to believe the record company’s story about how they found her in a Dumpster eating stale saltines or whatever the deal was, I cannot prevent them from falling for marketing ploys, but either way, let’s trudge back over to the YouTunes to see what’s going on with this ridiculous post-postmodern whatever. So, dum de dum, let’s see, here’s a tune from the new album, called “Chihiro.” She is half-whisper-singing, of course, because that’s her brand, heaven forbid she should just sing like a normal — wait, hold it guys, this is just a bunch of snippets from the song, because she knows all the 9-year-olds who listen to her would just pirate the tune through YouTubeToMP3, isn’t that clever? The song is slow, with an upbeat afterparty vibe, sort of like if Sade were a 15-year-old who smoked cigarettes and skipped school a lot. We’re just plain doomed, fam.

• There are a lot of albums for me to ignore this week, look at ’em all. There’s massively annoying ’90s person Ani DiFranco’s Unprecedented Sh!t; massively boring Canadian indie band Of Montreal with some stupid album, who cares what it’s called; and get this, guys, smirking nepo baby actress Kate Hudson is putting out an album titled Glorious, for some reason, which I only mention so you don’t accidentally buy it at Strawberries or Service Merchandise or who even knows where you’re supposed to buy albums now! Jeez Louise, everyone’s putting out an album this week, including mummified ’90s boyband New Kids on the Block, with their new one, Still Kids!

• And finally, it’s Portishead singer Beth Gibbons, with her new LP, Lives Outgrown! She of course is a trip-hop goddess, so there will probably be nothing to dislike about this. Yup, nope, “Reaching Out” has some really cool samples, a Florence Welch part, just badass stuff that you should listen to.

Twelve Trees, by Daniel Lewis

Daniel Lewis is a tree nerd, and I say that affectionately, from one tree nerd to another. By this, I mean my house is filled with odd pieces of wood collected in forests and on beaches for no reason other than the beauty I see in their gnarled and twisty forms. Lewis, however, is the guy who could probably identify the type of tree these bits of wood come from and then launch into a lecture on the genus of the tree and its prospects for survival on a warming planet.

An environmental historian and college professor who lives in Southern California, Lewis has built his latest book around 12 trees he finds most interesting and important. Disappointingly, although New Hampshire is the second most forested state in the U.S. according to the New Hampshire Division of Forests and Lands, the 12 do not include the sugar maple, Eastern hemlock or any other of the most prevalent trees in New England.

Lewis’s picks are a disparate tribe flung around the planet — in some cases, literally, by seed dispersal. They include the bristlecone pine, the coast redwood, the East Indian sandalwood tree, the African baobab, the blue gum eucalyptus and the olive tree. Each tree gets its own chapter, in which Lewis tells stories about the tree’s history, its uses and abuses by humans, and its outlook. Along the way, he ventures merrily off the beaten path in order to share nuggets of information he has gleaned during his research.

As an example, Lewis wanted to confirm that products of the olive tree, which mainly grows in the Mediterranean and in California, are found on all the continents. So he tracked down the person in charge of supplying food to the largest year-round encampment in the Antarctic, and we subsequently learn how the 150 to 900 people at the McMurdo Station are fed. Food is delivered there just once a year, in January or February, and it sounds like they eat better there than many of us do. “When you’re stuck in a vast, tree-free tract of wind-driven snow and ice, you need good olives and their oil. Green, black, and Kalamata olives are the three varieties usually on hand. Olive oil and olives are also a staple for their pizza station, which bakes up sixteen thousand to eighteen thousand pizzas annually,” Lewis writes.

Due to the popularity of its drupe — that is the new word we learn for pitted fruits like the olive, peach or apricot — the actual olive tree doesn’t get as much attention in its chapter as the other 11 trees, as Lewis delves mainly into the production of olive oil. The demand for olive oil is so great that just 10 percent of harvested olives are consumed as olives; the rest is pressed into oil in a mind-bogglingly complex and regulated process that explains why the product is so expensive.

More focus on the tree itself is given in chapters of two threatened species of trees: the African baobab (you might not recognize the name, but Google it, and you will most likely recognize the tree) and the toromiro tree, once common on a Pacific island.

The African baobab is a source of water to elephants during times of drought, which is interesting, because the baobab, for reasons scientists can’t explain, stores much more water than an individual tree needs for itself. But as tempting as it is to think that the tree is, on some level, being helpful to elephants or other living things with its excess hydration, it is the elephants’ violent assault on the trees to obtain water that is contributing to the trees’ demise.

Equally interesting is the story of what Lewis calls “the nearly lost tree of Rapa Nui.”

Rapa Nui is the Pacific island more commonly known as Easter Island. It was once resplendent with the Sophora toromiro, which doesn’t have a common name or nickname like other trees and is simply known (by the tree nerds who pay attention to it) as the toromiro.

The toromiro is a small flowering tree that was part of a “painful drop in biodiversity” after humans arrived there around the 12th century. In the case of the toromiro, however, its gradual decline wasn’t all human-driven; Lewis explains how other factors were likely at play, including dozens of devastating tsunamis that have hit the island over time. But the trees were harvested too, for firewood and building material. By the 1600s wood was so scarce on the island that it became the most valuable commodity there, Lewis writes. Even driftwood was “precious.”

Today, more than six decades after the last toromiro tree mysteriously disappeared from the island, attempts are being made to re-introduce the tree to the island from toromiros found growing elsewhere, the seeds carried by birds or ocean currents. It’s not as easy as just planting seedlings. The soil composition has changed so much that cultivated trees have not yet taken root.

These are the sorts of stories that make Twelve Trees an unexpectedly fascinating read, although it’s not necessarily the sort of book that you’d recommend, for example, to your Bruins-obsessed neighborhood. It’s a book to be read slowly and thoughtfully, and would appeal most to those who think businesses should close for Arbor Day. (April 26 this year, in case you didn’t know.)

While Twelve Trees has its “Bueller? Bueller?” moments — most notably when Lewis delivers what is best described as a rapturous ode to lichens — it will make you think that maybe you care more about trees than you know. B

Album Reviews 24/05/09

Taylor Swift, The Tortured Poets Department (Republic Records)

In case you’re new to this planet, the patriarchal establishment wants women to be obedient second-class citizens, focused on tedious, badly matched, purely sexual relationships, like 11-year-olds experiencing first crushes. That’s what this album accomplishes. It’s about private, individualist, closeted empowerment for enduring all the horribleness all women experience on a daily basis, and in that, it’s not the call to arms that the gender actually needs in a time of ever-dwindling rights for women. I will say that at least the record isn’t as embarrassingly hormonal as what Adele puts out, which is who TayTay’s trying to undercut with this stuff. Musically it’s decent, largely composed of hypnotic, post-coital musings that are a lot less grown-up than Tay (read: her producers, who write all this stuff) thinks they are. The melodic verisimilitude hides itself under “hmm, what’s that sample” moments and controlled bursts of primal, from-the-mountaintop, wild-woman battle cries signifying nothing. A-

Good Morning, Good Morning Seven (Polyvinyl Records)

Not only did Rolling Stone compare this Australian duo quite favorably to fellow Aussie bands Royel Otis and Budjerah; they went so far as to declare them the “future of music.” Hyperbolic much, I know, but they’re hitting the road with Waxahatchee soon, which should be a good fit. This LP opens with “Arcade,” which has a swampy-ethereal ambiance to it, techno-cheese and reverb-smothered vocals conjuring a half-plugged Kings Of Leon collaborating with Air, something of that sort. “Monster Of The Week” is like a more muscular Chris Isaak, for want of any better comparison. In that regard it’s definitely booze-soaked and faraway, an interesting but acquired taste that wouldn’t prompt me to yammer something like “the future of music” but definitely the type of thing that’ll please listeners who like their tuneage Pink Floyd-slow. A-


A seriously abridged compendium of recent and future CD releases

• Yippee-ki-yay, my little trolls, it’s the May 10 music-CD drop date and I can’t wait to preview all the hot new songs that’ll be playing at the Fun-Ride Center in downtown Old Orchard Beach during the summer! I haven’t even gone to the mall to buy my swimsuit attire yet, would day-glo green look good on me, please be honest! But there’s some hum-ding-dang-er butt-kickers coming at us this week, fam, so let me put aside this “Swimsuit Attire For 2024’s Hot Guys” catalog and go check it out (when I was in my 20s I used to troll people by saying that the Nashua Chamber of Commerce asked me to be Mr. October in the “Men Of Nashua” calendar and no one ever laughed, so I must have been quite the cutie back when I still had to take dating seriously, so don’t be sending laughing emojis to me on my social media, it won’t work). Holy catfish, not a lot of new albums this week, but the ones that are on my super-secret list of new albums seem pretty interesting. In fact, let’s start with totally edgy Scottish slowcore/post-rock band Arab Strap, I’m Totally Fine With It Don’t Give A F— Anymore. I don’t know, these guys are usually mentioned in the same breath as Swans and the Throbbing Lobster family of musical products and such, but I’ve never taken the plunge all the way with them. But I will try doing that today, bear with me a second while I listen to the new single, “Bliss.” Right, so the video has some girl doing a weird interpretive dance to a noisy-ish beat, and the singer sounds like Iggy Pop in mellow mode. It makes me want to say it sounds like Simple Minds doing krautrock, but that might inspire readers to go check it out, which isn’t my intention at all.

• Uh oh, look out, millennials, it’s your favorite arena-folk band, Kings of Leon, with a new album, titled Can We Please Have Fun. Wait, just a second, this just in: Yes, roger that, the band’s last album, whatever its name was, was so terrible that Kings Of Leon is no longer the favorite band of any generation. In that, they’re like Mastodon and Trent Reznor, a band that sold out and let the dummies at the record label take artistic control of their, you know, artistry. Oh, definitely, I’m sure this will be just scintillating stuff, let’s go listen to the advance cut, “Mustang,” and see what the dilly is with these jive turkeys. Ugh, so gross, it sounds like Pavement at the beginning, but then it gets a little more boisterous, and then the singing Hollowill brother starts rocking out to a not very catchy part. It does have a pulse to it and will probably be a lot cooler when they play it live, but at first listen it’s not as great as their earlier hit, the one with the Millennial Whoop in it, you know, the decent one.

• Oh, please stop, what’s this, it’s hair-rock children’s-party-clown Sebastian Bach, even he has a new album, and this one’s called Child Within The Man! Now I feel compelled to find out what he’s been doing since his “acting stint” on Gilmore Girls, do you guys even remember that, or did your brain work properly and erase it the way brains are supposed to work when you get abducted by aliens or watch Gilmore Girls? The single, “Everybody Bleeds,” is hair-metal-y but old ’Bastian wants it to be kind of Alice in Chains-ish, so it’s not too — wait, what’s he doing with the high voice thing, stop that this instant.

• And finally we have How to Dress Well, the stage name of Colorado’s Tom Krell. His new album, I Am Toward You, includes a decent neo-AOR tune, “New Confusion.” He sings like trip-hop superstar Jose Gonzalez on this pretty, fractal-filled joint, it’s cool.

Funny Story, by Emily Henry

& How to End a Love Story, by Yulin Kuang

Funny Story, by Emily Henry (Berkley, 400 pages)

How to End a Love Story, by Yulin Kuang (Avon, 384 pages)

I was interested in reading Yulin Kuang’s debut novel, How to End a Love Story, after finding out that Kuang is the adapting screenwriter for People We Meet on Vacation and the writer/director for Beach Read, both upcoming movies based on novels by Emily Henry. And since it was released just weeks before Henry’s latest, Funny Story (already on my must-read list), I decided to read them both and compare these purportedly funny love stories.

How to End a Love Story is a solid debut — but I could see it being better as a movie (which makes sense given Kuang’s experience as a film writer). I have to wonder if perhaps some solid acting could make me believe the whole premise of the book.

Because here’s my biggest hang-up: The reason that main characters Helen and Grant “can’t” be together is stupid. I could not, at any point, wrap my head around this “enemies to lovers” plot when there was absolutely no reason for them to be enemies in the first place.

Helen’s sister was killed in a tragic accident 13 years ago. Grant was behind the wheel of the car that killed her. (No spoiler here — this is explained on page 2). The fact is, no one was at fault, no one was to blame, and it’s just not OK that Helen hates Grant for this thing he had no control over. I get that being around him might be difficult, but to straight up despise his existence and make him feel like he did something wrong really made me dislike her. And it’s hard to be invested in, let alone root for, a character you don’t like.

Also, she’s pretty uptight, and it was hard to reconcile that with the setting and other characters in the book. Helen is a popular YA author and has just started working in the writers’ room of the book series’ TV adaptation (clearly Kuang took the “write what you know” notion and ran with it). The writers’ room environment is rowdy and raunchy, and Helen doesn’t fit in.

It’s almost uncomfortable to see Helen’s interactions with these fun, indelicate people — and then watch her slowly become “one of them.” It seems disingenuous and awkward (again, maybe onscreen an actor could portray this transformation more naturally than my imagination was allowing for).

Meanwhile, Grant is an experienced film writer, well-respected and confident in the room but less so outside of it, as he still struggles with the anxieties that have plagued him since the aforementioned tragic accident.

Alas, Helen and Grant must work together, and of course it’s so hard at first, but then it’s not so much, and then there are some unfortunate moments of passion that can’t go any further because it’s just not OK, fundamentally, because of this thing that happened 13 years ago that was no one’s fault.

If you can wrap your head around all of that in a way that I couldn’t, you’ll probably enjoy this book. Certainly a lot of romance novels have their fair share of disbelievable elements — it’s just that they’re usually more eye-roll-inducing (just tell him how you feel already!) and less emotionally upsetting. But the writing is solid, particularly the dialogue, and it’s an interesting look at what goes on in a writers’ room and on a film set, knowing that Kuang has real-life experience there. C+

Funny Story was even better than I expected it to be. Henry had already proven that she is a master of women’s literature, with fun, real characters, unique but believable storylines, and just the right amount of heat. And in Funny Story, her dialogue shines, sharp and witty as always.

One of many random examples (the context doesn’t even matter):

“‘I thought you were bringing a date,’ I say to Jules. ‘That guy you just went to Chicago with?’

‘Ryan.’ She rolls her eyes. ‘He cut his fingernails on the bus ride.’

‘Ew,’ Ashleigh and I say in unison.

Julia nods solemnly. ‘Flags so red, they veered toward maroon.’”

The “I” in the above example is Daphne, who is engaged to Peter, who decides just before the wedding that he actually loves Petra, his childhood best friend, who was engaged to Miles, who becomes Daphne’s new roommate and fake boyfriend after the respective breakups. Got that? (Jules, in case you’re wondering, is Miles’s sister, and Ashleigh is Daphne’s co-worker and, once Daphne lightens up a bit at work, her new best friend. Both add a well-balanced mix of fun and emotional complexity to the plot.)

And there is emotional complexity here; this isn’t all fluff and love, and I don’t think I rolled my eyes once. Funny Story is definitely funny, but it’s so much more than that, too: It’s a story of human relationships and all of the messiness and intensity that come along with them, how they can start and end in the most unpredictable ways, and how we all have the capacity to overcome heartbreak and learn to love again. A

Album Reviews 24/05/02

Elvie Shane, Damascus (self-released)

Generally organic feel and great production propel this blue-collar hero’s twangy and slashy tuneage. He’s also something of a preacher, so he comes to the countrified Springsteen pace with the right credentials, which has taken him pretty far to date, with love coming his way from Rolling Stone and a formidable group of other press outlets. This stuff is undoubtedly bad-ass, beginning with album opener “Outside Dog,” a tune that evokes Jerry Lee Lewis fronting Butthole Surfers; the vibe is swampy and muddy and broke-down, and the bullhorn patch on Shane’s voice is just, you know, chef’s kiss. “What Do I Know” is a more Bob Dylan-infused joint, a hardscrabble working person’s call for clarity while trying to thrive in our impossible era of forced economic austerity: “I’m just hard-working beer-drinkin’ son of an average Joe.” The honesty is magma deep here; this isn’t some former trust-fund kid who got cut off for dropping out of university. A+

Julien Knowles, As Many, As One (Biophilia Records)

Knowles is a Los Angeles-based trumpeter and composer, said to be one of the most sought-after musicians on the L.A. jazz scene; most recently he’s been heard on such albums as Anthony Wilson’s Collodion, Peter Epstein’s Two Legs Bad and Louis Cole’s Some Unused Songs. This full-length kicks off with the impossibly dreamy “Opening,” fronting enough background noise to sound vastly different from most bands that try to summon Do The Right Thing’s urban background-at-night steez. It picks up in a startlingly tight-sounding manner, with Javier Santiago’s piano laying down a bonking pattern that feels like a raft ride down the rapids. I should mention that there are nine musicians involved, which does make everything sound thick and full; Knowles’s crazy-busy trumpet seems relegated to the back of the mix, with the piano (there are two guys handling that) situated in front, in first-person stereo view. Definitely proggy but it all goes down very smooth. A+


A seriously abridged compendium of recent and future CD releases

• Yay, it’s the May 3 crop of new musical CD releases, for your listening dysphoria! You know something, fam, for the last few years I’ve been pretty much oblivious to all the goings-on with the lilting soprano nymphettes that are always singing about depraved sexual acts on corporate kiddie-pop radio stations — wait, do the kids even know what a radio is anymore? Are there radios anymore? What does the school bus driver play over the $3 loudspeakers nowadays on the way to bringing all the kids to school to give their parents a break from having to listen to them yammer on about hip-hop beefs and gender-neutral dialectical materialism these days, or does the bus ride into school with everyone listening to crunk and black metal in their earbuds? You know, just to find out how kids live nowadays, I am publicly volunteering to work for the cops undercover in a school, like on 21 Jump Street, all I’d need to do is dye the gray out of my hair with a ton of Revlon ColorSilk No. 231 or whatnot and lose 20 pounds and get a face lift and before you know it those little rascals would be all up in my business, asking me where to score some sour Trolli jelly worm candies and how to talk to girls, as if I’d know, and I’d just make up stuff and get them in trouble. Why do I bring up this idiocy? Well, because it’s time for me to stop pretending that Dua Lipa doesn’t exist, given that she has a new album out this Friday, there’s no escape for me this time. Can you tell I’d rather be talking about literally anything on Earth other than Dua Lipa? You know me so well, guys, but let’s do the dutiful and go listen to this soon-to-be-forgotten flash in the pan’s latest single, “Bet You Like The Fact That My Butt Is Bigger Than The Entire State Of Kansas!” Wait, no, that’s not whatsername, that was from some journalistic writing notes I made while preparing to see how long my barf-reflex would hold out while investigating the new album, Radical Optimism, and its single, “Illusion.” Yikes, it actually isn’t bad, very 2006 disco-house, it’s a lot better than Taylor Swift and all those other people, I guess.

• London, U.K.’s favorite electronic afro-funk band (or at least one of them), Ibibio Sound Machine, is at it again, with a new full-length, Pull The Rope! The title track features a laid-back, pretty nifty rubber-band groove that goes on forever. Not much else happens, but maybe it’ll backdrop a Geek Squad commercial someday and they can tell their grandkids about it.

• You’re kidding. It’s horror director/Casio keyboard enthusiast John Carpenter, with yet another album of themes that didn’t make it into one of his movies (or whatever the deal is), Lost Themes IV: Noir. “My Name Is Death” is pretty advanced for what he usually does. OK, no it’s not, it’s the same sort of thing as the incidental music from his 1978 movie Halloween, but the explodey synths, well, they’re pretty explodey!

• Lastly it’s Long Island-based indie rockers The Lemon Twigs, with A Dream Is All We Know! The single, “A Dream Is All I Know,” totally sounds like “really bad” era Paul McCartney, when he did “Wonderful Christmastime.” I don’t love it.

Tough Broad, by Caroline Paul

Tough Broad, by Caroline Paul (Bloomsbury, 264 pages)

In her 2016 book The Gutsy Girl, Caroline Paul drew from her own experiences as a firefighter, pilot and outdoorswoman to urge 8- to 13-year-old girls to live a life of “epic adventure.” It was the sort of book that many older women bought for their daughters and nieces, but along the way they read it, too — and loved it. Numerous reviews detail how women much older than the target audience made changes in their own life after reading the book.

Now Paul is back with a book written especially for much older women. In Tough Broad, she urges women past the half-century mark (and even nearing the century mark) to forget their age and head outdoors for their own epic adventures. These adventures, the subtitle warns, include boogie boarding and wing walking, which as the cover photo shows is exactly what it sounds like: moving along the outside of a small airplane in flight, and I suppose I should add intentionally, not because your plane malfunctioned.

Maybe our grandmothers secretly yearned to do that and didn’t have the societal permission, I don’t know. But wing walking at any age seems a bit, well, out there. But Paul argues that exhilarating outdoor adventures are not the result of having a positive attitude toward aging but “the integral gateway” to feeling good about this stage of life. This matters because numerous studies have shown a strong correlation between how we feel about aging and how we fare physically and cognitively. This is not to say that happy aging erases the physical insults and deterioration, but rather, as one 80-year-old scuba diver told Paul, “You can be a couch potato, or you can decide that whatever ails you is insignificant.”

Then 57, Paul is the youngster in this book, although she often talks older than she is. In the opening chapter, for example, she is meeting friends at Yosemite National Park but is thwarted at the gate by rangers who won’t let her drive in because her friend, who obtained the car pass, isn’t with her. Undaunted, she parks away from the gate, puts on a helmet, retrieves her electric skateboard from the car trunk and tries again. The bemused rangers, after “they all stutter-step away from me as if I’m about to wipe out their entire squadron of youthful shins,” let her in.

But she’s not there to skateboard but to meet up with another friend in her 50s who plans to BASE jump (illegally) from the top of the El Capitan monolith.

And so it goes. Paul, who clearly did not get enough adventure in 14 years of working for the San Francisco Fire Department, goes from adventure to adventure, often with people much older and fitter than she is. Meeting a 93-year-old hiker, for example, Paul has to beg off the 5-mile trek that the older woman wants to take because of previous injuries. The hiker reluctantly agrees to downgrade to just 3 miles, telling Paul at one point, “I’m an ageist. I don’t like old people.”

What she means is that she doesn’t like people who use age as an excuse for not getting outside and doing things that are challenging. And while there are plenty of stimulating things one can do inside, like read books or play chess, Paul argues that outside adventures are unique in bringing us to life, and she doesn’t mean just your backyard or a county park. “The less urban the environment you stroll in, the more well-being you feel,” she writes.

While a few of the activities that Paul covers here are much more staid than illegal BASE jumping — birdwatching makes an appearance, for example — the book’s most fascinating women are the ones doing the wildest things. Take the 71-year-old wing walker, who Paul discovers through a video that her children posted on the internet with the caption “MAMMA WENT WING WALKING! Without a word about it to us kids.” When Paul tracks her down, she learns that the wing walker had breast cancer and a mastectomy, chemo and radiation at age 64 and wanted to do something to celebrate her recovery. She’d learned about wing walking when she typed in “Something fun to do here” on Google. She didn’t just jump on the plane, but worked out for six months in preparation, without saying a word to her family.

Paul later tries it herself and realizes that it isn’t just the physical challenge that is so empowering, but what it does for one emotionally. She writes: “I realize how perfectly wing walking primes us for awe: there is the majestic view at thirty-five hundred feet that feels almost religious; there is the total disequilibrium of doing something so antithetical to every survival instinct; there is the exhilaration of twirling and ricocheting and falling in a vast sky.”

True, she notes, a person can experience awe during, say, a walk in a forest, but it’s “psychological disequilibrium” that keeps the neurons firing. We hear a lot about the benefits of sleep and meditation and lowering stress; less so about the need for novelty and challenge. But Paul writes, when she signs up to learn to fly a gyrocopter, she is helping her brain to remain elastic and nimble. “Embrace disequilibrium,” she exhorts us.

Just as Paul’s previous book, meant for young girls, appealed to older women, Tough Broads, though meant for older women will likely inspire women decades younger — and those whose goals are much more modest than walking on a plane mid-flight. In one chapter Paul accompanies a 59-year-old woman to a swimming lesson; the woman has tried multiple times over the years to learn to swim and never could, becoming more and more terrified of drowning each time. But she is determined to master her fear. She regrets that “there’s an entire area of life that I can’t participate in” and dreams of scuba diving somewhere exotic with her family. She is still dreaming — her story turns out not to be quite as inspirational as the others, but the moral is the same: that growth comes from trying, whether or not we succeed.

Paul, who is the twin sister of the actress Alexandra Paul, shares a poignant story about her mother, whose own mother had been anxious and overprotective, making her become risk averse. But at age 54 Paul’s mother tried skydiving and for the first time considered herself brave, and this courage set her off on new adventures. At 84 she told her daughter wistfully, “What I would give to be 60 again.” Paul concludes, “do it now, before you can’t.” That’s good advice for any woman, or man, at any age. AJennifer Graham

Album Reviews 24/04/25

Gryphon Rue, 4n_Objx (self-released)

Traditionally, my desk has been a dumping ground for noise and avant releases of all types, which I’ve never minded; the only thing that gets on my nerves is impromptu jazz that uses badly matched acoustic instruments, like, say, a fiddle with a clarinet. I mention all that merely as preface for this, which is decidedly not acoustic at all; in fact it’s a very techy and quite accessible blend of electroacoustic, field recordings, tropicalia psych and krautrock. There’s an underwater, deeply textural feel to all the contents, which unexpectedly shift into bizarre royal-trumpet parts like the soundtrack from The Cell (the J-Lo one I mean) and then gradually move back to more aquatic, graceful spaces. Rue is a New York City kid, and this isn’t his first LP; I’m sure he’ll be a soundtrack force in future. I almost hate to call it experimental, since that tends to scare people off, but yeah, these are doodlings, but high-end ones. A+

Eric W. Saeger

Caldwell, Caldwell (Popclaw/Rise Above Records)

New Orleans-based rocker Kevan Caldwell is a member of The Planchettes, which probably doesn’t mean anything to you, but you should check them out, because they were like a ’60s garage/horror rock New York Dolls, like, if three subway rats formed a band and got booted out of every place they played, they would have sounded like The Planchettes. This dude is sort of a chicken-fried Nick Cave, evident from the wah-pedal groove of opener “No Flowers Today” and the breezy, acoustic-fronted pop idealism of “Love Confessions,” to the tripped-out nursery rhyme strut of “Picturesque Self Portrait,” this is an album of endless curveballs, one that any psychedelic garage lover should consider investigating. He was big into the Kinks at the time of writing this LP (Covid lockdowns informed it as well), so it’s a peek into this guy’s soul, which seems to be a welcoming place. A —Eric W. Saeger


A seriously abridged compendium of recent and future CD releases

• Just like every other Friday, we’ll see a relentless storm of new CDs on April 26, can you hardly even wait or what, folks? Like every week, I’m about to look at my super-secret list of new CDs, a list that only professional music journalists can see at, after I’m done whispering prayers to Odin that every CD on the list won’t be annoying. Wait, we have a nice start for once, with a new Pet Shop Boys album, called Nonetheless! Over the years, Pet Shop Boys have become a secret, guilty pleasure for people who don’t like all the really bad music that’s been put out for decades now (OK, fine, maybe they aren’t so secret, given that they were listed as the most successful duo in U.K. music history in the 1999 edition of The Guinness Book of Records, can you just not argue with me for once, that’d be great) and prefer music that makes them feel good, not that they started out that way. Like, their first hit single in the ’80s, “West End Girls,” used to get on my nerves and make me think of creepy incels, but 15 years ago their PR person sent me a copy of their album Yes, and I was all like, “Wait, when did these guys become the greatest duo in U.K. music history?” But putting that aside, all I can hope is that their newest single, “Loneliness,” is unequivocally awesome, so that I can make fun of myself again for being so wrong about this successful U.K. duo! Oh darn it all, it’s awesome, a really mellow krautrock-infused thing with a rubber-band beat and way-toned-down vocals, excuse me while I’m once again forced to recite 50 “Hail Odins.”

Wolfgang Tillmans is a really famous photographer from Germany, which somehow led to his believing that he’s also a musician, and so he has done Music Stuff, including having one of his tracks sampled by Frank Ocean on his video album Endless. Yes, there is much postmodernism going on here, which is annoying to people like Jordan Peterson but enticing to others who are art-challenged. I cannot choose, so I’m going to let Tillmans’ music do the talking and listen to “Here We Are,” which is apparently included in Tillmans’ new album, Build From Here. OK, it starts out annoying, with a droopy krautrock intro synth-line that drags on forever, and then it becomes a David Bowie thing. Boring. Oh wait, here’s another tune that’s on the album, called “Where Does The Tune Hide,” and Tillmans sings on it. Ack, gross, it’s like Haujobb (if you even know them) but it’s super stupid, a bunch of pretentious New Age nonsense. This is not my favorite record of all time.

• Lol, I remember way back in the mid-2010s, when bands were giving themselves names that had two V’s in them, do any of you people even remember that doomed little mini-trend, like Wavves? Well, I’m here to report that there is a new band that does that, called Hovvdy, whose self-titled album is here, for my expert examination, get on my doctor table, little album, and let’s have a look at ya. Hm, the doctor chart here says they’re an American indie-pop duo from Austin, Texas, I’ll bet it sounds like Guster, let’s go check out the single, “Forever.” Yup, ding ding ding, it sounds like Guster but with a little Vampire Weekend syncopation but not enough to register an actual pulse. Holy cats, folks, let’s wrap this week up.

• Lastly we have famous French tech-house producer duo Justice, with their newest album, Hyperdrama! You remember these guys, with their asphalt-grating Ed Banger sound that’s gone the way of the McDLT, but the new single is “Generator,” made of typical edgy noise-electro, like soundtrack music for a live-action Pokemon movie, so nothing’s changed. They’re coming to the MGM Music Hall in Boston on Aug. 2. —Eric W. Saeger

Help Wanted, by Adelle Waldman

Help Wanted, by Adelle Waldman (W.W. Norton, 274 pages)

When a manager in Adelle Waldman’s Help Wanted is transferred to a store in West Hartford, Connecticut, it’s a promotion and his colleagues are stunned and impressed.

Which tells you everything you need to know about Potterstown, New York, a once-thriving town that unraveled when its major employer left town, leaving behind people “who walked around with something of a shell-shocked look as if modernity itself had caught them unawares.”

For all its economic troubles, however, Potterstown still has Town Square store #1512, a big-box store full of “mass-produced knockoffs of trendy boutique-type items” that is a few steps higher on the big-box social scale than Walmart. And it is the “roaches” of Town Square — the hourly workers who come in each morning at 3:55 a.m. to stock the store, then scatter before opening time — that are the subject of Help Wanted, the latest in a genre best described as late-capitalism novels.

It is obvious from the first pages of Help Wanted that the flawed heroes of this story are the nine workers who comprise the department called “Movement,” and that their supervisor is the bad guy. “Movement” is the trendy upgraded name for the department that used to be called “Logistics” — despite concern in some quarters that it made it sound like “they worked for a yoga studio or laxative company.” At any rate, in the pecking order of Town Square employees, Movement is the department for workers who are seen as “not customer facing” or “ready for prime time” because their social skills aren’t up to par.

These protagonists include Nicole, a 23-year-old with $30 in her checking account whose main goal in life is to buy a car so she doesn’t have to drive her mom’s dented sedan, the Dingmobile; Diego, a Black man from Honduras who immigrated to the New York with his father as a teen and (whose phone is currently shut off for nonpayment), and Milo, a would-be comedian with a YouTube account dreaming of a girlfriend and a place to live that isn’t a friend’s house.

The one thing the Movement workers have in common beyond their financial misery is their dislike of their perpetually obtuse manager, Meredith, who regularly comes in late, denies leave requests and micromanages the team. And so when the store manager, Big Will, gets promoted to West Hartford, the Movement team spots a way out of their collective misery. If Meredith gets promoted to store manager, she will no longer directly supervise them. And there’s a chance that one of them will get her job.

This fills members of the team, who, like caged birds, generally dwell in a state of learned helplessness, with excitement. Each one privately is hoping that they will be the person to be promoted and get a guaranteed salary and benefits, but they know that even if that isn’t the case, their lot would improve if Meredith disappeared. So they devise a furtive plan they dub “pro-Mer” — promote Meredith — in order to make this dream happen. Meanwhile, Meredith herself is ecstatically planning for her future promotion and getting the store ship-shape before the arrival of the Town Square executives who will conduct interviews and make the decision.

One by one, we learn of the circumstances of each worker’s life, and why the promotion — which is, frankly, not one that most people would write home about — is so important to them. Unfortunately, despite these asides into the team members’ lives, Waldman’s decision to make the story about all of them requires the reader to work hard to keep up with each of nine workers’ circumstances. While these circumstances are substantively different — one has a food stamp card that has not reloaded, one was evicted, one has an unexpected medical problem that consumes the money he’d planned on using for his child’s birthday party — they are all troubled by the same core problems: lack of education, lack of money, lack of opportunity, and a business that cares more about the bottom line than about them.

Most of the workers desperately want more hours (not all, because some have multiple jobs), and the store has plenty of work that isn’t getting done, but the company is content to sacrifice even customer satisfaction so long as sales keep steadily going up. In one example of corporate deceit, Town Square posts “help wanted” signs all over the store, even though they’re not hiring — the implication being that any lack of staff on hand was a function of the tight labor market and/or a lazy populace’s unwillingness to work service jobs.

At one point, when a couple of Town Square corporate executives meet with Big Will about his replacement, they wonder about the suspiciously excellent reviews that the Movement workers give Meredith. Is it really possible that this crew, some of whom didn’t finish high school, was smart enough to have planned a sort of coup? They think not. “It’s worth remembering,” one of the executives says, “that the people who work these jobs aren’t like you and me. We’re people who value stability, who worked hard to achieve it for ourselves.”

Having been primed for sympathy and affection toward the Movement team, it is a horrible indictment, not of the workers but of the executive. Still, in crafting this group of characters, Waldman did not venture far outside the box, giving us workers who have predictable troubles, like the shut-off electricity, the tendency to drink and the kid in jail. There is a sort of monotony to their lot that does not necessarily reflect the real world. Crummy jobs are held by all sorts of people, for diverse reasons.

Although in one of her funnier lines Waldman (who does have great comic timing) says that the ethnic diversity of Movement would make the dean of a private school proud, the team is not really that diverse except in age, gender and skin color. But the main problem with this story, dedicated to “all retail workers,” is its unnecessary complexity and its persistent gloominess. The novel takes place over just six weeks, but like a never-ending workweek, it feels like 600. C

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