Fear Factories, by Matthew Scully and Justice for Animals, by Martha C. Nussbaum

Fear Factories, by Matthew Scully (First Arezzo Books, 273 pages)

Justice for Animals, by Martha C. Nussbaum (Simon and Schuster, 320 pages)

It’s been nearly half a century since the Australian philosopher Peter Singer published Animal Liberation, effectively launching the modern animal rights movement. Twenty-seven years later, Matthew Scully — best-known then as a speechwriter for George W. Bush and other GOP politicians — came out with Dominion, which became a sort of Animal Liberation for a new generation (and also for those who couldn’t stomach Singer’s more controversial takes, such as giving parents the right to end the lives of disabled newborns).

Both writers made a compelling case against “factory farming,” the means by which the majority of meat and dairy products in the U.S. are produced, with scale, efficiency and speed that requires animals be treated in ways many people consider horrific. So, how’s it going?

Not so great, despite legal advances made by animal-rights activists and slight declines in recent years in per-capita meat consumption. Vox last year claimed in a headline “You’re more likely to go to prison for exposing animal cruelty than committing it,” which is demonstrably untrue, but the overarching point is valid — legal theory and strategy that aims to reduce animal suffering is still largely left wanting.

Into this void comes the highly regarded University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum, whose Justice for Animals proposes a new legal theory, which she calls the “capabilities approach.” Published last year in hardcover, it’s new in paperback, as is Matthew Scully’s followup to Dominion, called Fear Factories. (And last year Singer updated his original work in a volume called Animal Liberation Now.)

Nussbaum, the author or co-author of 24 other philosophy books, is relatively new to the subject of animal rights, having seriously picked up the cause after the death of her daughter, an attorney who specialized in animal-rights cases. In Justice for Animals she expounds on ideas previously applied to standards of human welfare and assigns them to animals. According to Nussbaum, most animals can suffer injustice for which human beings should be held accountable. But not all animals. Nussbaum argues that we should take into account whether the animals are capable of living a certain sort of life — one in which they are striving to flourish in that world in ways accordant with their species. Injustice can be done to animals, therefore, not just by the willful infliction of pain but by thwarting animals from their natural progressions of life.

There are gradations that can make it difficult to identify injustice — she’s still not sold, for example, on whether crustaceans truly have flourishingly lives, and insects don’t seem to process pain. But injustice “centrally involves significant striving blocked by not just harm but also wrongful thwarting, whether negligent or deliberate,” Nussbaum says. If that smacks of legal-ese, well, this is a book that wants to establish a framework for bringing legal cases on behalf of animals, and so it lays out the case soberly, often with stilted language and professor-like repetition. This is for people who want to get into the weeds of animal rights.

Among the questions she tackles: Are we morally obligated to intervene to protect wildlife from misery and disease? (The New Hampshire moose dying of tick infestation come to mind.) Should we intervene when we have a chance to save an individual animal, or many, from predation? Can humans be “friends” with animals in captivity?

While Nussbaum considers the treatment of animals bred for slaughter on factory farms, and the cattle in large-scale dairy operations, a “moral horror,” she does not argue for veganism, saying, “I have no principled objection to the human use of animal products, so long as the animal is able to carry on its characteristic animal life.”

Scully, on the other hand, is a vegan, although in Fear Factories he does not aggressively try to convert meat-eaters; he seems principally concerned with getting people to think about the animals that suffered in order that they may enjoy a bacon cheeseburger. If they change their eating habits, all the better, but you get the sense he’d be satisfied if we could just stop with the wide-scale misery.

Fear Factories is a collection of about 50 articles and essays published between 1992 and 2022; nearly half originally appeared in the conservative journal National Review. Animal rights are typically considered a cause of the political left; as such, Scully was definitely not preaching to the choir, and the photos he chose for the covers of the book go for our emotional jugular. (The front cover shows rows of gestational crates, the kind Proposition 12 banned in California; the back, a close-up of a miserable pig in such a crate.)

While Dominion was deeply reported, with Scully going to a factory farm in North Carolina and a meeting of an international sport hunting club, among other places, the essays in Fear Factories draw more on his personal experience. In an essay titled “Lessons from a Dog,” he writes about how his childhood attachment to a stray dog his family adopted led to a moral awakening that caused him to become a vegetarian as a teen. Many others involve animal cruelty laws that were then being debated and met with resistance even though they proposed, as Scully writes, to extend “the smallest of mercies to the humblest of creatures.”

Scully has the soul of a poet, and it comes across in devastating prose in which he takes on the harvesting of elephants, trophy hunting, seal clubbing and other atrocities, and the derision and contempt often given animal-rights activists trying to make a point in ways as simple as offering water to a pig headed for slaughter. He also includes reviews he has written of other animal-centric books, such as The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth by Edward O. Wilson and The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims.

While Scully is more eloquent, and Nussbaum more scholarly, both continue to build out the case against factory farming. Neither is an easy read, however; they are not meant to be enjoyed so much as to be studied. Fear Factories: A; Justice for Animals: B-

Album Reviews 24/02/22

The Writeful Heirs, The Writeful Heirs (self-released)

Big fan of the New Boston, N.H., area, which is where this boy/girl songwriting duo (they’re older, so “boy/girl” is a bit inaccurate, but whatevs) is based. Their trip is undergirded by Americana, and the bio sheet rattles off a few other influences, namely psychedelica, classic rock, ’80s stuff and alt-rock, which I trust is all totally true, but either way, these two have obviously spent a lot of time rehashing and refining these songs. Former Club Iguana songwriter John Montalto handles the guitar and bass here, with newcomer Sunny Barretto, a hippie lady who handles lyrics and background singing. This business starts off with “Jupiter in July,” a Guster-ish thing that’d be more of a Peter Bradley Adams endeavor if it were a bit more mellow, not that it’d hurt a fly as is. Tons of layering enhances the smoothness of the sounds; Amos Lee would certainly be an accurate RIYL name-check for this very well-done record. A

James Brown, We Got to Change (Universal Music)

A little rock ’n’ blues archaeology for you here, kids, an unreleased single from the Godfather of Soul (or, of course, whatever else people like to call him these days, often epithets that aren’t really nice, in line with all the #MeToo business that’s surfaced in recent years). This is an old relic, recorded Aug. 16, 1970, at Criteria Studios in Miami, a pivotal period for Brown in that longtime members of his famed James Brown Orchestra had walked out a few months earlier. The replacement band, called The J.B.’s. (anchored by two young brothers from Cincinnati, Ohio, in the persons of guitarist Phelps “Catfish” Collins and bassist William “Bootsy” Collins), boasted a harder edge, as heard on such singles as “Get Up (I Feel Like Being) a Sex Machine,” “Super Bad,” “Soul Power,” and this tune, a typical foreboding, urban grumbler that starts with bongos, then adds some staccato guitar before Brown starts preaching in his signature fashion, which of course prompts the usual Vegas choir-and-brass pomp. Three versions appear here. A

Playlist

A seriously abridged compendium of recent and future CD releases

• OK, look alive everyone, the next all-in CD release day is Friday, Feb. 23, who’s got the remote, I want to fast-forward three months so we can get past all this ridiculous “too cold to go swimming but too warm to make popsicles just by putting a cup of fruit juice outside for 10 seconds” weather. Don’t you hate this? I do too, but I cannot plead insanity and refuse to do my duty by listening to bad albums today, there are just too many bad albums out there in my new-release list, all looking up at me like a laundry-load of kittens, begging me to put aside my deepest-possible hatred for this stupid month and just pay attention to their awful songs, aren’t they so cute? Yikes, I have to tell you, I thought I was going to get to hear and review a new album from Elbow today, but that one doesn’t come out until March, so we’ll begin this week’s exercise with some band called Hurray for the Riff Raff, whose new album, The Past Is Still Alive, is in my ruggedly handsome face right this second! The leadoff single, “Snake Plant,” sounds like a cross between Reba McEntire and Sinead O’Connor, and no, I have no explanation for that, but it isn’t completely horrible.

• A long time ago in a rock ’n’ roll galaxy far, far away, four glam-metal hacks from Los Angeles realized that the fastest way to become famous (despite having no talent for writing songs whatsoever) would be to combine room-temperature Danzig-style faux-punkishness with a few Kiss elements, like face makeup, random explosions, guitar riffs that any 6-year-old could play after one lesson, and — well, OK, everything else, except for catchy choruses, and lo, Mötley Crüe was born. The only thing the band was really good for was giving metal-radio DJs a break from playing Ratt, which was a win for them and in fact all humanity. After a time, no one liked hair metal anymore, which was Nirvana’s fault, so the Crüe’s drummer totally accidentally released the sexytime part of a video he was filming with his Ph.D. physicist wife, Pamela Anderson, a film that was originally intended as an instructional video on nautical navigation for sailors stranded at sea. And then, whatever, the singer left for a while after releasing a sexytime video of his own, and then he came back, to no one’s surprise. Cut to now, where da Crüe’s guitarist, Mick Mars, was all like “I’m sick of this place,” so he has also quit for the moment, and, until he realizes that he’s going to be broke unless he rejoins da Crüe, he will release solo albums, of which his brand new one, The Other Side Of Mars, is the first. See what he did there, with that album title, and the first single from this Loot Crate version of Ace Frehley is called “Loyal to the Lie.” Stop the presses, folks, it’s not a bad song at all if you liked Gravity Kills way back before Ben Franklin invented the VCR. I can deal with it, sure.

Nadine Shah is a British avant-pop singer who used to be friends with Amy Winehouse. Now that Shah is out of rehab, she is releasing albums, starting with this new one, Filthy Underneath. The single, “Twenty Things,” has a super-cool art-rock edge to it, and her vocals will appeal to Bowie fans for sure. It’s decent enough.

• Lastly we have Aughts-indie cool kids MGMT, whose new LP, Loss Of Life, features a tune called “Mother Nature.” It’s got a ’60s-pop slant to it, a la The Beatles, if you’ve ever heard of those guys. Actually, no, you know what, it sounds like Oasis quite a bit, up to the sad-happy chorus bit. Yes, that’s it, the tune wants to be “Wonderwall,” but, because it’s MGMT, it has to have a nicely shot but utterly pointless cartoon as its video, you know how this goes.

Good Material, by Dolly Alderton

Whether it’s because the holidays were unbearable or Valentine’s Day is even worse, we’re in the time of year that most breakups happen. If you happen to be nursing a broken heart, Good Material, the second novel by British writer Dolly Alderton, will be an excellent companion. And if you’re not, it’s a very good distraction from the post-holiday, mid-winter, my-team’s-wasn’t-in/didn’t-win-the-Super-Bowl blahs.

The novel is centered around the debilitating heartbreak of Andy Dawson, a 35-year-old comedian who just broke up with Jen, his girlfriend of four years. He doesn’t understand what happened — they’d just had a lovely weekend together in Paris, he mournfully tells friends, when Jen tells him that she doesn’t want to be with him anymore. Unfortunately for Andy, that means he’s not only out of a relationship, but out of housing — they’d lived together and Jen’s salary had enabled them to live in much nicer housing than could Andy’s cobbled-together income from comedy gigs and corporate training events.

There is also the not-insignificant problem of their friend group — Jen’s close friend, Jane, is the wife of Andy’s best friend, Avi, and the two couples had been besties for years, leading to all sorts of painful complications in the aftermath of the breakup when Andy moves in with the friends while he’s searching for a place to live and monitoring his newly worrisome bald spot.

But all these problems are secondary to Andy’s heartbreak, which he is desperately and unsuccessfully trying to rid himself of. When he passes a woman wearing Jen’s signature perfume, for example, he goes to the store and buys all they have of that brand and pitches the bottles into a river, saying that’s four fewer times he’ll have to smell Jen again. He obsesses for weeks over whether it’s OK to send her a “happy birthday” text and, if so, what it should say. When that doesn’t go well, he devises a list “of all the other possible events in the coming year that might open the gateway for casual texting,” such as Christmas, his birthday, nuclear disaster and the death of someone they both know.

He tries engaging with other women, and even moving into a houseboat, in order to effect a fresh start. Friends beg him to stop thinking about her. Andy says he wishes he could, but “thinking about her is not a choice … the room inside my mind that has been occupied by her for the last four years still exists. I want to convert it into a home gym or meditation room or get in a new tenant, but I can’t.”

Alderton wrote about love and loss in her 2021 memoir Everything I Know About Love, and she has been called a Nora Ephron (Heartburn) for millennials. Andy the lovelorn is evidence of her experience with the subject matter, as in when she writes of the couple awkwardly meeting to close a joint bank account post-breakup and Andy says it feels like he’s encountering a celebrity: “A couple of months ago, Jen was the woman whose pants I put in the washing machine with mine when I put a load on. Now, she is unfamiliar and untouchable; someone I have a one-way relationship with in photos and memories and in my imagination.”

But it’s going to get even worse a few months later when Andy awakes in the morning to see “one of the worst texts you can wake up to other than being informed of a death” — Hey mate, saw what’s happening online. Hope you’re ok.

As miserable as Andy is throughout much of the story, this is still a very funny book. The protagonist is a comedian, after all, who does things like making mental lists of what he would agree to do in order to have Jen be in love with him again (lose hair at the front of his head, go to her parents’ house every weekend for lunch, never eat ham again) and Alderton’s own comic sense powers even the darkest scenes. There’s also a very funny subplot involving Andy’s eventual landlord, a conspiracy theorist devoted to Julian Assange (there are lots of contemporary references throughout the book) who is trying to get a historical placard for his house because George Harrison once slept there.

In every relationship that fails, Andy reflects four months after the breakup, something called “The Flip” occurs, a change in who wields the most power in the relationship: “The person who is in charge in a relationship is the one who loves the least.” This is among the relationship wisdom that Good Material imparts, another being that when we move on from one partner, we look for the next to provide in spades the 10 percent of whatever was missing from the last one.

But the greatness of the novel comes not from any of this, but from Alderton’s decision to flip the perspective from Andy to Jen at the end of the book, finally answering Andy’s lament, “Why did she break up with me?” — but only to the reader. It’s a masterful technique, one that adds heft and complexity to a story that was already satisfying. A

Album Reviews 24/02/15

Becky Hill, Believe Me Now? (Astralwerks Records)

As you know, I complain about a lot of things, but to be honest, Astralwerks Records has never sent me something I didn’t like. This zillion-seller British dance-pop queen isn’t a household name here in the States, although chances are good that you’ve heard her 2019 Meduza and Goodboys-guested single “Lose Control” someplace. Like a souped-up Kylie Minogue, she’s all about the sexytime stuff, tinkering with drum ‘n’ bass, anthemic house, techno and atmospheric trance. Liftoff single “Side Effects” features Lewis Thompson, not that there’s much he does to improve on the bouncy club-kitten beat purring underneath. I really like “Disconnect,” with its buzzy, woofer-zapping rinseout noodlings holding Hill’s early-Katy Perry-style voice aloft, and p.s., the absolutely stunning hook should come with a Surgeon General’s warning. “Never Be Alone” is the ballad, spotlighting the Lorde/Adele sort of timbre that puts her voice at the top of her class. If anything, this stuff is too perfect. A+

The Philosophers, Vartamana (self-released)

Here we have a France-based sextet whose deeply mellow style more or less evokes a Weather Report-informed Miami Sound Machine, in other words the ’70s jazz-pop vibe is strong in this one. Replace Chuck Mangione’s trumpet with a sax and you’d be in the ballpark, but it leans more toward Sade in its level of chillness. It’s the latest project from guitarist Mark Bullock, a British transplant who simply wanted to put together a group in which each musician’s abilities were at least mildly tested. The project is ambitious enough, the standout piece being Alain Szpiro’s sax, which tables some fine runs that sound as though they cost a lot more to record than they likely actually did. Bullock’s guitar keeps the tunes centered and balanced when he’s not noodling away with some lead passages; singer Emeline Gouban strives for a mixture of bedroom/lounge ambiance, which she accomplishes sublimely, fitting in well enough with the rest of it. A

Playlist

A seriously abridged compendium of recent and future CD releases

• Friday, Feb. 16, is on the way, and new albums are coming with it, so let’s slog forward and get winter over with, shall we, folks? Actually, let’s slog back to the Aughts era, when indie rock was so awful that many albums came stamped with a Surgeon General’s warning that listening to their music would turn you into a toad, remember those days, fam, when college-rock taste was dictated by white Brooklyn scenesters, and it was all a big plot to legitimize Captain Beefheart or whatever the idea was? Ha ha, it was so awful, except for a brief part of the nu-rave scene, but other than that it was artists like El Perro del Mar, which is the stage name of Swedish singer Sarah Assbring, whose new album, Big Anonymous, is out this week! I literally hadn’t heard any of this person’s annoying music since around 2005, when I reviewed her self-titled debut LP in these very pages, so I’ve got quite a bit of catching up to do. Right, the last thing I heard from her was that album’s minor hit, “Here Comes That Feeling,” a mixture of French ’60s girl-group unlistenability and Assbring’s Betty Boop vocals. Listening to it now, I hope I trashed that stupid album from stem to stern most righteously, but chances are that I didn’t, given that back then I was a relatively new player in the whole “making fun of bad bands in city newspapers” game, so I probably praised it just so that people would like me. Given that I no longer care about people liking me (there will always be haters no matter what, so what’s the point), I shall now head over to the YouTube to see if Assbring still sucks as badly as she did 19 years ago. Oh come on, I’m listening to the new single, “Kiss of Death,” and it’s just a Sigur Ros-ified Lana Del Rey bringdown, slow and mildly shoegazey. The only good thing about it is that it’s musical in its way, I wish she’d just give up. The video is gross and disturbing too, something about someone committing a moidah, and there’s fake blood on the actress. This is what it’s all come down to, folks, mediocrity and fake blood, let me try to forget I paid any attention to this nonsense.

• Lolol, it’s Jennifer Lopez, with a new album, can you believe it, folks? Last I knew she was trying to lead a progressive house resurgence, or was that Britney, or was it all of them? Ha ha, who’s she re-married to now, Ben Affleck or that rotten egomaniacal baseball man, A-Rod? You know she’s just going to get re-divorced to whichever of those cheating alien clowns she’s with, like, there’ll be a spicy story in National Enquirer any minute now, even it’s just completely misconstrued nonsense, a few pix of Affleck paying some Domino’s driver for a pizza so he can “bulk up” in order to play the movie version of Broderick Crawford, get where I’m going with this? No? Well it doesn’t matter, the point is that I have to go listen to something off J-Lo’s new album, This Is Me … Now. Yup, the title track is trance-infused Ke$ha. Whatever.

• Uh-oh, it’s California-based indie-rock band Grandaddy. I never liked anything I heard from them nor understood why they had so many fans. This should be a load of fun, because I forget what they sound like. Their new album, Blu Wav, is on YouTube, yes, the whole thing, so that’s nice of them. I’m listening to the single, “Cabin In My Mind,” and, ah, there we go, nowww I remember, their trip is sort of like a Guster-tinged Spacemen 3. Yesss, that’s why hipsters liked them, because they’re tedious.

• We’ll wrap it up with Adult Contemporary, the new LP from Chromeo, an electro-funk duo from Montreal, Canada; I never liked these guys either. This’ll probably be ’90s garage-house, their new single, “Personal Effects.” Nope, it’s their same old milquetoast trash, Weeknd meets Kool and the Gang. Spoiler alert: I totally hate it.

First Lie Wins, by Ashley Elston

How far will you read into a book if you don’t like the protagonist? With her first novel directed toward adults, Ashley Elston is betting that we will keep reading so long as she provides little surprises around every corner, like Willy Wonka.

The formula seems to be working. The book was the January pick for Reese Witherspoon’s book club and has garnered praise as a suspenseful thriller. To which I say meh. Not that First Lie Wins doesn’t throw out many curve balls — it does. And an author’s ability to craft a didn’t-see-that-coming ending after multiple didn’t-see-that-coming chapters is rightly valued in a day when the storylines of much popular fiction are painfully predictable. That said, it’s nice to genuinely like at least somebody in a 300-page book.

We are supposed to kind-of, sort-of like the protagonist, initially introduced as Evie Porter, although we soon learn that Evie Porter is the latest in a long line of aliases. When we meet Evie she is suffering through a dinner in which she is meeting, for the first time, her boyfriend’s circle of friends — people who grew up much differently than she did.

“They are the ones who started kindergarten together, their circle remaining small until high school graduation. They fled town in groups of twos and threes to attend a handful of colleges all within driving distance of here. They all joined sororities and fraternities with other groups of twos and threes with similar backgrounds, only to gravitate back to this small Louisiana town, the circle closing once again.”

Evie, on the other hand, is a loner with a much different lineage. She’d grown up in a small town in North Carolina, an only child who lived with her single mom in a trailer. It was a wholesome enough environment — lots of love and dreams — until her mom got sick, and Evie started stealing jewelry from rich people at age 17 to help pay for her mother’s cancer treatment. (Which is why we’re supposed to kind-of, sort-of like her.) Her criminal skills landed her even more lucrative work as an operative for a shadowy criminal enterprise run by a mysterious Mr. Smith. She goes from job to job, always assuming a new identity that has been meticulously set up for her, in order to achieve some nefarious goal for her employer. Although she is described at one point as “morally gray,” it’s a dark shade of gray.

Evie’s latest job is to infiltrate the life of Ryan Sumner, an affable frat-boy-turned-businessman who inherited his grandfather’s house and business and is happily living as a bachelor in a a leafy suburb in Louisiana, a place where there’s a lot of money “but it’s the quiet kind.”

An attractive woman, Evie inserts herself into Ryan’s life with remarkable ease, setting up a “chance” meeting by having a flat tire at a gas station that she knows he visits every Thursday. She wears a short skirt, her intelligence having gathered knowledge that “his eyes almost always lingered too long on any female who crossed his path, especially those dressed in short skirts.”

There is much suspension of disbelief required here and throughout the book — that this single encounter leads to Evie’s moving in with Ryan a few months later, that this bachelor with a roving eye is suddenly ready for a long-term relationship — but OK. Again, surprises around every corner, and Elston has elegantly plotted this story, showing us snapshots of Evie’s other lives in flashbacks even as she easily settles into domestic bliss with Ryan. There are shades of the movie Pretty Woman, especially when Evie dons a big hat to wear to a Kentucky Derby party.

But things take a turn when an old friend of Ryan’s shows up at the party with a woman who looks astonishingly similar to Evie on his arm. Soon there’s another big reveal that will be the hook that drags us, however unwillingly, through the rest of the book. Evie, it turns out, is not the only person presenting herself as someone she’s not. And her unscrupulous employer has grown suspicious of her loyalty and has set out to test her, even as she tries to follow through with her “long con” of Ryan, while growing comfortable in the happy-couple-in-the-’burbs life.

Meanwhile, a fatal accident involving people in the couple’s circle leads to a police investigation that calls Evie’s background into question and the story shifts to a murder investigation in another state that one of Evie’s alter egos may or may not have been involved in. And we become aware that Evie is not a helpless pawn entrapped by a criminal mastermind, but that she has developed her own protective network, including an IT genius who’d entered MIT at age 17 but dropped out because he was bored and realized “the most profitable work isn’t always legal.”

Despite Elston’s efforts to paint her as a “good” criminal, there is little reflection — for either Evie or the reader — of the moral issues involved. She’s Walter White-like in this way: if a cancer diagnosis is involved when someone starts to break bad, we’re supposed to look the other way. And as in the Breaking Bad universe, there are plenty of other “morally gray” people in the cast of First Lie Wins. (And there will be a cast: the film rights have already been acquired.)

A little sober reflection of the moral issues involved — some Tony Soprano on the therapist’s couch — would have added complexity to the story, but slowed the pace — the story races to an every-mystery-resolved finish that is both a perfect Hollywood ending and an opportunity for countless sequels. Evie Porter will be with us for a while, I predict. Whether we like her or not.

B-Jennifer Graham

Album Reviews 24/02/08

Ekkstacy, Ekkstacy (United Masters Records)

This Vancouver, British Columbia-based singer is a mildly odd bird, extracting inspiration from a wide range of dark 1980s bands and SoundCloud rappers like XXXTentacion. I figured this’d be an unapologetic gesture of obeisance to his more gothy influences after hearing the Jesus and Mary Chain-begging opener, “I Don’t Have One of Those,” which, as you’d guess, turns in a half-asleep, very ’80s shoegaze effort, its beat straight out of the Cure’s earliest days. But there’s a more quickened pulse to be found here: “Luv of My Life” reads like a kinder, gentler Buzzcocks, or, sure, Pink Flag-era Wire, meaning that any Gen-Xer who wasn’t one of the popular kids will be feeling comforted by all they’ve heard of the album thus far. The guitars are jangly and bright, and the from-the-mountaintop reverb setting is right where you’d want it to be, and then suddenly he’s innovating rather nicely, as found in things like the shoegaze-twee experiment “I Guess We Made It This Far.” Very listenable stuff overall. A —Eric W. Saeger

Wisp, “See You Soon” (Interscope Records)

The latest Residents-style mystery artist is this one, allegedly a 19-year-old woman about whom no one knows anything. There are big things planned for this person, obviously, being that Interscope is the record label pushing it, not to mention the fact that there’s a writeup in Nylon, meaning that the intended audience is older zoomers who go to hair stylists, which is pretty much the only kind of place you’ll ever see that magazine, aside from maybe Sam Goody’s. The angle that’s being pushed is that there exists somewhere an army of young artists who want to resurrect shoegaze, or at least get briefly famous on TikTok for throwing together a tune like this one-off single, which, like her previous ones, is being offered without any explanation, background or anything else. If you think the whole thing sounds a bit odd, it is, but the guitars on this song are, I’ll admit it, completely divine, sloshing over the listener like an island wave at dusk. That’s the clean guitar layer anyway; the rest of it could be Raveonettes for all most listeners would guess. But sure, carry on, mystery TikTok person. A- —Eric W. Saeger

Playlist

A seriously abridged compendium of recent and future CD releases

• Tally ho, there will be new albums released this Friday, Feb. 9, because that’s how it’s done around here! Winter is sure setting in, with random snowstorms and “frost heaves,” I wonder who made up that phrase, an abominable snowman after drinking a few too many Jagermeisters? Bop! I’ll be here all week, folks, no need to worry, but let’s get to some music stuff, starting with Part Time Believer, the new album from alleged alt-country band The Strumbellas, who are from Ontario, Canada! I listened to one of their older tracks, “Holster,” and it’s a decent curveball, nice and bouncy, sort of like what Guster would sound like if they had a pulse, but the lyrics are dumb, which is OK! As for this new album, it starts out with “Running Out of Time,” which is part ’80s-synthpop and part Jackson Browne ’70s-radio-mawkishness; it’s nice overall. The singer does sound a lot like Jackson Browne, which is why I mentioned him, but it gets better with “My Home is You,” which is obviously influenced by Kings of Leon — wait, here comes the chorus, yes, yes, definitely a Kings of Leon obsession here. There’s even a variation of the Millennial Whoop in there to remind you that the guys in the band are getting old; this’ll probably come out pretty cool when they play it live. See that, I don’t hate everything, now let’s move along and get back to normal, I’m sure I’ll get triggered as we proceed.

• Oi there, Bob’s your uncle, Declan McKenna is an English chap who won the Glastonbury Festival’s Emerging Talent Competition in 2015, that after he self-released a tune called “Brazil,” which was a protest song critical of FIFA’s deciding to hold the World Cup in Brazil in 2014, which made for bad optics. FIFA is of course the international soccer federation, but don’t call it soccer or they won’t know what you’re talking about, you must refer to it as “football,” please nobody tell them that football is actually about the Super Bowl and funny commercials, not soccer, because this ongoing national troll has been funny for decades now. McKenna’s new LP is titled What Happened To The Beach, and the leadoff single from this one is “Nothing Works.” The beat sounds like a cross between The Beatles and Devo, all tempered by Weeknd-ish dance-electro. It’s mildly catchy and definitely disposable.

• I’m sure you were wondering who actually cleared a path for the emergence of Poppy, and here she is, Sacramento, California-based singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe! She blends a lot of harder-edged genres into her tunes, stuff like goth-rock, doom metal and noise, which makes her officially relevant. Her new album, Reaches Out To She Reaches Out To She, features a couple songs of note, starting with “Dusk,” a slow-burn noise-athon in which Wolfe tenders a yodelly Alanis Morissette vocal over the sonic equivalent of a goth lava flow. As well, there’s “Whispers In The Echo Chamber,” which combines scratchy Trent Reznor S&M-goth and Lana Del Rey whisper-pop. I really have no problem with this stuff at all.

• Lastly, it’s Zara Larsson, a Beyoncé-influenced dance-pop singer who got her start in 2008, after winning the second season of Talang, the Swedish version of all that America’s Got Talent stuff; she’s famous for tweeting such tweets as “Man hating and feminism are two different things. I support both,” because she is a little rascal. Venus is her forthcoming new LP; famous music producer and overrated fraud David Guetta had a hand in the single “On My Love,” so it’s probably dumb, but I’ll go check it out if you insist. Yup, it sounds like Rihanna singing over a house beat from 2008. I remember those days and why the whole thing flopped. —Eric W. Saeger

Old Crimes by Jill McCorkle

The first short story in Jill McCorkle’s new collection, Old Crimes, is set in New Hampshire, but it’s not a story the Division of Travel and Tourism would care to tout.

In the story, a young couple, Lynn and Cal, spend a weekend at a family inn near Franconia, staying in a room with dark-paneled walls, “a faded floral bedspread, shades too small for the windows, and a forty-watt bulb in one lamp on the dresser.” It is a place full of toothpick holders and Early American decor that leaves Lynn “feeling like life had slowed, clicking like a dying engine, and then stopped.”

Oof. The Tyner Family Inn — “waterfront” if you don’t mind the long hike through the woods to get to a stagnant pond — is fictional though the rich detail suggests that McCorkle has had an unpleasant visit to a New Hampshire inn at some point in her past.

Lynn is hopeful that her boyfriend will suggest they look for a better place, but he doesn’t, and she struggles to find good in the weekend, her thoughts instead going to the titular “old crimes” — atrocities committed thousands of years ago and discovered by archeologists: for example, the Yde Girl and the Tollund Man, apparent victims of human sacrifice. She also ruminates on a vaguely threatening writing prompt from a creative writing class.

Concurrently, the couple encounter a 6-year-old girl — dirty, intrusive, “hair, teeth, nothing had been brushed” — whose presence triggers introspection in Lynn about her life and choices.

“Old Crimes,” the story, is stark and memorable, the kind of writing that could well end up in a “Best Of” anthology. The other 11 offerings are more of a mixed bag; though skillfully rendered, some are downright depressing, although that seems to be a requirement of the genre. There is a thread of humor throughout, however, as in the fourth story, “Commandments.”

In this story three women meet monthly at a cafe to commiserate about having been mistreated and then dumped by the same wealthy man — “kind of a First Wives Club, though of course, none of us had been married to him.”

The women are united in the shared experiences of over-the-top dates (one went to Bermuda, another to eat lobster in Maine, another flown to see the Northern Lights), of being wooed with suggestions of quitting their jobs and having children, of waking up under the same linen comforter in his ocean-view condo.

But there is a fourth woman in the story, the waitress named Candy: “ponytale, scaly reptile tattoo climbing her leg, big dark eyes that always look surprised.” The reptile isn’t her only tattoo. As the story unfolds, Candy keeps exposing others: some, quotes from Charlotte’s Web; others, random pieces of life advice she wants to remember. It’s unclear just how many tattoos Candy has, but the repeated revelations are a delight, set against the women’s discussion of how the unnamed man has done them wrong.

It turns out, however, that Candy has had her own encounters with the man; she had spurned his advances and dubbed him “the old creep.” Her take on the man turns the story — and our perception of all four women — on its head.

Although the stories in this collection are not all connected, Candy makes another appearance in “Baby in the Pan,” in which we learn that the reptile on her leg is a dragon. This is a deeply fraught story centered around an exchange between Candy and her mother, Theresa, over an image that Theresa is viewing on her computer. Theresa views the image of “a little bloody bird-looking thing” as a tragedy of abortion; Candy is much more pragmatic:

“Candy had all kinds of information she was ready to give like she might’ve been Moses on the mountaintop; she said the occurrence of such a late-term abortion (that’s what she called that poor baby in the pan) was a rare thing, and who knew what the sad circumstances might be. She said it was more likely someone’s sad miscarriage. She talked cells and clusters and what-have-you until Theresa wanted to throw a pan at her and she could have because Candy was standing right there in the kitchen in those short shorts she’s too old to be wearing with that scaly green dragon looking like he’s breathing fire on her you know what.”

The women go at each other, ostensibly over their differing views on abortion, but as in many mother-daughter relationships, there are onion-like layers of complexity, which culminate in Theresa saying, “Why don’t you just say you hate me?” and Candy responding bitterly, “I think you want me to say it so you can say it back.”

The Yde girl and the Tollund Man, to whom we were introduced in “Old Crimes,” also reappear briefly in “Sparrow,” a gut-wrencher of a story that closes the book. The narrator is a divorced woman living in a small New England town in shock from the apparent suicide of a young mother, who also took the life of her infant son. The incident causes the town and the narrator to reflect on other tragedies of years past, and the threats that always surround us: “icy sidewalks and empty wooded shortcuts, lone disheveled men, lean howling coyotes just beyond domestic tranquility ….” But life slowly gets back to normal and the narrator develops a relationship with another spectator at her son’s Little League game, a grandmother whose nonstop commentary provides comic relief and who cheers for everyone’s kids. However, in this world, even things that seem safe sometimes aren’t.

McCorkle, who has been writing fiction since college and whose literary awards include the New England Booksellers Award, has chaired the creative writing department at Harvard and is among the dwindling numbers of authors whose new titles merit a book tour. She is at the top of her game here, with a diverse and memorable cast of characters that plumb the depths of the human condition — but somehow manage to flutter with hope. A

Album Reviews 24/02/01

Diane Coll, Old Ghosts (self-released)

This Chicago-based singer-songwriter puts a decent-enough foot forward with this album, but the cascading verisimilitude of the songs and the lack of any experimentation left me feeling pretty uninterested. But as is the case with genres that I actually like, Coll’s strummy Americana is aimed a particular demographic and isn’t meant to rope in fans who’ve never heard Norah Jones before, which isn’t to imply that her bluegrass-tinged attempts at window-gazing acoustic chill sound all that modern. What I’m hearing is ’70s B-movie incidental music best suited for older hippies, which she obviously is, not that I have any call (or any other excuse, for that matter) to wax ageist. I’m probably her age in the first place, after all, but I did see one reviewer refer to her lyricism as “wisened,” an adjective that would fit here if the critic were being overly generous. I’d be more inclined to go with “wizened” owing to the archaic feel of the stuff. She does seem nice, though. C —Eric W. Saeger

India Gailey, Problematica (People Places Records)

Yikes, look at the calendar, it’s time for weird chicks with cellos, but this time we’re not talking about Rasputina, no sir. This Canadian-American gal’s trip is more in line with the self-indulgent explorations of certified wingnut Mabe Fratti, but in Gailey’s case — at least for this outing — there are no weird hippie dudes making faces and making incidental sounds. Instead we’re, ah, treated to a set of compositions that were written by other people on some sort of commission basis. The festivities begin with a tune written by one Sarah Rossy, an obscurity who’d probably be a big at sci-fi cons if she were encouraged to investigate such opportunities. The opening tune, “I Long,” showcases Gailey’s knack for noise as well as her often-captivating vocal talents, even if the first half of the song is pretty dissonant and indeed punctuated here and there with notes that sound, at least to ignorant peasants like yours truly, off-key. Nicole Lizée’s appropriately titled “Grotesquerie” is an exercise in funereal, unsettling noise if that floats your boat. B- —Eric W. Saegerr

Playlist

A seriously abridged compendium of recent and future CD releases

• Friday, Feb. 2, will be an epic day of albums, with new albums coming out of nowhere, dropping from the sky, onto our heads, with loving messages of rock ’n’ roll, corporate hipdy-hop and death metal! Some of you are old enough to remember Dinosaur Jr, a band that was led by J Mascis. The band members were from Amherst, Mass., where they helped to invent the indie rock that’s tormented us for decades now. His new album is What Do We Do Now and its rollout single, “Can’t Believe We’re Here,” is a hard jangle-rock thing spotlighting Mascis’s usual post-punkabilly drawl, and it all works well enough. Why, there’s even some decent lead guitar parts in there, you might like it.

• In the competition to be this year’s 4 Non Blondes or Kate Havnevik or Lana Del Rey or whatever, look guys, it’s Vera Sola, a singer, songwriter and mildly edgy nepo baby whose dad, the famous, overrated “conehead” comedian Dan Akykroyd, probably had nothing to do with her getting a big record contract, there’s just no way, so don’t even start. Her first album, Shades, got a lot of press love in France (you know what that means), and she’s here with her second full-length, Peacemaker. The first single, “The Line,” is decent enough, basically a metal-tinged no-wave tune without metal guitars or no-wave honesty, but nevertheless it’s good overall; if you like Garbage or any bands like that, you might be into this for a week or so before you regret spending $16 on it.

• U.K. electro-pop songbird L Devine was born and raised in Whitley Bay, a coastal town near Newcastle upon Tyne in England, Europe. Supposedly, when she was 7 years old she loved the Clash and The Sex Pistols so much — regardless of the fact that neither band played electro-pop — that she started a band called the Safety Pins, which I totally believe, because everything you read in a public relations announcement is always 100 percent true and never intended to make an artist look 100 times cooler than they actually are. Anyway, this person will release an album on Friday, titled Digital Heartifacts, which is, I think, a clever title, although I’m sure it won’t sound like the Clash at all, more like an album of bubblegum trinkets for people who wear Hello Kitty backpacks all the time, but let’s just go see what this nonsense is, shall we, yes, let’s. Yup, it sounds like Lorde, but it’s got a little kick to it, have fun with this, whoever you are out there.

• And finally, it’s Kirin J. Callinan, an Australian art-pop nerd who sounds just like the dude from the ’80s band ABC, you remember them, right? No, no, not Boy George, I said ABC, the skinny tie band that did “When Smokey Sings,” back when Reagan was the emperor of our land and all the boomer hippies had taken to behaving like grown-ups so they wouldn’t get in trouble with Reagan’s anointed pope, Jerry Falwell, I suppose you had to be there. OK, subject change, Callinan’s new LP is titled If I Could Sing, which doesn’t bode for the title of an album on which someone is singing, don’t you think? But no, you don’t have to worry about that, because the new single, “Eternally Hateful,” does indeed evoke an ABC filler song, except that there are some glitchy samples in there. In the video he’s getting the business from some medieval executioners, which he thinks is funny; your mileage may vary.

Album Reviews 24/01/25

Oneohtrix Point Never, Again (Warp Records)

Recently I had a sudden burst of people messaging me on Facebook, writing hundreds of words berating me as a music snob. I’m really not. I’ve earned my wings by reviewing so many horrible albums over the years, and lately I’ve been listening to a ton of old Kiss, which makes me the diametric opposite of a music snob. Music snobs are sick in the head, like the fictional Loudermilk from the same-named Prime show. My wife shot me a “don’t you start” after I cursed upon hearing Sam (whom I love for the most part) say he liked Pavement. Pavement sucks so loud it deafens aliens on Alpha Centauri, and so does this dude, Daniel Lopatin, a bleep-and-bloop electronic “experimentalist” who, if he weren’t on the crazily pretentious Warp Records label, would be totally un-freaking-known. There are moments of melody here, “remembered from his childhood,” but sorry, it’s all dumb, intended for wannabe music snobs who are actually music haters. This album can go bake itself in a pie, and don’t write me for saying it because I’ll just yell right back at you. F —Eric W. Saeger

Afro Peruvian New Trends Orchestra, Cosmic Synchronicities (Blue Spiral Records)

This instrumental music project of multi-project artist Corina Bartra is multi-rhythmic and multidimensional, filled with swing and danceable South and Latin American rhythms. Corina Bartra originals, a majestic, Afro-Peruvian Festejo modulating to a swing groove, “Osiris,” the exuberant, Amazon-inspired “Ecstasy Green,” the moving Landó Ballas “Purple Heart,” “Bailan Todas las Razas” and “Ebano Sky” are full of beautiful melodies, exciting and colorful rhythms. “Baila y Goza” modulates between a Cuban Guajira and an Afro-Peruvian Festejo. The Cuban-inspired “Vinilo y Café” and “Latino Blues” are composed of catchy, danceable hooks, while “Far Away” tables a Brazilian-inspired tune doused in swing rhythm, a breath of fresh air full of pleasantly surprising moments. There are also three tracks that feature the Marinera style of Peruvian Creole music: an original (“Marinera Jazz”), a traditional (“Palmero Siguayayay”) and a medley from Chabuca Granda. For the smartypants out there, there’s “Tun tun tun,” filled with challenging grooves and rhythms to play, which all these top-notch players handle with relative ease. A —Eric W. Saeger

PLAYLIST

A seriously abridged compendium of recent and future CD releases

• Tons of new rock ’n’ roll CDs come out this Friday, Jan. 26, because you demanded it! Holy cats, guys, look at ’em all, where were all these music CDs a month ago, when I had literally nothing to talk about in this space, except for metal albums, metal albums and did I mention metal albums? But those days are gone, at least until next year, when I will once again suck wind in public, praying that King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard will release some album with a super-long title, comprised of a bunch of nonsense druggie songs that took them two hours to write and record while they were on drugs, so I can fill up half this space with words simply by repeating the title a few times! Yes, but for now I am safe, just look at all these freakin’ albums, fam, let’s start with a few words about Ty Segall’s forthcoming new album, Three Bells! I know I’ve written a few thousand words about that guy, but for the life of me I can’t remember anything about him or his music. You see, when you’ve reviewed thousands of CDs over your lifetime, selective amnesia sets in, and every week it feels like you’re Drew Barrymore in 50 First Dates, rediscovering the special or horrible qualities of bands and artistes whose names ring bells but you can’t for the life of you remember a gosh darn thing about them, which is usually for the best! Anyway, Whatsisname here is one of those people, so I’m sure this’ll be an exercise in disappointment, as I sally on yonder to the YouTube and try to find out what in tarnation this album is about. OK, the first song on this LP is “My Room,” let’s run it down, fam. It’s sort of Nilsson-ish but really boring and un-tuneful; neo-’70s claptrap that would probably be borderline OK if the video had a cheap, trippy cartoon to watch, maybe. OK, that’s it, Ty Segall everyone, that oughta take care of — wait, wait, come back everyone, the next song on the album is called “Eggman,” and it features Whatsisface, dressed as a clown, sitting at a table eating an entire gigantic bowl of eggs! The music is loud and skronky and not completely boring! And plus, a one-man egg-eating contest! I approve of this message!

• You know, faced with a band named Frank Carter & the Rattlesnakes, I expected to see a bunch of rib-eating-contest winners from Alabama, but no, this is an English punk band! Predictably, as if I weren’t already feeling anxious about that, it turned out Carter was in a band called Pure Love with a guitarist named Jim Carroll, who, it turns out, wasn’t the Jim Carroll, you know, the “People Who Died” singer from the 1980s, and yes, I’m so old that I had to do some journalism research whatever work and make sure of that, and now I feel like Rip Van Winkle, I hope you rotten little scamps are all happy. Dark Rainbow is the new album from this band, and the single, “Man Of The Hour,” is, of course, totally not punk, more like Spandau Ballet, you know, gentle cocktail lounge pop. I have no idea what these people are even doing, honestly.

• Wait a second, it’s not-completely-awful emo band Alkaline Trio, with a new album, Blood Hair And Eyeballs! Huh, maybe it’s because of the video, but the title track is OK, if you like Hoobastank etc. You do, right? No? OK, that’s OK.

• We’ll end the week with Baltimore-based synthpop band Future Islands, whose new LP, People Who Aren’t There Anymore, should be decent, please lord, let me have something nice to say. Wow, the opening track, “The Fight,” is cool, the singer sounds like the guy from Elbow, which makes up for the disposable Fright Night-soundtrack-style tuneage. It’s OK! —Eric W. Saeger

Religion of Sports by Gotham Chopra and Joe Levin

When Gotham Chopra was growing up near Boston, it was expected that he would follow the path of his famous father, Deepak Chopra, and go into medicine. Instead all young Chopra could think about was sports.

He loved the Red Sox and the Patriots, but he was especially fixated on basketball and got to attend some Celtics games with a friend of his father who had not just season tickets but VIP access to the team because of his donations to the Celtics’ foundation. At age 11 Chopra watched Michael Jordan score 63 points at TD Garden, a performance that prompted Larry Bird to say, “That wasn’t a basketball player. It’s just God disguised as Michael Jordan.”

The remark became part of Chopra’s growing realization that sports have all the hallmarks of religion. That’s an idea that’s been around for millennia, but Chopra brings a fresh take to it in Religion of Sports, co-written with Joe Levin.

The first team sport involving a ball is believed to have been invented by the Mayans; the games were played near the temples, and the losers were sacrificed to the gods. (See, Patriots Nation, this season could have been much, much worse.) The Greeks saw physical training as a religious act. And Pierre de Coubertin, the Frenchman responsible for the 1896 advent of the modern Olympic Games, wrote, “The first essential characteristic of ancient and modern Olympism alike is that of being a religion.”

In Islam, there’s a word for the “true believers” — people who live their faith, rather than paying lip service to it, Chopra and Levin write. The mu’min exist in sports as well, and they are the players that we ordinary mortals worship, like Tom Brady, Kobe Bryant and Jordan. All this could comprise a high-school essay (and probably has). But what distinguishes Religion of Sports from the meh-fest that I’d expected is that Chopra actually knows the people he’s writing about; he is a filmmaker who worked with Brady, for example, on the documentaries Man in the Arena and Tom Versus Time, as well as other athletes including Serena Williams, LeBron James and Simone Biles.

And these are not superficial relationships. Not only has Chopra sat in the Brady family box at Gillette Stadium, but he hung out with Brady in his Brookline house after championship games, and Brady once tossed Chopra the keys to his truck (a Raptor) when he didn’t have a ride home. The anecdotes are rich, especially for fans of Boston teams, and the book is well-researched and surprisingly well-written for the genre.

In chapters that include “Myths,” “Transcendence,” “Moral Codes” and “Pilgrimage,” Chopra and Levin walk through the similarities between traditional religions and what they consider the newest one. Affiliation with other fans, for example, gives us the sense of community that humans have gotten from religious faith; sports likewise offer redemption and deliverance, heaven and hell, curses and miracles, they say.

But, they add, the religion of sports also offers something other faiths don’t: “… the gods are flawed human beings like the rest of us” and “anybody, with the right amount of luck and skill, can become a champion.”

Each chapter introduces us to one or more of these flawed gods and how they became transcendent. In “Myths,” Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, is center stage. Most people know something of her story: how, as a Syracuse University student in 1967, she registered for the race using the initials K.V. Switzer, having researched the rules and learned that the Boston Athletic Association didn’t officially forbid women from running, although no women ever had. She finished, even though the race director tried to pull her off the course just after Mile 4.

Here, her story is told through the prism of religion; for example, we learn that Switzer equated running with religious experience after she started training informally with the Syracuse cross-country team. “Once I got serious and ran over three miles a day, I stopped going to church. I realized it was because I felt closer to God and the universe out in nature than I ever did inside with a group of people.”

Now, “Her bib number, 261, has become a sacred good-luck charm for women runners everywhere,” Chopra and Levin write.

Not all of the stories fit the narrative so easily, however. The story of gymnast Simone Biles and how she came to drop out of the Olympics to preserve her mental health is given as an example of reformation, similar to Martin Luther’s start of the Reformation. (“She was turning her back on one of the most foundational beliefs in sports. She was showing that she interpreted the faith differently than we’d become accustomed to.”)
The late psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi popularized the concept of “flow,” the state in which we can fully concentrate on activities and perform at peak levels, a state that athletes sometimes call being in “the zone.” Chopra sees this as not just an emotional or mental state but a spiritual one, writing, “It is a feeling that every athlete — every single one, from Little Leaguers to Major League all-stars — has experienced at one time or another.”

Moreover, he argues, sports have a “moral code” that is enforced as strictly as any religion, maybe even more so, by the rules of the games. “Win or lose, opponents shake hands. The lesson: humility. Cheating is never tolerated. The lesson: integrity. Referees enforce the same rules for everybody. The lesson: fairness.”

Again, there’s nothing especially groundbreaking here in the overall message, and the authors veer dangerously close to the land of the cheesy in the final chapter, titled “The Playbook,” which recaps the lessons of the book and invites readers to reflect on questions such as “What is the most magical moment (i.e., miracle) in your team’s history?” and “Which places do your tribe consider to be sacred ground?”) But the book is pleasantly engaging and full of stuff you might otherwise never know — including the fact that a pastor once gave a prayer before the start of a NASCAR game that, among other provocations, gave thanks for his “smokin’ hot wife.”

Religion, in other words, is not nearly as boring as some people think.

B+Jennifer Graham

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