Threading the needle

Conniption Fits deliver solid new album

Quarantine produced a variety of reactions from the music community. Some performers polished and completed projects long in progress. Others played nonstop on Facebook Live, while dreaming of an open bar. Some were too busy homeschooling their kids to write songs. And a few made creation a mission — like Stevens Blanchard, who decided to build a new record from scratch. The result, This Useless Thread, is one of the best things done by his band, The Conniption Fits. It’s full of the present moment, from the modern struggle to find harmony in “Harder Than It Is,” which leads things off, to “Forms in the Gaslight” and its complaints about lying leaders.

It offers layered harmonies and majestic guitar swathed in sonic sheen evoking ’90s power rockers like Foo Fighters, Green Day and Muse. Blanchard echoes The Edge on “Slipping Jimmy” and crushes the crunch funk of “Money Goes” without being derivative. Ditto the double entendre pop of “White Lies” and the pulsing title song; the sound is all their own.

This Useless Thread is their first album of all new material since 2012’s Friends With Benefits, though the “greatest hits” CD Misinformed Informant, released three years ago, contained a smattering of new songs. The band’s current lineup is Blanchard on guitar and vocals, bass player Jamie Hosley and drummer Jeff Samataro.

In a recent interview, Blanchard talked about the process of creation and how it kept him going in a difficult, challenging time.

“I made it a point that every morning I would get up and go into the studio and lay down some tracks,” he said. “It’s crazy; you do the work and you actually … are productive.”

Blanchard returned from a trip to Switzerland at the end of February “just in time for everything to shut down for three months,” he said.

He had a lot of ideas kicking around.

“All Conniption Fits albums start with me,” he said. “I come up with chords, melody, lyrics, then put it together in some sort of form.”

Once he finished a rough track, it was sent off to Samataro.

“Jeff put his drum input on it, his rhythm things, and that sometimes made us go back a little bit and retool,” Blanchard said. “Then we have the benefit of doing Jamie on bass last. … He can really lock in with whatever Jeff did. I always like to say he replaces my crappy tracks with real ones.”

There’s a cohesive, well, thread throughout the new album.

“That’s the really cool thing about doing things so fast; you’re very consistent in thoughts, and I was in a very specific head space,” Blanchard said. “I listened to a lot of stuff. … Sometimes I want to do a song that leans more electronic or one that’s sort of rootsy and organic, then run it through the Conniption Fits mill. It sort of comes out being us, you know?”

The band is usually one of the busiest in the state, a solid draw at places like Murphy’s Taproom in Manchester, Goffstown’s Village Trestle and Stumble Inn in Londonderry. Since June, though, it’s been an average of just one gig a week.

“That’s like a quarter of what we normally do through the summer, and we’re lucky to get one,” Blanchard said. “It’s usually decent money, but that’s all it is.”

On Sept. 27 — Blanchard’s birthday — they’ll close out Rochester’s Porch Festival with an “afterparty” show at The Garage, adjacent to the Governor’s Inn, a venue the Fits have played for years.

“They have been gracious enough to have us,” Blanchard said, adding that he energetically pitched his band for the event.

“I was just thinking of all the venues possible that could do public shows,” he said. “Because we’ve been doing all these private shows, and while they’re great we still want to perform for fans, where people can attend and also feel safe and comfortable. I think that’s one of the best outdoor venues to try something like this.”

The Conniption Fits
When: Sunday, Sept. 27, 7 p.m.
Where: The Garage at Governor’s Inn, 78 Wakefield St., Rochester
Tickets: $10 at the door

The Music Roundup 20/09/17

Laughs aplenty: A no-cover triple bill of comedy features Paul Landwehr, who recently won his first cash prize as a golfer. An aviation-themed, craft brew-centric venue is the latest to offer standup for promoter and veteran comic Rob Steen, who also hosts. The lineup is rounded out by Greg Boggis, a local hero who has long run a monthly comedy show down the street at Fody’s. Thursday, Sept. 17, 8 p.m., The Flight Center, 97 Main St., Nashua. See

Double down: Enjoy acoustic rock from Venom & Mayhem, a pair of identical twins playing covers, from Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” to “Zombie” from the Cranberries, mixed with originals like the sweetly nostalgic “Summer Haze.” On rare occasions the pair — Tanya on guitar, Tia tapping congas — mix the two by remaking Bon Jovi’s “You Can’t Go Home” into a song about calculus. Friday, Sept. 18, 7 p.m., Penuche’s Music Hall, 1087 Elm St., Manchester,

Jam on: Live music under the tent runs all afternoon, ending up with Andrew North & the Rangers playing originals. Piano ace and songwriter North recently released Allamagoosalum, a concept LP inspired by Phish’s Rift as well as Tommy and Dark Side of the Moon. Saturday, Sept. 19, 5:30 p.m., Area 23, 254 N. State St., Unit H (Smokestack Center) Concord, An open acoustic jam session hosted by John Farese on guitar and banjo begins at 2 p.m.

Twang thang: Temperatures are cooler, but al fresco music is still a thing, as Sage & the Tumbleweeds play on an outdoor stage completed in late spring that’s perfectly suited for autumn in New England. The five-piece band’s music leans toward Southern rock and Eagles, with an interesting twist — congas and xylophone mix with soaring guitars and high lonesome sound. Sunday, Sept. 20, 5 p.m., Tooky Mills, 9 Depot St., Hillsborough,

Mulan (PG-13)

A young woman becomes a warrior in Mulan, a very pretty, vaguely unsatisfying live-action remake of Disney’s 1998 animated movie.

From the time she is a little girl, the Force is strong with Mulan (Liu Yifei), who is expected to do girly things like be calm and put up with the matchmaker but would prefer to ride horses and sword fight. Her father (Tzi Ma) sees that Mulan has a strong life force (treated here as near superhuman agility and dexterity) but tells her to hide it because these skills aren’t something anybody has on their wife-qualities wish list.

But then invaders attack the empire and the emperor (Jet Li) tells his army to conscript one man from every family. This means Mulan’s dad must march into battle, since his only children are Mulan and her sister (Xana Tang). Mulan’s mother (Rosalind Cho) tells the girls that their father, who still has a leg injury from his previous military service, won’t live through this battle, so Mulan takes his sword and his armor and sneaks off herself, posing as a boy and immediately volunteering for nighttime guard duty so she can avoid showering with the guys, especially friend and competitor Honghui (Yoson An).

The invaders they’re training to fight are led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), a jerk, and Xianniang (Li Gong), a witch who is helping Bori Khan despite the fact that he is a super jerk to her, a witch, with all sorts of powers that would seem to make Bori Khan unnecessary to her goals.

And as I’m writing this, “super-soldier versus witch” sounds like a fun fantasy action tale but that pared down description is way more interesting than the movie we are given.

Mulan is beautiful to look at — eye-catching color and detail-rich when it comes to costumes, cinematography and production design. There are so many moments when I was ignoring the story and just taking in the shot of the Imperial City or a lone rider in the desert. This movie’s visuals are Oscar-worthy work and it will be interesting to see if top shelf work that went the home viewing distribution route gets the same award season consideration as theatrical releases.

Mulan’s visuals and my total lack of a connection to the 1998 animated movie probably resulted in my enjoying the experience of watching this movie more than I would based on story alone. This movie reminded me a bit of 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, where you could feel it trying to update-for-2020 elements of the story with mixed results. Mulan pushes romance to the very edge of the story (which is fine) and sets up a theme of “take your place” versus “know your place,” a promising idea that at times is presented clunkily, as though there is still some first-draft-iness that needs to be worked out. Xianniang and Mulan become the center of the story’s struggle and they meet a few times and trade extremely straightforward dialogue on their respective motivations. I feel like the movie hadn’t totally figured out what it wanted to say with these two characters and their different (sort of?) approaches to being powerful women in a man’s world. The result is an arc for Mulan that feels underwhelming and not as well developed as I’d expect for such an established character.

That said, the viewers Mulan is meant for (probably kids of about age 10 to 15 or 16; Common Sense Media gives it an age 11+) will be getting a decent, non-gory action movie in exchange for their $30. Liu Yifei is a solid enough lead who carries off the acrobatics of her fight scenes well; they are probably the most joyful scenes of the movie. And, while not quite the experience of seeing, say, a battlefield avalanche on the big screen, the movie is visually stunning enough to transcend even the limitations of a medium-sized TV. B-

Here She Is

Here She Is, by Hilary Levey Friedman (Beacon Press, 225 pages)

Mark Zuckerberg, as it turns out, wasn’t the first entrepreneur to gather pictures of women and ask people to rate them. That distinction belongs to P.T. Barnum, the 19th-century showman.

In 1854, not long after he started his National Poultry Show, Barnum proposed a contest that would judge America’s “Handsomest Lady.” That didn’t get much traction, so the next year he launched the “American Gallery of Female Beauty,” a collection of daguerreotypes (the first, crude forms of photographs) that he believed would show that “specimens of American beauty will compare favorably with any that the Old World can produce.” The pictures would be displayed at Barnum’s New York museum and visitors would vote to decide who was the most beautiful.

Alas, we will never know the winner, since the images were destroyed by a fire that viewers of the movie The Greatest Showman will remember. But as Hilary Levey Friedman writes in Here She Is, a history of the Miss America Pageant, Barnum had a sizable hand in what would evolve to be pageant culture in America (if not “The Facebook”).

Friedman, a sociologist at Brown University, comes naturally to the topic, having grown up steeped in pageant culture. Her mother, Pamela Eldred, was Miss America in 1970, and shelves in their home contained not just books but crowns. She remembers reading books in the audience as a child while her mother was emceeing pageants or judging them. Friedman, however, was not a contestant; she writes frankly of not being “pageant material.”

“Like most nine-year-olds in the 1980s, I was in desperate need of orthodontia and perhaps some better corrective eyewear. But I would have been able to overcome these (temporary) impediments had I been physically beautiful — which I am not.”

Still, she says “sequins and rhinestones were in my DNA” and she loved pageantry, and especially the Miss America Pageant, which celebrates its 100th anniversary next year. Rather than being a wholesale denigration of women, beauty pageants, she argues “trace the arc of feminism.” It’s easy to heap criticism upon pageants and the women and girls who compete in them. “Yet, winning means something,” Friedman says. “Many dismiss beauty pageant contestants, until someone they know wins.”

Few, of course, do. Just 92 women and girls have been Miss America (the first two winners were 16); it is said that parents are more likely to have a son win the Super Bowl than to have a daughter become Miss America. But pageants are intimately entwined with American history in the past 100 years, in surprising ways.

Take the “Miss Whatever” sash, for example. Friedman explains that sashes were borrowed from parades advocating for women’s suffrage, which in turn borrowed them from the military. They may seem silly today, but they have noble origins. And “Miss America” itself is a much more respectable title than some of the earliest pageants; be grateful we no longer have an International Pageant of Pulchritude or baby parades, which later gave way to a “Juvenile Review,” judging of specimens of children over the age of 5. In 1932 the Pennsylvania State Board of Health had to condemn this “deplorable exploitation of childhood,” but baby pageants and parades continued in force until a polio outbreak in 1950 slowed them down.

You can’t talk about child pageants without thinking of JonBenet Ramsey, the Colorado child found murdered in her basement in 1996 just weeks after having been crowned “Little Miss Christmas.” Although child pageants had existed throughout the century, it was this child’s death that made the nation horrified by them. JonBenet became a “reverse ambassador” for child beauty pageants (even though she herself had just participated in 10 pageants). Though an admitted fan of pageants in general, Friedman also describes herself a third-wave feminist, and she is sober in her assessments, writing, “I have found, like most parents, child beauty pageant moms seem to have the best intentions for their daughters’ long-term success in life. But those intentions come with a high price tag and lasting implications.”

Friedman also casts a skeptical eye on the promotion of pageants as launching pads for professional success. While it’s true that the Miss America organization has been the largest provider of scholarship money for young women since the 1940s, the winners have not (yet) become neurosurgeons, jet pilots, investigative journalists, coders and CEOs, as promotional material for the 2020 pageant (canceled, of course) imply. “No recent Miss America winners have done any of those things professionally,” Friedman writes, adding that “this brings into stark reality that it is unclear how Miss America is preparing the world for great women.”

Hers is a refreshing take on a surprisingly complicated story, and Friedman is an engaging writer and serious thinker who frames the history of Miss America in a portrait that even people uninterested in beauty pageants can enjoy. A

A new children’s book called Yorick and Bones (HarperAlley, 144 pages) stirs thought about how many books have been published under the influence of Shakespeare, and also about the phenomenon of parent authors who write books with their children.
Yorick and Bones, comically billed as “The Lost Graphic Novel by William Shakespeare,” is written and illustrated by Jeremy Tankard (author of the Grumpy Birds series) with his daughter Hermione. It’s about a dog that digs up a skeleton, Yorick, that has been animated by a spilled magic potion that seeped underground.
Yorick, Shakespeare fans might recall, is the court jester in “Hamlet” whose skull is exhumed in Act 5. (“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy!”)

At first the skeleton is thrilled about being freed from the earth; he has been longing for friends, and for a sausage. But there is a potential problem: the dog, of course, wants bones to eat. It is a delicious story made even more appetizing by the fact that it is written — because all genius has a touch of madness — in iambic pentameter, because why not? Not being age 8 through 12, and not having children this age, I’m not the target audience for this book, but I still want to read it and many sequels. Here’s hoping the dog finds other skeletons to dig up.

As for other Shakespeare-inspired books, there are at least three others this year: Christopher Moore’s Shakespeare for Squirrels, reviewed here last month (William Morrow, 288 pages), James Shapiro’s Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future (Penguin, 320 pages), and Kathryn Harkup’s Death by Shakespeare, Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts (Bloomsbury Sigma, 368 pages).

For parent-child collaborations, what comes first to mind is Stephen King and Joe Hill’s short story “Throttle,” and novelist Lisa Scottoline and her daughter Francesca Serritella, who have written five humorous books together.

There is, of course, also Mary Higgins Clark, who writes with her daughter Carol Higgins Clark, and closer to home, New Hampshire’s Jodi Picoult, who has written two books with her daughter Samantha van Leer.

As for Shakespeare, he reportedly had three children, none of whom authored any books of which we know.

Album Reviews 20/09/17

Allegra Levy, Lose My Number: Allegra Levy Sings John McNeil (SteepleChase Productions ApS)

You may have noticed that not a lot of jazz vocalists’ albums make it into this space, or maybe not, but I’ll tell you that the main reason for it is that I’ve heard too many that sound too academic-fixated. Luckily this isn’t like that at all, nor is it the usual Great American Songbook suspects; it’s actually a rather daring collaborative project between rising New York City vocalist Levy and trumpet player McNeil, who wrote and originally recorded this set of songs as instrumentals at various times between the 1980s and the early Aughts. Since they weren’t written with vocals in mind, Levy’s task was to add lyrics and scatting and rearrange things a bit, a tall order indeed, but because the material is lighthearted, fluffy ballroom jazz in the first place, the result is more than listenable: her scatting is never nerve-jangling, and McNeil’s modal tradeoffs with acoustic pianist Carmen Staaf are pretty stellar. High-class stuff. A

VAR, The Never​-​Ending Year (Spartan Records)

If you want to see me run for the hills from a record, make sure it lists Sigur Ros as a “RIYL” comparison. But since I’m at the Gandalf The Grey stage of my music-critic life, when the smallest pleasant surprises can make my day, this was a nice departure. I assume the Sigur Ros name-check is PR shorthand mostly appointed by some need to rope in hipsters who’ll bite on any band that’s from Iceland (which this foursome is), but it wasn’t necessary (matter of fact, the fact they’re from Iceland almost drove me away, for whatever that matters). No, this is a rumbling, emotive typhoon of shoegaze-math, to slap a genre on it; imagine if Silkworm didn’t suck at their instruments, had a singer who could karaoke 1970s Bread, had a cool drummer with a chainless snare, and whose sole mission was to slow-emo a crowd into rapt stillness. That’s this, and it’s uniquely good. A

Retro Playlist

Now that Covid seems to have moved in for good, many of us are spending way too much time on Facebook, Instagram, whatever your poison. I was on Twitter a lot and got quite addicted, then had to stop for a lot of reasons, but now I’m back on it, as well as Facebook. With Facebook, I’m mostly there just to support the friends who seem to need a good laugh or a pat on the back, which seems to be everybody. This thing has taken its toll on people’s sanity, it really has.

Yesterday, someone posted a Facebook thingie about “What Would Your Entrance Song Be?” I immediately said mine would be Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life,” which for some reason was the national anthem of Toys R Us before they went under. I was lying of course; if I ever wind up talking about my book on Bill Maher’s show, I’m thinking I’d want to walk in with Black Sabbath’s “Trashed” playing. But regardless, it got me thinking about ultimate coolness, and can we talk here, no one can out-cool Iggy. No one. He was as punk as a human can get. During his live shows, the guy used to dive onto broken glass. I talked about his appearance on the song “Punkrocker” 14 years ago when I reviewed the TeddybearsSoft Machine album, a record that single-handedly saved the Aughts from being the worst decade of music ever. I mean, I love that album.

Until one of my friends mentioned it yesterday on the Facebook thread, I’d totally forgotten about Iggy’s collaboration with Underworld on the 2018 EP Teatime Dub Encounters, which I mentioned in one of the Playlist pieces. It’s no “Punkrocker,” but the beat to that record’s “Bells & Circles” is so filthy you need a rubber ducky bath after listening to it, and all the while you have Iggy free-associating about smoking butts on a plane while trying to get a date with a girl. I mean, never mind Black Lips being rad, it’s simply too late to be as awesome as Iggy, because his world is just plain gone.

Now, no discussion on ultimate badassness would be complete without mentioning GG Allin, New Hampshire’s dirty little secret during the punk years. None of his song or album titles can be printed here, but he was beyond Iggy, into the realm of — oh, just trust me. If you have Showtime, you should check out the 2017 documentary The Allins, about his life and legacy. Actually, you shouldn’t. His mom, who died last year in Franconia, was a nice lady, let’s just leave it at that.

A seriously abridged compendium of recent and future CD releases

• Sure, why not, let’s see if the new CD releases of Sept. 18 can shake us out of our doldrums — it couldn’t hurt! I mean, at the very least, talking about new albums will make us feel more connected, as we will at least enjoy the schadenfreude (the German word for “sucks to be them, and I like it”) that comes from knowing that even rich rock stars and whatnot are having to deal with the misery of the ‘rona, and they have to eat their bowls of ultra-rare coelacanth chowder not in the company of hottt groupies but instead with the captured Pizza Hut delivery guys they keep in cages, for company. I’m almost glad I’m not a rich celebrity, except just forget it, I’m totally lying. Anyway, where were we, you people really need to stay focused, even though we are all lonely, miserable and insane — ah, yes, it’s a new album from Yusuf, who used to be known as Cat Stevens, back when all shipping in the United States was done by trains and all commerce was handled by Gringotts goblins with quill pens and uncomfortable wooden chairs. Our boy Yusuf is apparently completely out of ideas, as this new album, Tea for the Tillerman², is a “reimagining” of the 1970 album of the basically same name, but without the 2. Of course, he’s “72 years old” (that’s according to Wiki, meaning he’s probably 90, but whatever), so — oh, who cares, let’s just get this over with, the title track sounds just like the old 1970 version, droopy piano, some gospel choir, blah blah blah, “reimagining” indeed, may I go now?
• When last we left San Francisco garage-punks Thee Oh Sees, they’d changed their name to OSees, so hey, copy guy, make sure “Osees” is in bold and “Thee Oh Sees” isn’t, otherwise you will commit rock ’n’ roll heresy and we’ll all have to run for our lives. It’s not the first time they’ve made a slight change to their name, which may be the stupidest move I’ve ever seen from a band that’s trying to sell albums, but I have no control over these people, I really don’t, so try to keep up, or just skip this part, it’s all good. The forthcoming new album from these dummies is Proteen Threat, and the single is called “Dreary Nonsense.” (Disclaimer: I didn’t tell them to use that title, they did it on their own, in a display of rare honesty.) No, wait, calm down, this sounds like early Wire, spazzy, dissonant, artsy and crazily punky. Why is this band being awesome? Stop it this instant!
• Whatever, here’s that New York City band, Cults, again, with a new album called Host! They are on Sony Records in the U.S., and Lily Allen’s personal imprint elsewhere (Note for beginners: That does not automatically make them hip). “Trials,” their new single, has a slow, sexytime beat, with the usual bee-stung singing from whatsername. It’s OK, if a bit uneventful.
• Lastly, let’s talk about Canadian analog-drone lady Sarah Davachi and her new album, Cantus Descant. I don’t usually like drone, and that should wrap things up here; the leadoff single, “Stations II,” is slow and gloomy and weird, like a funeral march for a well-respected Martian accountant or something. Yup, yes, that’ll wrap it up

Fall flavors of wine

Campfires, backyard firepits, s’mores — and port

It may not officially be fall, but in some places the trees are beginning to blush and the evenings are now calling for jeans and sweatshirts. The air is crisp and “pick your own” ventures have changed from berries to apples. It is a beautiful time of the year and the perfect time to relish those opportunities to gather around a campfire or backyard firepit after the sun goes down. Break out the graham crackers, marshmallows and Hershey chocolate bars and create that sublime evening treat. And what do we want to sip with such fare? Port, of course!

Port is the perfect drink to pair with fruit, cheese and everything in between — even s’mores! Port can stand on its own, sipped slowly, bundled up while gathered around the firepit in the backyard. Port is a fortified wine at 20 percent alcohol. It is simply wine produced from grapes that are fermented, with the addition of some spirits, typically brandy, which stops the fermentation process. Port is produced wherever wine is made, including the United States, Australia, India, Argentina, Canada, and South America, but authentic port is unique to Portugal. It all started over the wars that the British and French were constantly engaged in. The British needed a source outside of France for their table wines. They turned to Portugal, but these wines were unstable and not favored as much as the French wines. It was already a common practice to add some spirits to lesser wines to fortify the mixture to extend its life while traveling; wines like Madeira come to mind. Port wine takes its name from the city of Oporto, where the Douro River meets the Atlantic. The Douro River valley was and still is known as the home of some great vineyards upriver, and these grapes along with the added brandy give port wine its unique flavor. In fact, only Portuguese-made port can carry the identifying term “Porto” on the label. And, as is obvious from reading the labels on the bottles, the British became involved in the exportation and sale of this marvelous product, hence the port labels of Taylor, Warres, Graham’s and others!

Port is a red wine, with one notable exception — white port, which is made from white grapes. Ruby port is a young, inexpensive wine, deep red in color and aged for only about three years. Vintage port is a blended harvest, placed in oak casks for several months, then bottled and aged for 20 or more years. Late bottled vintage port is made from grapes grown in a specific year, aged in oak for four to six years, then bottled. Tawny port with a reddish-brown color is aged in casks for several years, some for up to 40 years! Port wine labels carry a lot of information, so much so that an entire column could be devoted to it.

But let us begin our tasting of port wines! Taylor Fladgate 2014 Late Bottled Vintage Port (originally priced at $19.99 and reduced to $16.99 at the New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlets) has a beautiful ruby-colored rim sitting atop a deep purple-black body. On the nose there are rich jam-like notes of currants and blackberries, along with light spice. To the tongue, the same fruit comes through with light tannins of leather, followed by a long finish. This is a superlative “entry-level” port at an appealing price. According to the Taylor Fladgate website, it is blended from some of the best ports produced from the 2014 harvest. By all accounts this is a young port that has been in oak casks for six years and is ready to drink now.

Our second port is Taylor Fladgate 10 Year Old Tawny Porto (originally priced at $27.99, and reduced to $24.99 at the New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlets). It has a slight amber cast to its rich reddish brown color. To the nose there are notes of dried cherries and hazelnuts, all coming from its time within oak casks. It is ripe, rich and full to the mouth, with a silky palate of chocolate and butterscotch. Its long finish is to be savored.

So bundle up, light those firepits, roast some marshmallows to make s’mores, and savor these wonderful ports made for these moments. Pick up a bottle of each and send your reviews to the Hippo!

Featured photo: Courtesy photos

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