Monday, December 31, 2012

Midwestern Audio, Part 5--Beating Multitudes of Devils and Chasing Lots of Little Somethings

In more ways than are probably worth counting, the devil’s admirably present in the details 11 songs deep on the disc that begins with “Diablo Diablo.” Dollar Foxes’ petal-to-the-metal country rocker, “The Letter,” deals with the devil of unwanted communication, while Cadillac Flambe’s “The Devil’s Heavy 12,” offers a revenge tale straight out of a particularly gothic Spaghetti western—made transcendent by an operatic bridge worthy of Ennio Morricone. The nemeses in The Atlantic’s “Dixie is Dead” sport devils on the back of one’s hand and in the palm of the other. Unlike “The Letter,” which suggests confrontation can be put off inevitably, both the Cadillac Flambe and Atlantic songs insist on the inevitable fight to the death.  Taken together, these three songs work like a suite, moving from both the sound and resignation of ever weightier country in the first two songs to thrashing metal anguish on “Dixie is Dead.”

That progression nicely sets up the arrival of Hammerlord , followed by Expo ’70 and Umberto. Hammerlord hits hard, the band’s dual guitar (grounded-by-bass) attack both massive and perhaps lightning fast enough to offset the Devil-God of a femme fatale “Kali Bundy.” [BTW, contender for year’s best song title?] And though Expo ’70 would probably give its free ranging drone music any title but metal, this cut, “Closet Full of Candles,” centers on a classically heavy rock march through a nightmare landscape fraught with electronic improvisation that calls to mind all varieties of goth-metal horror. As the song suggests, though the landscape sounds huge—like a swamp gas lit battlefield—it may be even scarier to think it no larger than the confines of Carrie’s prayer room. Umberto’s “JonBenet” calls to mind devils unmentionable with keyboard progressions weaving tapestries followed by pointillist electronic starlight and wordless choral counterpoints.  It's the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey carrying you somewhere a good deal scarier than the edge of the universe.

By contrast, it’s a relief to hear Akkilles’ “She’s Alright.”  Guitar and banjo strings gently accompany this meditation on acceptance. If there’s a devil being come to terms with here, it’s the self—“it’s too late to be the good guy.”  But then, despite the very real systemic evil that surrounds us, that devil we know best is often the most vexing. La Guerre’s beautifully sung “23” tackles a similar fight for dignity in a similarly isolated electronic meditation.  Completing this suite of self exploration, Gemini Revolution’s acid trip of a composition, “Through the Woods,” starts off like some transcendental walk through a neighborhood park, but it truly gets otherworldly when the backing vocals emerge, offering a bigger vision tied to some sense of community.

The lonesome ballad, “Something to Eat,” by Hidden Pictures starts with simple acoustic guitar, but soon finds the day-glow texturing of the music that came before.  In a song about simple keys to happiness, the unnamed key is the one the listener recognizes in Richard Gintowt's and Michelle Sanders' beautiful vocals. As the song itself discovers, the main thing—the act of loving and being loved--is always a work in progress—like friendship, like community, like a life worth living, like a song sung well.

And somewhere in that truth lay a bunch more dust devils behind the curtain. Abigail Henderson takes a broom to those devils with Tiny Horse’s “Ride,” asking a series of questions about what to do at the end of a struggle, at a point of arrival—“Dishes in the sink, and our love on the brink, and the mistakes we make are finally our own.” Though it’s a song about learning to live with limits, it’s also a song that refuses to surrender to the worst demon of all—spiritual defeat.

Fortunately for us, the characters in this song can’t simply muster up some unearned faith. This ain’t no “Don’t Stop Believing.” What Henderson’s voice and Chris Meck’s guitar agree on are a few simple principles.  It starts with our need for one another and a call to “ride with me tonight,” and lyrically it can’t reach much further—it can only yearn to “remember what it means to chase a little something.” And the sound they make together does just that—Henderson’s world-weary vocal, turning over each syllable intent on discovery and Meck’s delicately probing guitar sweeping light through this darkness like only he can. This is visionary music, and, by that, I mean the vision’s actually in the music's interaction with the lyric.

Of course, any of the 1,100+ Facebook friends of the Midwest Music Foundation know that the organization grew out of Henderson and Meck’s vision, informed by and maintained despite a long fought war against cancer and the vagaries of the health care system. I say this because for all my talk about personal demons here, this is a song that knows the real world is even more dangerous than we think, so the struggle between the personal and political here is inextricably linked. There’s no answering one without addressing the other, and that’s why, even when we’re left facing nothing but ourselves...our pitiful, bedeviled selves, working together, may be just what we need. They're certainly all we have.

It was “Ride” that told me I had to write about this compilation.  And it was “Ride” that said I needed to chase it not in some general way but song for song. The first time I’d played both CDs, somewhere south of Chicago on a rainy November night,  I hit repeat on that last cut over and over—Matt Richey’s opening martial drums, Zach Phillips’ pulsing bass, Cody Wyoming’s ethereal mists of keys and Chris Meck’s searching guitar ushered in Henderson's hard fought questions and urgent plea. And it was this song’s quiet beauty that called to me when I lost steam after a couple of blogs and scrambled to find a new hand hold with Part 3. Just as Meck’s guitar alternately caresses and provokes Henderson’s calls to “chase a little something,” the record kept pulling me forward. 

Thank you to everyone involved.  Happy New Year!

Go here, name your price for the music and read about all the great ways your money will be spent—

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Previously Unpublished 2012--Amy Cook, Lupe Fiasco, Ian Hunter and Santigold

Summer Skin, Amy Cook (Thirty Tigers) Robert Plant and Patty Griffin lend guest vocals while Me’Shell N’Degeocello plays bass, all of which hints at the way Amy Cook manages to balance rock and roll intensity, brilliant melodies and back porch ease.  Always ebullient and infectious, “Summer Skin” is never far from a dark turn. A menacing bass and obscure shapes painted by shimmering guitar color the surreal imagery of the perpetually taxiing “Airplane Driver.” The classic rock build of the gorgeous “Sun Setting Backwards” explicitly fights the distance in satellite radio transmissions and cellphone calls to fight its way to an uncommon intimacy.
Food and Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album, Lupe Fiasco (Atlantic) “Ayesha Says” makes the perfect opening for this record, a young woman spitting rhymes on the street—connecting hoodie and hijab,  “prayer rugs, church pews, Mexican coin stands,” the West Bank and the West Side of Chicago, “Emmet Till, Malice Green, Rekia Boyd and Trayvon Martin,” finding hope in the midst of almost universal despair.  As high tech and hook laden as last year’s Lasers, this album preaches hard from beginning to end, never more powerfully than on the massive “Around My Way (Freedom Ain’t Free)” and the reflective “Unforgivable Youth,” both of which sum up American history in five minutes or less and make a new vision for the future that much easier to grasp.
When I’m President, Ian Hunter (Slimstyle) “Comfortable” starts the record rocking as hard and raunchy as Mott the Hoople, before the explosive “Fatally Flawed” confronts the most implacable human frailty. “When I’m President” sums up the electoral con as well as anyone has, while “Ta Shunka Witco” takes America on with the vision of Crazy Horse. “Life” closes things out reminiscent of Mott the Hoople’s self-mythologizing, but the message—here and throughout the album— has never been more tender and generous.
 “Master of My Make Believe,” Santigold (Atlantic) The mix of Anglican and African choral styles over tribal drums and marching band rhythms on “God from the Machine” shows the breadth of this album’s reach; the depth may be best indicated by the way it seems to reach back to the Clash’s “Sandinista” and fold the next thirty years of music into a unified dance mix.  The urgency is palpable in the lyrics to the revolutionary rallying cries “Disparate Youth” and “The Keepers."  Perhaps the boldest musical surprise comes with the wall pounding response to the call of “This Isn’t Our Parade.” 

Friday, December 28, 2012

Midwest Audio, Vol 1, Part 4--Deals with the Devil, Holidays in Our Heads, Coffee-Fueled Rapture and Loads of Punk Bravado

Midwestern Audio, Vol. 1’s second disc starts with a ten song run as coherent as if these (all previously released) cuts were all meant to be played together. (Actually, in the old days, that would have translated into an entire coherent album.) Part of the credit for the unity of this project has to go to engineer Pat Tomek, who not only pulls the sound together but had to have made many of these sequencing choices. But there’s another part that has to do with an artistic ethos developed as a form of survival…not incidentally in a society that does not particularly respect music (or art) as a way to make a living. 

It starts with frenetic rolling drums, horns and hints of Spanish guitar. The Water MoccaSins’ “Diablo Diablo” is an ironically Dune Buggy-sunny take on the “Crossroads Blues” theme. By definition, it's great fun at a no doubt dreadful cost.

Tom-toms and handclaps fight to keep spirits up for ACBs’ “My Face,” a work of adrenaline over frustration.  In one sense, that’s what rock always is, but this particular version, in form and content, gets set in the universal context of a child watching others at play, unable to join in. If that Diablo made house calls, another contract would be in the offing.

The Empty Spaces’ “Holidays are Nice and Warm” chases a similar theme, this time seemingly trapped in a dingy Westport bar and dreaming of playing somewhere far, far away. Lead singer (Mat Shoare?) sounds more than a little like the Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley—both for the odd appeal of his whinging cries and for the way this could be a lost option for Singles Going Steady, sounding every bit as fresh and raw today as any of those records still do.

Like the Empty Spaces record, Schwervon!’s “Wake and Bomb” could also be one of those little plastic singles that used to come inside Trouser Press magazine.  Minimalist bass, drums and guitar rumble against morning rants. Again, what’s underscored by these tracks is the perennial vitality of the punk impulse—particularly when it does as good as job as this capturing the everyday suicidal angst and anger of those inoculated against dreams and promises. Raging against the dying of the light is indeed something to do. 

Racing against that same light, The Brannock Device’s “King of the Soapbox Derby” burns a rockabilly free jazz fire that holds off the darkness. Rarely has contemptuous aggression sounded more comforting, even optimistic.  At least there’s hope in the fight.  At least there’s the real light sparked by drums, guitar and words spit as kindling.

The Beautiful Bodies’ “You’re a Risk” carries this present tense desperation forward with the refrain, “I want to be alive, tonight!” Alicia Solombrino’s hyper-energetic, expressive vocals bounce the spaces between rubber-band bass, trash can drums and starlight guitar. When she ends with a kind of primal scream, she’s earned its satisfied smile.

Also reveling in the moment, The Dead Girls’ “It’s All Happening” fights for some perspective on perspective. Repeating the refrain, “I didn’t think this all would happen,” like a mantra, the singers engage in a sort of dialectic about the implications of the moment. Pounding drums and a giddy, classically grand, dual guitar attack signal the simple answer long before it’s stated—“tell it like it is.”

Speaking of dialectics, the seemingly domestic battle in Deco Auto’s “Pointless Fight” asks “why bother when you could just give in?” Of course, as such battles go, it ain’t that easy, so nothing really changes over the course of the three minute surrender. Fortunately, singer Steven Garcia’s shouted refrains and the power trio’s lean, yet massive, attack find some measure of righteousness in the effort to walk away.

Just don’t try to walk on The Quivers’ Terra Peal. “Blue Light” begins with her shaking it into your thick head that she’ll be done with you when she tells you she is. It pretty much ends that way, too. What makes this fight of a dance so much fun is the bravado of her two fisted vocal up against insistent drums, keys and Abe Haddad’s tumbling surf guitar.

One of my strong contenders for best song in this solid collection comes next, The Grisly Hand’s “Black Coffee.” It’s the story of a Quik Cash teller the morning after a night of aggravated drinking, rallying to face another gray day. Jimmy Fitzner and Lauren Krum’s duet vocals offer just the right grist to an impossibly hook-laden melody, and what begins as a simple back porch lament evolves into some “Rainy Day Women #12 and #35” neighborhood sing-a-long. A minor-keyed triumph of dirt-laden pride, this record plows straight through social and self-denigration, shouting “You ain’t ready for me!”

Stay tuned for the conclusion….

Buy Now, name your price!

Proceeds for Midwestern Audio, Vol  1 go to good folks:  The Midwest Music Foundation (MMF) is an educational arts organization that unites performer and audience and fills a health care gap for Kansas City musicians. Each yeah, MMF puts on a showcase at Austin TX's SXSW Festival to showcase Kansas City (and midwest) bands.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Midwest Audio Vol 1, Part 3--Red Wind Nights and Lonely Company Racing Motionless

It’s a musical sound—a shining woman’s voice and a sparkling guitar, little more than a whisper over snare and brushes and a low, searching bass.

I’m following it, but I’m not close enough to fully pick up that station. I’m using a figure of speech, but I mean it literally. I’m driving the darkest nights in memory, and I’m trying to find the direction to clear up that signal.  I want to lock in on that voice and follow it to its source. 

But, for a kind of eternity, I’ve been losing this signal every direction I go. I push the gas to the floor and eat up the starry night, turning down section roads and searching for diagonal routes, never finding myself any closer.

Meanwhile, other music takes over the speakers, a juxtaposition of styles and voices each with its own allure. As random and diverse as it sounds, this is a playlist, a dozen songs by Midwestern bands that close out the first half of a music compilation.  The record reminds me of Big Hits of Middle America, Vol. III, the record that would inspire the Minneapolis garage rock explosion of the early 80s….only the sound is more sophisticated, the music less easily defined by genre.

First comes this staggered drum part over a fat, fuzzy bass keyboard, and distorted vocals echoing the Beatles’ “Hello Goodbye” all giving context for a singer’s anxious effort to reckon with a relationship.  And though Yoko may be one of the most common Japanese female given names, the “Blue Jay Way” keyboards and found musical elements refracting all over the soundscape and the final Yoko Ono vocal warbles make it pretty clear that this is a form of “That’s All Right, Mama” that tackles the scapegoats created by fans hanging onto ethnocentric (even racist) myths. At least that’s the way I hear this frenetic, psychedelic potpourri by Be Non, and I’m thankful for that.

An absolutely gorgeous music meditation comes next, courtesy of the experimental music collective, Monta at Odds. A yearning keyboard accompanied by gentle drums, high hat and strolling bass travels the dark night, too, picking up horns, strings, guitar and shimmering keyboard sustain.

That sense of a long dark night intensifies with the Latenight Callers’ “Calaveras,” a song that begins with a Raymond Chandler quote about the impending domestic violence brought on the Southern California’s Santa Ana Winds. Pulsing bass and garrote-sharp guitars frame Ms. Julie’s weary plea for escape.  Eventually, Mr. Nick’s accordion-like keyboard locks into a dance that propels her to a moment’s child-like peace.

A study in contrasts comes with the following two instrumentals.  Diverse’s “Full Circle,” begins with Hermon Mehari’s trumpet stating the main theme with warmth and restraint. But the jazz trio makes subtle shifts every few bars, the drummer pushing Mehari to respond with increasing variations and an intensity and tone that makes this driver think of Freddie Hubbard. That said, Mehari is his own voice, reining ideas in that glow all the more hot as the fires die down to the original clarity of the main theme.

Mr. Marco’s V7’s “Sparkin’ Your Mama Sweet 2” follows.  This blend of metal-heavy bass pushed hard, assaultive guitar noise, frantic Turkish (what zither? baglama?) riffing and volcanic drums is as intent on losing control as “Full Circle” seems intent on maintaining it. The music is as rife with violence as that Santa Ana wind a couple of songs back, but for all the wild improvisation, the band hits each improbably planned mark and stops on a dime after its last dizzying array of manic flourishes.

The metal edge becomes full-on metal, or even proto-metal, with The Conquerors’ “Proxy Shady,” sounding mysteriously “found” like a demo cut by Blue Cheer in some San Francisco warehouse circa  1967. After drums pick up speed and push the guitar to two psychedelic freak-outs, the music slows back down with cooling harmonies and those warehouse walls reverberating with sustain.

Things grow infinitely more soothing with Cowboy Indian Bear’s “The Hunter and the Hunted.” It’s mainly about that singer’s ethereal seduction, promising whatever he’s selling will be well worth it. But something else is up, as there generally is in important matters of trust.  It may be the dominant keyboard washes and pulsing expectant bass or it may be the tambourine on the margins, but there’s a quiet menace hanging here as dark as the blackest shadows elsewhere.

A keyboard wash serves as a transition to the folkie romp form Quiet Corral, “Lonely Company.” Lyrically, the purpose here is very similar to the previous song—to reassure a loved one about the future. But the way this melody finds its jaunty way to some rock guitar friction—not to mention group whistling and harmonies—allows the listener to rock the darkness back into its proper corners.

To make sure that darkness stays put, the even more folky and rambunctious, “Headless King” by She’s a Keeper tells a tall tale against a panoramic soundscape fleshed out by energetic banjo, guitar, cello, bass and mandolin. The specters are all up front here, the subjects of playful derision and dreams of newfound liberation.

The duo Eyelit picks up on this theme of liberation with “Motionless.” Singer Austin Marks declares, “in this heartache, I’m finding what it is to be a man.” This front porch celebration builds on its acoustic guitar with strings and delicate backing vocals by Marks’ band partner Dansare. It’s a song about surrender and acceptance and growth, and that’s exactly how it sounds, like the growing promise of a new day. In the movie that plays in my head, the anxious all night drive has found its way to the first rosy rays of dawn.

Howard Iceberg’s “The Wrestler” reveals that dawn to be a bleak Sunday morning. Kasey Rausch’s warm vocals and Rich Hills’ spirited keys breathe hope into Iceberg’s doomed ballad. At the end of the song, when he and his girlfriend sit in church seeking redemption, the distance between here and heaven has never felt more like a cruel taunt. 

Countering Iceberg’s closing declaration, “I’m gone,” The Blackbird Revue’s “When You Are Mine,” says you’re not getting away that easy. The duo’s airy vocals pile into cumulus dreams and harmonies fed by running crescendos of tom-tom and guitar before the morning’s color washes away with the revelations of death from Appropriate Grammar’s “Six Foot Dreams. A nagging guitar arpeggio anchors this rooted meditation.  Despite all of the hopes and dreams raised by its drum and guitar battle climax, that one riff refuses to budge from its modulation around a single, fixed point. 

So another night has gone, and day has come again, but the “search for dreams” Nick McKenna sings about is already lost.  Fortunately for this lonely driver, another CD’s worth of music is yet to come.

To be continued….

Sample and buy here—

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Midwestern Audio Vol. 1, Part 2--The Horns, The Beat and the Jagged Grain of Debt

The next movement starts with Grand Marquis' "The Jungle," shifting to a thematic focus on getting out from under that carries through Hearts of Darkness's "Debt on Me" and Reach's "Move." All three speak to the economic insecurity that's been growing among those living below middle for over three decades--an insecurity that's had its fingers playing at the throat of anyone likely to be reading this at least since the Great Recession that arrived in 2008.  In that sense, though none of these three is a blues song (the closest might be the NOLA-flavored jump blues of Grand Marquis), all three place a strong emphasis on what Ralph Ellison called the "blues impulse"--survival songs based in keeping "the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism."

The mix of tragic and comic is most apparent in the boasts of singer Bryan Redmond's character in "The Jungle." He's a gambler, bluffing and cheating his way out of debt, plotting his escape "on a paper sack" and studying "an old weathered map of the promised land." It all sounds as tenuous as the next deal gone wrong. What really emphasizes the absurdity of his claims is the almost cartoonish interplay of Lisa Mackenzie's percussion with the horns, Ryan Wurtz's guitar punctuating each statement like the sour turning point in a movie.  I'm guessing it's Chad Boyston's trumpet and Ben Ruth's sousaphone that have a wonderful battle at the song's climax, dying off with bent notes before Redmond states "If the wheels don't fall off....Everybody knows just how my story goes." Yeah,

Hearts of Darkness's great horn section (Jolan Smith, Sam Hughes, Andrew Ford, Ken Walker, Hermon Mehari, and Bob Asher) blasts a 10 note descent and vamp against Pete Leibert's funky bass and Brad Williams, Sean Branagan and Miko Spears's rapid fire percussion. These blues have jumped into James Brown/Tower of Power territory. Rapper/frontman Les Izmore introduces the cut, along with singers Brandy Gordon, Erica Townshend and Rachel Christia, but quickly hands it off to tenor sax player and vocalist Jolan Smith, who tells a tale of seething self-loathing due to the quicksand of debt that's got hold of him. After a pause held by Richard Gumbel's rhythm guitar, Izmore fights back, calling out the creditors that play off peoples' vulnerabilities. Izmore's call and response with the singers at the end rallies for a battle not over any time soon.

MC Reach's "Move" rides a 3 a.m.-lonely mix of bass, percussion and seemingly random stabs of keyboard effects.  Like the singer in Grand Marquis, Reach dreams of making his move, but the difference is he'd like to do it being true to ideals that gambler has long since forgotten if he ever had them. Caught on "the campus" of "the school of hard knocks," Reach doesn't want to sell out, but he increasingly doubts the advice (the myth? the lie?) that all he has to do is "keep it real and wait for the check." His ultimate analysis is one of the deepest on this record--not only the story of 99% of the world's working musicians but also the story of 99% of those listening.  No matter what he does to try to get out of this place, "it's funny, 'cause still don't nothing move but the money." That's a 21st Century blues if I've ever heard one.  Music like this doesn't pretend to have answers, but it does remind us that the things that isolate us can also bring us together. Therein lies what I call hope.

Please check out this wonderful local release, all proceeds going to the Midwest Music Foundation, "an educational arts organization that unites performer and audience and fills a health care gap for Kansas City musicians"

More soon....

A note to anyone following this particular review:

7 down, 36 to go. I'll get there, but these blogs will be interspersed with other reviews. Those who care, hang in there.  Also, if anyone has corrections on any of the personnel or details, please let me know.  I'm riding on more intuition than I'd like here at times because there's so much to cover, and I want to do it justice.  I'll make corrections as I get them. DA

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Midwestern Audio Vol. 1--The Opening Salvo

Last weekend, with 16 hours of solo driving ahead of me, I got a chance to play the new Midwest Music Foundation compilation, Midwestern Audio, Vol. 1, straight through. Well before I reached Tiny Horse's beautiful, "Ride," with its plea "to chase a little something," I knew I had to write about the whole of this record--43 cuts by 43 bands blending genres ranging from country to hip hop to metal, all of it better than it needs to be to set the mind reeling. When I set about chasing this something, I found I couldn't write about it all at once and do it justice, so I'm improvising my way through--movement by movement.

The album starts with a sort of blitzkrieg of dance-oriented rock. I use the term "blitz" intentionally because of the way the first four cuts call to mind the early 80s Brit-punk soul bands.  That's not to say this music sounds revivalist.  At least since Timbaland's records with Nelly Furtado, the 80s have been made fresh for this century by everyone from Lady Gaga to Fun to Gotye. These qualities particularly define Antennas Up's "Coming On," which is indeed a pretty irresistible come-on with its exuberant vocals (in back and up front), muscular rhythm section and sparkling keyboard effects.

Everyday/Everynight maintains a darker, more frenetic edge chasing the physical transcendence suggested by the song title, "Body Electric." The emphasis is on fast insistent drums, throbbing guitar and vocal distortion, but the effect is gorgeous in its own way. The soundscape created here starts in that raw center but pushes rays of jumping neon to every far horizon.

Molly Picture Club's "Fanclub" centers on a disjointed percussive groove punctuated by what sound like bleeps of Moog synthesizer and shouted backing vocals. The mix of ragged harmonies, gut-bucket and art house here call to mind what might happen if The Talking Heads and X had a three headed baby. The cut manages to find fun reveling in ambivalence.

Soft Reeds close off these opening cuts with Gang of Four-urgent rhythmic guitar and a passionate plea summed up by the song's title, "Funky Friends Breathe, OK?" Tamborine and sharp bites of guitar and keys play off one another, while the singer's sorrowful vibrato searches for the answer to the question, "What do we do with all our problems/When nobody hears a word you say?"

In a world of information overload, narcissistic social media and a collapsing base for all the old tools of survival--not least important here, that old rock and roll dream--that question seems fundamental. At least since the rock and roll explosion of the 1950s, pop music (famous or underground) has been one way our culture has tackled its most intimate and thorny problems. In a culture where thousands of musicians throw benefits every week to help others in need, The Midwest Music Foundation formed, initially, to help musicians with their own needs, starting with health care. These first volleys from the organization's new compilation celebrate the most fundamental tools that bring us together--infectious rhythms and passionate voices, all on the line.

More soon....

Meanwhile, find this release at

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Home Makers: The Lower Ninth Ward, Daniel Wolff's The Fight for Home and Jonathan Demme's I'm Carolyn Parker

             When I think of Daniel Wolff’s new book, The Fight for Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back, one moment stands out. Ninth Ward resident Carolyn Parker is struggling to get in a car after knee surgery.  The moment’s written so concisely, I can’t paraphrase it—

Carolyn, grinning, starts the slow process of getting into the car.  “This is a big butt,” she announces.  “It’s not that easy.”  And when she’s finally made it: “See! That’s how it is.  I’m like a puzzle” (229).

                With that “puzzle” line, she’s said something that goes to the core of why this book’s companion piece, the Jonathan Demme documentary I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, The Mad and the Beautiful, is all about her. Ms. Parker isn’t particularly odd or mysterious at all, but she is a wonderful mix of contradictions. 

At the opening of Demme’s movie, neighbors talk about Ms. Parker calling the police on them, laughing as they talk, showing their love for her. When she confronts the New Orleans mayor and Chamber of Commerce over the fate of the Lower Ninth Ward, she commands the room. Though she spends five long years struggling to truly get moved back into her home (fighting her aging body, opportunistic workmen, thieves and the entire city in the process), she most often does all of these things with a sparkle in her eye and an ornery sense of humor.  She gooses her brother and flirts with the mailman.  She’s the best kind of puzzle, and it’s a gift the way both Wolff and Demme help us to get to know her.

                Both the filmmaker and the author of these life-after-Katrina documents try to stay out of the way of the story.  They do very little narration.  Demme provides brief transitional reports between visits to the Ninth Ward--to sum up new living conditions, offer appropriate context, and deliver essential narrative not caught on film.  Rather than ignore the elephant camera in the living room, Demme asks questions when he has to (not often) from behind the camera, and even winds up in front of it enjoying one of Carolyn Parker’s famous dinners.  In this way, he allows the Parkers and others to interact, as naturally as possible, with the process.  At one point, Ms. Parker warns a cameraman walking backward, “Watch your step!”

Wolff manages to avoid first person from beginning to end, allowing the Ninth Ward residents to simply explain things directly to the reader, turning the reader into a visitor who only implicitly asks questions and watches and listens very carefully.  Wolff, more than Demme, provides journalistic context regarding relevant national and local governmental decisions, celebrity efforts to lend a hand to the Ninth Ward and parallels to the nationwide mortgage crisis. Demme’s movie engages us in the life of a family struggling to rebuild a home; Wolff’s book makes us ask fundamental questions regarding community and how our fight for home parallels that in the Lower Ninth Ward.

To help us make those connections, The Fight for Home shows a cross-section of America fighting side by side. Ex nightclub owner Pastor Mel leads a group of ex-cons and addicts in the work. With a strong faith in God as his guiding light, he wrestles with contradictory feelings about Katrina—he wants to see a blessing in disguise and keeps running up against deeper injustices. The book also follows various residents and volunteers touched by Common Ground, an organization formed by a former Black Panther and largely fueled by the energy of college age volunteers.  Though the organization is beset by factionalism and outright betrayal, it’s also responsible for some of the book’s most memorable stories, including the warm relationship that forms between Suncere, one of Common Ground’s older black activists, and Mike, a white resident whose racial fears whither as a vanished society gets replaced by a new kind of community.

Another character in the book who becomes a star of the movie is Carolyn Parker’s daughter, Kyrah, a young woman whose first semester at Syracuse University comes to an abrupt end when the levees break.  On film, this former homecoming queen shines as both her mother’s equally high-spirited daughter and as bit of a foil for Carolyn.  Sometimes in the background as her mother speaks, sometimes in split screen next to her, Kyrah grins and laughs in both (a relatable every-child) embarrassment and genuine good humor as Carolyn jokes and flirts and revels in her dreams. At times, particularly when she’s interviewed alone, the losses Kyrah’s suffered (including the death of her beloved father) resonate in moments of reflection, showing a mature determination to use her life to right social wrongs—that, too, a quality very much like her mother.

As colorful in word and action as Carolyn Parker’s purple, teal and yellow home, both book and movie reveal a rich spectrum of humanity shining through the harshest adversity.  Author Wolff and director Demme quilt a tapestry that tells a story both terrible and beautiful. Together, they search for what it is that keeps the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward fighting for their homes.  What they find, taken together, adds up to a rich vision of what community could and should mean. The Fight for Home leads every reader to reconsider the very meaning of home in his or her own life, while I’m Carolyn Parker raises the bar on both the concept of the good neighbor and the American hero.

Thanks to my MWF ENGL 121 students for your enthusiasm and insight!