Recently, I am recommending:

(page down for previous recommendations)

CD:

Paint Another Layer On My Heart cover art

Paint Another Layer on My Heart

by Caleb Caudle

Once again, how do these fantastic performers slip through the cracks on me?  I try to keep up, be as exhaustive as I can, but it takes a buzz-creating SXSW performance by this guy to get my attention.  Now, I am jumping on another bandwagon so late that I can't recommend this CD strongly enough, and he already has a new one coming out in early 2016 entitled, "Carolina Ghost."

CD:

Dowd is known primarily for his skills behind a drum kit, but if that were to obscure his special talents behind  a microphone  accompanying himself on the guitar while singing his own wonderfully amazing songs then that would be a tragedy.  His songs are a solid blend of carefully crafted earnest lyrics, irresistable hooks, and  meaningful content.  I saw him open for Sam Baker at Kiki's Righteous basement and instantly bought everything he had available.  Area musicians who traveled to see him kept mentioning surreptitiously that they needed to get him back behind the drums.  I shook my head wondering if it was less a compliment and more a hope he would stop beating them at their own game.

This was a late 2014 release, but it will most likely make my top ten list for 2015 along with another very late '14 release L.L. Cooper's "Dust Devil."


Movies:

My Favorite Lesser Known Movies of the 2000s (Part One)

These are more diamonds in the rough. More gems that slipped through the cracks. Smaller movies with little if any publicity, without wide releases, or which got lost amid all the other media options out there.

Everyone keeps asking me to recommend a movie they haven't seen or heard about. This is another run at that type of list.

As always, these are my personal favorites. I believe they are worthy of recommendation, but I have little desire to promote a movie I didn't like or one which I was supposed to like or one I've been told everyone might like.

My tastes are consistent. If you like one or two on the list, you have a decent shot at liking them all.

 

My Favorite Lesser Known Movies

from 2007-2009

 

In the Valley of Elah Movie Poster  In the Valley of Elah (2007)

Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), a retired MP, receives a call informing him that his youngest son, Mike, has gone AWOL after returning from Iraq.  Hank drives to Fort Rudd and begins making inquiries, meets some of Mike's buddies, and finds his son's cell phone.  The video on the phone is garbled, but seems to show something horrible happened and possibly what happened to Mike.  Hank, without grace or subtlety, enlists the aid of Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron, another brilliantly chameleon performance). A body is discovered, dismembered and burned.  It's identified as Mike. Instead of agreeing to put his son and the entire incident to rest, Hank becomes more determined to uncover the truth about his son, about his country, and about himself.

It's impressive to see what Susan Sarandon does with the relatively small role as Hank's wife.  Wes Chatham is an unsung actor who does a lot himself here with an even smaller role.  Jason Patric and Josh Brolin can be as good as they care to be.

Like all Paul Haggis screenplays, this one is filled with crackling dialogue and telling revelation.

 

Hank Deerfield: Do you know what it means when a flag flies upside down?

School Janitor: No...?

Hank Deerfield: Its an international distress signal... It means we're in a whole lot of trouble so come save our asses 'cause we ain't got a prayer in hell of saving it ourselves.



  The Lookout (2007)

A former high-school hockey star, Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) sustains a head injury in car accident which was his fault. He is forced to take notes in a small notebook to remember important things and lives with a blind man (Jeff Daniels) who takes care him.  After obtaining a job as a janitor at a bank, he finds himself befriended by a cult-like gang of determined bank robbers for obvious reasons to everyone but Chris.

Screenwriter Scott Frank (Malice and Minority Report) made his directorial debut from his own original screenplay.


Gary Spargo: My old man used to say to me, probably the only thing we ever really agreed on, was that whoever has the money has the power. You might wanna jot that down in your book. It's something you're gonna need to remember.

 

 

Isla Fisher is very good as the gang leader's girl who comes on to Chris to keep him interested in going along.  Matthew Goode is quite good as well as Gary Spargo, the slightly unhinged mastermind, but the best performance is an almost silent portrayal of the big enforcer played by Greg Dunham who acts rarely and is something of a mystery himself.


  The Lucky Ones (2008)

A trio of very different service vets must share a rented car to get where they are going.  Fred Cheaver (Tim Robbins) has finished his service once and for all, while Colee Dunn (Rachel McAdams) and TK Poole (Michael Peńa) are trying to enjoy a 30 day R and R.  Despite their plans, they find life has moved on without them.  Upon arrival, Cheaver learns his wife wants a divorce. Colee is on a mission to bring her boyfriend's guitar back to his family. TK is seeking a way to face his wife after a shrapnel injury threatens his sexual function.  Cheaver decides to ride along with the other two on the remainder of their missions and then hit the casinos in an effort to pay for his son's college tuition.

This funny, poignant, wild road trip of a movie is a very small personal film made by Neil Burger who recently helmed the first Divergent movie.  No matter what he does in the future, it'll be tough for him to top this one.

TK Poole: I mean, you can only get lucky for so long, you know?  Streaks don't last forever, and I've been burnin' some karma.


  The Missing Person (2009)

High-powered lawyer Drexler Hewitt (Paul Adelstein) and his abrupt assistant, Miss Charley (Amy Ryan) convince P.I. John Rosow with the promise of a large sum of money to tail a mysterious, middle-aged man, Harold Fullmer (Frank Wood) traveling with a Mexican boy from Chicago to Los Angeles.  Rosow gradually uncovers Harold's identity as a missing person, one of the thousands presumed dead after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  To get the rest of his promised fee, Rosow must return Harold to his wife in New York City. 

Again, Linda Emond as Fullmer's wife rivals anyone else in the movie except perhaps Margaret Colin in a wonderfully tipsy role as possible femme fatale trying to bed Rosow.  Amy Ryan has an important but small role and also executive produced the film.

Rosow: Recently, for a second or two I almost felt like things were okay with the world. Strange to feel that way, when you know there are wars everywhere, everything's going to hell in a hand basket. But still I must admit, for a moment, I felt some kind of peace.

The ending to this little neo-noir is marvelous and raises the film above just another attempt at tone over plot.


  The Maiden Heist (2009)

Aging museum security guards Charles (Morgan Freeman), Roger (Christopher Walken), and George (William H. Macy) each have their own favorite piece of art in the museum.  When they find out all the art works are to be replaced by new exhibits, they join forces to steal their personal favorites before they can be sent to different museums.  Because they know how to get around the security, they devise a plan to replace each piece with a convincing replica.  All goes as planned until it doesn't, and then novice thieves must rely on some improvising to keep their precious art pieces from slipping away and themselves from spending the rest of their lives in prison.

This is an absolute wonder watching these four performers (Marcia Gay Harden is so good as Walken's patient, but opinionated wife) at their very best.

Rose Barlow: Well, this money, Roger. This money was for us, together. To think that I would steal from my own cookie jar!

As hard as I laughed, the ending still chokes me up.

 

My Favorite Lesser Known Movies
2004-2006

 
  Lightning Bug (2004)

 is a very small production by Robert Hall based on his version of his own coming of age story.  Hall's FX makeup has been featured in the TV series, "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer," "Angel," and "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles."  He owns an FX company called Almost Human.

Ms. Duvet: Do you know this disgusting ritual originates with a pagan holiday?

Green Graves: Yeah, so does Christmas.


After moving from Detroit to Alabama with his brother and single mother, a young man (Bret Harrison) with a talent and skill for sculpting scary monsters finds out there are scarier monsters in real life when his mother continues her bad choice in men and the small southern town pulls the plug on his creative outlet.  Laura Prepon who produced the extremely low-budget movie plays an sympathetic outcast who might also be interested in being more than a friend.  Lucas Till, who went one to play Jack Cash in Walk the Line and Alex Summers in the next generation of X-Men movies, plays his younger brother.

My favorite performance was turned in by Bob Penny who plays a pig farmer who relents to the young man's desires to renovate and update the old man's rundown spook house.

In 2013, this movie was re-released with 14 more minutes of footage which can only help its flawed editing and jumpy story flow in places. Some very good movies are ruined entirely by an awful ending, but some good movies are made even better by a fantastic ending. This is one of the latter.

  The Ice Harvest (2005)

is directed by Harold Ramis and written for the screen by Robert Benton and Richard Russo from a Scott Phillips novel which are three reasons right off the top to see it.

When lawyer Charlie (John Cusack) and his partner Vic (Billy Bob Thornton) steal a large sum of money from their boss (Randy Quaid), they think they've pulled off the perfect crime.  The ice coming from the sky and not quite enough of it covering the falls will make everything more difficult.  Renata (Connie Nielsen) wants Charlie to get her the incriminating photo of a local politician's sexual liaison for her to use as blackmail.  Charlie had always thought he had no chance with Renata, but on this Christmas eve when he never thought he'd have an opportunity for a perfect crime, he might have a chance with the perfect girl.

Sidney: Charlie?  I don't want you to take this the wrong way, but you're about the nicest guy I know.

Charlie: I'm awfully sorry to hear that, Sidney, but thank you.

Oliver Platt is his usual scene-stealing self as the former friend who married Cusack's ex-wife and Randy Quaid is scarily realistic as the wronged gangster. If you see this movie on DVD, there are two or three alternate endings included. They are all fitting, and now, truth be told, I can't recall which one actually was used in the release, but I'm happy to say it doesn't matter. I need to watch movie again soon.


North Country (2005)

Based on one of the first sexual harassment lawsuits filed in the United States, this movie is subtle when you expect it to be tour de force and comes down like a hammer when you expect finesse.

The story could easily have been played like an afternoon special or a Hallmark history lesson, but the performances by all involved including Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, and Woody Harrelson, and especially Richard Jenkins and Sissy Spacek as Theron's parents raise it to a great movie above and beyond the important subject matter.

Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) fled her abusive husband, and needed to find a way to support her two children. Aimes returns to her hometown in Minnesota and is convinced by her old friend, Glory (Frances McDormand) to try a job in the iron mines where she has been working.  As instructed by her friend, Josey tries to ignore the sexist humor and growing harassment, but cannot help standing up for herself when things start to get physical.  Female co-workers refuse to back her up for fear of losing the good paying jobs which support their families.  Even her parents, especially her father, a long-time miner and shop steward, advise her to go along or to quit.
 

Hank Aimes: She's still my daughter! It's a heck of a thing, to watch one of your own get treated that way. You're all supposed to be my friends, my brothers. Well, right now I don't have a friend in this room. In fact, the only one I'm not ashamed of is my daughter.


The always amazing, but totally unsung, Linda Emond is masterful at portraying the dichotomy of professionalism and compunction in her character as the woman lawyer hired by the mining company to lead their case.


  Red Eye (2005)

Before I saw this movie, I thought the synopsis and trailer suggested it was going to be one of those cramped, claustrophobic, stuck on a plane, disaster in the sky sort of thrillers, but in actuality, most of the action takes place after the red eye has landed.

Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams) is a young woman who plans everything meticulously in her life and in her work a hotel manager, attends the funeral of her grandmother in Dallas, but because she hates to miss work and dislikes flying in general, she has scheduled herself on the red eye flight back to Miami. On board, Lisa meets Jackson Ripner (Cillian Murphy) -- that can't be an alias, right? -- a charming, personable seatmate for a long flight.  But after take-off, Jackson's demeanor changes.  He shows Lisa her father's wallet and tells her his real reason for being on board. He demands her help to kill the deputy secretary of Homeland Security who's scheduled to stay at Lisa's hotel.  If she refuses, Jackson will call his partner on the ground and have her father killed.

Lisa: It happened in a parking lot, the scar, two years ago, in the middle of the day. He held a knife to my throat the whole time. Ever since I've been trying to convince myself of one thing over and over.
Jackson: That it was beyond your control.
Lisa: No, that it would never happen again.

Except for the fact that I thought Brian Cox's father character was woefully underused, this is a smart, tightly-written thriller which I was content to go along with to the end and quite satisfied with the ride. 


  16 Blocks (2006)

A jaded cop, Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) who has given up trying to fight a corrupt system and takes solace in the bottle and bottom rung assignments is assigned the task of a transporting a small-time criminal (Mos Def) to the nearby courthouse to testify in a case which turns out to be about police misconduct.  It's only 16 blocks, but when Mosley stops to pick up a small bottle for the ride home, he sees what he's up against, and he hasn't slid low enough yet to make it that easy. 


Jack Mosley: Days change, seasons change, people don't change. Eddie Bunker: Chuck Berry, he got locked up for armed robbery. He changed. He changed. Mosley finds the corrupt cops after him are his old unit led by David Morse, who's always so good at being so bad without giving too much away.  Jack also figures out he got the assignment because they knew he'd either screw it up or turn over the witness without much thought.


Plot holes gape in this one at times, but it's effort and heart are in the right place and most of what hits the screen is very well done. Jenna Stern has a nice turn as Willis's sister who is the only person he can trust.

Five More Lesser Known Movies

from 2004-2007

Very Personal Favorites which blew me away but may not be recommendable for everyone.

CDs:

Houndmouth

 

Just a fun, unique sound which critics try unsuccessfully to compare and classify.  A very nice debut collection of songs for a group just getting off the ground and who really seem to be enjoying doing it.

 

Movies: (Usually smaller or lesser known to get on demand or DVD)

Robot & Frank (2012)

 

    In the near future, Frank (Frank Langella) is a retired jewel thief living alone with encroaching dementia.  Because his successful son lives too far away to care for his father properly, he hires a robot caretaker programmed to help Frank with his condition.  Though Frank initially resists the robot's help, it becomes apparent to both of them that he is sharper when he can dabble in his old profession.

 

 

Hit and Run (2012)

 

 Former getaway driver Charlie Bronson (Dax Shepherd) jeopardizes his Witness Protection identity to help his girlfriend (Kristen Bell) get to Los Angeles for a career-making interview. They are pursued by her ex-boyfriend (Michael Rosenbaum), his Witness Protection agent (Tom Arnold) and Charlie's former gang led by a dreadlocked Bradley Cooper.  The anticipated hackneyed road trip plot is instead seasoned with archtypes and stereotypes turned on their ear in refreshing and unexpected ways tied directly to the resolution.

 

 

Stand Up Guys (2012)

 

   After 28 years, Val (Al Pacino) gets out of prison, and his friend and long-time accomplice, Doc (Christopher Walken) picks him up. Their former boss has given Doc one last job: kill Val because his son died in the murder-robbery which sent Val to prison.  Val figures it out and tells Doc he won't run.  Doc bargains with the boss to give Val one last night to party.  Beyond a decently written night of deft exposition and character development, the movie provides an opportunity to marvel at Pacino and Walken and later their former getaway driver, Alan Arkin playing off each other.  Although I could quibble with the way the ending is shot, the scene just before with Addison Timlin (keep your eyes on her in the future) raises the movie from novel to memorable.

 

 

The Guard (2011)

 

   Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) is a small-town, corruption-savvy, police officer with his own way of doing things.  Despite a subversive sense of humor, a dying mother, and a fondness for prostitutes, he has his own unwavering sense of justice which baffles colleagues and criminals alike.  An FBI agent (Don Cheadle) running down a drug operation is forced to work with him in all local matters.  The results are not exactly what either of them expect.  The wonderfully talented supporting cast features Mark Strong, Liam Cunningham, and Fionnula Flanagan.

 

 

A Perfect Getaway (2009)

 

   The less said about this film before you see it, the better.  It's one of those movies which can only be truly appreciated working back from the ending.  For their honeymoon, newlyweds Cliff (Steve Zahn) and Cydney (Milla Jovovich) head to the tropical islands of Hawaii.  They encounter two other couples, one set sullen and secretive, the other set wild and overly helpful.  When rumors and later further information about a grisly murder surface, suspicions fester and allegations fly. Keile Sanchez is very good as Timothy Olyphant's traveling companion.  Chris Hemsworth is also good as Marley Shelton's surly sidekick.

 

Books:

  

James Lee Burke

As stated in a previous recommendation below, since Jolie Blon's Bounce every new Dave Robicheaux novel has been better than the last.  In fact, The Glass Rainbow was so good, it would have been a perfect ending to the series with Dave and Clete holding each other, their lives ebbing away as they bleed out, but with the certain knowledge that the Bobbsey Twins from homicide are forever.

But along comes Creole Belle, with some of the best writing in any book I've read in a long while.  James Lee Burke may well be the best artisan of the American language writing today.  (A special treat is listening to the audio book read by Will Patton whose delivery is pitch perfect for Burke's prose.)

Though it may be true that the plots of these recent books are more moving and hard-hitting for faithful readers of the series, the quality of the writing is more than enough to captivate and convert a new reader to the series.

CD:

Jason Myles Goss

When not touring, Jason resides in Brooklyn, NY, where he spends his time eating sandwiches and taking his dog, Bodie, to the park.

 

Enough said, buy this CD.  It is great.  It will be at or near the top of my best of 2012.

 

CD:

MP3 Download Album:

Same Old Brand New Me
by John Eddie | Format: MP3 Download

I love how these "download only" albums have cover art which makes it look like an actual CD exists for sale somewhere.

I can't really complain.  There's 18 tunes here for download at a click for less than a normal ten or twelve song CD.

And I am not exaggerating when I say that 14 or 15 of them are so well-written and well-made that they went directly into the rotation on my tiny, magic, musical device which shuffles hundreds of songs into my ears even though no tape travels over magnetic heads, no needle scratches along between vinyl ridges.

It had been too long since John Eddie had come out with a new recording, but portents and promises had been hovering about for years that he was working on something.  But he plays so many shows and travels so often, it seemed impossible.  Then there was the sudden tragic death of his long-time drummer.  Maybe there would never be another recording.

Then there it was.  And it was and is absolutely worth the wait.  There isn't really a clinker or a filler song on the entire package.  I am usually a fan of the "tongue-in-cheek" clever songs, but those couple, "Real Big Deck" and "Don't Stop Me," though most likely incredibly entertaining in his always great live show, do not hold up in comparison for me as the rest of this superlative collection.

Like an old-fashioned double album only without the songs you used to skip!

 

CD:

It's Not as Bad as It Looks

by Jon Dee Graham & The Fighting Cocks

 

 

This CD rocks, rolls, cries, moans, sobs, quakes.  The only thing it doesn't do is suck.  There isn't a false or disingenuous note, lyric, or intent on the entire disc.  Graham can ring more music out of one string than most performers can get out of all six.  Backed by the Fighting Cocks, a loose-knit group of musicians (Andrew Duplantis, Joey Shuffield, and Mike Hardwick to name the core) who have played with Graham seemingly forever, he weaves a colorful fabric tinged with blues, roots, pop, country and swamp rock, all with a wink, a smile, and a practiced casual delivery.  His voice is a melodic growl which hovers inside and around the licks as if trying to escape, but it carries the depth of significance in songs like, "God's Gonna Give You What You Need:" He don't particularly care what you want/God's Gonna Give You What You Need.

 

"I Said":

I said, I love you, and I meant no matter what/I said, I love you, but it looks like you forgot/I said, I love you, and I wonder what you thought/Said, I love you, whether you love me or not.

 

"Gilead":

Mind the path, it's so easy to get lost/There will be stony hills to climb, swift rivers to be crossed/Going down to Gilead/Ah, Gilead, yeah Gilead/They tell me there are miracles to be had in Gilead.

 

Sort of summing Graham's resigned view is "My Lucky Day":

This might possibly, actually be -- quit laughing -- This might finally, conceivably, be -- it could happen --This might really, actually be my lucky day.

 

But he keeps doing what he's doing in "I Will Be Happy Again":

Straight as the Road to Dallas, slow as the Rio Grande/Just as long as a Latin mass, and harder to understand/I am not happy now, and no, I don't know when/I will be happy again.

My advice for what ails you: Get this man's music.  Keep playing it.  Play it on a loop.  It's a circle, and it never gets old.  It could be your lucky Day.

 

Book:

Best Book I've Read in a long Time:

 

The Water Seeker by Kimberly Willis Holt
 

It's a saga of a boy's struggle to connect with his scattered family and to understand the inexplicable gift he's inherited all while moving west in search of his own destiny.

Kimberly Willis Holt masterfully mixes the historical with the mystical and the tragic with the triumph to drive the plot and touch the emotions.  In my mind, close to a perfect blend of structure, delivery and fulfillment.

 

 

Another historical novel which I enjoyed (but many did not) is Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons.

Not as moving or as provocative, it is every bit as epic and enlightening. I would recommend it to those who might come to it without the lofty expectations of his matching his earlier Cold Mountain.

 

CD:

I asked for it.  A new Mike Stinson CD. The Jukebox in Your Heart: , and I can't recommend it highly enough.

I wouldn't have thought it possible, but he's equalled and probably surpassed the songs on .

He claims these songs are not your father's Country and Western music.  Instead, these are your grandfather's C&W songs.  As the CD's title references a jukebox, it might be easy to go along with him, but even though these songs share the general form of that era, it's more than apparent Stinson's lyrics and sensibilities do much to advance the evolution of the genre.

He is fast becoming one of my all-time favorite songwriters, combining the inspired wordplay of "quit while I'm behind" with the seemingly effortless depth of lines like "six pack of lonely" and "I aint old, but I'm outa date."  Even the witty titles fail to hide an earnestness which comes through in the instrumental arrangements and the adroit efficiency of the songs.  Fans and reviewers often comment on his "sad" songs and his "funny" songs, but I can't tell them apart.  His ability to mix the two without being campy lends emotional interest and impact to the already appealing tunes.

“They say it‘s like the Replacements playin’ country music,” says Stinson. “It‘s not really on purpose. I’m tryin' to do justice to an old style of music. We’re just playin‘ the best we know how, which is kinda rock & roll.”

Stinson began as a rock and roll drummer (packing drums don't hold the allure but when you're 14 you don't think that far/that's why I hate to be the last fool at the bar) doing three years with a Grateful Dead tribute act.  In 1991, he moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles where he found gigs and studio work with Vic Chesnutt, Liz Phair, Christina Aguilera and many others.  After never getting a call from Bob Dylan or Neil Young, he decided to follow his heart and write his own songs.  He picked up the guitar and learned all Gram Parsons' songs.

He found he had a passion for songs which, as he describes them, "get in, say what you want, and get out." Some have described his compositions as "bullet proof."

May the jukebox in your heart play a song of mine tonight and wherever you may be I'll be there, too/May the records spin you back in time when I was yours and you were mine and love was tailor made for me and you.

Soon, he had a loyal following from regular gigs at places like the Redwood Bar & Grill in downtown L.A., the Cinema Bar in Culver City, and the Grand Ole Echo at the Echo in Echo Park.  Los Angeles Magazine named him “Best Country-Western Artist in L.A.”

Stinson says, “People ask me, 'Why do you have to be so sad?' The type of song that moves me the most is that type of song."

I've got no one to drink with anymore/they all have other things they're living for/so each night I walk myself to the corner liquor store/'cuz I got no one to drink with anymore.

Sad and funny don't describe all of Stinson's songs.  Many are just downright stunning like "Counting My Lucky Stars" which was covered by Larry Bagby for a scene on the TV series, "Cold Case."

Like a pebble at her window/she knows I'm back for more/in through the sliding door/then a rustle at her curtain I rush to meet her now/we've found each other somehow/counting my lucky stars tonight/lying in loving arms and it feels all right/counting my lucky stars I hear the beat of another heart/lying in loving arms tonight.

In 2009, he moved to Houston, Texas because it was time.  "All I ever wanted was the ability to stand on my own two feet," he explains.

Square with the world that's how I want to live/only take what I need and give what I can give/find some kind of a way to pay what I owe/Square with the world that's how I want to go/I've had my dreams and I bet you have to/I've had some chances to make them come true/I've slipped and fallen more than I want to say/I guess what I mean is no one owes me today.

Now, if he could only see his way clear to stand on them for a couple hours of playing his songs somewhere a bit farther north of Texas.  Oh well, I got the new CD!  You all should get it, too.

 

Book:

The Missing by Tim Gautreaux

I didn't have inflated expectations for this book.  I didn't expect to get past the first few pages, maybe a chapter or two.  The subject matter, something about an abducted little girl, one man's quest to find her, and some hints of mysticism or some such, seemed to be just enough to get me to open the cover.  What an increasing enjoyment to find the farther I got into the book, the more impressed I became.  Early on, there was no doubt that I would finish it.  My only concern was whether it would end as well as it had begun and sustained itself.  I needn't have worried.  The ending is as fitting and as satisfying as all which led up to it.

Beyond agreeing that the story is compelling and the writing exemplary, Critics and reviewers have had difficulty pigeonholing the book.  Some have called a "history," others an "adventure."  Still others labeled the book a "southern" or "gothic" novel.  And as I write this I have just discovered it has been nominated for an Edgar Award as best novel of the year by the Mystery Writers of America.

Tim Gautreaux is the author of two previous novels and two collections of stories.  His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, GQ, Harper’s Magazine, and Zoetrope, as well as in volumes of the O. Henry and the Best American Short Story annuals. After 30 years of teaching fulltime, he is now a professor emeritus in the creative writing program at Southeastern Louisiana University.  In interviews, he expresses a desire to be known simply as a good storyteller rather than a Bayou Conrad or a new voice of the south.  Like his novel, The Missing, his skills as a writer do not fall neatly under a single label.

 

CD:

 

Sam Baker

I know I'm showing up late to hop on the Sam Baker bandwagon, but I'm jumping on with both feet hard and heavy.  It was total ignorance which kept me away.  There was no foot dragging.  How did I not know about this guy until two albums were out?  After hearing three songs, I ordered both disks as fast as I could tap out the credit card number.  If you read the online reviews, (which I did only after I'd put in my order) you'll find how common that reaction is among those who sample Baker's work.  The impact is immediate and unequivocal.

Baker ascribes much of his abilities to circumstances out of his control.  In a story too long for the telling here, he survived a bomb explosion on a train in Peru back in 1986.  He readily admits that he would never have become a singer-songwriter were it not for his need to recover from his injuries to his body, his brain, and his psyche.  His gnarled left-hand can grip a pick, but not depress strings at the end of a standard guitar so he re-learned to play the guitar left-handed.  The brain damage he suffered affected the part of his brain where words are stored.  As for writing words he says, “I have to find them; they don’t just come. I have to go out and pick them."  For that reason, he takes great care in finding just the right word.  He claims to love sentences.

He jokes about his lack of range but he hits the notes as if his voice is percussion rather than melody.  His songs are like tiny novels.  They convey an entire story and an emotional arc in a wildly concise way.  Precise words creating moving images, conflicts, resolutions, or the lack thereof, and deep impressions.  He breaks your heart in an instant, and within a few lines puts it back to together and fills it again in a way that is neither maudlin nor manipulative, but leaves an indelible mark.  You will come back for more.

His goal in making the first album, "Mercy" was to see how close he could come to making “one good piece of art” the way he envisioned it in his mind.  (He is lavish in his praise for his producers Walt Wilkins and Tim Lorsch who also contribute to the tracks of both of his albums.)  Making "Pretty World" was to see if he could do it again or maybe get even closer.  Both of these fine works were close enough for me.  Here's to hoping he keeps trying.

 

Book:

Tim Maleeny

"Cape...kind of a name is that?"

"One that's easy to spell."

By the second or third book, the strain of churning out a detective series is already beginning to show on the author and the lead character. Then there are series where the author gets better with each subsequent installment, the character becoming more real, more appealing, more fully-developed.  With Greasing the Pińata, Tim Maleeny has shepherded his Cape Weathers series solidly into the latter territory.  His plotting is crisper, more assured.  The humor is sharp and striking.  Even in just two books, Maleeny has attained a reputation for his sense of humor, but these are not comedies.  The humor grows from character and feels intrinsic to the situations.  It is often of the gallows variety meant to accentuate the drama rather than assuage it.

Maleeny has been quoted as saying, "I think of these books as a series of standalone novels which happen to share some recurring characters. You can jump in with any book."  This is selling short his accomplishment.  Although a reader might follow the story without any obvious confusion, so much would be lost in the experience without the intimate knowledge of the characters provided by the previous books.  I highly recommend you read them in order. (See my recommendations below.  It has been suggested that each of his titles so far is a possible euphemism for male masturbation.)

 

CD:

Mission Door by Peter Cooper

It’s all pre-destination
I figure what it means
Is that we do the things we do
‘Cause God wills us to do these things 
So I’m sittin’ in Sheboygan drunk again

If you're from Wisconsin and you know Sheboygan like I do, you can't resist a song which so thoroughly explains away pre-destination by determining that:

He decides our mortal fate

Scholar, star or fool

He meant for me right now to be

Right here on this barstool

(Because his myspace lists references to Sheboygan Elks Lodge 299, given his background in the D.C. area and Tennessee I figured there was a Sheboygan Elks Lodge somewhere in those parts.  I'm such a fool. There's only one Sheboygan.  Just ask the Ojibwa.  According to an interview with Eric Brace on his e-show, "The Other Side," Cooper elucidates on how he travelled to Wisconsin and became an honorary cheesehead and a dues-paying member of the Sheboygan lodge.  As he puts it, "I found an entire culture devoted to beer, bratwurst, and talking about football, and, for the first time in my life, I felt really accepted.")

The truth is I liked every single song on this CD before I let myself succumb to (Sittin’ in) Sheboygan (drunk again).  There are no weak songs on this disk.  The only songs I like less are the Eric Taylor covers, "Mission Door" and "All the Way to Heaven."  This is more likely a product of my being a bigger fan of Cooper than I am of Taylor which would not be of little concern to either.

This is one time when I am at a loss to pick out my favorite Cooper songs because they are ALL of extremely high quality.  I have written and deleted five or six attempts to like some over the others, and I am at a loss.

Just get the CD, or download the MP3s at Cooper's site: http://www.petercoopermusic.com.  Another cool thing is that Mr. Cooper is a supporter of http://hungryformusic.org.

Cooper is a music journalist and critic for the Nashville Tennessean and other publications.  He credits Todd Snider with being a catalyst for getting his music career moving forward.  The fact that steel guitar legend Lloyd Green, Jen Gunderman and Eric Brace of Last Train Home, and Fayssoux MacLean of EmmyLou Harris harmony vocals all pitched in to help get Cooper's songs on record is another endorsement of his potential.

CD:

Trouble in Mind

by Hayes Carll

This is one of the best "top to bottom" efforts I've heard in a long time.  I've been a lukewarm Carll fan for awhile.  Always kept him on my "watch and listen" list.  That list pays off for me.  It could be these songs are all pitched right into my own personal wheelhouse, and that's why I think they all make solid contact, but I can't see where I'm wrong with lyrics like these tiny examples:

Drunken Poet's Dream (w/ Ray Wylie Hubbard): There's some money on the table and a pistol on the floor/Some old paperback books of Louis L'Amour/She says, "Honey, don't worry 'bout judgement day/all these people goin' to Heaven they're just in our way."

She Left Me for Jesus: She Left Me for Jesus/And that just aint fair/She says that he's perfect/ How could I compare.

Knockin' Over Whiskeys: If I get back home to Houston, I'm gonna tip my hat and cry/When I left I was a younger man, too proud to say goodbye/I'm gonna wake up in the mornin' with a conscience ten feet tall/I'm gonna lay my head down wiser or I won't lay down at all.

Willing to Love Again (w/ Darrell Scott): Out of all the dreams in this old world/How'd you get so unlucky girl?/To find a shell that had no pearl/And a man who couldn't find home.

... and a voice somewhere between Jack Ingram and Wayne Hancock with a little Steve Earle thrown in for that ragged "too many nights singing above the din" sound.

I'd be re-miss if I didn't also comment on how much time I spent flipping through the liner pamphlet looking for the musicians laying down the near-perfect licks behind the lyrics.  Will Kimbrough (not surprising) and Brad Jones (who also produced, mixed, and engineered) are standouts.

One last thing, I also recommend checking out Carll's entertaining website: http://www.hayescarll.com which includes an animated video showing his "trial by fire" start in the business.

From the site: While he dutifully headed off to college, he spent more time strumming and singing. "I sort of sabotaged my career options to the point where, by the time I was out of school, I was pretty much unemployable and had no choice but to be a musician."

From American Songwriter Magazine interview: American Idol really isn’t my kind of thing. Writing Hayes Carll songs...there’s no one else doing that. I think I take a common experience and maybe put something a little different on it, ‘cause I am all over the place."

CD:

  

To me, Markus Rill sounds authentic.  I have no idea exactly what I mean by that, but it feels like the right word.  Nothing that comes out of this guy sounds false.  Incongruous then that he's from Germany.  Go figure.  I'm always fooled, but it's still the way he sounds to me.  He could be from the moon or thirty miles east of Sheboygan, he would still sound to me like an authentic singer of authentic songs.  The songs themselves are exquisite, not a false note or word, but it is definitely the singer who sells them.

I could name off a bunch of the songs which are my favorites today, "The Things That Count"  and "Straighter Road," for instance, but by next week, I'll have a couple different faves like "Just so You Know" or "Out of the Cold."  So, just keep listening.

Plus, how could you not like a guy whose band is named The Gunslingers?

Book:

  

It has been awhile since I've had as much fun reading a new author as I've had zipping through these two first books in the Cape Weathers series by Tim Maleeny.  Weathers is a genuine character who not surprisingly has to explain his first name on a regular basis.  As yet, through two books, I can't recall that he's repeated the same explanation.  He's sort of Fletch crossed with Spenser only his sidekick is a much more fascinating Asian female renegade trained since childhood in the martial and mystic arts.  It is her story which is intertwined in the first book, Stealing the Dragon.

The books are set in San Francisco, but perhaps because of the setting, are quite international in scope and character.  Beating the Babushka is more about the movie business than Russians, but the mafiya does figure prominently along with various other underworld organizations of Italian and Asian origin.

Because Weathers doesn't take himself too seriously, the books are sometimes mistakenly described as whimsical.  Maleeny is actually quite good at involving the reader in the characters' emotions and desires.  The plots are inventive and well-executed.  Getting the reader to laugh and get choked up in the same book is no small feat.

Maleeny, according to his website, graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in Computer Science, but then attended Columbia Business School in a vain attempt to figure out what he wanted to do when he grew up. Deciding it might be better to forestall growing up altogether, he pursued a career in advertising.

But after years of claustrophobic conference rooms and endless meetings, Tim began to daydream of murder and mayhem. Rather than act out his impulses, he figured it would be more socially acceptable to write them down. His clients and colleagues greatly appreciated his restraint and have been incredibly supportive of his writing ever since. He was a resident of Manhattan for a number of years but has traveled all over the world.  Today he lives in San Francisco with his beautiful wife and two lovely daughters.

CD:

Between the Daylight and the Dark by Mary Gauthier (say Go-shay, ya'all).  Although her voice isn't always as sweet as her lyrics and her presentation, her songs have been too good to ignore.  Her previous Cds had their gems, "Old Love Never Dies" and "You're All I wanna Do" from Dixie Kitchen.  "Prayer Without Words" and "Fallin' Out of Love" from Mercy Now.  "Long Way to Fall" and "The Sun Fades the Color" from Filth and Fire which also has my favorite Gauthier song, "Christmas in Paradise," but this new CD is solid from the first song to the last, both musically and lyrically.  Pick this one up and work your way back through her catalogue.

Book:

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This is one spooky, spiritual, sexy, supernatural story.  You should probably read Bangkok 8 and Bangkok Tattoo (see Featured Authors), but it is not necessary to enjoy this awesome book.

 

CD:

Tom Catmull and the Clerics

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Listen to this one over and over.  At first, Catmull's voice seems a bit thin, but the songs are absolute gold.  I liked it enough to buy it from the samples, but I never expected to like it this much.  It is one of those CDs where one or two songs shine, and you play those until they become a part of you, but then you throw the CD on a few weeks later, and a different two or three songs grab hold of you.  That is a great job.  I wish they had more CDs done, but Catmull's early solo work is mostly out of print.  Can't wait for the next one.

 

Book:

 James Lee Burke's Pegasus Descending and especially the audio book read by Will Patton.

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I don't believe there is an author currently writing who creates better prose than Mr. Burke.  It also helps his cause immensely that he is deals in relevant subject matter, finely honed characters, and precise plotting.  Ever since Jolie Blon's Bounce, I believe each book in the Dave Robicheaux series has been better than the previous one, and none of the previous were anything but excellent.

 

CD:

Chris Smither has a new CD, Leave the Light On.

  It is a solid effort, as good as his last two records, perhaps even better.  For long-time fans, the songs and sounds fit like your favorite pair of shoes or the cap you wear to hang out with friends.

Get it!  Play the heck out of it.  Enough said.

Book:

The Death Collectors by Jack Kerley

Another fantastic Carson Ryder -- Harry Nautilus novel.  (See The Hundredth Man below)

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Jack Kerley captivates and scares the bejesus out of me.  This one deals with a legendary artist/cult leader who is shot to death during his sentencing for murder by one of his followers.  Decades later, his artworks, the stuff of speculation and legend, begin to appear near a string of homicides.

CD:

Captain/Barricades & Brickwalls by Kasey Chambers

This double CD set is such a bargain I had to recommend it.  These are two fantastic CDs from an up and coming performer in the growing genre which I would refer to as "punk country" for lack of a better term.

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This is such an excellent bargain I couldn't help but recommend it.  Chambers is awesome and can only be expected to get better.  I am beyond just impressed with her songwriting ability and most times, her performances of those songs.  Without hesitation, I can guarantee this dual CD set is the bargain of the infant century.  Get it.  Listen more than once.  You'll listen again and again when you find yourself singing "Cry Like a Baby" or "If I Were You" around the house while you are doing the chores, then asking yourself, "what is that?"  You'll put one of these disks in the player and you'll find out, you made a great purchase!!!!!

Book:

FADE TO BLONDE by Max Phillips

--This winner of the Shamus Award for paperback original has been described as "Chandleresque" which is what it brings to mind at first reading, but it very soon transcends that.  Not to blaspheme, but the prose, plot, and perspective of this novel is what Chandler might have aspired to if such latitude had been available in his time.  The character of Ray Corson has evolved an entire generation from Marlowe.  The other characters as well seem to have a bit more awareness.  I found the ending a slight letdown, but my opinion may have been influenced by my desire not to see the novel end.

My favorite thing about this book is being able to open it to any page, and within a paragraph or two, be blown away by the writing.

The book is available from Hard Case Crime whose story is intimately connected to Phillips.  Bringing back this time-honored style of writing is the brainchild of two friends, Charles Ardai and Max Phillips. Ardai made a small fortune in the mid-1990s with the creation of Juno, a free e-mail service, which he later sold. Phillips was Juno's art director. But Ardai and Phillips admired the genre made memorable by Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald and Mickey Spillane.  "We wanted new books to read that offered the same sort of pleasures as the old ones – and we wanted the chance to write books like that ourselves," Ardai explained.

They started an imprint, Hard Case Crime, working with publishing house Dorchester. In the next 11 months, they publish a dozen paperbacks, mixing new and old. Phillips wrote Fade to Blonde (out now); Ardai wrote Little Girl Lost under the pen name Richard Aleas.

 

CD:

John Prine: Fair & Square

It is a warm, comforting thing to have a new John Prine CD in my player.  After playing the hills and valleys off this disk over the past few weeks, I think I can safely say this is not the man's best collection of songs, but there are so many good songs on this disk as to make even the hardest grader give this CD a high mark.  From the beaming joy of "Glory Of True Love" to the bounce of "Long Monday" to the patented sardonic Prine wit of "Some Humans Ain't Human," there is enough classic Prine to satisfy and rekindle any true fan's J.P. addiction.  In fact, the addition of the live added track, "Other Side of Town" makes this CD worth any price.  Prine's has come through a lot in the decade or so between this and his last solo studio release.  The voice is a little thinner and deeper from operations on his throat.  Age has taken his toll on his volume, but ultimately this CD stands on it's own and also presents hope for future Prine releases.

 

Book:

The Hundredth Man by Jack Kerley

What a fine first novel!  Kerley has created a truly unique protaganist with a twisted full-blown backstory and an ominous villain who remains hidden in plain view until the very last moment.

Actually, I was hooked when in the first chapter, the partner of the main character, Detective Carson Ryder, is telling the world's greatest joke which illuminates both the title and the main character:

“The dog walker asks the man if he’s lost something. Man says, ‘Yeah, my contact lens popped out.’ So the dog walker ties Fido to a phone pole and gets down on his hands and knees to help. They search up and down, back and forth, beneath that light. Fifteen minutes later the dog walker says, ‘Buddy, I can’t find it anywhere. Are you sure it popped out here?’ The man says, ‘No, I lost it over in the park.’ ‘The park?’ the dog walker yells. ‘Then why the hell are we looking in the street?’”

Harry gave it a two-beat build.

“The man points to the streetlamp and says, ‘The light’s better here.’”

Harry laughed, a musical warble at odds with a black man built like an industrial boiler. His audience tittered politely. An attractive redhead in a navy pantsuit frowned and said, “I don’t get it. Why’s that the world’s greatest joke?”

“It has mythical content,” Harry replied, the right half of his mustache twitching with interest, the left drooping in disdain. “Given the choice of groping after something in the dark, or hoping to find it easily in the light, people pick the light ninety-nine times out of a hundred.”

Peterson lofted a prosecutorial eyebrow. “So who’s the hundredth guy, the one always groping in the dark?”

Harry grinned and pointed my way. “Him,” he said.

 

CD:

The return of the Subdudes...every time I open a CD player in my home there's a subdudes' CD in it.  I like the new one, Miracle Mule, but I have to admit my favorite is still Primitive StreakIn whatever incarnation (three of the original dudes remain), this broadly talented band's music has always been difficult to characterize running the gamut from country to blues to gospel with a dollop of Zydeco from their long-time home base (with a detour to the Fort Collins, Colorado area) of New Orleans.  You gotta hear 'em to understand.  So DO IT!

What I am always most impressed with is the passion in their music and the delivery of their lyrics.  Most of their songs give songwriting credit to a list of band members.

 

Other Books I've Raved About Before:

White Apples by Jonathan Carroll

Vincent Ettrich has died and come back to life, but he has no idea why.  Gradually, he discovers he was brought back by his true love, Isabelle, because she is pregnant with their child—a child who, if raised correctly, will play a crucial role in saving the universe.  But to be brought up right, the child must learn what Vincent learned on the other side—if only Vincent can remember it.

What a marvelous book!  Although I don't think I quite understand all of it or even most of it.  I know I thoroughly enjoyed it.  A wild, provocative ride. (I also enjoyed Carroll's Kissing the Beehive)

Heart Seizure by Bill Fitzhugh -- as with all Fitzhugh novels, this one has one of the best set-ups of all time.  His books always have a difficult time living up to the openings, but this one comes close.  (Organ Grinders and Pest Control are still my Fitzhugh favorites.)

 

Other CDs I've Raved About:

I can't recommend highly enough Slaid Cleaves' new CD, wishbones.  If you don't know this fantastic artist, Slaid Cleaves, then run, do not walk to your nearest CD store and purchase any of his CDs, but look especially for wishbones which may be as close to perfect a CD as I have heard in many moons.  All good songwriters don't have to come from Texas, but perhaps they have to live there.  Cleaves is a transplanted New Englander and perhaps it is this alternate perspective which puts him a rung above.  His previous CD, Broke Down is damn near as good and also should come highly recommended from this source.  He is only getting better, but you also can't go too far wrong by picking up either of his other two CDs, No Angel Knows and Life's Other Side.

A Bigger Piece of Sky, Robert Earl Keen

I saw Robert Earl Keen live recently at the Barrymore in Madison, Wisconsin.  He played about half of this CD which reminded again why it is one of my all-time favorites.  It is a decade old now, but there is still not a bad or even mediocre song on the entire CD.  An awesome piece of work.  Mr. Keen was also an awesome gentleman who signed my copy after the show even while two annoying local pseudo-musicians yammered at him.

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