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Anathallo,
with Shapiro
and Page France
Starr Hill Music Hall
Thursday, November 30

Performing like a well-oiled machine, Anathallo disappointed.

   

music When a band introduces its second song of the evening as “a song for the heavy-hearted”—as Anathallo did Wednesday night at Starr Hill—you have a pretty quick idea of what you’re in for. While most of the crowd was rapt by Anathallo’s meticulously crafted arrangements and carefully constructed pop melodies, one astute audience member—one of very few, I suspect, who was over 21—noted the difference between “making” music and “playing” music. In her words, Anathallo’s “groaning effort at ‘making’ music” was not half as satisfying—well-wrought and painstakingly produced as the tunes might have been—as either of the two, less polished, but far more compelling, opening acts (Shapiro of Harrisonburg and Page France of Baltimore). Indeed, the seven members of Anathallo often lined up onstage like a musical assembly line, and however skilled or coordinated their manufacture might have been, the product was not worth the assemblage.

At the other end of the spectrum was Shapiro, a tremendously talented four-piece piano-rock outfit from Harrisonburg whose sharp songwriting and refreshingly energetic stage show was reminiscent of the theatrical rock of the late ’70s qua Queen and David Bowie and even rock musicals such as Little Shop of Horrors. Shapiro, not unlike Anathallo, added to their well-crafted pop songs intelligent orchestral arrangements, drum loops, and Wilco-like sound effects, but their tasteful use of these tools combined with an unself-conscious zeal allowed them to relate with their audience in a way that Anathallo’s fans seemed only to pretend to enjoy.

Nearing the end of their set, Shapiro singer and pianist Jeremy Teter tossed his tambourine into the audience. This crowd-thrilling moment appeared unrehearsed and utterly of the moment. Whether it was or not, Teter had fun doing it anyway. In fact, the Shapiro boys seemed to have fun with every aspect of their show.

If there is something to be learned from four energetic young musicians “playing” music, rather than “making” it, then let’s hope, at the very least, that a few of the Anathallo folks took a moment out of their evening to watch Shapiro’s inspired set.—W. Andrew Ewell

Peaches
Satellite Ballroom
Monday, November 27

music Peaches, the self-described “Queen of Electrocrap,” sings exclusively about sex, and Monday night, November 27, at the Satellite Ballroom she invoked every possible euphemism and innuendo and then some, in her effort to celebrate the act of coitus. A larger than usual crowd, teeming and expectant, was on hand to cheer her on. As Petula Clark’s “Downtown” issued from the sound system, the Berliner by way of Canada walked out onto the stage and led off with her song of the same name, though this one is about oral satisfaction. (Was Petula possibly singing about that?) By the second tune, “Two Guys (For Every Girl),” she was leading the crowd in a naughty sing-along of “Slappin’ those dicks all over the place/Rubbin’ that shit all up in your face.” Her music is often termed “electroclash” to mean a combination of hip-hop, hard rock and electronic dance music, and it was a mix that kept the undulating mass of fans writhing throughout the evening.

Where the traditional show is not unlike a museum experience, Peaches’ resembles a pep rally, and whether strapping a guitar on to perform harder songs like “Boys Wanna Be Her” or pounding on a drum pad with drummer Samantha Maloney on “Back It Up, Boys,” her energy was unflagging. She constantly urged the audience to join in, and even when the show settled into a predictable rhythm, the onlookers barely lagged. They were participants, expending almost as much as the performer. Scantily clad in gold lamé, with heavy rouge on her cheeks, Peaches sartorial inspiration seemed to be part KISS, and part Dr. Frank N. Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

She shed garments throughout the night, and by the encore, her anthem “Fuck the Pain Away,” Peaches was as stripped down as her clothing. In an act of high theater, she had already collapsed onto the ground and departed the stage on a hand gurney (before returning to spew fake blood). The crowd—exhilarated but exhausted—could have also used some assistance.—Jayson Whitehead

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Arms and the Man
UVA Drama Department
Through December 2


Autumn Shiley and Joel Grothe star in UVA’s production of Shaw’s "Anti-Romantic Comedy," which seethes with bitterness behind its jaunty humor.

Stage Watching a play by George Bernard Shaw is a double pleasure. On the surface, he dabbles in formula, producing effects that are heavenly for being familiar and safe, while underneath all hell breaks loose. The supposed ideals by which a society operates are cracked open and dissected, and out of a commanding insight a new world seems to spawn—not from the perspective of his faulty characters, but from the rarefied viewpoint of the audience.

Shaw subtitled Arms and the Man, first produced in London in 1894, an “Anti-Romantic Comedy,” and indeed its jaunty humor, when looked at closely, seethes with bitterness. Set in Bulgaria in 1885 during a war between Bulgarians and Serbs, the play opens with a young lady, Raina Petkoff (Autumn Shiley), tucked away in her bedroom, elated over the Bulgarian victory and dizzily envisioning the heroics of her fiancé, Sergius (Joshua Rachford). At which point Captain Bluntschli (Joel Grothe), a Swiss professional soldier fighting for the Serbs, enters the bedroom, leading to an eventual love triangle and a happy resolve. Along the way, empty heroic action and hollow patriotism hand in hand with flighty romance don’t stand a chance against Shaw’s acid mind.

Multileveled plays are the right stuff for university drama departments to produce. What’s the point if there’s no challenge? While this production is directed by visiting UVA Professor Edward Morgan and features a performance by the drama department’s Head of Acting Richard Warner, the eight-member principal cast includes five people gunning for their MFA in acting. All five do a more than credible job. As is perhaps inevitable, however, the audience may feel they’re taking part in a learning experience. The performances often project only one facet of Shaw’s vision—“Romantic Comedy” purged of the “Anti-“ or vice versa. There are moments when the outright comedy is too blatant, or when the social commentary is too faint. Some of the responsibility goes to the director, whose touch, in such situations, must be magical.

All this doesn’t mean that the production isn’t worth seeing. There’s a great deal of budding talent on display. As always with the drama department, the set design (this time by Shawn Paul Evans) is on a level of generousness and sumptuousness that one can find nowhere else in Charlottesville. And, of course, there are the shatterproof treasures of Shaw, whose exposure of human idiocy and shallowness still has the power to sting.—Doug Nordfors
   
Bonfires of São João
Forro in the Dark
Nublu

cd A nimble bass line alternates between two notes, sounding vaguely like a polka; a high-pitched pifano—that’s Portuguese for “fife,” the flute-like wind instrument—darts left and right, mimicking the movement of feet; a lightly distorted guitar plays an evocative high-plains chord progression out of a Sergio Leone western. The tune is “Índios Do Norte,” the band is the Brazil-by-way-of-New-York outfit Forro in the Dark, and the style of music is forró.

Forró is indigenous to Brazil’s northeastern coastal region. The traditional instrumentation of the form, as set down by Luis Gonzaga, the man who popularized forró in the 1940s and ’50s, consists of bass drum, triangle, and accordion. Imagine this lineup playing peppy rhythms accented on the 1 and 3, and you can understand why forró is sometimes called the zydeco of Brazil. It is above all social music, meant to get people on to the dance floor.
But Forro in the Dark are not traditionalists. For the past several years they’ve played regularly at Nublu, the Manhattan club that serves as a petri dish for all manner of global fusion. Accordingly, they play a version of forró that combines inherent danceable tendencies with an arty New York twist. Eschewing accordion, they add guitar and bass, fold in horns, and add layers of additional percussion. Here on their second album, Bonfires of São João, David Byrne contributes vocals to two tracks, Miho Hatori, formally of Cibo Matto, sings on another.

But despite the presence of artists from other realms and the non-trad instrumentation, Bonfires of São João doesn’t sound watered-down. The pifano, which serves at the melodic lead on most tracks, ensures a rootsy vibe, its pure, piercing tone reinforcing the music’s clarity and directness. A slinky, loping reggae beat shows up on “Limoeiro do Norte”; “Oile le La,” dominated by a gritty sax out from, is slow, deliberate and sensual; but it’s blazing, body-moving tracks like “Que Que tu Fez” and “Lampião do Céu” that define this record.

Byrne sings “Asa Branca,” Gonzaga’s most famous composition and a national standard in Brazil. He translates the lyrics to English, telling the woeful tale of a farming boy forced by poverty to move to the big city. His instantly recognizable diction now sounds natural in such a setting, since the music of Brazil has become the template for his solo work. In another multicultural twist, Miho Hatori ably translates the light and bubbly Gonzaga composition “Paraíba” into Japanese, leaving it to Bebel Gilberto and various Forro in the Dark shouters to realize the music in its language of origin.

That languages from three continents appear is important. Bonfires of São João is in a sense a harbinger of the age of globalism, picking a very specific regional folk art, mixing and matching it with styles, languages and forms from elsewhere, and exporting the whole thing to a club many thousand miles away and then to your home CD player. But the album as a whole is so distinctive—not to mention relentlessly fun—such cross-pollination is nothing to fear, and not a sign of compromise. This is the musical melting pot done right, without concession to prevailing taste.—Mark Richardson

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Cursive,
with Jeremy Enigk,
and The Cops
Satellite Ballroom
November 16

music The four fellows in Cursive don’t perform concerts so much as they perform conceits: Bandleader Tim Kasher’s lyrics for “Big Bang” and “Butcher the Song” tell narratives, sure, but they also deliver a huge damned racket. In a live setting, the racket becomes an important reference point for the lyrics—“Big Bang” is both a critique of creationism and epic noise. So, as if two opening bands aren’t enough rattle and hum, Cursive brought a three-piece horn section and a cellist on tour with them—eight clever bulls in a china shop.

Opening act The Cops seamlessly cranked out full-bodied pop-rock for 40 minutes, rarely stopping between songs, but often halting in the middle at the snap of a snare. Though songs may have exceeded six minutes in length, they were delivered in roaring, attention-deficient bursts, over tastefully employed dance-rock cymbals.

The Cops gave way to Jeremy Enigk, a singer-songwriter who proves that nothing says “free publicity” like being a recluse. The songwriter is notoriously private, yet remains an icon to many in the emo music scene for his role in Sunny Day Real Estate, a band that separated when Enigk found religion and two other members found the Foo Fighters.

A dignified Enigk delivered stripped versions of the orchestral pop of World Waits, his first new record in 10 years. New tracks featured Enigk’s inimitable vocals, pleasantly gruff in tone, over lush melodies. An epic album may be in the man yet, though it may take him another 10 years in musical exile to find it.

Cursive’s latest concept album, Happy Hollow, fails when it sacrifices choruses for extended metaphors. Cut and paste new tracks like “Dorothy at 40” into a weathered live set, however, and the result is a vicious and cohesive concert. Cursive’s touring horn section reinforced jolting bass lines and creaky minor chords in older tunes like “Gentleman Caller,” but also left the four core members to themselves on tracks like “The Martyr,” from 2000’s Domestica.

Try as they might to avoid structure, Cursive knows their strengths. The band capped the night with “Art is Hard” and “Sink to the Beat,” two of their most self-referential tunes, now popping with waves of eruptions thanks to baritone sax and cello flourishes. With luck, Cursive’s future will bring more bombast, but a little more formula—routine and repetition never sounded so ferocious live.—Brendan Fitzgerald

NBA Live 07
Electronic Arts
Xbox 360

NBA 2K7
2K Sports
Xbox 360

games Sports games caught on the cusp of next-gen era are like expansion teams—they arrive with tons of fanfare, everybody rushes out to buy the jerseys and merchandise, and then they flounder for several seasons before finally finding their footing.

So it was for last year’s initial next-gen showdown between EA’s NBA Live series and 2K Sports’ NBA 2K. The latter hit the pine having forgotten, apparently, to put on basketball shorts—the Xbox 360 version of NBA 2K6 was all but indistinguishable from its Xbox counterpoint. NBA Live 06, meanwhile, managed only Charlotte Bobcats-level success.
One year later, the AND1 shoe’s on the other foot. Suddenly, EA looks like the Sacramento Kings—a team that’s stuck tinkering in neutral—and 2K’s the one poised to make a New Orleans Hornets-style leap.

2K7’s deadliest post move is its new look, which finally takes advantage of the power of next-gen graphics to make ballers like Kobe and D-Wade look and shoot like their real-life counterparts. Combining good looks with a smart AI that reacts to your offensive sets, 2K7’s like the Phoenix Suns after they landed Steve Nash. 

As it has with most of its next-gen sports titles, EA has really focused on graphics and presentation with NBA Live 07—from the ways in which the sweat glistens and drips down Shaq’s hulking forehead to the A-plus, tag-team commentary of Steve Kerr and Marv Albert. Unfortunately, all that gorgeous style comes at the expense of the game play. I’m glad to see dynasty and All-Star Weekend modes make their next-gen splash, but I’m not happy to see players jerking from a standing dribble to an explosive dunk as though someone exploded a firecracker in their shorts.

Say what you want about NBA 2K7’s new 24-7 mode, a story-based affair in which you create a street baller and try to break into the league, but at least it’s moving closer to capturing the experience of trying to compete at the game’s highest level. EA’s Madden and NCAA Football series have started down this road already, and it’s time for NBA Live to follow suit. 

And when is NBA Live going to adopt 2K7’s intuitive right-analog shooting mechanic? It shows up when your players step to the charity stripe—for a refreshing change, you can actually make free throws this year—but otherwise, we’re still stuck dribbling in the button-mash era.

As any Cleveland Cavs or Washington Wizards fan can tell you, a year can be the difference between also-ran and playoff force. Take heart, EA. As of now, it’s Advantage: 2K.—Aaron R. Conklin

Dirty Blonde:
The Diaries of
Courtney Love
By Courtney Love
Faber and Faber Inc., 304 pages

words First thing I should say about rock’s petulant publicity mistress, Courtney Love: I got no problem with her. Her newly published journals, Dirty Blonde, chronicle how ardently she has courted public opinion for the past 15 years. I got no problem with that, either. Never have. In some quarters, drawing attention to your product is called good business.


So to the matter at hand, Love’s diaries: They are a lot like her. Expensive yet cello-taped; glossy yet trashy. Picture a Euro fashion magazine made by seventh-graders. Then picture the scrapbook of a ballsy metal head. Or the scrapbook of a punk marketing director.

I’ll tell you one thing: The woman knows how to build a brand.

Too bad the drugs made her so goddamned stupid. Some people said it was her Dior party dresses that robbed her of her cred. Punk tramps don’t wear pastels and dewdrop earrings, they sneered. Leading her band Hole, especially once her masterpiece Live Through This was released (two days after her sniveling husband Kurt Cobain committed shotgun suicide over their garage), Love secured her crown as punk’s tottering, shrieking queen. Going Hollywood, which she did with gusto (part of her product development plan all along, as the journals demonstrate) made her soft and crazy, said these nattering nabobs of gender-based negativity.

Wrong!

It was the drugs. The suck-my-tit-watch-me-bleed, lick-anything-with-powder-on-it, screw-inferiors-like-Julian-Casablancas drugs. She’s off them now, but no doubt the ride ain’t over, sweetheart.

Dirty Blonde takes you through a lot of it, the craggy potholes and the thrilling peaks of Love’s highway to hell. Here’s an excerpt from the summer of 1991: “LOVE U IN A CHEAP TRICK WAY, but not in a Black Sabbath way.” Love’s destination has always been clear: the throbbing, bloody heart of pop culture. It informs every grain of her imagination.

Apparently a doer, she makes obsessive lists of steps to be taken on the way to the top of public awareness. Like a Tourette’s sufferer on steroids, she is fascinating and awful to watch. She scopes others and takes more than one hostage, of course (and yes, we’re talking to you Drew “kissing cousin” Barrymore), but the regular target of her rage and ambition is herself. Scribbling on a publicity still from a movie she made with Island Pictures in 1987, she declares it “testament to my charisma not my face. I’m getting my nose fixed ASAP.” Which, for the record, she did. Twice. The boobs, the lips, the eyes, and the butt it seems got fixed, too.

None of which says anything extraordinary about Love in the Age of Botox. The real reasons we look at her and look again are that she’s a damn fine songwriter and she doesn’t mind singing with glass shards down her throat. Additionally, she has made her naked embrace of fame and its shearing price a kind of real-life continuous performance art project. What could be more po mo? What could be more punk? (Joke’s on you, motherfuckers, she seems to be saying. Gabba gabba hey). Sometimes she looks good in her act; sometimes she looks like another round with the hairbrush couldn’t hurt. But always—even doped to within an inch of her sanity—she embodies the culture’s love/hate tie to fame.

Sure the heavily airbrushed band photos, the glossies of Love posing in Versace menswear for a fall campaign, the ruby-red lipstick smears make this book eye candy for the angry feminist set. But there’s something more meaningful among the pages, too.

Check out this entry from the dark, intoxicated days toward the end of 2003-4: “In a patriarchal society men identify themselves with culture and women w/nature and the body.

“I am a public figure unhappy with my share of the American dream. There can be only one reason for this. I am on drugs and have the morals and mentality of a cartoon character. What did I want after all?? If I wanted certain things, like respect and privacy, I should have put out certain universal female symbols like chastity and ethereal mutedness…”

Well, maybe she should have. Maybe that would have been easier on her family and friends. But, speaking as one in the audience, I’m glad she didn’t. She might be a walking study in demonology, but that’s exactly what some of us dig about her.—Cathy Harding

On Agate Hill
By Lee Smith
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 363 pages

words At first glance, Lee Smith’s new novel, On Agate Hill, has nothing going for it save Smith’s stellar reputation. The front cover is one step away from a Harlequin Historical Romance. All that’s missing is a Fabio-like figure whose 19th century waistcoat barely contains his splendiferous pecs.

The opening pages don’t help matters. Yet another Southern writer serving up yet another Civil-War era tale? Kill me now. Yet another coming-of-age story told in the voice of a teenage girl? Resurrect me and kill me again.

But wait. Smith has some structural surprises up her sleeve that prove she’s a crafty writer who’s always worthy of our attention.

Molly Petree is an orphan raised amidst the post-Civil-War withered glory of a plantation in North Carolina called Agate Hill. We’re exposed to the details of her time there via her diary—a fictional device that’s fraught with potential problems.

To create the clear narrative that she wants, Smith must have Molly sound less like a diarist randomly spilling her guts onto the page and more like a novelist recalling events in their precise order, complete with dialogue. And when Molly does concentrate on her inner life, the banalities of a 13-year-old girl’s mind will make certain that readers long for the intellectualisms in Virginia Woolf’s diaries, or the unrelenting lightning bolts of brilliance in Emily Dickinson’s letters.

Still, like most kids her age, Molly does occasionally come out with some interesting stuff, and, more importantly, her indomitable spirit and avoidance of self-pity is infectious.

The diary ends when Molly is sent to Gatewood Academy, a boarding school for girls. Suddenly, we get a fascinating portrait of what such a place was like from the perspective of the school’s headmistress, Mrs. Mariah Snow, and of her sister, Agnes Rutherford, as well as of Molly (this time through letters written to a friend).

Snow is a sort of “madwoman in the attic” who must operate the best she can in a repressive, prefeminist era. She records her thoughts in a diary she titles “For No One’s Eyes.” The alluring contents of this diary more than compensate for Molly’s more prosaic version.

And that’s not all. Smith comes up with more devices, and one recurring one, to tell the story of Molly’s marriage to a philanderer and her implication in his murder. By this time, our Fabio-like figure is a distant memory, having sauntered off to find his appropriate home on the cover of another novel.—Doug Nordfors

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“Pitch”
Zen Monkey Project
McGuffey Art Center
Continues November 15-16 and 18-19

dance  The term “modern dance” conjures a lot of ideas, many of them stern, such as humorless chorines in scratchy woolen tights performing works that illuminate the sharp treacheries of the choreographer’s soul amidst a setting of bare overhead light bulbs. Informality, humor and mutual support hardly jump to mind as what lies in wait when the curtain rises.

So the fact that Katharine Birdsall has subverted stereotypes by putting on a friendly lunchtime concert of charming solos and surprising partnering sequences to lively harpsichord music in a bright studio (a onetime art gallery) and that she gets the whole thing done in an hour with time to spare should be reason enough to endorse the latest work from one of the founders of local modern dance collective the Zen Monkey Project. Add to that spurts of pretty good dancing, not to mention Birdsall’s reliable eye for costumes and ensemble work, and a couple of visual puns, and it’s enough to bury the most unfortunate modern dance stereotypes.

I’ve been watching Birdsall choreograph and dance for a long time now (is it eight years already?), and I still maintain that she is her own best vessel. One of the reasons is technique. Where younger dancers who come out of college programs tend to leave their fingers a bit curled, their knees a bit bent, their butts a bit protruded, their heads a bit tucked no matter how urgently the dance phrases demand a clean, straight line and an outward gaze, Birdsall differentiates between slicing attack and coy introversion as her work calls for it. So a solo sequence for Birdsall finds her clearly quoting a flamenco dancer and a bullfighter amidst luscious to-the-right spirals. Meanwhile, her feet, unable to deny her childhood ballet training, rest in a perfect, satisfying fifth position.

This is not to say that Birdsall’s choreography is rewarded by her performance alone. Not at all. Her opening, for one thing, “Improvisation with Foreshadowing,” finds four dancers conjuring lovely images of physical support and tenderness. I’ve seen these “Pieta”-like moments in her work before: a couple of dancers arrayed on the floor with one cradling the other Mother Mary-style until they crawl over and around each other to an equally supportive but new shape. And there are truly lovely bits where one dancer cups another’s back-of-the-neck while she turns or shifts—as tender a metaphor for backing up another person’s intentions as I’ve ever seen in the middle of the day! The final sequence of “Pitch,” which is what Birdsall calls the seven-part work in total, is rollicking and energized with plenty of light jumps and wall-supported handstands and cartwheels. And there’s more of that strong-woman partnering, in which everybody (Jessie Laurita-Spanglet, Aaron Wine, Kelly East and Emily Oleson) looks good.

Modern dance may always be suspect in some quarters. But for another week at least, thanks to Katharine Birdsall, Studio 11 in McGuffey Art Center will not be among them.—Cathy Harding

She Wants Revenge,
with Pretty Girls Make Graves,
and Monsters Are Waiting
Satellite Ballroom
November 10

music  The interior of the Satellite Ballroom is like that of a shotgun shack—a single open space that is at least twice as long as it is wide, stage at one end, bar at the other. The club’s structure helps measure the success of a band: Put on a dynamic show, and the crowd will swing, sway and dance at the front. Fall flat, and crowd members will turn their backs and move to the bar, where the noise is a little less intrusive.

DJs-turned-Interpol-fans She Wants Revenge managed to accomplish the former at a packed ballroom, thanks to the company they keep in the press (Depeche Mode and Joy Division comparisons every other paragraph) and on tour (supporting act Pretty Girls Make Graves will upstage the main event every night of the week).

As a result, opening act Monsters Are Waiting rode the coattails of popular music and received a warmer welcome than most supporting bands. Left alone, The Monsters’ keyboard fills were plodding, the vocals whispy. Properly layered, however, the Cure-savvy keys and Telecaster blasts rightly earned a few toe-taps and handclaps.

Seattle’s Pretty Girls Make Graves is an animal far different from its tourmates—different as a tiger among turtles, the more vicious and attractive beast at the zoo. Pretty Girls also maintains one of the best rhythm sections in modern rock, and proved it in a danceable set that drew heavily from 2003’s masterful The New Romance.

It was the evening’s peak. The opening combination of “Something Bigger, Something Brighter” and “The New Romance” brought bright guitar flourishes and arrhythmic, engaging beats—the crowd marveled and moved in equal parts. Sultry vocalist Andrea Zollo channeled The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde in her finer moments, teasing the front row with winks and finger-wags aplenty.

Though live staples “Speakers Push The Air” and “All Medicated Geniuses” were sorely missed, Pretty Girls filled in the gaps admirably, amplifying latent numbers from their latest album, including the slinky, sinister “Nocturnal House,” and “Parade,” a finale that threw a rollicking accordion melody into the mix. The last “opening act” left the stage, and the crowd pushed to the front of the ballroom, eager for headliners She Wants Revenge.

The problem with big-name comparisons is that, if a band fails to surpass its influences, then it fails before a larger crowd. A major label deal with Geffen and comparisons to a handful of neo-New Wave bands earned She Wants Revenge a sizable audience, but their inability to change tempo, song structure, or monotonous vocals during their set made them a forgettable act. “Red Flags and Long Nights” ran together with “Tear You Apart” and “I Don’t Want to Fall in Love.” Little seemed planned to invigorate the performance—fittingly, the band’s light show remained monochromatic.

Onstage, the band seemed as nonplussed as their audience—neither knew how to follow the Pretty Girls performance. Slowly, the enthusiasm seeped out of the evening, and the crowd trickled to the back, reopening the chasm in the middle of the ballroom.—Brendan Fitzgerald

The Black Parade
My Chemical Romance
Reprise Records

cd  One of the enduring tensions in emo, My Chemical Romance’s stomping grounds, is that fast, abrasive guitar rock is the default musical container for lyrical ideas that can be more sensitive or sappy than the most delicate James Taylor side. Emo emerged from punk, which explains the musical form, but The Black Parade, the band’s third studio album, asks a question that has occurred to few others: Might all this angst and soul-searching be better suited to the strutting pomp of a Broadway musical?

So The Black Parade is of course a concept album, in the vein of Pink Floyd, The Beatles and Queen—three bands MCR admits to listening to heavily. It tells the story of an unnamed man with terminal cancer contemplating his short life from his deathbed. “Welcome to the Black Parade,” the album’s leadoff single, released in September, raised expectations for the album considerably. It’s a pocket symphony with a dangling wallet chain, complete with martial drums to evoke the character’s forlorn recollections of seeing a marching band with his dad, a vocal break to make Jon Anderson weep, and a spine-tingling chorus hook centered on the phrase “We’ll carry on” that evokes Styx’s “Come Sail Away.”
This is music anyone who’s ever cried along to an Andrew Lloyd Webber song would be immensely comfortable with.

Gerard Way’s singing has continued to improve in tone and power, and the band has mastered the art of the evocative chord change, able to alternate between meaty mid-tempo ballads (“I Don’t Love You” brings to mind “Today” by Smashing Pumpkins, another big influence) and the ersatz-Aerosmith boogie of “House of Wolves” with the flick of a pickup switch. There’s even a serious curveball in the form of the vaguely Brechtian “Mama,” which starts with a Fiddler On the Roof-like jig and ends with a verse from Liza Minnelli, her voice processed to sound like her, er, mama singing down through the ages at 78 revolutions per minute.

The crackly coda of “Mama” offers a welcome dose of theater, and “Welcome to the Black Parade” is rock bombast at its best. Still, the album as a whole too often lacks the courage of its conceptual convictions. The Great Albums MCR draw from thought outside the rock box and integrated popular music from across eras; The Black Parade seems stuck between about 1993, when Smashing Pumpkins released Siamese Dream and 2005, when Green Day released American Idiot. Two of the better moments actually come when the concept slips into the background and MCR resumes being a catchy rock band. “Teenagers,” despite its dubious connection to the album’s story, has the massive hook Rivers Cuomo has been trying to write ever since Weezer’s debut. “Sharpest Lives” alludes to Shakespeare and keeps bringing up vampires, but the best thing about it is a swooping chorus that brings to mind “You Give Love a Bad Name” by Jersey homies Bon Jovi.

My Chemical Romance still excels at pop-punk, but everything about The Black Parade—from the illustrations on the terrifically engaging packaging (which envisions MCR as a brass band marching through a Tim Burton film) to a narrative that examines loss, morality and regret around every turn—calls for more imagination than they display here. It may not be fair to expect so much and then be disappointed when an album swinging for the seats only manages a ground-rule double. But when a band positions itself in lofty company like The Beatles, Queen, and Floyd, that’s the risk they take.—Mark Richardson

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Method Man
Starr Hill Music Hall
Monday, October 30

music  “If you want a conventional show, you in the wrong spot.” So said Method Man in one of his many successful bids to pump up the crowd during his show at Starr Hill, and he was not lying. The concert started normally enough, as hip-hop shows go, with Meth’s Wu Tang brothers, Inspectah Deck and Masta Killa, coming out for brief opening sets. Inspectah Deck’s a cappella freestyle stood out, but as soon as Meth took the stage, the show took a high-octane turn like a pimped-out custom sports car.

Deck and Masta Killa stayed on stage, as did Wu Tang DJ Mathematics, and they were joined by Streetlife, the unofficial 11th Wu Tang member. All four provided backup for Mr. Meth while plugging their new albums (every damn person who was on stage has one out) and smoking copious amounts of what I doubt was tobacco. But Meth brought with him an immediate infusion of energy that lasted through the night. He leapt around stage, threw personal effects into the audience and flung himself into the crowd with abandon, letting the hands of a packed house carry him around the venue.

Meth said numerous times that he feeds off crowd energy and gives it right back, and that was pretty much the tone of the evening: a wild crowd, captivated and conducted by the even wilder founding member of one of the most important hip-hop crews of all time. Meth led the spectators in a chant of “nobody rocks a fuckin’ stage like I do!” and it was hardly arrogance. He kept the energy impossibly high throughout, spitting short but bombastic versions of Wu Tang classics and new songs from 4:21: The Day After, which, he was happy to remind the audience, is in stores now. There was also a tribute, complete with lighters and “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” sing-a-long, to the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard that was genuinely touching−no small feat considering the sheer ridiculousness of the man being celebrated.
Meth wound down the show by inviting the audience, or at least as many audience members as could fit, on stage with him, before promising to come back with Redman soon. But it was something he said about midway through the night that really summed up the energy and effect of the show: “Believe half of what you hear, none of what you read and everything I say.” For that hour and a half, I sure as hell did.−Kyle Daly

The Best of What’s Around−Vol. 1
Dave Matthews Band
RCA Records

cd 
Hot off their summer tour and, once again, proving they are “the best of what’s around,” the Dave Matthews Band has released a dual CD set by the same name. It is fitting that a band that established itself through its live performances would release a “best of” compilation that heavily features live recordings. The Dave Matthews Band is a touring machine that brings what old fans crave and what new fans are hooked on to the second disc of their greatest hits compilation. Thirteen million concert-goers can’t be wrong.
Though not a substitute for attending a DMB concert, the live CD captures the band’s intensity and the audience’s sheer joy at being in their presence. The audience screams when Dave scat sings, and the band seems to thrive on the energy of the crowd. One can almost see Dave dancing and Carter grinning, while Boyd fiddles like a mad man through the high-energy songs on this CD. The eight songs included on the second disc come from the best of the band’s live performances over the past six years. The songs, ranging from “Don’t Drink The Water” to “Say Goodbye” were chosen by fans at the band’s website.

In the best DMB show tradition, the band is joined on a couple of songs by some extraordinary talents. “Everyday” features South African singer/songwriter Vusi Mahlasela, whose incredible vocal range and African rhythms transform the song into something totally new. On “Louisiana Bayou,” the band is joined by Robert Randolph, a favorite touring partner. Randolph’s pedal steel guitar adds a subtle bluesy touch that underlies Dave’s soulful drone.

The studio recordings, which make up half of the double album, were also chosen by fans. There are two songs drawn from each of the band’s major label releases. The 12 songs presented on the first disc present the band’s development as a musical force and include such hits as “Crash Into Me” and “What Would You Say,” as well as “American Baby,” from their latest studio release. It’s like a time capsule that records the rise of one of the most popular bands in the land.

As a new release, there’s something for everyone in The Best of What’s Around−Vol.1. Die-hard DMB fans will find all their studio favorites gathered in one place and will be treated to some concert favorites—perhaps reliving some of their own favorite moments with the band. New fans, or those just wondering what all the fuss is about, will find a well-crafted set that gathers all the hits and manages to distill the band’s huge body of road work to a single representative CD, capturing some of the magic of the DMB concert experience.—Simon Evans

The Lost: The Search for Six of Six Million
By Daniel Mendelsohn
Harper Collins, 528 pages

words  The subtitle says it all: The search for the fate of six individuals among the massive carnage of the European Holocaust is a daunting task for even the most ardent of historians. Armed with vague notions of a great uncle Shmiel who died during the Holocaust along with his wife and two daughters, author Daniel Mendelsohn sets out to uncover the details of his relatives’ deaths, digging underneath the blandness of the phrase “killed by the Nazis” to uncover the visceral, personal truth about his relatives’ fate.

If it sounds like the plot to a first-rate mystery, it is. But The Lost is all too true. Mendelsohn, a UVA grad and frequent writer for The New York Review of Books, creates a profoundly affecting work that takes an intimate approach to a historical event that’s often approached on a grand scale. He writes, “Often it is the small things, rather than the big picture, that the mind can comfortably grasp; that, for instance, it is naturally more appealing to readers to absorb the meaning of a vast historical event through the story of a single family.” Right you are, Mr. Mendelsohn.

Apparently, as a young boy, Mendelsohn reminded certain family members of Shmiel (some of them cried whenever he walked into a room). It’s a memory that resonates through adulthood until he finally decides to understand who this man was and how he came to die. Aged photographs, letters, hearsay—all the detective’s tools and tricks are on display here, taking Mendelsohn (and in some instances his brothers and sister) from the Ukraine to Australia to Israel as slowly the reader, in time with the author, begins to understand the magnitude of these past lives and how terribly they were destroyed.

Yet as deep as Mendelsohn gets, he has enough sense to know that he (and by extension, we) can never fully understand his relatives’ experiences firsthand. It would be all too easy for a writer to give in and present an entire account of Shmiel’s last days through his own eyes, or through the eyes of his wife and daughters, but it’s all understandably useless. “We cannot go there with them,” the author says regarding those four family members. Even still, Mendelsohn does an exquisite job of breathing what life he can into those long lost to the vastness of history.—Zak M. Salih

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The Roches
Gravity Lounge
October 26

music Rumor has it that the Gravity Lounge will soon be closing. If that’s true, then a shadow hung over The Roches’ lovely show last Thursday night at the Downtown Mall space, the ideal venue for the intimate sounds and warm stage presence of the three-sister acoustic group.
All this was brought home after younger sister Suzzy Roche revealed that the group had never been to Charlottesville, inspiring someone in the audience to repeatedly shout, “Come back!”—until Suzzy was compelled to quip (warmly), “We haven’t gone yet.”
Such is the enthusiasm of The Roches’ fans, an ever-smaller base now that the group, who once recorded with Warner and MCA, doesn’t cut it with today’s corporate music world.
If there was anyone there Thursday night who had never heard The Roches, they were likely at first startled, then thrilled by the sisters’ unique brand of harmony. Maggie’s contralto voice hovers in the lower, bass registers—hardly a typical element in an an all-female blend of voices. Terre’s soprano soars into the upper registers. And Suzzy comes up with myriad ways to fill in the middle range. At times, their tone purposely flirts with dissonance, then expertly resolves itself, creating a drama that’s at once bracing and pleasing. The newbie also no doubt noticed that the three are fine musicians (all on guitar, and Maggie and Suzzy on piano), and that as lyricists they feel free to spill outside of genre parameters. They ended the show, for instance, with a song about the world of commuter trains (from their 1979 deubt album). It’s a sort of comic ballad—a sweet, sad paean to the human condition that seems to gather layers of convoluted psychology as it goes along and then release them with a thoughtful sigh.
Also on display was the group’s affinity for the just plain comic, such as Suzzy’s song about reading the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and realizing that she is batting 0-7, and the wonderfully titled “Jesus Shaves.” And the just plain ballads were stirring, such as Terre’s “The Sound of a Tree Falling.” Yet another highlight: As if to reinforce the idea that The Roches represent folk music filtered through an uncommon level, the audience was treated to a virtuosic rendition of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.”
Now that The Roches actually are gone, I can say with impunity: “Come back to Gravity—we hope—or anywhere else in town!”—Doug Nordfors


Bully
Rockstar Games
PlayStation 2
games When the cheerleader swiped the brainiac’s science essay, I snuck into the girls’ locker room to get it back. When the jocks threatened to derail Earnest’s campaign speech for class president, my trusty slingshot saved the day.
And I’m supposed to be a bully?
Um, actually not. Although, if you had listened to any of the social critics who performed a pre-emptive evisceration on Bully, the latest offering from Grand Theft Auto creators Rockstar (the game developer social critics love to hate), you’d never have known that. When Bully was announced in 2005, the Hillary Clintons and Lou Dobbs of the world immediately heard “Columbine simulator.”
Man, were they off base. In Bully, what Rockstar has created isn’t a sociopath sim, but a hilarious, razor-sharp satire of the high school jungle, where age-old cliques (jocks and geeks, preps and greasers) jostle uneasily for social supremacy and survival.
Bully drops you into the white sneakers of Jimmy Hopkins, a troubled teen who ends up at a reform school that feels like a cross between The Breakfast Club and Lord of the Flies. As it turns out, unlike GTA, there’s not a gun to be found in Bully. While there are fisticuffs and slingshots aplenty, nobody dies, nobody bleeds, and Jimmy never gets busy with the ladies, except for the occasional health-boosting kiss on Bullworth Commons—and he has to give his girlfriend a gift before she’ll even think about puckering up. 
As befits a Rockstar game, you’re free to explore and do as you please, but pummeling classmates in acts of random violence gets you nowhere—other than into the clutches of the ever-present (and ever-speedy) prefects, who summarily dump you into detention. Miss class or trespass in the girl’s dorm, and they’re on you like Principal Rooney on Ferris Bueller.  To complete the game’s ridiculously large menu of missions, you’ll have to use your fists, slingshot and stinkbombs—but only to defend yourself and stick up for the underdog. Jimmy’s biggest task, it turns out, is to stop Gary, a truly vicious psychological bully who makes Christian Slater’s character from Heathers look like Charlie Brown.
Of course, the Joe Liebermans of this world will still find bones to pick in Bully’s parade of high-school hijinks: The lockpicking, the pranks, the fact that authority figures taste the barbed end of the game’s sweetly satirical skewer. But if these sanctimonious critics have a bone to pick, it should be with their own rush to judgment: Bully’s a book they badly misjudged, and all before the cover was even printed.—Aaron R. Conklin


The Melvins
Starr Hill
October 23
music The Melvins’ recent stop in Charlottesville, according to one fan I know, means that Charlottesville is “within 15 years of calling itself a city.” Well, if this visit is any indication, we can look forward to one skillfully noise-polluted metropolis.
Confession: This same Melvins fan is the sole reason I found myself at the show. I’d never heard a single Melvins album. My pre-show research consisted of asking The Fan, “What’s so great about the Melvins?”
Fan: “They arguably pioneered the super-slow, sludgy, low-tuned rock (very Sabbathy, but slower and lower). They’re not afraid to have a 20-minute piece that’s nothing but super-slowed beating on drums. They’re not afraid to do Kiss-style rock one album and then sheer noise (or near silence) for an entire album.” The Fan also offered an anecdote involving singer/guitarist Buzz Osborne’s “watering the crowd” with drool when they opened for Primus back in ’93. Noise and stoner rock—and, of course, metal—were the Melvins’ main ingredients, said The Fan. And hey, I like Kyuss and John Cage, if not drool in particular. So off we went.
The crowd that filled Starr Hill was  a strange mismatch for the hardwood-hippie venue. There was a preponderance of hoodies, Chuck Taylors and the color black. There was a (very faint) undercurrent of danger. It became less faint when, as opening band Big Business’ set morphed seamlessly into the Melvins’ (they share two members), I found myself on the fringe of a half-assed mosh pit incited by some drunk smelly guy.
Meanwhile, the Melvins themselves, wearing shapeless black garments and nodding under fernlike mops of kinky hair (graying, in Buzz’s case), spent an hour or so nosing around inside a dark pocket of frank, open-mouthed screaming, drum duets and tight stoner riffs. Despite their pasty shins, of which I had an unobstructed view, they’re true professionals: The wall of sound, through all its judicious pauses and rhythmic shifts and parallel drum parts, was tightly orchestrated and delivered with the confidence of an F-16. 
Though my head-bobbing was sincere, as a neophyte I was, in the end, unable to distinguish one province of this deep dark groove from another. I’m sure more familiarity with the Melvins’ legendary discography would have helped. Accordingly, I leave the last word to The Fan: “The Melvins were fucking great. It never stopped; there were no breaks between songs. Just drums. Two drummers pounding your face in.”—Erika Howsare

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Portastatic
Satellite Ballroom
Tuesday, October 17

music A brief history of Portastatic:
Way back in the early ‘90s, there was this guy from Chapel Hill, Mac McCaughan, who wrote songs and sang in this band, Superchunk. Great band—had what I consider the single best anti-authoritarian anthem of the ‘90s, “Slack Motherfucker” (yes, it was better than “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” because the lyrics actually made sense). Anyway, in his spare time, Mac was recording these great, rough-yet-rococo pop songs in his kitchen, and pretty soon his fanzine-publishing pal, Tom Scharpling, persuaded him to press a 7" for his label, 18 Wheeler. And thus Portastatic was born.
    Fast-forward 14 years, and Superchunk is, sadly, no more (or, at the very least, they’re on an extremely extended hiatus). On the plus side, however, Portastatic just keeps getting better and better, and has released Be Still Please, an album of ecstatic, polished pop brilliance. McCaughan, true to his reputation as the hardest-workin’ man in indie rock, takes time off from overseeing his super-successful Merge Records label to travel with his orchestral caravan up and down the East Coast. On October 17, the band motors into Charlottesville, and plays an epic, almost criminally satisfying set at the Satellite Ballroom. I’ll leave it to Mac himself (writing on the band’s blog) to describe the scene:

13 people in a room that holds 500 isn’t really a recipe for a barnburner of a rock show, but as the old Jim Wilbur rallying cry goes, “you play the show not the crowd”… Actually I often think about all the great shows I’ve seen where I was one of a handful in the audience and the band or artist still totally kicked out the jams, and then you feel like you really got to see something special, as opposed to being one of 600 people sharing the same experience (which can be great as well, just different).

    If anything, McCaughan is underselling the level of effort, professionalism and, yes, pure joy that Portastatic brought to this gig. From the echoing power of their new single, “Sour Shores,” to the aching romanticism of “Full of Stars” to the crooning bossa-nova ballad “Sweetness and Light,” (on which the band brought practically the entire audience up on stage to play shakers and maracas), the band filled the Satellite as if it were headlining the cavernous JPJ. In fact, by the time McCaughan retook the stage, to thunderous (well, as thunderous as 13 delighted music fans can be) applause for an encore (a solo acoustic rendition of “Spying on the Spys”), the show tipped the balance from “great” to “unforgettable.”
    And right across the street, a sprawling campus of 15,000 potential music fans sat silent, sleeping the slumber of the dead. —Dan Catalano

Thirteen Moons
By Charles Frazier
Random House, 422 pages

words It must suck to be Charles Frazier. His debut novel, Cold Mountain, was published to critical and public praise, and even trumped Don DeLillo’s (far superior) Underworld for 1997’s National Book Award. Random House gave Frazier $8 million for his second book, and now—after almost a decade of hype—we have Thirteen Moons. And no, it’s not like Cold Mountain; in fact, Thirteen Moons pales in comparison to its predecessor. The question is: does that make it a bad novel?
    Thirteen Moons can’t decide whether it wants to be epic or intimate—which is problematic, since Frazier is so adept at handling both scales. If Cold Mountain entrenched an intimate love story within the larger framework of the Civil War, then (Moons protagonist) Will Cooper’s string of adventures throughout the dissolving Indian nation attempts to repeat the same situation. All too often, however, Cooper’s personal migration is displaced and overshadowed by larger historical patterns—we see Cooper roaming around the American frontier, but at times it’s like trying to focus on a single ant in a field of tall grass.
    Frazier’s hero (based on the real William Holland Thomas) is a veritable renaissance man: store-owner, Confederate colonel, bounty hunter, tribal chief, senator and amateur intellectual. The problem with a jack-of-all-trades like this, however, is their continual elusiveness: Cooper is a mystery not only to himself, but to us—his only constant being a deep connection to the Indian culture that adopted him from childhood. Even the on-again/off-again relationship between Cooper and his mysterious beloved, Claire—who flits in and out of his life like a hummingbird to a feeder—is awkward and confusing, for both character and reader alike.
    Unnecessary love story aside (and boy does it feel tacked on, as if Frazier needed to cross “epic romance” off of his literary checklist), Thirteen Moons is ripe with the kind of set pieces and transcendental atmosphere that made Cold Mountain such a pleasure to read—and that alone makes this second novel a worthwhile trek through rambling territory. An unsuccessful duel between Cooper and Featherstone, the guardian/husband of Clair, is told in three differing interpretations, for example—and the final days of Charley, a rebellious Indian hunted down by Cooper and a cluster of U.S. soldiers, are intense enough to trump any of Cooper’s own dark nights of the soul.
    Frazier’s writing, so honed and given to rich detail and language, certainly makes your salivary glands pulsate. When a character eats an orange, he “peeled it slowly and studied the differing sides of the peels and smelled them and smelled his fingers. Then he ate each section very slowly, sniffing each one before he put it in his mouth. He savored every moment of his consumption of that orange. When he was done he collected all the pieces of the peel and dried them in the sun like deer jerky.”
    And so, while his protagonist may be lost inside it, Frazier’s rendition of 18th century America—tottering between naturalism and industrialism, perfectly rendered and undeniably savory—makes the journey an undeniable, if fitful, pleasure. —Zak M. Salih

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Eric Clapton
John Paul Jones Arena
Thursday, October 12

music From a conversation with my 14-year-old companion on the way into Eric Clapton’s sold-out concert at the John last week: “It’ll be white kids and rich college students.”
O.K., so maybe they’re not teaching about the Baby Boom in the schools anymore. Sure, Clapton attracts a segment of the music-downloading youth market (and some of them came out for the show), but most of the people pouring into the arena had a little more heft around the belt buckle and a little more jiggle around the upper arm—confirmed rockers from back in the day, long before Clapton looked, uh, experienced and grizzled enough to actually be God. And to satisfy them (and get a hell of a lot of butts out of the seats), Slowhand structured a hits-heavy show, virtually identical to his gig in D.C. two nights earlier (many songs sounded just like the record!). Yet somehow he still managed to promote the values of musicianship and virtuosity that provided the early paving stones for Clapton’s own 40-year path.
    What’s his secret? Load up the stage with exemplary musicians, and then step back into the lineup just often enough to make the point that you’re merely one deity in a pantheon, and that, really, if you didn’t know already, lowly humans can only approach the divine because the guitar is god.
    And who was chief among its priests last week? Doyle Bramhall II on guitar, Willie Weeks on bass, Tim Carmon and Chris Stainton on keyboards, and Steve Jordan on drums. And the archbishops? No doubt they would have to be opening act Robert Cray—who also joined Clapton and his seven-member band for a couple of numbers, including the rousing encore “Crossroads”—and Derek Trucks, whose slide work on “Anyday” and “Little Queen of Spades” was (as some of the kids in the crowd might have put it) friggin’ awesome! Seriously, the man can coax previously unknowable sounds from his instrument.
    Which gets us to the conversation between me and the aforementioned 14-year-old as we left the show, a rejuvenated “Cocaine” still ringing in our ears. Me: “Derek Trucks is unbelievable. I think he’s better than Clapton.” 14: “What? No way. Clapton’s the best. He put that guy in his band.” Touché. —Cathy Harding

Helen
Live Arts
Through October 28

stage Of the Ancient Greek dramatists we revere today, Euripides is the most fascinating. He was a pacifist and a free thinker in a time when violence and intolerance were the norm. His characters are often anti-heroic, and confront their interior and exterior lives in ways that anticipate modern psychological playwriting. His work is at once teasingly intellectual, wonderfully strange, gorgeously written and crackling with energy. His technique is distinctly nonformulaic. In the case of Helen—one of the few of the almost 100 plays he wrote that have survived—he introduced contrasting elements into the rigid structure of tragedy, creating what we today call the comedy/drama.
    Ellen McLaughlin’s modern-English adaptation of Helen is like an extremely liberal translation of the play. It exists on its own merit while preserving shades of Euripides’ poetic spirit, as well as the original structure: a dizzying array of tantalizing ideas and themes anchored by a clear attack on the futility of war.
    McLaughlin’s version takes place in a luxury hotel room in Egypt, where Helen (Jennifer Downey) endures a lifeless existence swatting flies and flipping through TV channels while the Trojan War—a fight, in effect, for the right to possess her beauty—rages outside. Besides periodic appearances by her servant (Cynthia Burke), she also has visits from Io (Susan Burke), whose horns are the only remaining evidence that she was once transformed by Zeus into a cow, and from Athena (Linda Zuby, who by day is C-VILLE’s Business Administrator), the goddess who looks down upon mortals as if they were toy soldiers, and, finally, from her husband, Menelaus (Chris Baumer), in a daze over his decision to raise an army to steal Helen back from Paris, leading to the deaths of thousands.
    It’s no wonder that Live Arts’ Marketing Director Ronda Hewitt, a standout actor, was drawn to direct Helen. The play, relayed largely in extended monologues, is an actor’s showcase. The cast and Hewitt clearly worked diligently together to make each monologue a deeply felt, multicolored event. Without Downey’s consistently varied emotion in the lead role, for instance, the whole two hours would have been as static as Helen’s hotel room.
Hewitt is also adept at creating an air of unreality that meshes with McLaughlin’s blend of modern and ancient details and tones. Hewitt does this not only by encouraging an acting style that’s a few beats away from realism, but also with concrete techniques like stop-motion and shadow-play.
    That said, she’s not afraid to leave much of the text to speak for itself, and to trust the audience to tune into its subtleties. So, if you think that “mentally challenging” really means “mentally taxing,” you might want to spend your money on Jackass Number Two instead.—Doug Nordfors

The Road
Cormac McCarthy
Knopf, 241 pages.

words It’s bleak, depressing and unflinching—it takes the human capacity for hope, crushes it into a tiny ball, and tosses it into the wastebasket of wishful thinking. Which means, basically, that The Road is like any other Cormac McCarthy novel. Acting as a sort of one-two punch in combination with last summer’s brilliant No Country For Old Men, McCarthy delivers yet another world in which human law and morality are absent, in which death permeates every page like a thick ground fog, and in which the entire universe seems poised on the brink of a biblical apocalypse.
    What makes The Road unique from its predecessors is that the landscape in this case is not the open prairie or the untamed West, but a blighted, ashy America in which an unnamed holocaust (my guess is nuclear) has wiped almost everyone off the planet. A nameless man and his young son make their way down a nameless road to a destination that’s never quite clear (this is one of those novels where the themes lie in the journey, not the destination). But what a terrible journey it is: an almost relentless plodding through a literal wasteland that calls to mind the final, post-meteor march of the dinosaurs in Disney’s Fantasia. “They passed through the city at noon of the day following,” McCarthy writes. “The city was mostly burned. No signs of life. Cars in the street caked with ash, everything covered with ash and dust. Fossil tracks in the dried sludge. A corpse in a doorway dried to leather. Grimacing at the day.” See what I mean?
    What holds this novel together, however—the saving grace that keeps it from descending into a schlock post-apocalyptic thriller—is the bond between father and son, the almost regimented manner of protection that reads like tough love but feels like true love. Their relationship is what provides the reader an emotional home amidst this “one vast sepulcher”—it’s an emotional bond we don’t find in any of the other sparse survivors they encounter. The Road is a story of Darwinian survival, in which the supposedly moral and superior homo sapiens has devolved into just another animal—scrounging for food, fleeing from predators, defending their young with claws extended and teeth bared. There are some tense moments throughout—episodes where it seems things cannot get any worse (and believe me, they always do)—but not for one moment does the reader imagine that this man will leave his son behind to fend for himself.
    McCarthy is a stylist unlike any other currently working in American letters; his economic prose makes these fantastic events all the more believable, and his penchant for quick, brutal violence is ever-present (when you’ve got one of the last working handguns in America, you’d better believe it’s going to be fired at someone). Most unremarkable is the blatant glimmer of hope that closes the story. Whether you buy it depends on whether you’re a half-emptied- or half-filled-glass kind of person. As for McCarthy’s glass—well, it seems like there are still at least a few drops left in it. —Zak M. Salih

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Heavy Trash with The Sadies
Satellite Ballroom
Thursday, October 5

music You know, maybe you can have too much of a good thing. More than a few times in recent memory, I’ve attended concerts in our newly music-saturated little town, and been sadly disappointed at the lackluster size of the crowd. San Fran popster John Vanderslice drew only a hundred or so, George Clinton’s P-Funk All Stars took the stage to a Fridays After 5-sized assemblage, and—as sadly reported by our own Spencer Lathrop—the incomparable Kid Congo Powers recently played his heart out to a crowd numbering in the single digits. Are there just too many great musical options out there? Or are we all just a lazy bunch of losers and layabouts, grown bored and complacent with the overwhelming amount of great music filling our local clubs?
    To be fair, the meager throng at last Thursday’s Heavy Trash show could be blamed on a number of factors: It was a weeknight show in the middle of midterms, there was a cold, bone-soaking rain outside, and the words “Blues Explosion” were nowhere to be found. But still, the Heavy Trash pairing of yelping sleaze-rock icon Jon Spencer and Speedball Baby’s Matt Verta-Ray—backed by Canadian cowpunk supergroup The Sadies, no less—deserved better. I mean, when Mr. Spencer took a pre-concert stroll through the club, not a single eager groupie tried to chat him up. What is wrong with us, people?
    Anyway, the show was an unrelenting blast, from The Sadie’s tight-and-tidy country crooning to Spencer and Verta-Ray’s greaseball rockabilly blowout (think Blues Explosion decked out in a wife-beater, with half a pint of Brylcreem in its hair). But you know what? I’m gonna keep the details to myself—so maybe next time you’ll actually get off your fat ass and come see the damn thing yourself.—Dan Catalano

Smog
Gravity Lounge
Friday, October 6

music Indie legend Smog (né Bill Callahan) has spent the last 16 years or so building a dedicated fanbase with his DIY brand of lo-fi folk. It’s no wonder, then, that the Austin-based singer-songwriter’s intimate gig at the Gravity drew an audience of dozens of discriminating music fans.
    After a mellow opening set from local post-rock/ambient outfit Thrum, a guy who looked disconcertingly like reality-TV star Dog the Bounty Hunter took the stage and began setting up a small drum kit. This longhaired stranger turned out to be Smog’s sole accompaniment, a multi-instrumentalist introduced to the audience simply as Thor. This minimalist arrangement—Smog on guitar and vocals, Thor primarily on drums, xylophone, and melodica—would set the tone for the show.
    The duo opened with a haunting rendition of “Red Apples,” from Smog’s 1997 album, Red Apple Falls. Though Smog appeared unassuming, even awkward, when he first took the stage, his signature baritone immediately filled the room.
    Smog and Thor continued in the same vein throughout the night, with Callahan’s voice—as textured and worn-in as an old leather glove—serving as the centerpiece for Smog’s bare compositions of percussion and cleanly picked guitar. Thor used the instruments at his disposal to great, nontraditional effect—playing the xylophone with a bow, the cymbal with a chain, and coaxing a minor-chord ethereality from his melodica.
    One of the most striking things about the performance was the distinct dichotomy between Smog’s (to be perfectly frank) lack of stage presence, and Callahan’s assuredness when it came to the music. He mumbled through his one snippet of stage banter and spent half the songs doing an awkward shuffle-toed jig, but his voice and accompaniment displayed a rare kind of naked confidence, instilling in the crowd a sense of cool energy that seemed at odds with the little man lurching around on stage.
    And it was that cool energy that carried the audience through the austere, beautiful arrangements of Smog’s greatest hits, drawn largely from 1999’s Knock, Knock and his most recent album, A River Ain’t Too Much to Love. Standout tracks included the quietly building “Teenage Spaceship” and “Cold Blooded Old Times”—here revamped as a distorted, almost mournful rocker.
    The show ended somewhat abruptly, and though Smog and Thor ultimately retook the stage for a measly encore of one song (a faultless rendition of “Let Me See the Colts”), it was clear that the audience wanted more. (I’m not sure what gave it away—maybe it was the cries of “Play more! A lot more!”) Still, the music they did dole out was excellent, and the brevity seemed oddly appropriate. Smog’s simple, affecting songs are, after all, more haiku than epic poem—and so, apparently, are his concerts.—Kyle Daly

The Virginia Quarterly Review
Fall 2006

words Have you heard the news? No, not the latest on the gap between George Bush and Bob Woodward’s versions of what’s happening in Iraq. No, not a new alarming statistic about the effects of global warming. Yes, that’s right: A lost poem by Robert Frost has been found!
Let’s pause for a moment so everyone can catch their breath.
    Charlottesville’s own Virginia Quarterly Review snagged the publishing rights to the 1918 poem, titled “War Thoughts at Home,” and it appears in the Fall 2006 issue, along with two commentaries—one by Robert Stilling, a graduate student at UVA, and one by veteran writer and New Republic poetry editor Glyn Maxwell.
    About the poem itself: It reinforces one’s idea of Frost as a master at wedding form to content. The poem’s almost playful technique is a striking contrast to its sober subject.
That said, anthology editors won’t be clamoring to squeeze it in next to “Mending Wall.”
A literary discovery is a lone wolf without some commentary. The two pieces do everything we ask: provide background information on Frost at the time he wrote the poem, and paint a picture of the social atmosphere in which it was created.
    All in all, it’s the kind of event worthy of VQR’s attention, and a chance for literature lovers to ponder some good news while considering how Frost, like us, was forced to ruminate on the human propensity for war.
    There are also loads of other stuff in this issue to mention. The VQR Portfolio is titled “The Holocaust: Remembrance and Forgetting,” and includes a short play by Tony Kushner, graphic fiction by Art Spiegelman, and an excerpt from Michael Chabon’s new novel (which is based on FDR’s harebrained idea to create a Jewish homeland in Alaska). In the Portfolio introduction, VQR editor Ted Genoways calls the novel “a great detective story in the style of Raymond Chandler.” It’s best to ignore that pronouncement. The excerpt is well written, but, next to Chandler, often stylistically flat.
    Other highlights: American poet David Shapiro’s moving essay about how his son, suffering from depression, finds a sort of primal joy in writing poetry. And local poet Gregory Orr tries his hand at art criticism with an essay about American painter Jake Berthot. The results are excellent. Orr neatly blends literary criticism, autobiographical material, biographical material, and a poet’s way of explicating the psychological impact of turning our attention to visual art.
    As for the poets who contributed actual poetry, aside from the overrated Campbell McGrath (appealing, Whitmanesque clarity, but little depth), this issue contains a good crop of poems—especially Anthony Deaton’s searing bit of Americana beginning “In the fluorescent stain of the Gas-N-Go” and Debra Nystrom’s “My Mother Wanted It All To Be Beautiful,” a lesson in the difficult art of universalizing one’s personal past.
    There’s even an extra, 139-page-long short story supplement thematically linked by a clever concept—we’ll leave it to VQR lovers to make their own literary discovery about what it is.—Doug Nordfors

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The Flaming Lips
Charlottesville Pavilion
Tuesday, September 12

music  Every rock music fan has been there: front row center at a highly anticipated gig, waiting in vain for that one inspiring moment. Whether it’s a die-hard Zen Arcade fan fuming through another Hüsker-free Bob Mould solo show, or a Bob Dylan disciple enduring one of the man’s infamous late-’80s snore-fests (when he was abusing his back catalogue so badly, fans actually hoped he wouldn’t play his biggest hits), most live-music devotees can easily reel off a litany of disappointments.
    Unless, of course, that wily concert-goer has spent his or her musical life attending nothing but Flaming Lips shows.
    As lead singer Wayne Coyne and his traveling neo-psychedelic carnival proved last Tuesday at the C-Pav, the band seems constitutionally incapable of putting on a bad concert. Where some bands disdainfully refuse to play their biggest hits, the Lips gleefully embrace them (hell, not only did they play “She Don’t Use Jelly,” they actually kicked it off with a video clip of a “90210”-era Shannen Doherty introducing the band). Where some singers expect the audience to sit and watch in worshipful silence (we’re looking at you, Lyle Lovett), Wayne Coyne encourages a level of audience participation that could only be topped by actually handing over all of the instruments and microphones to the screaming fans. And, where some bands utilize high-tech lighting and tasteful video effects to make themselves seem larger than life, the Lips employ an entire flea market of hilariously low-budget gadgets to mind-blowing effect, turning every venue they play into a Dr. Seuss-inspired wonderland.
    From the opening giant-ballon-and-confetti-cannon assault that accompanied “Race for the Prize” to the closing, power-chord-perfect rendition of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” (with its pointed video montage of Bush Administration meanies), the show really couldn’t have been more of a blast. By turns joyous, Pollyannaish and surprisingly political (for him, anyway), Coyne—along with drummer Steven Drozd and guitarist Michael Ivins—whipped up a crazy musical cavalcade that proved a perfect fit for the Pavilion, turning that giant white tent into an overflowing circus full of dancing Santas, singing sock puppets, streamer-shooting shotguns and wildly screaming fans. Top that, Ringling Brothers! —Dan Catalano


All Aunt Hagar’s Children
By Edward P. Jones
Amistad, 399 pages

words  Southern Virginia, so vividly illustrated in Edward P. Jones’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Known World, receives brief mention in his second collection of short stories, All Aunt Hagar’s Children. Instead, our geographical point of reference is Washington, D.C.—a city containing both a nation’s history and, as Jones’ characters show us, a multitude of complex personal histories as well. Convicted criminals spend time in Lorton prison, newlyweds visit family in Arlington and even make train trips into the heart of the American South. Yet however long their leashes, Jones’s children are always drawn back to our nation’s capital, if not physically, then through the memories of a past to which they are forever tethered.
    Jones, a native Washingtonian with an MFA in creative writing from the University of Virginia, returns to the same territory (and in some instances, the same characters) covered in his first collection of stories, Lost in the City. To say that the individuals in Hagar’s Children are lost would be obvious—for aren’t existentially angst-ridden individuals the perfect fodder for short stories? Whether it’s a medical student coming to terms with the practices of a “root worker” (read: voodoo) or an aged lothario who finds himself the unwitting landlord of a crack den, Jones’ Washingtonians are beautifully rendered contradictions that, for all of their drama, remain utterly captivating.
    “Old Boys, Old Girls” is a classic sin-and-redemption story in which the murderer Caesar Matthews finds himself out of sync with life inside, and outside, of prison. Both “A Poor Guatemalan Dreams of a Downtown in Peru” and “The Devil Swims Across the Anacostia River” provide escapes from the everyday. The former story details a trio of women united by their survival of horrible disasters, while the latter explores a hostess’ encounter with the Devil in a Safeway.
    Of course, an unspoken rule of short story collections is that there has to be one among the herd that stands out, displaying a particularly impressive amount of skill and style. In “Tapestry,” the concluding tale, a new bride, torn between an uncomfortable marriage in a foreign city and longing thoughts of home, painfully accepts the predestined future hovering over her: one rooted in the cross streets of D.C. As he writes, “Anne was not at all a morbid person, but it occurred to her quite simply that wherever it was she would die, it would not be in Mississippi. Within seconds of that thought, the train entered Washington, where she was to come to her end more than sixty-eight years later.”—Zak M. Salih

Complicit!
Contemporary American Art & Mass Culture
UVA Art Museum
Through October 29

art  “Complicity” is defined in Webster’s dictionary as “participation in a wrongful act.” But the artists in the current show at the UVA Art Museum have not been complicit in anything illicit—except, perhaps, telling the truth in an era of high gloss and spin. Utilizing every type of medium available, they reflect back to us our culture’s complexities and contradictions, while, at times, revealing our collective shadow in a way that forces us to question who we are.
    Love and human relationships are given ample play in this exhibit—and it makes sense, given the fact that marriage is one of our biggest institutions, and sex our most powerful marketing tool. Included in the show is a photo-realistic painting entitled “White on White,” by Julia Jacquette, which features a series of wedding dresses arranged like items on a store shelf. Marriage is supposed to be intimate and sacred, but the grid-like composition and the absence of any human being in this painting alludes to the commerciality of love in our culture.
    In stark contrast to the stylized painting is a mixed-media installation, by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, called “Cabin Fever,” which contains three-dimensional sculptures of trees inside a dimly-lit wooden box. The viewer is asked to look inside the (casket-shaped) box to view an enchanted forest at night. But the audio quickly overpowers the viewers’ enchantment: flies buzz, a couple argues, and a gunshot silences all but the nighttime creatures. This piece could just as easily be titled “Sound Bite”—I physically jumped from my chair when forced to confront the darker side of what we do in the name of love.
    Another piece, “Play Date,” by filmmaker John Waters, is perhaps even more disturbing. In it, the lifelike faces of Charles Manson and Michael Jackson are grafted onto two dolls, who sit on the floor facing each other, arms outstretched. The juxtaposition of these two individuals—one a convicted murderer, one a troubled celebrity, both deeply ingrained in our pop-culture memory—with the childlike innocence of dolls, creates an effect at once fascinating and repulsive, especially when one remembers they were once innocent and lovable children.
    Viewers will wince as they realize how inexorably woven into the web of mass culture we all are—just as the artists themselves can’t completely escape the very influences they seek to comment on. If this exhibit is indeed a portrait of who we are, the question remains: Who do we want to become? How do we get there from here?—Karrie Bos

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The Black Crowes
Charlottesville Pavilion
Saturday, September 9

music  On a beautiful late-summer night, The Black Crowes brought their Southern rock style and drawn-out jams to the Charlottesville Pavilion. The Crowes, best known for early hits like “Hard to Handle” and “Jealous Again,” played a rockin’ two-set show, plus encore, without any distractions. Although the band went light on the hits (they didn’t really play them, except for “She talks to Angels” and “Twice as Hard”), the energy was high, and the sound crew got it right, with the show sounding great both under the lobster trap and on the lawn.
    Founded in the late ’80s by brothers Chris and Rich Robinson, the Crowes have had a rocky history—achieving near-instant success with 1990’s Shake your Money Maker, then gradually losing steam through internecine battles (Chris and Rich have a notoriously contentious relationship) and a changing lineup over the years. But the band has maintained a loyal fan base—with numerous Internet message boards and a Dead-like music-swapping culture—and is now touring heavily and planning for a new album in 2007.
    True to form, the Crowes honored the jam-band tradition of playing a completely unique set at their Pavilion show. While the current lineup features a new keyboard player and guitarist, as well as a couple of backup singers who really didn’t sing that much, the song (mostly) remains the same: blues-inflected rock reminiscent of classic ’70s outfits like the Faces and the Allman Brothers Band. Backed by guitar licks that could have easily been played by Warren Haynes or Dickey Betts, Chris Robinson sang, played a little guitar and harmonica, and did his trademarked swivel-hipped hippie dance while the band jammed away behind him. Overall, the band was in fine form, and the song selection—which included a nice version of “Up on Cripple Creek”—was consistently interesting and unexpected. Sure, it would have been nice to hear “Hard to Handle”—but in the end, it was satisfying just to see these old Crowes exploring old tunes and new sounds with renewed vigor, and deftly avoiding the pitfall of becoming a state-fair nostalgia act.—Bjorn Turnquist

No Gods No Monsters
The Outback Lodge
Friday, September 8

music  When vocalist Bob Davidson and drummer Jon Hartline left local rock band No Gods No Monsters last year, the fate of the group was anyone’s guess. But if their September 8 show at The Outback Lodge is an indication of things to come, No Gods No Monsters is in it for the long haul.
    The show opened with a long set by In Tenebris, a band worth keeping an eye on. The videogame/pop feel of the group’s keyboard and synth intros seemed at odds with their heavy guitar riffs, but the soaring, ghostly voice of lead singer Christina Fleming made it all work, imbuing the group’s music with a unity of feeling and sound.
    If In Tenebris gave the audience heavy guitar riffs, then No Gods No Monsters smashed the crowd with 10 tons of molten metal. Guitarists Matt Singleton and Hal Brigish, the two members of the band who survived last year’s exodus of talent, proved their technical chops from the very first song, breezing through hard and fast solos without breaking a sweat.
Vocalist Tony Pugh’s voice lacks the range of, say, a young Ozzy Osbourne—but what he might be missing in the higher octaves, he more than makes up for with enthusiasm. In between shots and the odd beer on stage, the mohawked vocalist kept up the hard rock vibe with bouts of fist-pumping and cries of “Let’s rock!” His confidence on stage was evident throughout the set.
    Bassist Cory Tietelbaum and drummer Clay Caricofe provided a solid, but otherwise unnoticeable, performance—until they suddenly flooded the room with sound during “I Don’t Cry For Yesterday.” The onslaught was so loud, so fast and so hard-hitting that it moved members of the audience to spontaneous bouts of completely unironic head-banging.
    The show really took off from there, with Pugh reeling off song after song about women and revolution. “God and Killer” featured a guitar-and-bass intro worthy of Metallica at their heaviest, and “The Black Machine” even inspired an impromptu mosh pit.
All in all, both performances proved well worth the price of admission…and walking around half-deaf the next day.—David T. Roisen

My Pet Virus
By Shawn Decker
Penguin, 240 pages

words  While most of us spent portions of our childhoods blubbering over insignificant problems and tiny quirks of fate, Charlottesville resident Shawn Decker endured two thunderous blows. First, at an early age, he was diagnosed as a hemophiliac. And then, at age 11, tainted blood resulted in him becoming HIV-positive.
    Decker was born in Waynesboro in 1975. His new book, My Pet Virus, partly recounts his boyhood: a strange brew of absolute normalcy (such as fumbling attempts to unlock the secrets of human sexuality via Penthouse and a dirty movie), and the constant presence of medical realities, effecting his family and—after his father outed him as HIV-positive—his wider social circle. The book also explores his adult life as both a regular human being with a normal marriage to beauty-pageant veteran Gwenn Barringer, and an AIDS activist who knows whereof he speaks.
    Given such a delicate subject, how can any critic bear to scan the book for weaknesses? Fortunately, that’s not necessary. Decker writes about his life with welcome depth and bracing humor.
    “Being pegged with a medical condition can be a real downer,” he says a few paragraphs into the book. Such a colloquial and chummy approach spells shallowness, but, as is typical of the rest of the book, this tone quickly gives way to more intricate material, where the power of the imagination wages war on uncontrollable circumstances. The rest of the paragraph is an etymological attack on medical lingo that reaches a compelling crescendo: “So I came up with a new word for the modern-day hemophiliac: ‘thin-blood.’”
    Decker’s humor (soon after the above-mentioned paragraph, he remarks that a good Indian name “for someone of my ilk would be Bleeds Like Waterfall”) raises a question. Is it escapist—a ruse to commandeer our attention, or sincere?
    There’s not a false note in the whole book. As a young adult, after his grandmother’s funeral, he writes that he had “a new guardian angel in my grandmother, who was now in Heaven making cafeteria-style lunches for her favorite dead liberals.” Add Decker’s unique situation to the fact that this is the kind of thought we all come up with to relieve death’s sting, and you have layered, resonant writing.
    Later, when describing his new marriage to his HIV-negative wife, he says: “The cloak of romance prevented either of us from fully confronting what was going on, which is why it took Gwenn a while to realize that such a stud, capable of fulfilling one’s every fantasy, could be…sick?” Yes, it’s difficult to imagine being Shawn Decker, but passages such as this one, swimming in vulnerability yet revealing through whimsy a capacity for courage, make knowing him easy.—Doug NordforsOn a beautiful late-summer night, The Black Crowes brought their Southern rock style and drawn-out jams to the Charlottesville Pavilion. The Crowes, best known for early hits like “Hard to Handle” and “Jealous Again,” played a rockin’ two-set show, plus encore, without any distractions. Although the band went light on the hits (they didn’t really play them, except for “She talks to Angels” and “Twice as Hard”), the energy was high, and the sound crew got it right, with the show sounding great both under the lobster trap and on the lawn.
    Founded in the late ’80s by brothers Chris and Rich Robinson, the Crowes have had a rocky history—achieving near-instant success with 1990’s Shake your Money Maker, then gradually losing steam through internecine battles (Chris and Rich have a notoriously contentious relationship) and a changing lineup over the years. But the band has maintained a loyal fan base—with numerous Internet message boards and a Dead-like music-swapping culture—and is now touring heavily and planning for a new album in 2007.
    True to form, the Crowes honored the jam-band tradition of playing a completely unique set at their Pavilion show. While the current lineup features a new keyboard player and guitarist, as well as a couple of backup singers who really didn’t sing that much, the song (mostly) remains the same: blues-inflected rock reminiscent of classic ’70s outfits like the Faces and the Allman Brothers Band. Backed by guitar licks that could have easily been played by Warren Haynes or Dickey Betts, Chris Robinson sang, played a little guitar and harmonica, and did his trademarked swivel-hipped hippie dance while the band jammed away behind him. Overall, the band was in fine form, and the song selection—which included a nice version of “Up on Cripple Creek”—was consistently interesting and unexpected. Sure, it would have been nice to hear “Hard to Handle”—but in the end, it was satisfying just to see these old Crowes exploring old tunes and new sounds with renewed vigor, and deftly avoiding the pitfall of becoming a state-fair nostalgia act.

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Modern Times
Bob Dylan
Columbia Records

cd  The Bob lives. And on Modern Times he also loves and leers, remembering a past that seems impossibly far away, even as he surveys the details of the Right Now and a not-so-far-off Judgment Day.
    Dylan’s first album since 2001’s Love and Theft lacks the driving pulse of its predecessor, which galloped through many moods and tempos. Modern Times is a looser affair, with many muted songs that unwind themselves slowly, as rock’s poet laureate meanders through profound verses—and downright silly ones.
    The country-rock stomp of “Thunder on the Mountain” kicks things off. It’s an irresistible backwater groove that name-checks Alicia Keys, offers a head-scratching line that seems deliciously dirty—“I got the pork chop/She got the pie”—and captures Dylan vowing to forget about himself for a while, to “go out and see what others need.”
    What all the words mean is not always apparent—but the search for deep truth seems beside the point when Dylan’s superb band kicks up some serious dirt on “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” a mean-woman number that stings like any good mean-woman number should. “Some lazy slut has charmed away my brains,” Dylan croaks, making the plight sound both pleasant and dreadful. The cocksure “Someday Baby” shakes its stuff to a gritty bass line and a fast-shuffling drumbeat that, one imagines, will sound even better live.
    At their most inspired, Dylan’s lyrics still cut to the bone, particularly on “Nettie Moore,” a spare lament that sounds as old as hell, and on “Workingman’s Blues #2,” a more earnest, salt-of-the-earth version of Theft’s unforgettable blue-collar ode, “Po’ Boy.” And, showing that he’s not getting any less agile with age, somehow the dude successfully rhymes “sons of bitches” with “orphanages.”
    Still, not everything soars. “Spirit on the Water,” a loping ballad, goes on and on and on. “When the Deal Goes Down” is sweet, but somehow tepid. And the lulling swing of “Beyond the Horizon” loses itself in repetition and oh-so-many ramblings about immortal bliss and such.
    But then comes the absolutely stunning closer, “Ain’t Talkin’,” a violin-haunted stroll through a mystic garden that leads past Desolation Row and into the heart of darkness. “I’m trying to love my neighbor and do good unto others/But, oh mother, things ain’t going well,” Dylan sings coolly, phrasing such things as only he can. It’s an imagistic spell as strong as any he has ever recorded. And the strength of this chilling, apocalyptic ditty alone should make us beg for forgiveness for ever thinking that this guy had lost his power as a songwriter.—Eric Hoover

Half Life
Shelley Jackson
Harper Collins, 437 pages

words  Half Life, Shelley Jackson’s debut novel, is a confessional spliced with a far-fetched thriller, doused with particles of philosophical introspection, mingled with comic misadventures, swirled with ribald satire and irradiated with an overdose of narrative whizz-bang and derring-do. In short, Half Life, with its amalgamation of styles and genres, is a mutant novel—and that’s a good thing.
    Conceived on a bus during a nuclear test, Nora and Blanche Olney are conjoined twins enduring a 15-year case of sibling rivalry, during which the latter twin retreats into a voluntary coma. This leaves our protagonist/narrator Nora to fend for herself in an eerie, alternate universe in which conjoined twins (known as “twofers”) are an established minority group, complete with pride parades, pronoun-specific language (“theirstories” and “tyou” instead of “history” and “you”) and social groups struggling for worldwide rights.      Amidst this rocky socio-political terrain, Nora decides to rid herself of the deadweight Blanche. To do so, she seeks the help of the mysterious Unity Foundation, an underground society of purists who surgically fulfill twofers’ closeted desire for singularity. Intertwined with Nora’s grave quest for a Kervorkian-like cosmetic surgeon is the history (excuse me, “theirstories”) of the twins’ far-from-normal adolescence in the blasted Nevada desert town of Too Bad.
    If you’ve read the preceding plot summary and are currently shaking your head in disdain at the current state of American letters, then Half Life is not your kind of novel. Which is a shame, because underneath its freakish postmodern exterior lurks a brilliant and inventive novel—one that expertly deconstructs identity politics while constructing a story as engrossing and entertaining as it is bizarre and baroque. The issues raised about personal and group identity—which are embodied in the “Siamese Twin Reference Manual” entries littered throughout the novel—resonate in our current climate of minority politics and political correctness. While Jackson certainly doesn’t treat her protagonists as freaks, she obviously knows when identity politics can go from common sense to sheer ridiculousness.
    Of course, Half Life would be a stumbling monstrosity, a mere curio, were it not for the unpolished beauty of Jackson’s prose, and the limitlessness of her imagination. Even the most disturbing passages (such as when the young Nora and Blanche collect dead animals for their own private zoo) are a joy to read—and to read out loud to others. Startling and unnerving, extraordinary and sublime, Shelley Jackson’s Half Life is that rare debut novel that is both wonderful to read and impossible to forget. Unfortunately, it probably won’t strike a middle ground with many readers. Like Ripley’s infamous TV show, you’ll either believe it, or not.— Zak M. Salih

Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII
Square Enix
PlayStation 2

games  There are some forms of entertainment that simply shouldn’t cross genres. Jessica Simpson shouldn’t be an actress (or, for that matter, a singer). Tony Kornheiser was never meant to be a “Monday Night Football” color guy. And Final Fantasy VII, apparently, was never meant to be an action game.
    In the last year or so, Square Enix has been expanding the story and scope of gamedom’s most beloved and legendary RPG. First came last year’s all-CGI flick Advent Children, and now we get Dirge of Cerberus, a spin-off tale trapped in a dully designed third-person shooter. Director Takayoshi Nakazato was reportedly shooting for the Final Fantasy version of Half-Life; unfortunately, what he’s wrought is closer to half-baked.
    Dirge’s main man is Vincent Valentine, the moody, broody ex-science experiment who popped up as a hidden character in FFVII, packing his triple-barreled gun Cerberus. Now, three years later, mysterious soldiers known as Deepground are looking to unleash yet another Weapon That Will Destroy the World. Vincent’s both the key to the mystery and the only one who can stop the bad guys. How, you ask? By running through drab hallways, alleys and warehouses, shooting at the same bland sets of soldiers and robotic dogs, and completing missions ripped straight out of every shooter game from the past 10 years.
    This might be forgivable if the bang-bang were actually fun—but Square Enix commits the cardinal sin of making their jaw-dropping cutscenes (the company’s trademark) significantly cooler than the game itself. In one example, Vincent launches into the air, blasting a huge Deepground dragonfly airship out of the sky before coming to precarious rest on the crossed spire of a church, about 100′ off the ground. Awesome, obviously. So why, when you’re actually controlling him, can’t Double-V jump high enough to scale a simple wall?
    But for Final Fantasy diehards, it might be fine that plot trumps game play—ultimately, the chance to groove on Vincent’s back story may be just enough to keep you blasting all the way to the end. Hit the finish line, and your reward is an unexpectedly generous handful of unlocked missions. Some of which, unlike the main game itself, are actually enjoyable.—Aaron R. Conklin

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James Taylor
John Paul Jones Arena
Thursday, August 17

music  It’s a truth universally acknowledged that the concerts of aging pop stars take on two distinct forms: 1) unanticipated choices in the song list are met with polite or semi-rapt attention, and 2) old favorites produce a surge—nay, a frenzy—of affection that is as close as human beings get to being a collective source of clean energy.
    James Taylor’s show last Thursday at the new John Paul Jones Arena was no exception, of course. “Fire and Rain” and “Carolina In My Mind” have practically reached psalm-status, and as JT belted them out (beautifully, of course), the audience was the very picture of a fully engaged congregation. And they bounced and swayed to jaunty feel-good numbers like “Mexico” and “How Sweet It is (To Be Loved By You)” with the intense joy that’s born of expectations fulfilled. In contrast, the applause that followed the traditional “The Water Is Wide” and the title track from Taylor’s latest album sounded like distant thunder.
    But all this doesn’t mean that the concert was disjointed. Taylor has the clout to put together a superb band, and his current one—featuring the legendary Steve Gadd on drums, and Larry Goldings, well known in the jazz world as a pianist and organist—can sell any tune, whether the audience is ready to buy it or not. They have the ability to lend tinkling folk music a booming heft without drowning out its essential roots, as well as to play the blues like the devil. Taylor spent at least a snippet of several songs, such as “Oh What A Beautiful Morning” from the musical Oklahoma, playing solo. Above and beyond whatever he’s singing or strumming, his unique ability to command an arena with flawless vocal stylings wedded to crystalline acoustic guitar playing has never been more fascinating.
    Nearing 60, Taylor seems inured to praise, which gives him an appealing stage presence—what other reason is he up there except to keep his songs and his particular musical sensibility alive? He also seems genuinely grateful for a loyal fan base. The audience in The John was like a who’s who of Charlottesville Baby Boomers. The air was thick with adult respectability. But there was a sprinkling of younger people, including a small group of girls (“women” doesn’t seem appropriate in this case) who screamed at Taylor between songs: “You’re hot! Can we come back stage?!” Appearing baffled, as if the concept of time had receded along with his hairline and he was again a young star, Taylor said sheepishly, “This could get ugly.”
    The music sure never did.—Doug Nordfors

“The Strength of the Human Spirit”
Christopher L. Morris
Hotcakes
Through September 9

art  Christopher L. Morris is a photographer who has so carefully honed his craft that he can’t help but pay homage to his predecessors (you just have to see his “Artist’s Statement”). It’s as if he’s part of the same tribe, understands the same language, and those who are gone come to life from behind the shadows. Some say it’s all been done before, but Morris still manages to make each black and white uniquely his own.
In a tightly cropped photo (one of many now on display at Hotcakes), an elderly woman clasps her hands above her head as if fatigue has driven her almost to prayer. In the picture, viewers can find the same reverence for the human spirit paired with a stark reality once exhibited by Dorothea Lange in her Depression-era photos. Morris, however, goes on to celebrate the human form for its purely aesthetic beauty, and frames the woman’s delicate hands, rendered in shades of gray and light, so they rise like a sculpture from the center of the image.
    In another compelling photograph, a still life of melons resting on what appears to be the metal of a truck, viewers may recall the graphic, patterned representation of everyday items made popular by Paul Strand in the early 1900s. Yet, the beauty of Morris’ photo lies in the tension that is created between abstract patterns that almost threaten to obscure the recognizable objects (think Escher), but never completely do (unlike Strand’s).
Also included in this show is Morris’ poignant image of a mother embracing her daughter set squarely against the backdrop of a distant house. The picture is reminiscent of the work by the renowned Walker Evans, a man known for his frontal, documentary-style photos. Yet, where Evans’ images were often of signs and strangers, the people and their land in Morris’ photos are obviously known and beloved by the artist.
    Morris acknowledges that these pictures are part of a “photographic essay” and it’s apparent that he builds connections not only to innovators of the past, but also between his own photos. The circle motif is repeated in many images: Eggs, cabbages and melons each fill separate picture frames. An old shed is the backdrop in a couple of shots to reflect the shadows of tree limbs and people just beyond the lens. And hands are frequently featured—just like the old woman’s—reaching forward yet back in time.—Karrie Bos

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The Ruins
By Scott Smith
Knopf, 319 pages

words  It starts the same way every time.
    An interchangeable group of Young Americans, on a rowdy bacchanal in a Foreign Paradise, stumbles across Something They Shouldn’t. Ignoring all the obvious warnings, they Venture Where They Daren’t and end up unleashing a Supernatural Horror that proceeds to dispatch them with increasing gruesomeness. Rinse, recycle and repeat.
    Is Scott Smith toying with these conventions in his newest novel, The Ruins? Possibly, but little commentary can be found amidst the typical burden of such a standard narrative. Complete with its manufactured Americans (Stacy, Jeff, Eric, Amy), its foreign paradise (a holiday in Mexico), and its reckless venture into the jungle depths, The Ruins follows the standard horror tropes with unwavering fidelity.
    Smith’s previous novel, A Simple Plan, operated within a similar genre (the mystery novel), yet amped up the stakes with an engrossing plot and pitch-perfect tension. With his follow-up novel, however, the trajectory is depressingly simple: Four college graduates with nothing to do follow a German tourist, who is searching for his brother near the site of Mayan ruins. Once there, they find themselves stranded on a mysterious hill flowing with vibrant undergrowth, trapped between armed Mayan villagers who Know Secrets We Don’t and sentient vines that are, of course, hungry for human flesh and blood.
    If you’re going to bury yourself within the conventions of the horror novel, the first lesson is this: Make sure your Supernatural Horror is worthy of 300 pages of character-crunching physical and emotional trauma. Smith’s ravenous vines, unfortunately, don’t quite pass the test. Yes, they’re aggressive and everywhere: They “fold back upon themselves, piling layer upon layer, forming waist-high mounds, tangled knoll-like profusions of green. And everywhere, hanging like bells from the vines, were those brilliant bloodred flowers.” They slither, scrape, slurp, mimic smells and voices, and inflict their fair share of pain. But, in the end, they’re still just plants—fodder at best for a short story.
    That being said, The Ruins taps into that primal essence of horror novels: the blatantly grotesque. Reading like a survival narrative by Stephen King, Smith’s horrific tale is full of blood-drips and spatters, self-mutilations and amateur amputations, all written with a clinical detail that the squeamish will read through winced eyes. Still, when these charisma-free dummies get drunk off tequila during a life-threatening crisis, readers can indulge in their horrible fates without remorse. After all, as one rapscallion notes during a rare moment of clarity: “They were fools, not survivors.”
—Zak M. Salih

Reprieve
Ani DiFranco
Righteous Babe Music

cd  How you feel about the new Ani DiFranco album will probably depend entirely on the relationship you had with this riot-grrl icon before you pick it up. I remember gazing at a couple of waifish, identical-looking young women—cropped blonde hair, black-clad and tattooed, arms wrapped protectively around each other—outside the college chapel where Ani played the first time I saw her, a (gulp) decade ago; I’ve always thought of them as quintessential Ani fans. They were vulnerable, tough, and—in a niche way—very hip. And they, like the unapologetically feminist folksinger they were there to see, seemed like they could see right through everything.
    Back then, Ani was like a wildfire spreading through the college music world, gathering young and mostly female devotees who idolized her independence, her anger, and her willingness (as one of my friends admiringly put it) to “sound ugly.” Now, 10 years later, she’s still pumping out albums at a steady annual rate, but who’s listening? Who’s memorizing them, growling/honking/whispering along with them, living by their quotable lyrics? “I ain’t in the best shape I’ve ever been in/But I know where I’m going/and it ain’t where I’ve been,” Ani sings on Reprieve.
    There’s a (predictably self-conscious) sense here of having grown up. But “it ain’t where I’ve been” both is, and isn’t, true. The narcissistic patness of those lyrics is vintage Ani, as is Reprieve’s intense and moody ambience, political content and not-terribly-interesting use of sampling. If Reprieve is your first Ani album, you’ll probably feel like you’ve discovered a talented musician with a distinctive, individualistic style that encompasses folk, rock and jazz with a playful, theatrical ease. And if you’re an Ani fan from the old days, you’ll instantly recognize her way of building a melody, and the urgent rhythms of both her sung and spoken words.
    You’ll also probably yawn—either because you’ve really, really heard this all before, and it frankly feels worn out, or because you’ll sense that Ani herself has long since let go of the fire that used to make this bag of tricks sound so relevant. On “Millennium Theater,” for example, she resorts to more or less naming things (Enron, icecaps, Yucca Mountain) and relying on her own musical and lyrical baggage to imply the relevant commentary. I imagine those two blonde lovers (or friends, or whatever) listening to Reprieve, and I see sneers on their faces. But then, they’re 10 years older now, too.—Erika Howsare

NCAA Football ‘07
Electronic Arts
Xbox

games  Any respectable run-through of the latest pageantry-packed edition of Electronic Arts’ Saturday-afternoon special, NCAA Football ‘07, has to start with the Commonwealth Bowl. Gotta see if those scrappy Cavs can finally lay the smack to the hated Hokies, right?
    Unfortunately, they couldn’t, losing a 24-14 nail-biter thanks to a late INT in heavy traffic—but that, plus a healthy sampling of the season and new “Campus Legend” mode, makes three things eminently clear:
    This is the best-looking NCAA game ever. Even if you’re not calling plays on an Xbox 360 (see below), the stadium and player animations sparkle, and the ESPN presentation is as smooth as a Vince Young scramble.
    The new “Momentum Meter” feature, which supposedly adds performance bonuses as you string together sweet plays, is (much like Marcus Vick) all flash and no substance. Even when Tech’s meter was three-quarters full, I was still routinely serving 40-yard laser beams into the Hokies’ secondary. Big Mo? More like big miss, if you ask me.
    NCAA’s other new features basically amount to a wash. Trick plays and analog-control kicking are welcome, long-overdue additions to the feature arsenal, but the “Impact Camera” that slo-mo-zooms in on every long pass and bone-crunching tackle gets old after a single series. Unlike certain cyclists and pro baseball players, my adrenaline levels don’t need an artificial boost—so save the slo-mo special effects for the replay, please. (Oh, and one other thing: Lee Corso is a freakin’ loon—somebody certify this guy already.)
    One final caveat: If you’re a 360 owner, you may want to take a pass on this year’s pricey pageantry. Especially since, like last year’s Madden ‘06, the next-gen version
of NCAA 07 has the looks but not the books: The game actually contains fewer features (no “Campus Legend,” no trick plays) than its now-gen cousins. Pay more for less? I doubt there’s an athlete—or button-mashing couch potato—in the world who’d cheer for that.—Aaron R. Conklin

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Can’t Get No

by Rick Veitch
Vertigo, 352 pages

words Can’t Get No, the latest graphic novel from writer and artist Rick Veitch, chronicles a fictional man’s experiences in the aftermath of 9/11. Like the Rolling Stones song from which the book gets its name, Can’t Get No expresses disillusionment with materialism and mainstream thinking. Oh yeah—there’s also drugs, sex, and one hell of a tattoo job.
    The story focuses on Chadwick Roe, a Wall Street executive with a company that makes ultrapermanent markers. Chad soon finds the company’s stock taking a nosedive after a massive lawsuit, so he heads to the nearest bar to drown his sorrows. At the bar, he gets drunk, earns the malice of two women and passes out. When he awakens the next morning, he finds his entire body permanently tattooed in tribal spirals, applied (with his company’s own nonremovable product, of course) by the harridans from the night before.
    With intricate lines and patterns covering every inch of skin, Chad is soon reviled and shunned by people in the street. But, before he can even get a real grasp on his situation, a pair of airplanes crash into the World Trade Center. Thus is the backdrop for Veitch’s narrative, which addresses what it means to be human in the light of terrible and terrifying circumstances, meticulously drawn.
    Serving this message is Veitch’s writing style, which delivers freestyle poetry in carefully crafted bits: image by image, page by page. While Veitch’s verse borders, at times, on the overbearing (he’s the kind of writer who’s not afraid to use the phrase “poor cabbage-head sliced and diced in the Veg-O-Matic of life”), the book is saved by its powerful images and its surreal-yet-captivating story. Yes, the $19.99 cover price may be a bit steep for a paperback that takes only an hour to read, it’s still worth the investment—it’ll seem like a bargain once you finish lending it to all of your friends.—David T. Roisen


The Movies: Stunts and Effects
PC
Lionhead/Activision
Rated: Teen

games Imagine Godzilla without the gargantuan green monster, or X-Men: The Last Stand without blasts of energy blazing across the screen. In a sense, that’s what Peter Molyneux asked fans of the moviemaking PC sim The Movies to do when he deliberately left the big-budget effects feature on the cutting-room floor. Clearly, Lionhead was holding back the bang and fizzle for an expansion pack.
    Not that fans noticed or minded. In fact, an entire community of would-be virtual filmmakers went way beyond the game’s let’s-be-Samuel-Goldwyn mode, using “Starmaker,” the game’s deep movie-making tool set, to create a ridiculous number of, um, unusual visual opuses of their own. (If you’re feeling adventurous, check some of ’em out at www.movies.lionhead.com. You’ll particularly enjoy it if, like me, you’ve ever wondered what cows wrestling might look like.)
    Those same cinemaphiles have already gone totally Speilberg over Stunts and Effects, an add-on that finally lets you put the bang—and the flame, and the lasers, and the blue-screen effects—in your would-be summer-movie blockbuster. Plan 9 from Outer Space sequel, anyone?
    As the title suggests, the biggest new addition here is stuntmen (and women)—stand-ins who are there to do the dangerous jobs that your star prima donnas won’t. (You know, things like immolating themselves and taking a third-storey dive through a plate-glass window.) But here’s the catch: You have to hire, pay, train and babysit your stunt crew as much as you do your front-line stars. In fact, you even have to dump ‘em in the new hospital building for recuperative stays when they get banged up in stunts gone wrong. Yes, it’s realistic, but it also adds yet another layer to a game that was already brutally heavy on the micromanagement.
    If you’re playing the regular game, the new toys don’t become available until 1960—40 game years after you’ve opened your studio—so your best bet is to opt for the QuickStart mode to get at ‘em immediately. The addition of blue screens is also a huge plus: Now you can really confound your actors into wooden-dialogue dysphasia, and fully unleash your inner George Lucas.
    My rule of gamer’s thumb for judging an expansion pack hinges on whether the content transforms the overall experience, or simply feels like cash-grab rehash. Stunts and Effects flickers into the former category: If you’ve been using The Movies as the modern equivalent of a Super-8 camera, you’re never going to keep up with the wannabe Wachowskis online without it.—Aaron Conklin

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Sunday In the Park with George
Heritage Repertory Theatre
Through July 29

stage In 1981, after his musical Merrily We Roll Along was abused by critics and shunned by the public, Stephen Sondheim announced that he was going to pour all of his creative energy into writing mystery novels. This was tantamount to Michael Jordan, a decade later, hanging up his sneakers and setting out to become the next Willie Mays.
    Fortunately for the world of musical theater, inspiration intervened. Sondheim and his collaborator, James Lapine, while discussing the 7′ x 10′ masterpiece “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by 19th-century French painter Georges Seurat (which was constructed with contrasting dots of color that unify in the viewer’s eye), conceived of a musical that eschews a conventional storyline. Instead, it dramatizes an artist’s working method: so concentrated that the models for the figures in the painting are equal parts actual and illusory. How to describe the ambience Sondheim and Lapine summon up? “Art imitates life” (or even Oscar Wilde’s jocular reversal, “life imitates art”) doesn’t quite cut it. It’s more like “life coasts through art’s skin and sashays around in its body.”
    Esoteric this musical can surely feel—if you’re not prepared for a unique experience. (It’s worth noting that it received mixed reviews when it first opened on Broadway, and then went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.) Philistines would say that the plot revolves around a trivial question: Is Seurat a narcissistic artist more than he is a cognizant human being? But for willing audiences, the show takes musical theater in a euphoric new direction. And then there’s Sondheim’s brilliant compositional style: the jazziness of George Gershwin infused with postmodern, Philip Glass-like riffs, and often enveloped in a more refined version of a Marvin Hamlisch-style warmth.
    Luckily, Heritage Repertory is up for the challenges of Sunday. Director Robert Chapel moves everything along at an interesting pace—slow, almost as if the stage floor is covered in a coat of wet paint, but appropriate for an obvious reason. The scenic design by Sara Brown is, in effect, the production’s dominant character. To give away its surprises would be like presenting a gift in a clear glass box. The two leads, Rob Marnell as Seurat, and Janine DiVita as Dot, his mistress, are solid. DiVita has the kind of professional charisma that Charlottesville theatergoers don’t often get a chance to see. In past Heritage Rep productions, Marnell, though an excellent singer, has stumbled through the sappy dialogue of classic musicals. That’s not a problem in this case—thanks to Sondheim’s decision not to try to become the next Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. —Doug Nordfors
 
Jean Sampson
McGuffey Art Center
Though August 13

art Not many things can rival the intensity of this summer’s latest heat wave—
except, maybe, Jean Sampson’s vibrant oil paintings now on exhibit at McGuffey
Art Center.
    Sitting before Sampson’s canvases, you realize that her work is all about “energy.” The type of energy that, as the painter herself describes it, could be overwhelming if left unchanneled or untamed. Yes, these paintings are basically controlled color explosions, with wild fields of color that allow viewers to clear their own energy fields, without any of the repercussions of an actual fire.
    In Sampson’s show, as it is with most abstract art, each painting becomes a bit of a Rorschach test—viewers are drawn to what they need to see, finding what lies dormant in their own psyches, waiting to be revealed. That said, Sampson guides the viewer—both by title and the inclusion of almost-recognizable shapes—as to what his or her mind will conjure up. In “Firebird,” the small splashes of gold and orange in the middle of the painting’s horizontal composition are suggestive of smoldering debris in an otherwise serene landscape. Above the fire are brushstrokes of color that evoke the image of some winged creature attempting to lift off out of the embers. Where the sky should be, compositionally, a field of blue-green sits like a body of water, cooling the fire below. It’s a bit surreal—a pleasant surprise that keeps the painting true to its abstract nature.
    In “Sage #II,” a piece made equally dynamic through the pairing of complementary colors, the large mass in the middle of the canvas seems to begin as the body of a woman in motion, created from faceted planes of jewel-like color. At the top of the piece, where the “woman’s” head and neck merge with the surrounding shards of color, the figure becomes one-dimensional. Overall, the image is suggestive of a mythical winged creature, some rare bird.
    Perhaps I’m in need of a retreat, myself—some relief from the occasional oppressiveness of being earthbound. At least that’s what my psyche tells me as I view these illuminating oils. Visit Sampson’s show yourself, and see what is buried deep within you. —Karrie Bos

Talk Talk
By T.C. Boyle
Viking, 340 pages

words Whether in a dinner-upsetting exposé on the evening news or those popular Citibank commercials (you know, the ones where the harmless grandmother snickers with an ex-con’s gravelly voice), the threat of identity theft has earned a place in the mind (and bank account) of almost every American. But, just in case you weren’t already worried enough, we now have T.C. Boyle’s latest novel to show us just how very real (and easy) a crime it can be.
    Moving with the crisp speed of a rote paperback mystery, and suffused with the kind of excitement normally reserved for blockbuster films, Talk Talk is a beach read with something practical to tell us. With Dana Halter, the deaf English teacher who finds herself the unknown victim of exorbitant credit card charges, Boyle has created the perfect victim-who-takes-vengeance-into-her-own-hands archetype. After a Kafkaesque weekend spent clueless in jail and tangled in bureaucratic red tape, Dana and her boyfriend, Bridger Martin, proceed to track down her impostor in a cross-country hunt, following a myriad of clues that include post office boxes, crumpled breakfast receipts, and a slew of unpaid bills.
Her foil and (sorry, Dana) the most charismatic character in Talk Talk is Peck Williams, the data thief who has appropriated her conveniently gender-neutral name. The narrative switches back and forth between the two, and there’s no denying the strength of Peck’s passages.Instead of a loutish blue-collar criminal, Boyle gives us a sharp, calculating mastermind with a trophy girlfriend, a knack for cooking culinary delights, and a wardrobe of stolen identities.
    Inside both Dana and Peck—the victim and the victimizer—burbles an anger that most American readers will find all-too-familiar: rage toward the creaky cogs of justice and the minor inconveniences that pepper everyday life. As Boyle writes, “Life frustrates. Eternally frustrates. How could it be any different?”
    If only the intense emotional buildup didn’t flounder in the final moments; instead of an epic showdown worthy of the catch-me-if-you-can plot, we get the painful results of justice foiled—and possibly never being meted out at all. Despite this, Boyle’s suspenseful story, and his always-engaging style, produce an engrossing, somewhat frightening novel that will surely cause wary readers to wish they hadn’t used a charge card to buy it. —Zak M. Salih

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Urinetown—The Musical

Live Arts

stage

There are a few things that everyone can be sure of: 1) the earth
is round; 2) if you fling a baseball (or a parking ticket, or a shitzsu) up in the air, it will come back down; 3) musicals are ripe for parody.
    And there’s one basic law that should govern most community theaters: If you want to produce a musical, pick one in which every little failing can be smothered in the phrase “It’s supposed to be bad.”
    Urinetown—The Musical, the brainchild of composer and lyricist Mark Hollmann and writer and lyricist Greg Kotis (and featuring such stirring numbers as “Don’t Be the Bunny” and “Snuff That Girl”) takes deadly aim at the conventionalities of musical theater. More specifically, it takes Les Miserables hostage, demanding that we give up our fondness or respect for it in exchange for some hearty laughs.
    Here’s the premise: In an imaginary, Gotham-like city, a severe drought has to led to the outlawing of private toilets, and everyone must pay to urinate in public amenities run by a monopolistic corporation called Urine Good Company.
    Still with me? Yes? Great. Let’s continue.
    A lowly urinal manager, Bobby Strong (Jonathan Green) leads a rebellion against UGC, while also finding time to fall in love with Hope Cladwell (Alice Reed), the daughter of UGC’s CEO, Caldwell B. Cladwell (Dan Stern). Will the rebellion succeed against massive odds? Will the rich girl choose abstract love over Daddy’s money? Will the concept of a happy ending get fed into the parodic meat grinder?
    John Gibson directs Live Arts’ version of this Tony Award-winning concoction. With the help of a set—designed by Jeff Bushman—that resembles a construction site, grubby costumes designed by Julia Carlson, and Carin L. Edwards-Orr’s by turns muddy and garish lighting design, Gibson creates the appropriate visual atmosphere: When the show’s over, you’ll feel like washing your hands.
    All right, so some of Gibson’s sight gags, such as a send-up of Bob Dylan’s lyrics-on-placards sequence in Don’t Look Back, fall flat, and Rob Petres’ choreography isn’t always slick, and the song stylings of the three leads probably wouldn’t make it past the first round of “American Idol.” Who cares? These bumps in the road in effect satirize the satire. And on the completely bright side: The comic inventiveness of Michael Horan and Karie Miller (whose characters team up to provide verbal CliffsNotes for the audience, and in general anchor the show) needs no excuses.
—Doug Nordfors

Danielson
Satellite Ballroom
Friday, July 14, 2006
 
music

On Friday night, I heckled Neil Hamburger, the self-proclaimed world’s worst comedian, and he threw a drink at me in response. It was all part of a horrible routine by “America’s Funnyman” (a comedian that purposely tells lame, tasteless jokes) and the fact that people actually laughed at him was pretty sad.
    But enough about that freak—I was actually at the Satellite Ballroom to see Danielson, a collective fronted by the brilliant Daniel Smith who first debuted in the mid ‘90s with A Prayer for Every Hour—an album originally recorded as part of Smith’s thesis at Rutgers University. Ever since, he has released a string of records comprised of mad, rambunctious tunes that often seem to contain a moral lesson of some sort (although it’s hard to tell—it’s damn near impossible to make sense of his lyrics). Musically, Danielson’s songs approach the epic, usually beginning with Smith on acoustic guitar, yelping in a voice resembling Mickey Mouse, then building slowly into foot-stomping orgies of sound, replete with a symphonic array of instruments. Judging by their albums, Smith and his “Familyre” seem like they would be great live—something approaching the ecclesiastical fury of a gospel church revival—but his last (and first) appearance in Charlottesville was disappointing. For some reason Smith played that show encased in a giant, tree-shaped suit crafted out of foam and felt. While visually stimulating, the suit definitely encumbered his performance (the incredible stifling Tokyo Rose heat didn’t help, either) and the show ended up being a bit anticlimactic.
    But this time, outfitted (as was his
band) in quasi-military-slash-postal-worker regalia, Smith turned in a stellar performance. Joined by his sister Megan (on vocals, xylophone and finger-snaps), two drummers, a keyboardist and a bass guitarist, Brother Daniel (as he is called) played songs culled largely from his most recent release, the excellent Ships.
     The show was infectiously energetic, with Smith repeatedly exhorting the crowd to help him with his “clap-a-longs,” and receiving a feverish response. By the end everyone was exhausted, but undeniably enriched. “C’mon,” Smith routinely yawped over the course of the night, urging the crowd to join in—but, for me, no exhortation was necessary: Whatever Brother Daniel bids, I will gladly do.
—Jayson Whitehead

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Love Letter Invitational
Second Street Gallery
Through August 12

art

Local artists and writers have paired up at the Second Street Gallery to “speak” about love—and the results are as diverse as the emotional responses to love itself. Most of the 41 works included in this show are not love letters in the classic sense. Indeed, they’re many heartbeats away from the traditionally scrawled missives that begin “Dearest…” This is 2006, after all, and the collaborators in this collection address all types of love, not just the kind between swooning suitors. What’s more, they’ve done it in every conceivable fashion—from paintings to pottery, found objects to photographs, line drawings to mixed-media installations (and I do mean installations—as in an entire plastered kiosk, a goddess-summoning temple and desks filled with writing paraphernalia).
       That’s not to say that these “letters” are unrecognizable as such. “House Cricket,” (mixed media) by Suzanne and Dan Stryk, contains a sepia-toned, handwritten love letter—a poem that metaphorically compares the romantic love between husband and wife to that of two crickets (“…seeking that trilling in each other’s corners”). The painting “How Beautiful the Beloved,” by Gregory and Trisha Orr, depicts colorful, alphabet-block letters that spell out the words of the poem (“…whether garbed in mortal tatters or in her dress of everlastingness—moon broken on the water”). And “Love Poem,” a poster/CD combo by Browning Porter and Paul Curreri, plays on the words “falling in love” (“Fall in love, we say as if love were beneath us”), and is printed on a potpourri of things for admirers to take away, so that, after all this loving, gallery goers can depart with “letters” in hand.
       Each creation addresses the viewer (albeit indirectly) and encourages him (or her) to pick up just about anything and create—which is what the organizers of this show are obviously hoping for. (There’s even an adjoining art room provided for attendees to wax poetic.)
       The question is: In a show about love, should everyone be able to feel it? Or is love, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder? Can you really think your way to love? Do you even want to? Is love a province of the mind, or is the mind just an island somewhere that is forgotten when the heart takes over? Sure, all of these questions may leave you a bit overwhelmed, seeking to catch your breath—but that’s the idea. It’s a sure sign that love is in the air.—Karrie Bos

The Oxford American
Spring 2006

words

 The banner “Best of the South” on the cover of the Spring 2006 Oxford American betokens a few pages of mindless fun: tiny, pithy write-ups beneath categories such as “Best massage within a 50-mile radius of Little Rock,” and “Best place to feel like you’re trapped in a Flannery O’Connor short story.”
       Think again. What the magazine actually offers is 20 fairly lengthy, thoughtful prose “odes” to an unpredictable array of things, abstractions, books, people, etc. To name a few: chicken’s feet (as in for eating), a Memphis night, Gone with the Wind, and Warren Oates. So who the hell is Warren Oates? You’ll have to read it to find out: Several of the pieces don’t reveal their secrets until you plunge into them.
       With all due respect to Mr. Oates, the subjects of the odes are thin, and most don’t, as journalists would say, write themselves. Besides pointing out that chicken’s feet don’t really taste like chicken, but aren’t bad, what else is there to say? Isn’t crooning about the virtues of Gone with the Wind kind of old news? Just as so much depended upon William Carlos Williams when it came to pulling off a poem about a wheelbarrow, these pieces prevail or crumble according to the skill and verve of each writer.
       Two examples perfectly sum up the disappointing unevenness. Well-known fiction writer Richard Bausch uses a nicely arranged series of concrete details to illuminate the particular charm of “the first warm night of the year” in Memphis. However, equally well-known fiction writer Bobbie Ann Mason’s ode to the main tourist attraction in her hometown of Mayfield, Kentucky—a group of seven statues called “The Strange Procession That Never Moves”—never gets moving. Each paragraph is like a chip off a block of unadorned information.
       Still, all the odes together have a cumulative effect that will please anyone interested in Southern culture. And, even if they’re not all completely up to snuff, this collection makes those typical, cheesy “Best of” lists feel like the first cold night of the year in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.—Doug Nordfors

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