Dirty Three reinvents rock violin
Dirty Three: Cinder (Touch and Go).
The violin makes occasional inroads into rock music, usually as a background instrument to evoke rootsy or classical overtones. It rarely takes center stage, though, and few see it as a replacement for the lead electric guitar. Warren Ellis, lead violinist of Dirty Three, is an exception. The scruffy, sideburned Australian seems bent on redefining the instrument as a modern-rock component, and over the course of seven albums he’s done a smashing job of it. With no vocalist, his violin-guitar-drums trio has shaped a unique, sedate sound that hovers in a hazy netherworld between music genres.
Cinder finds the Dirty Three expanding instrumentation to include mandolin, viola, bouzouki, organ, piano, and even bagpipes. These touches are employed judiciously, broadening but not supplanting the band’s stripped-down sound. The biggest surprise on the album is the appearance of vocalists on two songs. Chan Marshall of Cat Power and Sally Timms of the Mekons turn in solid performances, but ultimately prove to be more ephemeral than essential. In the end, it’s Ellis’ violin — sinuous, elegiac, evocative — that emerges as the strongest voice here. It turns out that his mission may not be so mad after all. — Keith Goetzman
Hackensaw Boys: Love What You Do (Nettwerk).
The straight-laced bluegrass world needs a swift boot in the backside every once in a while, and the Hackensaw Boys deliver one with a set of tunes that range from touching (“Sun’s Work Undone,” an ode to a child) to ribald (“Kiss You Down There”). — K.G.
Arvo Pärt: Lamentate (ECM).
Known as an Eastern European master of stark, slow minimalism, Pärt mixes it up on this recording with interludes of rumbling timpani and blaring horns. The contrast sets up a powerful dynamic that heightens the soul-stirring intensity of both moods. — K.G.
Legends of Bulgarian Wedding Music: Together Again(Traditional Crossroads).
These musicians — clarinetist Ivo Papasov, saxophonist Yuri Yunakov, accordionist Neshko Neshev, and percussionist Salif Ali — caused a sensation in 1970s Bulgaria with their wild blend of jazz and traditional Bulgarian and gypsy music, and this reunion finds them in fine, frenetic form. The quartet, which launched a United States tour in October, still brims with the same fire that got them banned by the Soviets. — K.G.
Chocolate Genius Inc.: Black Yankee Rock (Commotion).
This New York-based singer/songwriter starts out on a fuzzy funk groove and goes on to dip into soul, pop, rock, and who knows what else — and by the time he’s done, Prince ought to be watching his back. The Genius has the guts, the talent, and the audacious moniker to challenge the royal funkster. — K.G.
Robert Glasper: Canvas(Blue Note).
Some young jazz pianists are content to repeat history, while others seem intent on clumsily upending it. Glasper stakes out a fertile middle ground, cribbing from the bebop past while prodding the music forward. His graceful melodies will draw you in, and his fresh ideas will keep you interested. — K.G.
Don’t mess with Texas
A one-woman protest machine tells her story
An Unreasonable Woman
by Diane Wilson (Chelsea Green)
Read this book at your peril! In it, Diane Wilson, a fourth-generation shrimp fisherwoman and mother of five, traces her own evolution as she fights powerful chemical companies that are poisoning both the Gulf of Mexico and the health and well-being of her hometown of Seadrift, Texas. Rarely does a book contain such a potent distillation of a writer’s personality. When I first met Diane Wilson, I asked her what made her take a stand. Her inspirational story prompted me, much to my own shock, to join her on a fast. And so it was that I found myself fasting at a peace vigil in front of the White House and a few months later getting arrested at a protest rally before the invasion of Iraq. Such is the power of Diane’s presence. Like the woman herself, this book is luminous and gritty, plain-spoken and poetic, humble and authoritative. Diane brings us into her hardscrabble world and takes us along as her clarity and determination grow — out of love for her family, for her community, and for life itself. Read this book and you just may find yourself standing up for what you love. — Nina Utne
Real Lives: Eleven Teenagers Who Don’t Go to School Tell Their Own Stories
edited by Grace Llewellyn (Lowry House)
Long a classic for the homeschool set, this reissued volume features updates by the original 11 teenagers who offer hindsight into what worked — and what didn’t — during their homeschooling. Instead of being hammered into a single mold, these young “rise-outs” studied leaves and flowers, conducted oral history projects, assisted midwives, learned to repair bikes, and otherwise developed by following their own curiosity and passions. Recommended for anyone who is involved in homeschooling — or just considering it. — Chris Dodge
The Placebo Effect and Health
by W. Grant Thompson (Prometheus Books)
Here’s some startling science: As many as 80 percent of patients respond well to treatment — no matter what the treatment. This so-called placebo effect is, in fact, far more effective than most drugs. What’s really stunning, however, is that most scientists dismiss the placebo effect as an inexplicable amusement or worse, an impediment to good science. Thompson, a doctor, teacher, consultant, and author, is an exception. The book ain’t bedtime reading, but Thompson’s rigorous exploration of the placebo effect is an important step toward acknowledging the healing power of hope. Alternative-health practitioners will not want to miss this title. — Joseph Hart
Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq
Embedded journalists covering the Iraq war made a devil’s bargain: In return for “access” to the front lines, they surrendered any semblance of personal objectivity and agreed to allow the military to censor their output. The four photojournalists featured in this book — Iraqi Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, Canadian Rita Leistner, and Thorne Anderson and Kael Alford from the United States — covered the war as independent journalists, and their pictures are a far cry from the sanitized press on the newsstand. The images are riveting and include war coverage — children dead in hospitals, insurgents poised to fire, grieving widows — as well as everyday life in a state of war. Short reportorial essays punctuate the photographs. “We wanted to document honestly what we witnessed in the war, because this is the sole duty of journalists,” reporter Phillip Robertson writes in the book’s introduction. Strange, in a democracy claiming to have liberated a dictatorship, that this should be such a radical undertaking. — J.H.
by Bernadette Mayer (New Directions)
Avant-garde poetry can be stuffy and inaccessible, but not Bernadette Mayer’s. In her long writing career, Mayer has emerged as a champion of funny, earthy poems that toy with readers’ notions of what poetry is “supposed” to be. Scarlet Tanager, her first collection in a decade, contains delightful epigrams (“who would have thought / meaning could be found in nothingness / whoops”), a handful of sonnets (rules were made to be broken!), and hilarious mistranslations from French. The driving impulse of her work is a buoyant and sometimes bittersweet faith in the world: “it’s hilarious to live / i guess that’s why people don’t want to die.” — J.H.
Paper or Plastic: Searching for Solutions to an Overpackaged World
by Daniel Imhoff (Sierra Club Books)
Anyone who’s ever ordered takeout and been left with a mess of paper bags, Styrofoam boxes, and plastic bottles will instantly grasp Daniel Imhoff’s thesis: Packaging represents a growing portion of America’s waste — some 300 pounds per person yearly. In a series of well-researched short essays, Imhoff demonstrates the cost of packaging, from its creation (clear-cut forests for paper and cardboard, for example) to its disposal (think plastic-bottle mountains). But there is hope: Imhoff profiles companies like Aveda and Hewlett-Packard, which are creating new types of sustainable containers like biodegradable plastic bags. He also gives consumer tips; for starters, when someone asks “Paper or plastic?” hand over a cloth bag. — Scott Carlson
Leaving the Life
Some traditions die hard
An ancient Indian tradition decrees that the eldest daughters of families in Bachara become “courtesans” to royalty. Today, these families supply prostitutes to truckers. Filmed over seven years, this complex and emotional documentary follows Guddi Chauhan and her sisters as they struggle into and out of “the profession.” No crusader, director Mystelle Brabbee treats her subjects with subtlety and respect as she explores themes of culture, tradition, and women’s roles. Guddi’s choices and their consequences provide a critical context for an international discussion of the rights of women. — J.H.
The Future of Food
Deborah Koons Garcia’s invaluable, painstakingly researched The Future of Food charts the history and dangers of genetic modification — an unappetizing meal, to say the least. The untested and unregulated world of genetically modified organisms offers little benefit and unbelievable risk: Imagine, for instance, what would happen if the “suicide gene,” which shuts down a plant’s ability to reproduce, should drift to other plants. The DVD, to be released in December, includes resources for taking action. — J.H.
The Phantom of the Operator
Montage editing of found footage, a dreamy French voice-over, and a poetic narrative style make this film as interesting in form as it is in subject. The film documents the rise and fall of the female telephone operator — the “voice with a smile” that launched the communications revolution a century ago. Filmmaker Caroline Martel spliced clips from more than 100 industrial trade films that show women at work as operators. Ghostly and lyrical, Martel’s film explores the boundaries of the documentary form. — J.H.
Billed as a “political burlesque,” this documentary follows the sometimes hilarious mayoral election in the small town of Bogota, New Jersey. As the title implies, it’s an allegory, and all the archetypes are represented: a ruthless Republican incumbent with a well-oiled machine, a lily-livered Democratic challenger, and a wacky independent who enlists the campaign manager of Minnesota’s pro-wrestling former governor, Jesse Ventura. To add to the carnival, two of the candidates are blind. Except for platitudes about education and taxes, the election is devoid of values, or even issues. More Molière than Michael Moore, the filmmaker makes you wish there were someone to root for. — J.H.
On the Objection Front
Israel’s story is a fascinating study in human nature. What began as an idealistic experiment backed by a justifiable toughness has slowly soured; victim has become aggressor. That transformation serves as backdrop to this understated portrait of six of Israel’s more than 600 “refuseniks” — soldiers who have signed a statement repudiating their country’s occupation of Palestine and refusing to serve in the occupied territories. As a rule, the six are patriots, and it is their patriotism that fuels a desire to serve as their country’s — and the world’s — conscience. — J.H.
A Decent Factory
When executives from the top-ranked Finnish electronics firm Nokia set out to find an ethical factory in China, filmmaker Thomas Balmès tagged along. The result is this intimate view of outsourcing, starring a hard-nosed ethics consultant, a smirking factory overseer, and a cast of a thousand stony-faced extras: young Chinese women who pay to live on site in company dormers and work long shifts on the factory floor. The film puts the lie to bromides about the “knowledge economy” by demonstrating the very real labor costs behind the high-tech revolution. — J.H.