At this point in time, it’s somewhat difficult to write a Dropkick Murphys review, as it can be tough to separate Dropkick Murphys the band from Dropkick Murphys the product. It’s even harder if you’ve been with them from the Do or Die era and watched the music and the crowd change over time. It’s pretty easy to be jaded, but it would also ignore the fact that the records they’ve made since ascending to the throne of Boston ambassadors/mascots have generally been pretty good. In fact, their last record, The Meanest of Times, stood up quite nicely to anything they did in the pre-“Tessie” era. Going Out in Style isn’t as strong as that record, but it’s still a pretty decent effort. The 1-2 punch of “Hang’em High” and the title track provides quite a kick, the latter of which contains enough Boston landmark/celebrity namedropping to show that the band is in on the joke. While things generally suffer a bit when they slow down the tempo, the more laid back “Broken Hymns” is surprisingly pretty. In addition, it’s amazing that drummer Matt Kelly doesn’t get mentioned more often as being one of punk rock’s best. There is no way these songs carry their sense of martial swing without him. The record has its share of filler, and we definitely don’t need their take on “The Irish Rover” since the Pogues already did it and did it better.
The bonus edition also contains a live recording from the band’s two-night stint at Fenway Park. Some fans will be disappointed at the strong emphasis on Going Out in Style, but that makes sense given that this is the band’s third full-length live release and a lot of the older numbers have appeared on the previous two. From a technical standpoint, this is about as good as I’ve ever heard a live recording sound. Everything comes through crystal clear, and the vocals and instruments are mixed at appropriate levels. In general, the songs contain more energy than their recorded counterparts, but the melodies get flattened out a bit. While the performance is more than competent, the song selection highlights the band’s increasingly obvious attempts at pandering to the crowd. The inclusion of “Tessie” was probably unavoidable, but it’s still hard not to associate that song with the last exodus of the studded leather jacket/liberty spikes crowd. “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” and “Kiss Me I’m Shitfaced” (even with its knowing wink) are grating at this point as well. The high point of the set is Kay Hanley reprising her role on the bawdy rocker “The Dirty Glass.” It’s probably the band’s most enjoyable song, and really, is there anything that Kay Hanley doesn’t make better? (Kevin Finn)
ANDREA GILLIS BAND
Andrea Gillis is another of that rare breed of singer who can sing the back of a milk carton and make your soul ache. This new release features a roster of Boston rock royalty: Melissa Gibbs, Charles Hansen, Michelle Paulhus, and Bruce Corporal, with guest appearances by Steve Mayone, John Powhida, Mark Pinansky, and Sarah Grant. This new album absolutely sizzles and spits out a vengeance that grabs you by the collar and makes you pay attention. Loads of influences here: classic Motown, mariachi, soul, R&B, and a load of badass rock ’n’ roll. Highlights include a rousing studio version of a personal longtime live fave, “Taxi”; “More Often Than Not,” written by Scott Janovitz, featuring some great vocal harmonies; and a rousing rendition of the gospel classic “Keep Your Hand on the Plow.” If you haven’t checked out Andrea Gillis’ music yet, you’ve probably been living under a rock for the last decade or so. If you haven’t been living under a rock, you should check out this powerhouse singer/songwriter. I can’t think of anyone who could possibly not be moved or impressed with the music on this CD. (Joel Simches)
So Late It Hurts
This reviewer recently read that So Late it Hurts was named one of the best albums of 2011, and the band, Best Act of 2009. It is not difficult to see why, especially when one recognizes Providence’s Chris Daltry’s involvement as singer-songwriter. Daltry began crafting what can only be described as “slow core” music in the early ’90s when he led Purple Ivy Shadows. The passage of time has resulted in the perfecting of his signature sound, something dark, but not oppressively so, brimming with majestic soundscapes and smooth psychedelic elements. When blended together, the result is the band’s third effort of beauty, something that aches with an intimate, relatable sorrow and conveyed through Daltry’s warm vocals. The opener, “When a Peaceful Bird Can’t Hear Her Own Song” is, exactly as the title suggests, melancholic but deeply introspective, while “Language of America,” “Our Strength in Numbers,” and “No One Up There Is Listening” call to mind Wilco, Galaxie 500, and Buffalo Tom. Perhaps the record’s closer, ”Sky Full,” truly paints a picture of the ’Mericans’ latest: “Lift me up. I want outta here. Lift me up. I wanna taste the sky.” In a word: exquisite. (Julia R. DeStefano)
The Abraxis Tactics: Phase 4: The Tatterdemalion
After a year since Planetoid started releasing the Abraxis Tactics, the fourth and last part has arrived. The first thing I notice is the cover art, until this point I didn’t realize that all four phases fit together like a puzzle. The front covers make up a manila file folder, while the inside lyric sheets look like small notes from an X-file operative keeping tabs on these alien visitors.
Musically, this band just keeps getting better. The title track “The Tatterdemalion” is quickly becoming my favorite all-time Planetoid track. It shows how versatile this band is: it is a good old blues tune, with a twist. Planetoid are outcasts, doomed to travel throughout the universe overtaking galaxies, never getting a minute of rest. Planetoid doesn’t fit into a specific genre; this disc is a great example of that. They mix stoner desert groove, metal, blues, psychedelic, and good old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll into one big ball, creating something I don’t seem to get tired of listening to. If you haven’t checked them out yet, they get my highest recommendation. (Melvin O)
Screech Owl Records
Absinthe Rose EP
While Absinthe Rose would describe themselves as folk-punk, they could just as easily be associated with the gothic Americana of O’Death and the Builders and the Butchers. It’s fantastic to be able to add a female-led band to the canon of this sub-genre that’s been bubbling in the indie underground for a decade now. Kimberly Rose delivers her vocals in a style all her own, but certainly influenced by PJ Harvey and Sharon Van Etten. Mixing acoustic and electric tracks, cow-poke folk and punky moan, this EP delivers an all-too-short snapshot of an indie band on the rise. (George Dow)
THE WHISKEY BOYS
My Girl’s Across the Ocean
Ah, youth. The Whiskey Boys are a couple Berklee lads hailing from Connecticut who now make Boston their base of operation. Building on Beantown’s penchant and support of all things folk and acoustic, the Boys’ bluegrass fiddle/acoustic guitar/banjo twang and vocal harmonies waft through the air like a steady stream of corn mash smoke from a frothing still in the woods. This is a noble little EP, and at the end of three nicely built songs, you want … just a bit more. “Pass me that bottle once more, grandpa!” (Mike Loce)
GARAGE SALE PICASSO & MARIA MONK
75 or Less Records
Garage Sale Picasso & Maria Monk
The members of Garage Sale Picasso are clearly children of the 120 Minutes generation as their songs split the difference between the old R.E.M-style jangle pop of the ’80s and the more lush style of ’90s bands like, well, Lush. There isn’t much of an edge to the mostly mid-tempo songs, but the band has a melodic intelligence that seeps out with repeated listens. The most noticeable strength is the guitar work of Keith Menard and Jason Macierowski. I have the feeling these guys could absolutely shred if they wanted to, but they have the taste to never show off at the expense of the song.
Maria Monk also would have fit in on 120 Minutes, but they would fall in line more with the heavier guitar-driven pop of that era. Think Sebadoh or later Husker Du. These guys make indie rock for those who believe it should be loud, messy, and yearning. It’s a nice change from all those wimpy dudes with acoustic guitars who hole themselves up in a long cabin and make what basically sounds like Starbucks soundtrack music. At times, the band is a little too melodramatic, but for the most part, Maria Monk is a welcome kick in the pants. (Kevin Finn)
DOUG RATNER & THE WATCHMEN
Lessons Well Learned
Doug Ratner is far from your typical singer songwriter. His music has teeth and those teeth bite hard. His band the Watchmen are the perfect complement to Ratner’s energetic rock. His sound is an Americana Elvis Costello, circa 1979, albeit with slightly longer and more fleshed-out arrangements. “In the Backseat” is straight-up English punk pop, with a political subtext. I could do without such an obvious Pink Floyd cover such as “Money,” but it seems to spit out more bile than the polished 1973 version and seems to have more of the sarcastic bite of Waters’ original demo. Midway through this EP, Ratner does get a little introspective, in a Martin Sexton sort of way. And the last two songs sound like vintage Rockpile, with Ratner borrowing equally from both Edmunds and Lowe. Everything I’ve heard from this band continues to impress. Keep it coming! (Joel Simches)
Lay Me Down b/w Down the Line
All of Shaun England’s press mentions Leonard Cohen. It’s odd that there’s no mention of Lou Reed, with whom Shaun shares distinct vocal similarities.
These two tracks highlight an introspective songwriting style accompanied by acoustic guitar and harmonica. One would expect to hear the tunes drifting from a front porch somewhere in the Deep South. The dusty road and heat of the summer live within the guitar strums and harmonica’s vibrato.
This single is an all-too-short taste of an artist that surely has hundreds more songs like these tucked in battered notebooks, just itching to tell their stories. (George Dow)
This is a great example of “don’t judge a book by its cover.” The first track of this disc sounds like another awful Kenny G. album. I sat through all five minutes of painstakingly slow elevator jazz. The second song was only slightly better, it had a flamenco feel that just felt flat. I was just about ready to dismiss this altogether, writing it off as having tried but failed. Then the third track comes on, changing my opinion completely. I’m not sure why they led the album with the two slowest songs, but the rest of the disc is awesome. They leave behind the slow jazz, finding funky jazz grooves that border on old-school ska. These grooves are solid, the horns sound great, the guitar is full-bodied. If you skip the first two tracks, this disc will have you shaking your ass around the house in no time. (Melvin O)
THE DOCTORS FOX
Handful of Laughs
Listening to this album is a lot like turning the dial on a radio from the low-end stations and slowly working my way up to the top. Wait, scratch that. Listening to this is a lot like listening to a bunch of radios tuned to different stations all playing at the same time. No wait, maybe it’s a bit of both. I don’t know. Decent metaphors are tough when it comes to a band like this: one that not only combines such a chaotic array of diverse musical styles, but one that does it so goddamn well. They’re all over the place. One moment, the music has a reggae feel, but with gypsy-style fiddle thrown in the mix. Then, before I can get my bearings, I’m hearing a samba tune decked out with disco flair. Next thing I know, they’re knee-deep in doo-wop, country-western, and more. You name it, this band plays it. Seamlessly, too. The fiddle’s fluid leads, the singer’s husky vocals, and the band’s jaunting pop-rock warmth provide just enough familiarity to keep the album grounded amidst all the genre changeovers. (Will Barry)
Canned Peaches Records
On the back of this CD lists 21 names as band members and a wide variety of instruments including the usual acoustic and electric guitars, bass, and drums. Others are harmonica, percussion, synthesizer, B-3, banjo, horns, and a penny whistle. A penny whistle! Al Pechulis writes or co-writes almost all of the music and the songs range from acoustic blues to folk ballads to acoustic Island-flavored pop—and all of it very personable, very mellow, and very good. I like Zoe Alpert’s sweet vocals on “Remember” and “Lovin’ Arms” and Al’s strong delivery on ballads “Hold Me Close Tonight,” written by T. Perriera alone, and “Long Time Miles.” “Apathy” gets into a nice groove and “Yes I Know” and “Neato Keen” are perfect songs for the beach. A good listen. Check it out. (A.J. Wachtel)
Fear of Swimming
On her debut full-length album, Kirsten Opstad sings songs about casual sex, broken relationships and the tribulations of early adulthood in an upbeat folk-pop style and a Laurie Berkner-like vocal. Yes, Laurie Berkner—most of the songs on this record sound as though they would make great bumper music any Saturday morning on PBS Kids.
Scratch the surface though and Fear of Swimming is a collection of dark yet positive reflections on the trials of life. The incongruity of Kirsten’s vocals and her songs’ subject matter is the secret sauce that makes this record so thoroughly enjoyable.
Her lyrics are heartfelt and honest and her songwriting skills are fantastic—skills she’s surely honed with her other career as an improve/sketch actor at the North End’s Improv Asylum. Its 11 tracks mix solo acoustic and full-band electric nicely, resulting in a fully formed and well executed debut. (George Dow)
18 WHEELS OF JUSTICE
18 Wheels of Justice deliver a brutal and intelligent strain of thrash. Relentless in its execution and bolstered by thought-provoking lyrics, the songs confront everything that is wrong with America and humanity in general, urging the listener to question all that is dictated to our society by those who are deemed our superiors. Vocalist Adam Sloan incites revolution with a virtual arsenal of voices—he is tenacious to the end, only taking a breather for one track two-thirds into the album. While the album is three tracks too long in my opinion, it’s not due to slacking or petering out, which may be the problem. While the aforementioned instrumental breaks the mood for a bit, the relief is akin to walking the corridors between classes. Stylistically, the album could use more of a lunchtime recess to bring contrast and add weight to the messages of the surrounding songs, but this quibble is minor. I think fans of thrash ought to be eating this up—there’s nothing hackneyed or uninspired here. Just pure drive and conviction. (Tony Mellor)
PULL TROUBLE FROM THE FIRE
The old adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” has never been truer. In this reviewer’s mind, it would not be fitting to review Pull Trouble From the Fire’s debut without first acknowledging album artwork that is all at once trippy, intriguing, and unsettling. The black-and-white sketch of a man with a shopping cart by his side and his hand plunged deep into an eyeball only serves to solidify the band’s self-described “swampy, psychedelic indie-rock” style. With their ambient sound and experimental nature, Pull Trouble From the Fire is undoubtedly original. However, the songs appear to be more of an exercise in the creative process itself rather than fully realized, cohesive products. The integration of a wide variety of elements, though interesting, are not always complementary to each other. At the same time, this debut is difficult to critique. Something tells this reviewer that Pull Trouble From the Fire pride themselves on being original and mind-blowing in their approach. (Julia R. DeStefano)
BY THE THROAT
Riders of Boards
By the Throat (BTT) traffic in a style of skate-punk hardcore that never goes out of style. It sounds as fun today as it did in 1984. Singer Niff’s vocals lie somewhere between NoFX’s Fat Mike and MDC’s Dave Dicta—good pedigree by any measure. Guitars crunch in the style of early Token Entry. Too bad Riders of Boards falls flat lyrically. Skateboard lyrics are inherently limiting but I suspect they can do better than “If I get air I gotta method.” Tighten up those lyrics and BTT have a winning formula they can ride for years to come. (George Dow)
This band is beauty personified. Their music is ethereal and swirly, much like Cocteau Twins and Bel Canto. Eliza Brown’s voice captivates and entrances. The guitars are swirly and chimey while the rhythm section chugs along quite contently. As much as this should sound like a 4AD wet dream, I find the mix and the overall production to be so “demo-like” and unfinished. There is truly a wasted potential here, given the dreamy quality the songs possess and the music so desperately needs. It seems like serving a fine aged cognac to a roomful of dignitaries in a Dixie cup. This band has been around for a few years and has seen many lineup changes. I do feel this combination of musicians is indeed the strongest they’ve had and I hope they continue to make music as impressive as this in their current configuration. (Joel Simches)
All the Rage
Upon receiving this CD, I was immediately curious as to whether this band’s goofy name is a winking nod to generic punk band names or an unknowing caricature. After having listened to the album, I’m still not entirely sure, but I definitely think there is potential here. The songs have the trashy hard-rock feel of a fiercer version of the Donnas or the Runaways. They are melodic and reasonably catchy, and the band proves to be quite nimble. The major downside is that they only seem to know one speed, which isn’t much of a problem over the course of an EP, but could be a hindrance going forward. Also, singer Ashley’s voice is an acquired taste. The full-throttle urgency of her vocals indicates that she’s studied at the heels of Corin Tucker, Kathleen Hanna, and the rest of the original riot grrls (an awesome place to study, by the way, if my assumption is in fact true), but she hasn’t yet mastered those singers’ abilities to use their voices to maximum effect. Her singing can feel a bit like a bludgeoning. Criticism aside, I’d still be interested in seeing where the Furiousity goes from here. (Kevin Finn)
I generally dislike girl-fronted metal and/or punk bands, because they tend to lose their individuality. Polluted Remains offers a decent dose of punk with a hard metal edge, but Kellee’s vocals are so strong she is never overpowered by the music. The majority of the disc is fast-paced and in your face. “Movin’ On” is a classic metal ballad showing that the band can slow it down, and still kick some ass. (Melvin O)
75 or Less Records
Everything Odder Than Everything Else
Cold and industrial, this batch of ambient music has a post-apocalyptic vibe with all of its futuristic loops and ominous mechanical sounds. It doesn’t grab your attention right off the bat, but instead slinks below the radar, like some guerrilla warrior in fatigues, blending into the background, ready to pounce at a moment’s notice—just like ambient music should. It slices at your psyche with a surgical precision so stealthy and subtle you don’t even realize it’s happening. The tunes are, for the most part, extended electro-instrumentals. There is, however, a track with a cool piece of spoken-word sci-fi beat poetry. There’s also a woozy “Fitter Happier”-type track thrown in the mix as well. The arrangements are driven by distortion-drenched basslines growling out eerie mantras while assembly-line rhythms clank and whir. Real freaky stuff. I’m actually a little surprised at just how much I am enjoying this. (Will Barry)
If you’re either old enough to remember Heavy Metal as a cartoon, or young enough to appreciate really great sounding rock music, this band should take a spin under your laser. I tend to say “well-crafted” a lot to describe music I enjoy, but goddammit, it’s what works, and I use it again on this stuff. You’ve got a new band, circa 2008, but each quartet member is coming from many veteran rock influences and has learned how to find their place in the overall mix of HydroElectric. J Mascis even plays guest lead guitar on a track! Not only that, they’re writing some kick ass songs, arranging them with poise and understanding of the rock idiom they’re fitting into. To compare to other bands would be pointless; futile at best. Just find this band around, listen to what they’re doing, see them live if you can, and crank it LOUD when you drive… or when IT drives YOU. (Mike Loce)
Dos Kay Music
Songs for Society
The easygoing, brightly melodic music on this full-length debut by ex-Session Americana bassist Kirk has a long pedigree in the American songbook, stretching back as far as Bob Wills and extending all the way up to Creedence Clearwater Revival, culminating in the soft-rock stylings of Paul Simon and James Taylor. What seems to be a drawback here is the mooring of the first two songs, “Awkward Conversation” and “Cowboy Coffee,” to a strictly utilitarian rock idiom. Maybe the drums are simply mixed too high, but the percussion strikes me as mostly workmanlike, and obliviously lacking in nuance, and the songs suffer by being subsumed beneath the weight of this rhythmic impetus–the melodies seem almost dulled. All the same, those first two songs are pleasing, and the third song, “Put Me Out of Your Misery,” has a gratifyingly epic heft. “Not Where I’m At,” a ballad co-written with Aimee Mann, has a liltingly elegiac quality; ditto the introspective “Damndest Thing.” “Can of Corn,” a craftsmanlike offering, is reminiscent of some of the bravura of a band like Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. On “The Road to No Regret,” Kirk sounds like he is singing above his range, and the wistful melody is thereby somewhat marred. The pick hit is the jazzy, almost criminally catchy closing track, “Meet Me At No Special Place,” which almost makes me feel as though I’m slurping a fruity umbrella drink in some fern bar somewhere, and maybe that’s not where you’re at—but then again, not everything has to be beer and Skittles. (Francis DiMenno)
Opposition Rising’s (O.P.) debut, Aftermathmatics pummels listeners with agro-hardcore in the style of Agnostic Front and Biohazard. Their politically charged lyrics rail against everything from the rich, to the government, to big banks—or in the case of “F.T.W.” (ed. – Fuck the World) they rail against, well… everything. O.P. vary their sledgehammer delivery occasionally with aggressive ska interludes which sound like a deadly serious version of the Voodoo Glow Skulls. The ska interludes are an important component of their sound—without them I would expect to be left exhausted and twitching from the sheer speed and brutality of O.P.’s hardcore crunch.
While O.P. does sell their music and merch through a variety of DIY outlets, they also commit to make their music available to all for free. You can stream or download Aftermathmatics at O.P.’s Bandcamp page. (George Dow)
Parking Lot Extortion
It may be unfair and even a tad snarky to characterize the opening track of this debut offering as Sophomore Rock, but ever since at least Steely Dan and maybe even going back to “It’s a Happenin’ Thing” by the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, rock has been, um, enlivened by the presence of ironic, prematurely world-weary peddlers of poker-faced whimsy. Admittedly, “Beautifully Insane” is a bit more in the conventional mode of twee proto-glam rock ala Marc Bolan, crossed with a soupcon of late ’80s-style stumbo rock with superadded screamy guitar solo. “Cliff” sounds a bit like something David Bowie might have left in the can circa “The Man Who Sold the World,” though there is evident wit and craft here, particularly in the blocky and chunky middle eight, replete with an echo-laden harmony vocal chorus. Catchy as hell, too. The pick hit is “Lucky You,” which sounds a bit like a revved-up Syd Barrett solo outing—the same fractured, half-sure lunges into chopped-up and loosely strung together vocal melodies—but in this case also jazzed up with backing instrumentals somewhat reminiscent of the Byrds—a fusion also successfully exploited by the Paisley Underground stalwarts in the Three O’Clock. Overall, this is more intriguing than otherwise, and I’d be interested in hearing more. (Francis DiMenno)
I feel like a total jerk sometimes when I find myself forced to critically beat down certain CDs that are mailed to me. This album, for example. When I made track-by-track notes, the following phrases came up: “Hallmark rock,” “soundtrack to my teeth getting cleaned,” “crowd-pleaser at the nursing home,” “poetry to woo a 6th grader,” “was this guy a music director at a parish who decided to make hackneyed secular music instead?” etc. Then I read the news clipping that accompanied the CD… turns out this guy actually plays gigs at churches and nursing homes, as well as teaches music to high schoolers! Oof. This guy is providing a musical service to his community, and here I am criticizing him for some of the most banal lyrics ever, predictable featherweight song structures, and his oh-so-polite voice. I’m a bully. I’m the bad guy, saying that this guy’s album makes any Jack Johnson album sound like the Beatles’ Revolver in comparison. Why don’t I just rob some old ladies after Bingo while I’m at it? (Tony Mellor)
STARNES AND SHAH
Red Brick Tide
Poet, rock ’n’ roller, and storyteller Dania Abu Shaheen and songstress Zilpha Starnes are at it again, once more putting forth an effort that is both introspective and influential. It is through a seemingly effortless manner that the girls’ vocals come together beautifully, each bringing her own life experiences and strengths to the table. The interplay of exquisite, often choral harmonies results in a magical listening experience. Musical fusion is the most fitting way to describe it. Through such songs as the opener “Cardinal Marks,” “Estimate and Then,” and “All That Love,” the girls have never been more reminiscent of Ryan Adams and the Cardinals and Hazeldine. Long-term fans will be delighted in the re-working of Pink White Blue Green’s “Saturn Starter Home.” As before, the girls’ lyrics are brilliantly witty, dripping with sensuality: “I know fire and I know hell and yeah, I’ve been there before… I’ll let you fix my flat tire. I’ll let you stoke my little fire. I got a box of matches, and I don’t care what catches.” The arrangement, complete with powerful riffs and strategically placed electronic elements is, when compared with the original, indicative of Starnes and Shah’s evolvement. Even “Half Hitch,” another track from their earlier record, is given a complete facelift with much added emphasis on Starnes’ vocal, “Oooh baby,” which just makes the song. Red Brick Tide is an exceptional effort, a fitting example of something unpredictable yet with the cohesion, driving melodies, and thoughtful lyrics that serve to hook listeners. Starnes and Shah have, indeed, “been livin’ right.” (Julia R. DeStefano)
Greedy Cherry EP
Five songs, five different genres. Still, I’m not impressed. Their music, no matter what style this band seems to choose, is entirely unoriginal and unforgivably middle-of-the-road. In short: It’s crap. Shite, mierda, merde, scheiße. There, that’s crap in five different languages. Impressed? I didn’t think so. Listening to this is like watching some mediocre comedian do mediocre impressions. In one fell swoop, this EP manages to desecrate Herbie Hancock, lobotomize Antonio Carlos Jobim, piss on the grave of Bob Marley, neuter the Beatles, and cheapen the centuries-old English ballad tradition. (Alright, I’ll admit that is kinda impressive, but that’s beside the point.) Greedy Cherry, please, in the name of all that is holy and musical, stop the madness. I can’t take anymore. (Will Barry)
AND A BONUS BOOK REVIEW
This is an intriguing fiction by the author of the 33 1/3 series monograph on the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime. It is a short novel which is, in essence, a mock biography of two artists. Of course, nearly all fiction is a form of mock biography. But, ultimately, a novel is also a machine for explicating a philosophy. Hidden Wheel might be of particular interest to fans of Philip K. Dick, and/or Don DeLillo (not that the two are mutually exclusive). Devotees of Dick’s dark, dystopic works such as The Man in the High Castle and A Scanner Darkly would be likely to relish the author’s narrative strategy, a series of brief, skillfully arranged, quasi-documentary chapters in which the story of an eclectic arts scene is reassembled from the point of view of a chronicler writing centuries hence. Admirers of DeLillo novels such as Great Jones Street would likely find an affinity in the subject matter of Hidden Wheel, with its wide range of arts world characters, each one concisely sketched.
Protagonists include the dipsomaniacal Max, a half-reformed graffiti artist turned gallery pro, and Rhonda, a semi-reclusive chess prodigy with a sideline as a dominatrix-for-hire who spends her life assembling fewer than a dozen enormous, autobiographical canvases. The side cast includes a tax-dodging old-money gallery owner and “micro visionary” named Ben Wilfork; a scene-making editor of an arts magazine who calls herself Lara Fox-Turner; Bernie, a drummer reduced to taking some very odd jobs in order to buy a new kit; and Amy, a fading bass player still trading on her one-time affiliation with a widely revered (and wildly reviled) novelty act called Dead Trend.
The broad theme of the novel seems to be the evanescence of artistic endeavor in a digital age–and the central narrative revolves around the respective fates of Max, the prolific and obsessively self-promoting minimalist, vs. Rhonda, the prodigy-genius whose lifespan-encompassing works take place on a far greater canvas. Max, the artist who floods the market with lazy, derivative work, considers himself a trendsetter to the very end. Rhonda, the capital-A Artist, is an ideological purist who is imperious and cold. The methodology of the novel partially mirrors its theme: the story is told with an ingenious collage of narrative techniques which in part replicate the subject matter.
Yet for all of its narrative inventiveness, this is also a novel which is grounded in the real world. Particularly interesting is its exposure of all manners of scams: self-promotion in the digital age; the marginally scrupulous business practices of arts promoters; the inside machinations of the media and its star-making machinery; and the venal strategies employed by corporate majordomos to promote dubiously “hip” brand extensions. But this is also a philosophic novel which gives the reader insights into the nature of the creative impulse; as such, it ought to be required reading for that class of artisans who also consider themselves cognoscenti, members of a select tribe known to marketers as “influentials.” This novel would also be of interest to those who want to know more about how such people operate and what really makes them tick. Hidden Wheel is not so much a hipster manifesto as a dissection of hip–we might even be talking about a new genre here, “meta-hip.” Three Rooms Press is an eclectic publishing house which has made a shrewd investment in what may well become an influential and pioneering literary work.
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