Devin R Bruce is a friend to Variant Edition and to all good-hearted creatures who roam the Earth. In each installment of This Column Has Seven Days, Devin discusses his favourite pop culture experiences of the past week in an effort to share the joy of an overlooked gem, an old favourite that’s bubbled up to the surface, or a classic work that he’s finally gotten around to. Comic books, movies, television, novels, podcasts, music, Old Time Radio: there’s something for everyone. Here’s what he’s been up to this week.
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This week’s column apparently has eight days. Which is just as well, I suppose, because it’s extra-sized, stuffed chock full of goodness. Music, movies, and comics, oh my! Let’s get to it.
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Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the 38th Annual Edmonton Folk Music Festival. I always look forward to Folk Fest; it’s a great way of connecting to the community and to discover a ton of great new music in the open air. This year the weather was a little rough on us Folk Fest attendees, but I still managed to come away from it with a ton of amazing music.
The first performer that blew my socks off at this year’s Folk Fest was Yola Carter, a singer-songwriter from Bristol, England. She just released her first EP, Orphan Offering, featuring six tracks of roots music magic. Carter is, pure and simple, a revelation. She’s a songwriter who can craft some true old-school country songs tinged with a little gospel flavour, and a singer whose voice fairly crackles with power. She’s at her best in the last song on the EP, “Fly Away,” where her sharp, strong voice dances effortlessly between a powerful guitar groove and crisp fiddle riff. All of the songs are great, but “Fly Away” is a showstopper.
The best way that I can summarize The Unthanks is “what would happen if Broken Social Scene and Gil Evans had two baby girls who grew up to make folk music.” The band uses traditional English folk music as a jumping off point for lush instrumental arrangements and prog-rock sensibilities that marry perfectly with the vocals from sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank. Their debut album, 2009’s Here’s The Tender Coming, is a great introduction to the group, combining haunting melodies and lush arrangements with more straightforward folk interpretations. It’s a strange combination of musical styles, but it really works for me.
Los Angeles-based La Santa Cecilia’s newest album, Amar Y Vivir, is a real joy. The group highlights their Mexican-American roots on this album, which was apparently recorded in five days, live to tape in a variety of locations in Mexico City. The band is incredibly tight, their instrumentation perfect and their technique impeccable. And singer Marisol Hernandez…she’s unbelievable. Her voice is incredibly versatile, at one moment rich and soulful, at another growly and raucous. Chock full of guest stars, Amar Y Vivir does not disappoint, and the band has uploaded the entire visual album to their YouTube channel, which makes an already great musical experience even better.
Do you like Khoomei, also known as Tuvan throat singing? Of course, we all do. Which is why I had to catch Huun Huur Tu performing live, a quartet that are not only Khoomei geniuses but also talented instrumentalists to boot. When I close my eyes and listen to their music, I’m transported to a place where riders on horses navigate rolling steppes and birds soar in the breeze. It’s not just the power of suggestion, though; Huun Huur Tu have mastered their vocal tracts so that they don’t just sing and buzz, but also sound like horses, birds, crickets, wind, and rushing water when need be. Their best-known album, The Orphan’s Lament, was my first purchase after coming back from Folk Fest, and I’ve listened to it every day since.
Darlingside is a folk-pop quartet who make music that’s reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens and The Byrds but with bluegrass instruments. The four members are talented multi-instrumentalists who all sing into a single condenser microphone, a technique that creates a dreamlike sound where it’s often hard to tell if there’s one voice or a chorus. Their second album, Birds Say, is both musically rich and tongue-in-cheek humorous, particularly the song “Harrison Ford,” a song about a character dreaming of a job interview which involves him dueling the gruff actor and flying away with him on a giant mechanical bird. I don’t know what else I could possibly say to convince you to buy it, honestly.
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Here’s a secret: I’m a sucker for a good Elseworlds story. Elseworlds were out-of-continuity reimaginings of DC Comics characters who were placed in different historical settings (including Gotham By Gaslight, where a Victorian-era Batman fought Jack The Ripper), or who had completely different origins (such as Superman: Red Son, where Kal-El crashed in a farming collective in the Ukraine). They’re not all golden, but there’s something fun about a cool remix of a familiar story to highlight what makes it compelling. Batman: Detective No. 27 is just that kind of story. The end of the American Civil War marks the beginning of a criminal conspiracy known as The Knights of The Golden Circle was founded to get revenge on the Northern forces. To confront this threat, famous detective Alan Pinkerton teams up with not-yet President Teddy Roosevelt to create The Secret Society of Detectives, identified only by a number that represents when each member joins the society. Seventy years later, millionaire orphan Bruce Wayne returns from his ten years abroad. Instead of putting on the familiar cape and cowl, though, he’s recruited into The Secret Society as Detective No. 27 (a reference to Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27). The star of the book is artist Peter Snejberg, whose polished art and clear composition make the book a joy to read. Michael Uslan’s script gets a little over-the-top clumsy at times, but there are plenty of nods to both comics characters and historical and literary figures to make up for any missteps. One of my favourite parts of the book is a splash page of a meeting of the Secret Society, with cameos of a host of classic detectives from the world of fiction. It’s probably not terribly easy to track down but it’s worth reading if you come across it.
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This week I also watched two classic films noir, both of which I ended up enjoying far more than I thought I would. The first, 1942’s This Gun For Hire, is a strange little gem featuring two musical numbers, magic tricks, and a little wartime propaganda to boot. Alan Ladd plays Philip Raven, a hitman who’s been double-crossed by his most recent client, Willard Gates (Laird Creagar), a nightclub owner who’s in cahoots with a shady chemical company. Raven vows revenge on Gates and whomever else was part of the plot, while evading LAPD’s top Detective Michael Crane (Robert Preston). By sheer coincidence, Crane’s new fiancée is a singing magician named Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), who has just been hired to sing at Gates’ Los Angeles nightclub. And by another sheer coincidence, Graham and Raven end up taking the same train to L.A., sitting in adjacent seats. After Raven kidnaps Graham, Detective Crane enlists Gates’ help in the investigation, and all four characters bounce off each other until the film’s heartbreaking climax. Each of the four main actors are very good, but none finer than Alan Ladd, who steals practically the entire movie. Veronica Lake is also very good, and also features in two musical numbers where she sings and performs sleight of hand, something I never knew I wanted to see but now I must somehow get more of.
Murder, My Sweet is the second film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s classic novel Farewell, My Lovely, starring former matinée idol Dick Powell as the rough-edged detective Philip Marlowe. The most famous portrayal of Marlowe is undoubtedly Humphrey Bogart’s The Big Sleep, and Powell’s interpretation of the character generally gets a bad rap, especially when compared to Bogart. I found Powell’s performance as Marlowe incredibly watchable, especially considering I’ve never really been a fan of his earlier work in musical comedies. The Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet is light and funny at times, Powell bringing a signature charm to the role that highlights the humour of the Chandler-esque dialogue. He can also be hard-boiled when he needs to be, especially when confronting characters that think they can get the upper hand on him. As good as Powell is, the rest of the cast is full of top-notch talent. There’s the imposing Mike Mazurki as menacing ex-con Moose Malloy; Claire Trevor as the femme fatale Helen Grayle; and Anne Shirley in her final film role as Ann Grayle, Helen’s stepdaughter. Murder, My Sweet is a twisted labyrinth of missing chorus girls, stolen jewelry, bogus psychics, and, naturally, murder. It’s a near-perfect translation of Chandler’s prose to the movie screen: tight, clever, and tough as nails.
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That’s going to do it for me this week, I think. Until next time, try to get a little messy and let some music into your heart. I’ll see you in seven days. (Six really.)