Monday, July 23, 2018

Astronomique - Sharp Divide (2018)

Written by Pamela Bellmore, posted by blog admin

“Forefathers” opens Astronomique’s Sharp Divide with the sort of confidence you don’t often hear from new bands. This Minneapolis based four piece has threaded together an irresistible sound coupling the best elements of electronica, eighties flavored Euro pop, and a deceptively strong singer/songwriter sensibility dominating the album as a whole. “Side of Your Mind” has a bright bounce from the first and singer/keyboard player Logan Andra Fongemie’s vocal shares the same upward, optimistic tilt, a mood in short supply on Sharp Divide. Drummer Mitch Billings and bassist Preston Saari distinguished themselves on the album’s opener, but they demonstrate their versatility here as they don’t play such a prominent role in the mix, yet provide a center for “Side of Your Mind” immeasurably enhancing the song.

The tracks “Losing Our Control” and the title song are likely the album’s pinnacle. There are extraordinarily good songs following this tandem, but the duo of songs near the album’s midway point stand a cut above thanks to the unified effort you can hear in both performances. Fongemie’s synthesizer playing is an integral part of the band’s sound, rather than pure ornamentation like it might be for lesser acts, and the delicate, nearly crystalline qualities of her voice are equally fitting for the material. The title song seems to be the more impressive of the two thanks to the extra dollop of passion Fongemie brings to her singing. “Smoke”, however, takes a slightly different and welcome shift on the band’s template this far and succeeds in focusing more on atmospherics without losing the musical plot.

“Unspoken”, however, returns us to the more familiar terrain of the album’s first four songs and rivals the aforementioned tandem of “Losing Our Control” and the title song without ever repeating itself. Hogan’s guitar work here is especially strong and one can feel his inspiration working with such a talented rhythm section team. “Bleed Me” is another of the album’s marquee numbers and effectively juxtaposes its intense lyrical content with another slightly melancholy, but entertaining musical arrangement. “Hardly Deliberate” maintains the same approach to Fongemie’s vocals defining the album on the whole while it brings a tense, rolling arrangement to bear anchored by the potent interplay between Saari’s rib rattling bass and Billings’ drums.

“Heading Nowhere” seems to bring Sharp Divide to a dispirited conclusion, but it is reminiscent of the earlier “Bleed Me” in its willingness to bring a relatively dire lyrical mood together with a freer, slightly more upbeat musical identity. Few albums are as clearly conceived and laid out as Sharp Divide and it’s a testament to the band’s innate chemistry, particularly between Fongemie and her songwriting partner guitarist Sean Hogan, but bassist Preston Saari and drummer Mitch Billings make a big impact on the album’s final form.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Lime Pit (1980) by Jonathan Valin

Written by Jason Hillenburg, posted by blog admin

Jonathan Valin's The Lime Pit, his first novel and Cincinnati private eye Harry Stoner’s debut, has strong points, but isn’t wholly successful. The book’s publication came during a period when the style’s resident titan, Ross Macdonald, fell silent and the thriving paperback market made room for potential successors like Valin, Stephen Greenleaf, Robert B. Parker, and Loren D. Estleman, among others. Valin never reached the same level of sales and visibility enjoyed by Parker, but his Stoner series has largely weathered posterity’s judgment and deserves revisiting.

Key components are, admittedly, dated. The idea of underage sexually explicit materials circulated via Polaroids is as quaint to 2018 experience as phone booths and recording weddings with a camcorder. Valin engages questions of morality and conscience in a manner reminiscent of Macdonald, but still groping for its voice. These questions are, ultimately, more important to Valin than the novel’s plot mechanics. The character of Cindy Ann, her disappearance functioning as a sort of inciting incident for Valin’s story, is a MacGuffian. The Lime Pit is much more about Stoner’s reactions to and challenges with the situation.

We learn a little about him. Stoner played football in college, served in Vietnam. He isn’t practically monastic like Marlowe and beds the occasional lady painfully aware of modern love’s vagaries. Macdonald’s Lew Archer is a profound influence, but never in an overly imitative way and Stoner never comes off mired in the same cloudbank of dispirited melancholy emanating from Macdonald’s legendary character,  Stoner, however, isn’t fully fleshed out.

Some of his crucial motivations are glossed over or outright tossed aside to keep the plot moving. Valin tries to pick his spots with underwhelming effect. Authors never need to belabor the underlying history and thought processes informing every decision, but laying a bit of breezy social commentary and two cents worth of psychology on readers is perfunctory at best. Promising opportunities for bringing added depths to Stoner’s character are passed over to serve formula and form. We get some, but Valin could have given so much more.

The book reflects its time period. Stoner’s 1979/1980 Cincinnati is a microcosm of an America on its heels stumbling into a new decade still punchy from the punishing one-two of Vietnam and Watergate. The national concussion makes Valin’s characters come off slightly woozy and bearing the claw marks of marginalized people hanging on for dear life.

Sometimes the dialogue falls flat or else reads like it’s cribbed from movies and past masters. Too many, but not all, of The Lime Pit’s secondary characters are cardboard. In the end, however, you will likely forgive Valin’s failings in favor of his presence. He orchestrates the form’s conventions with a steady hand and Stoner’s first person narration is consistently engaging thanks to Valin’s vivid flashes of prose punctuating his lines. The Lime Pit is a solid opening to a great series.