Exploring “Ash Mountains” with Cayley Thomas

Cayley Thomas  first came to my notice a little over a year ago with a small gesture she made while playing Calphurnia in Freewill Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  At the time I suggested she was an actor to watch carefully.

I may have been wrong.

After spending a few days listening to her newly released EP Ash Mountains, I think maybe Thomas is a young singer/songwriter worth listening to carefully.

Did anyone ever buy Broken English because they were struck by Marianne Faithfull’s turn as Ophelia?  Well, to be honest, I bought Ash Mountains just because of Thomas’ performances at Freewill.  I figured if I didn’t enjoy it, I’d at least be supporting a local artist’s work – always a worthwhile little effort.

First I paid a token amount to download the five songs from Bandcamp  and gave them a quick listen.  They didn’t grab me too tightly at first distracted and interrupted listen, but the ethereal, kinda hippy, bluesy introspective pieces didn’t chase me away.  When the CD dropped a few days later, I shelled out the same amount to get a copy of the very nicely packaged little product.  I was charmed immediately by the little bonus: a hand lettered thank you heart!

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This kind of personal touch makes supporting local developing artists worth the cost and more, even if the product isn’t always polished or remarkable.

But, you know what?  Ash Mountains is pretty darn polished and really, I’m starting to think it’s a pretty remarkable début.

Here are my rough Notes from first dedicated listen:

“Guilty”

It’s a narrative of concrete images ending in ambiguity. “I found you bloody on the ground” is sung with a wonderful subtle tear in Thomas’ voice.

“Hideway”

Opens with an audible little smile.
Mellow inactivity with stripped down sound and then a jump to activity hiding away with guitar (Curtis Ross) going a lot fuzzy and epicly 70s.  Thomas has the power in her voice to hold her own against the little wall of sound. And then a quiet bit of “nothing to do but rest”
Standout.

Oh, look. There’s a video now!

“Bandit”

Hippy-folk, spaghetti western.  But it’s a metaphor, an allegory “Bank of human hearts” — what did she do after she was robbed of her man?
Torchy western — the Cayley Thomas Gang of  Human-Heart-Bank robbers.  But there’s a vulnerability in Cayley’s voice.  I can’t help thinking of “These Boots” — Nancy Sinatra — but fresh.  And a better singer. By a mile. And astronomically better words.  And probably better dancing on the video.

“Shipwreck”

An expressionistic collection of nautical images creating a metaphor of doomed relationships.  The music, however, continues a sort of western movie soundtrack vibe, sort of Spanish/Mexican/Crusaders/horsemen riding in the fading light.  But I also somehow am reminded of Brecht and Weill’s “Seeräuber Jenny”, not because of any specific details but  in the expressionistic use of maritime imagery as that metaphor of doomed relationships.

“Blue Summer”

A good old relaxed torchy song, blues, but not really feeling too blue about things.  A great farewell closing piece.

Now some thoughts after multiple listens:

It’s like the goal is melancholy, but happiness somehow always shines through in Thomas’ voice.  She’s having such a good time making music, it’s hard not to get caught up in the joy yourself, no matter the justification for the blues.

On a negative note, sometimes the rythm section (Todd Andrews on Bass and Ily Barnes drumming) feels a pit ponderous — I’m listing to “Bandit” just now.  Don’t get me wrong — it’s not the playing skill but rather the arrangement that bothered me. On “Shipwreck”, however,  the section drives you along.  “Shipwreck” just feels brilliant and I don’t want it to stop!  And on “Blue Summer” the bass and drums are a warm, pleasant heart-beat.

“Hideaway” is a marvelous construction, perhaps the standout of the collection.  Its quiet, restful opening exposition of the lovely, peaceful moment that must be preserved is quite literally hidden away by the majority of the song, a melodically shouted vow that she will “hide you away” and a wall of fuzz guitar. And then, the simple, quite close: “Sunday/Sunday morning with you/we got nothing to do/but rest”.  Marvelously economical musical poetry!

I had a lot of trouble placing Ash Mountains initially.  I thought of Dream Academy’s self conscious 60s sound, but it didn’t really fit except in its moodiness, and I thought of Holly Cole, and I thought of the Blues in general and I thought of movie soundtracks and I thought of The Three Penny Opera.  I even thought of “These Boots” for goodness sake!  But I think I have to come back to a little note I made when first listening to the jump from “Bandit” to “Shipwreck”:  “Cayley’s exploring”.

I think, in the end, Ash Mountains must be seen as Thomas’ exploration of the space of her voice, her writing, and her influences.  She’s leapt out of the nest and, in my opinion, although she falters once or twice, she’s done a bit of soaring on this first flight.  Again I’ll say, Cayley Thomas is an artist to watch.  Goodness knows what she’ll do next!

I’m not sure why I feel I need to make this full disclosure, but . . .

I have never met or spoken to Cayley Thomas or any of her band or production team.  Above are the genuine, honest thoughts of some regular guy who’s seen Cayley Thomas acting on stage precisely twice and listened to her EP countless times now.

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A Happy Meeting with Rupert Thomson’s “Secrecy”

Funny things happen on Twitter.

One morning a week or two ago, House of Anansi Press, a prominent Canadian publisher, tweeted a challenge:  first person to reply with the name of the artist responsible for the tableau pictured would win a reading copy of Rupert Thomson’s latest novel, Secrecy.  Honestly, being largely closeted away from contemporary English-Language non-Canadian literature, I’d never heard of Thomson before.  There’s a good possibility I’d never have read his work if I hadn’t answered Anansi’s tweet with such dispatch. Such dispatch that I was actually first!  A few days later, the book arrived in the mail with a nice little note. image It seemed only right that I take a break from Isherwood’s Berlin and Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards to read through this gift.  And a ripping read it is!  Thomson’s opening frame narrative of a dark and stormy day in November 1701 immediately hooked me and I stayed on the hook throughout.  Thomson is a very comfortable read, even when writing about uncomfortable things such as the clinical dismemberment of a dead body, torture and various killings.  Thomson’s fiction of the real Sicilian Baroque wax sculptor Gaetano Zummo is a vivid, almost entirely believable evocation of the late 17th century Florentine court and underworld(s).  While not an epic such as Umberto Eco or Roberto Bolaño would produce, Secrecy is distinctly more than a best-seller historical romance.  Secrecy is dark, gritty and even borders on smelly.  There is profundity to be plumbed. Thomson tells the story of the sculptor’s time in the employ of Grand Duke Cosimo in Zummo’s own voice.  Zummo is obsessed with decay and ambiguity in his art — and perhaps in his life.  The Florentine world seems to feed those obsessions, beginning with the ominous gift of a wormy truffle on p. 28.  Zummo tells us minute and unexpected details which are exquisite and a little frighteningly real, like his reaction to a simple brushing touch at dinner:

I felt a shock go through me, all the way to a small, surprising place in my left heel. (p. 54)

And many questions are left unanswered for both Zummo and the reader, like the significance of Cosimo’s pet cockerel at Zummo’s first meeting with the Grand Duke.  Ambiguity and uncertainty are everywhere. Zummo’s love, Faustina, contributes wonderfully evocative descriptions and memories.  I noted particularly her father’s horsemanship on page 94:

. . . when her father rode he seemed to float above the saddle, only connected to the horse by the most intangible of threads.  His hands on the reins, his feet in the stirrups — but lightly, ever so lightly.  They were like completely separate beings who just happened to be travelling in the same direction, at the same speed.

and her exquisite description of her aunt Ginevra’s heart on page 97:

If she tried to imagine Ginevra’s heart, she saw wood-shavings, and bacon rind, and thin, curling off-cuts of boot leather.  It was like peering into the corner of a shed, or into a room that was hardly ever used.

But, wait.  These are Zummo’s memories of Faustina’s memories.  At other points, Zummo tells his story in quoted conversation, but on these and other occasions, he becomes almost an omniscient narrator, apparently able to see the thoughts of Faustina.  Is he a reliable narrator?  At one point Faustina herself reminds Zummo and us that her memories are not necessarily accurate records.  Ambiguity abounds. Some small quibbles: Once or twice as I was reading I felt that a phrase Thomson chose was just a touch anachronistic, perhaps making Zummo’s story accessible, but breaking the period realism briefly.  But these moments were so minor I made no lasting note of what exactly the phrases were. I felt personally a little disappointed that the character of Fiore, the young girl who makes herself Zummo’s sidekick, is worth of greater development.  She is a gem shining in Zummo’s rot-filled world. But, as I said, these are quibbles.  Secrecy is a fine, fascinating, exciting read.  Its three hundred pages pass more quickly than one would wish, but it is by no means a light-weight work.  Secrecy is packed with sweeping history and tiny detail, but it is never a chore nor overwhelming.  Thomson has achieved a fine balance in an intensely human novel I would highly recommend.

 

By the way, Secrecy would have been a great literary accompaniment to the National Gallery of Canada‘s touring show, Beautiful Monsters  recently at the Art Gallery of Alberta and coming next year to the Kamloops Art Gallery and  The Rooms in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

“God only gives special children to special people”

I really hesitate about posting this, but . .  . .

I saw this news story about a family out for dinner with their son with epilepsy.  Seems a stranger picked up their tab and wrote a note saying “God only gives special children to special people.”

As the parent of a “special” child I’m totally weirded out & massively angered by this stranger’s  horrid idea of God & His gifts. 

“God only gives special children to special people”?  Do people actually believe developmental disabilities are some sort of divine gift? to the parents? to the child? What kind of God is it that would “bless” a child or a family in this way rather than giving the gift of health to the child?  What kind of parent doesn’t wish a life of good health for their child?

I’m not “special” because of my daughter’s developmental disabilities. And I truly wish my child were “special” because of what she could do rather than what she can’t.  I find no comfort in the repugnant idea that some all-powerful being gave here the “gift” of a brain that doesn’t work quite right,  oddly-shaped fingers and an autoimmune disorder that leaves her far too often suffering from excrutiatingly painful GI bleeds.

The painful truth is that children and families must play the hand they’re dealt.  Some are lucky. Some are not. And we all rise to play that hand to the best of our abilities, abilities that have themselves been dealt by the hand of History, genetic and otherwise.  If “special” children were only given to “special” people, there would be no children with disabilities in foster care or waiting for adoption.  The tragic truth is that “special” children — like all children —  are born willy-nilly, whatever the abilities — the “specialness” — of the parents. 

If a stranger had ever done to my family what was done to the family in that news story, I would have told them to keep their money and their evil god.  And if it were possible, I’d have their evil god take back my daughter’s “special” gifts so that she could have an ordinary old, non-special life reading books, riding a bike and playing a cello.  And without all the vomit, blood and shit.


An afterthought:

It’s extremely common for parents to make comments, both serious and joking, about how difficult, challenging, aggravating and, yes, rewarding it is to have children kicking around. But if a parent of a special needs child takes issue with the idea that that child and her disability are a special gift of a god – a god who didn’t see fit to relieve the child’s pain – then that parent is labelled angry and guilt ridden and not “special”(see comments below). You know what? Parents have always complained about their kids. But parents have rarely been allowed to complain about their kids’ disabilities. No! A kid who wakes you up at 5 am on a Sunday morning is a pain in the ass, Hardee-har, but a GI bleed that keeps you up for weeks on end camped out at the hospital while your beautiful eight-year old who loves the Mole Sisters and just wants to go home is living off an IV and can’t eat or drink – FOR WEEKS – is a gift from some weird sadistic god because you’re “special”.

No. I’m not special. God hasn’t given a gift. If God wanted to give a gift, He would have done something far different for my daughter. Suggesting that her disabilities are a gift to her or to anyone else is an insult to her and to her strength and her bravery. If you can’t see that, I pray for your kids.

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