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February 29, 1988 - Image 67

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The Michigan Daily, 1988-02-29

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ART & ENETI MN

Epiphanies and
Sad Surprises
Canin gives us grace
B ecause Ethan Canin writes very
well, the stories in "Emperor of the
Air" (179 pages. Houghton Mifflin.
$15.95) are full of surprises. A situation is
introduced, a character is revealed, and
we think we know what this particular
fictional world holds. Then something un-
expected happens: an old man suddenly
understands what he's missed by not hav-
ing children, a young man visualizes the
nasty adult he is becoming, a young wom-
an comprehends the incomprehensibility
of her mentally disturbed mother. Call
these moments epiphanies. It's a measure
of Canin's talent and sensitivity that we
gain these insights only as his characters
do. He writes his way into their hearts-
and takes us with him.
Canin is a graceful stylist, and his meta-
phors work on many levels. One story,
"Pitch Memory," is about a young woman
who has come home for Thanksgiving, only
to be confronted by her increasingly eccen-
tric mother. At an earlier time, the narra-
tor and her mother and sister would sing
together. Even though the narrator lacked
the perfect pitch of her mother and sister-
literal disharmony-this tradition would
bring them together after her father died.
It's this musical blind spot-and the inabil-
ity to truly know some things-that the
narrator ponders when the Thanksgiving
visit is wrenched toward chaos. The mother
gets caught shoplifting a cheap blouse, and
the narrator must confront her mother's
craziness by bribing a store official. They
return home, where the mother blissfully
falls asleep and begins to hum. The narra-
tor listens, and observes, "My mother's
humming is soft, almost inaudible. Despite
all science, I think, we will never under-
stand the sadness of certain notes."
Such tenderness and melancholy run
through all the nine stories in "Emperor of
the Air," Canin's first collection. His char-
acters learn about life as they live it, and
the lessons don't come easy. A young man
in "Lies" reflects on the tired clich6,
mouthed by his mother, that anybody can
be president: "Somewhere along the line
you find that's not true and that you're
either fixed from the start or fixed by some-
thing you do without really thinking about
it. I guess I was fixed by both." Canin's
people, like most of us, don't muse on what
it all means until they have to. And they
pay the price.
RON GIVENS

DAVID JOHNDROW
No 'codpiece rock': Paul Swift (left), Joey Shuffield, McKay, Randy Franklin, Hall
MUSIC
Integrity, QuaPity Poverty
Austin's hardworking Wild Seeds go for broke

Mike Hall, lead singer of the Wild
Seeds, is still waiting for the glam-
our of rock and roll. A few weeks
ago he was walking along the streets of
Austin, Texas, when somebody mistook
him for a homeless person and offered him
a dollar. The slightly shaggy Hall thanked
him, refused the bill and tried to keep the
stranger from being embarrassed. "It
sounds funny but it was real depressing at
the time," Hall recalls. This sort of thing
does not happen to Prince.
But it does happen to struggling rockers.
Now the Seeds are hoping to upgrade their
status a bit with their first nationally dis-
tributed album, Mud, Lies & Shame (Passport).
Don't let the glum title put you off. Most of
the record is devoted to the band's forte-
straightforward, classic pop that dares the
listener not to dance, laced with strong
blues and country influences. One hilari-
ous song, "I'm Sorry, I Can't Rock You All
Night Long," strikes a subversive blow
against what could be called "codpiece
rock"-that strutting, studly streak that
runs through MTV. "I don't want to cause
no flap," sings Hall, "but I couldn't find my
manly pride with a map." Let's hear David
Lee Roth try to sing that.
The album's unfortunate title comes
from a critical essay on Tolstoy that Hall
read last summer, which states: "Without
love, all is mud, lies and shame." Most of the
songs turn on the theme of love, whether it's
the sleepy singer of "I'm Sorry" or the psy-
chotic who kills his lover in the country
rave-up "Ramblin'." And the power that
female vocalist Kris McKay puts into a

tear-jerker about lost love, "All This Time,"
is enough to bring alump to any throat.
The Seeds resist labels, Hall says. "What-
ever feels strongest, we'll do." That's been
the credo since the band first took root
four years ago in the fertile Austin music
scene, which also spawned such diverse
talents as the bluesy Fabulous Thunder-
birds, the hard-rocking True Believers
and wild man Joe (King) Carrasco. Hall
started the band while attending law
school. He came to the music less as
a musician than as a fan: "I wanted
to have something to keep me from becom-
ing a law nerd." His plan worked too
well. Hall dropped out to devote more time
to the Seeds.
Whether their distinctive style can be
chalked up to integrity or obstinance, the
Seeds have never been an easy band to put
in a pigeonhole-or in a record-store rack.
They have garnered critical acclaim and a
local following, but have yet to score a com-
mercial hit. Sometimes this wears on Hall,
30. "It's real hard to justify living in a van
and playing the same songs every night-
sometimes to two or three people." Hall has
written about this problem in "I Work
Hard," a song from the Seeds' earlier al-
bum "Brave, Clean & Reverent": "My best
girl thinks I'm a fool /'Cause I don't get a
real job or go back to school." The song says
the band is his real job, and "I can't face
myself if I don't work hard." Despite the
frustration, Hall says that the band has
been a fulfilling outlet for his writing. "I'm
finding my voice."
JOHN SCHWARTZ inAustin

MARCH 1988

NEWSWEEK ONCAMPUS 43

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