Books

'The Cutting Season': History at the Root of a Mystery

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

This is an essential rule of the hard-boiled thriller: to develop drama from the mystery of personality, to find in the individual a microcosm of the compromise and corruption of the larger world. Black Water Rising did this beautifully. The Cutting Season does it even better.


The Cutting Season

Publisher: HarperCollins
Length: 384 pages
Author: Attica Locke
Price: $25.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-09
Amazon

How much do I admire Attica Locke’s second novel, The Cutting Season? To answer that, I need to go back to her 2009 debut, Black Water Rising which told the story of Jay Porter, an African American attorney in Houston, a former radical in full retreat from the unresolved issues, political and personal, of his past.

Set in 1981, Black Water Rising is nothing if not authoritative; Locke, who lives in Los Angeles, was raised in Houston and understands how the city works. But if that allows the novel to operate on a variety of levels — social, historical, cultural — it remains, primarily, an evocation of character.

This is an essential rule of the hard-boiled thriller: to develop drama from the mystery of personality, to find in the individual a microcosm of the compromise and corruption of the larger world. Black Water Rising an Edgar and Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist, did this beautifully. The Cutting Season does an even better job.

That’s because with this novel Locke has opened up not just her writing but also the parameters of the form. Set in 2009, on an antebellum Louisiana plantation called Belle Vie, it is a mystery that expands the whole idea of the mystery, reaching from the present deeply into the past. By the time we see it, Belle Vie has been reinvented, preserved as both historical location — even down to its slave cabins — and high-end banquet site.

“The plantation proper sat on eighteen acres,” Locke writes, “bordered to the north by the (Mississippi) river, and to the east by the raw, unincorporated landscape of Ascension Parish. To walk it — from the library to the northwest corner to the gift shop and on to the main house, past the stone kitchen and the rose garden, the cottages ... the old schoolhouse and the quarters — took nearly an hour.”

The scene Locke sets is beautiful but dangerous, a point she makes in the opening paragraph when a cottonmouth “the length of a Cadillac” falls in the lap of the groom’s mother during a wedding.

The danger is human also, as we learn when a woman is found, murdered, by the fence that divides the plantation from a sugar cane farming combine. For Caren Gray, Belle Vie’s manager, this is a reminder of all the history, everything left unresolved as Louisiana struggled with Reconstruction after the Civil War.

“Belle Vie,” she reflects, “its beauty, was not to be trusted. ... (B)eneath its loamy topsoil, the manicured grounds and gardens, two centuries of breathtaking wealth and spectacle, lay a land both black and bitter, soft to the touch, but pressing in its power.”

Caren knows her business. African American, she grew up on the plantation, where her mother was the cook for many years. As a child, she played with Raymond and Bobby Clancy, heirs of the family that has owned Belle Vie for nearly a century and a half.

Not only that, but her ancestors were slaves here, and the presence of that history, which functions in the novel almost as a physical force, blurs the line between past and present, particularly in regard to a man named Jason, who stayed on after Emancipation only to disappear under mysterious circumstances in 1872. These complications function like a web, trapping Caren in the weave of her own lineage, framing The Cutting Season as a book in which one murder echoes back to another, where the sins of one generation remain unsettled, an active presence in the landscape of the next.

This is what Locke did with Black Water Rising, using crime fiction to examine a broader world. Yet if that novel explored, in part, the betrayals of the '60s, this one has a more ambitious reach.

The Louisiana Locke portrays prides itself on being, in some important sense, post-racial, but those old divisions, those old distrusts and hatreds, linger. On the one hand, the lines appear to be redrawn, less between whites and blacks than between blacks and migrant workers, “Mexicans mostly, and some Guatemalans, plucked out of rice fields and fruit groves for a few months of working Louisiana sugarcane.”

For Caren — college-educated, with two years of law school — or her ex-boyfriend, Eric, father of her nine-year-old daughter, Morgan, and an attorney in the Obama administration, the 2008 election symbolizes a new level of opportunity. “She’d gone over that ballot three or four times,” Locke writes of Caren, “standing alone in the booth, tracing a finger under the first line, the word President. She wondered what her mother would have made of that, if she’d lived to see it.”

That’s great writing, the kind that gives you goose bumps — not just because of what it says about the character but also it feels so true. Throughout The Cutting Season, Locke refuses to take such sentiments for granted, contrasting them with the reality of life on the plantation, where a black worker is railroaded for the murder despite compelling evidence to the contrary, and what’s unspoken between Caren’s family and the Clancys refuses to remain beneath the surface, where it has simmered since the 1870s.

I don’t want to give anything away; among the most compelling aspects of the novel is the steady way Locke deepens her narrative, reminding us that, as Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Locke’s insistence on grounding her story in a deeper history pays off because it invests the book with gravitas, a sense of place and consequence, that feels profound and real. How can we isolate one murder, Locke asks, when the earth of Belle Vie itself is stained with blood, when the past refuses to be silenced or stilled? At the heart of this is Caren — torn, conflicted, on the run from herself, yet unable to avoid the larger questions that are her birthright.

Here, we see the key to The Cutting Season: That for all those overlapping layers, it comes together in this one character. We see it in her reluctance, the reticence that leads her back to Belle Vie, and also in her realization that there is no solace in hiding, that we must face who we are.

That’s a tricky — and, yes, dangerous — process; at novel’s end, some things are won and some are lost. But Locke’s refusal to offer false resolution makes The Cutting Season that much stronger, by reminding us that history, that heritage, is all we have.

8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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