Review of reviews: Art & Music
Exhibit of the week
Showdown! Kuniyoshi vs. Kunisada
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through Dec. 10
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, lovers of Japanese woodblock art: Let’s get ready to rumble!” said Daniel McDermon in The New York Times. Nineteenth-century printmakers Utagawa Kunisada and Utagawa Kuniyoshi, who “indelibly” shaped Japan’s popular visual culture (and thus ours), both trained under the same master and went on to create their own takes on mythical beasts, tales of adventure, and the famous Kabuki actors of their time. Legend has it that the younger artist, Kuniyoshi, after one day seeing Kunisada pass by on a riverboat surrounded by adoring women, burned with envy and worked feverishly to outdo him. Did he succeed? Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has gathered 100 of the rivals’ prints and invited viewers to pass a verdict.
Treating Kunisada and Kuniyoshi as if they were contenders in a Food Network cookoff is no way to honor their accomplishments, said David Curcio in ArtsFuse.org. In a way, they worked in harmony, each play- ing to a different segment of the art market in Edo, the city that would be renamed Tokyo in 1868. Kunisada (1786–1864) produced “lighter, airier” work, answering the demand for art that presented life as a peaceful passage enriched by pleasures like theater. He created countless reproducible images of popular actors, combining “a perfect fidelity to craft” and passages of “almost unimaginably dense detail.” Kuniyoshi (1797–1861) focused instead on action—snarling beasts, giant leaping fish, tattooed warriors, and swashbuckling bandits. Even when he created a triptych of the same three actors Kunisada had featured in a circa-1829 triptych, his version was more dynamic and formally inventive.
“Both artists are extraordinary,” but “I give the bout to Kuniyoshi,” said Cate McQuaid in The Boston Globe. “A better spinner of yarns,” he seems “a not-toodistant grandfather of manga and anime artists.” He was also more rebellious in his politics. His 1843 battle scene The Earth Spider Generates Monsters at the Mansion of Lord Minamoto Yorimitsu was yanked out of circulation by its publisher after the public embraced it as parody of the reigning shogun and the teeming opposition he was creating. A decade later, Kuniyoshi’s Miraculous Paintings by Ukiyo Matabei became a best-seller with buyers who saw its gaggle of monkeys as pointedly satirizing the leaders who folded when U.S. warships arrived in 1853 to open Japan to trade. Though Kunisada was masterful technically, Kuniyoshi is your guy “if you want to feel an adrenaline rush.”
Sleep Well Beast
For at least one album, the National appears done with being a rock band that reliably produces “excellent background music”— the sonic equivalent of “extremely well-made dark-wooden furniture,” said Tom Breihan in Stereogum.com. The seventh album from the Brooklyn-born quintet is darkly moody as always. But it’s also “the best thing they’ve done” since 2007’s Boxer, because the boys have “jacked up the urgency” and made a record that’s “actually about something.” Lead singer Matt Berninger, who wrote the lyrics with his wife, uses his morose baritone voice to plumb the eternal struggle to stay in a marriage despite all the disappointments each partner brings home. Sleep Well Beast isn’t the National’s greatest record, but it’s “one of the band’s richest, most interestingly textured albums to date,” said Jude Clarke in DrownedInSound.com. And “the things that make this band a real treasure can all still be found here,” including Berninger’s “slightly beat-up romanticism” and “the big bold beauty” of the group’s melodies.
Neil Young is always at his best “when he doesn’t tie up loose ends,” said Stephen Thomas Erlewine in AllMusic.com. On his new album, recorded over the course of a single “lazy, stoned” day in 1976 and not released until now, the legendary folk rocker accompanies himself on an acoustic guitar and sings as if few listeners would hear him, but the set of 10 songs “holds together as a mood piece,” one that “sustains a dusky sweetness from beginning to end.” Though eight of the tunes found their way to later albums, usually in a different form, “there is an intimacy and rawness to these performances that is riveting,” said Hal Horowitz in AmericanSongwriter.com. “Powderfinger,” “Pocohontas,” and “Human Highway” are among his finest compositions, and here they arrive close to their origins, at a time when, creatively, Young was “near the top of his game.” The record’s two previously unreleased songs—“Hawaii” and “Give Me Strength”—prove “well worth hearing, even if they aren’t lost classics.”
With his final album, Gregg Allman created “the kind of farewell every rock ’n’ roll lifer hopes to make,” said Jim Allen in NPR.org. The Southern rock icon, who died of liver cancer in May, recorded Southern Blood in the same Muscle Shoals, Ala., studio where the Allman Brothers Band first jammed together 50 years ago. In this record’s only original tune, the bittersweet “My Only True Friend,” Allman sings about having put life on the road above personal relationships, yet when he shares his hope that the music of his soul will haunt listeners, “it’s clear that he’s talking to everyone he’s about to leave behind forever.” The covers dwell on mortality, and many complete unfinished business, said Mike Greenhaus in Relix. Allman interprets songs by would-be collaborator Tim Buckley (“Once I Was”) and by hero Willie Dixon (“I Love the Life I Live”). Still, “the LP’s rawest moment, unquestionably,” is the closer, “Song for Adam,” written by his friend Jackson Browne about a life cut short. Because Allman choked up while singing, his vocals stop midverse. ■