May 26, 2022


Your Pal Fred. By Michael Rex. Viking. $12.99.

     All the usual appurtenances of a Mad Max-style world are here: the gigantic machines looking like assemblages of spare parts, the bombed-out or burned-out buildings, the wasteland views, the weirdly costumed characters, the opposing armies that exist solely for the purpose of attacking each other, the urchins scrambling for meals or simply to avoid conscription, and so on. Isn’t that fun?

     Well, yes, actually it is, since Michael Rex turns this post-apocalyptic pastiche of a graphic novel into something suitable for preteens by focusing all the action on the title character – and, not coincidentally, ensuring that matters are not taken too seriously by, among other things, having those vast conscripted armies fight each other with goop and slime, not bullets or arrows or swords or anything else that might be pointy or dangerous.

     Your Pal Fred is also my pal Fred and everyone else’s pal Fred, even the pal of rival warlords Lord Bonkers and Papa Mayhem – whose names, like so much else here, reflect the world-laid-waste vision while at the same time making fun of it. Fred is a kid-shaped robot, accidentally activated by brothers Plug and Pug as they fight over a single “lump-loaf” that is all they have to eat. Fred’s first task is to show the brothers how to share the loaf evenly – one of them gets to cut it and the other gets to choose his preferred piece – and of course Fred assures Plug and Pug that he is not after their food because he does not eat food, and “I don’t pee or poo either. I’m low-maintenance.”

     With that out of the way, Fred can turn to bigger matters – after he, Plug and Pug are captured by one of the monstrous sweeping-up machines that roam the wasteland pressing unfortunate “dirt-folk” into the warlords’ armies. Fred does not enjoy the lack of niceness that he sees everywhere – one of his responses to positive actions is to give out happy stickers, and he sees little reason to do that amid the warlords’ realms – so he decides to visit both warlords and ask them please to make nice with each other so everyone will be happy and everything will be good for everybody.

     You can imagine how that goes down. And if you can’t, no worries, since Rex imagines it for you. With a fine sense of pacing and a delightful mixture of the absurd and potentially (but not really) scary, Rex – after escaping from one of the pickup machines with the help of a new friend named Wormy – heads for Lord Bonkers’ headquarters, choosing it because it is closer than Papa Mayhem’s fortress. Some of Rex’s best scenes contrast Fred’s solo walk through vista after vista of destruction with the ultra-sweet robot singing “La La La” and “Beep Bop Boo” as little musical notes appear around him to show that he is singing, or at least vocalizing to a happy beat. Along the way, Fred meets Junkboy, who is chasing the reappearing Wormy, who has stolen potatoes that Junkboy stole from someone else; and Fred defuses the whole situation by complimenting Junkboy on his scary-helmet-making skill and giving him a sticker that says, “I’m a good egg!” (Somehow the characters here remember eggs and appreciate ones that are fried sunny-side-up and have yolks that smile.) Junkboy runs away as “jailtrucks” appear again, but Fred will re-encounter him, and Wormy, and Pug and Plug, as the story progresses.

     Progress here involves Fred actually meeting Lord Bonkers, who promptly runs him up “the rod,” where Fred enjoys being struck by lightning, confusing Lord Bonkers so much that the warlord actually listens when Fred requests an end to the fighting – a suggestion that leads to Fred being booted out of the warlord’s castle. Literally booted out, by a giant boot that knocks him to the spot where none other than Wormy is waiting for him. The two are captured by another jailtruck, which is fine with Fred, since this one takes them to Papa Mayhem’s headquarters, where Fred tries the same niceness as at Lord Bonkers’ place, with similar results: here, Fred is thrown into “the boom room,” where a huge-handed drummer constantly pounds drums to drive prisoners crazy. Predictably, Fred refuses to cooperate, deciding he loves the beat and dancing to it – perplexing both the drummer (whose hands Fred especially compliments) and Papa Mayhem. And so Papa Mayhem sends Fred back to bring a supposed friendship gift to Lord Bonkers, but the “gift” is actually a silly insult, so a great big final battle between the respective armies is about to ensue, when – thanks to Fred – the warlords make a startling discovery that turns everything into sweetness and light and happiness and unicorn rainbows.

     OK, not unicorn rainbows, but yes to that other stuff. The whole scenario is outrageously silly, including the eventual revelation of why the world came to its doom: an over-the-top mixture of war, a comet strike, aliens, robot apocalypse (not Fred-like robots), plus “millions and millions of cats” peeing on everything until “the world stank of cat pee.” Well, yuck. But it’s a funny “yuck.” And that is a pretty good description of Your Pal Fred as a whole: a funny yuck, with a great deal more of the funniness than the yuckiness. Graphic-novel fans with a taste for apocalyptic, kind-of-bonkers, not-quite-mayhem – and the message that sweet niceness eventually overcomes sour nastiness – will have a wonderful time being pals with Fred.


Schubert: Overtures—In the Italian Style, D. 590 and D. 591; Fierrabras; Rosamunde; “Der häusliche Krieg”; “Der Teufel als Hydraulicus”; in D, D. 556; in C Minor, D. 8. Berliner Symphoniker conducted by Hansjörg Schellenberger. Solo Musica. $20.

Moritz Moszkowski: Orchestral Music, Volume Three—Suite No.1 for Orchestra; Overture in D; Prélude et Fugue pour Orchestre à Cordes. Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Ian Hobson. Toccata Classics. $18.99.

     There are numerous classical compositions that exist in a sort of grey area between the highly serious and the overtly amusing. They are certainly not funny along the lines of Mozart’s Musical Joke, Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, or Ibert’s Divertissement, but neither are they meant to be absorbed with great solemnity and contemplated for their high purpose and important aims. Schubert’s overtures and Moszkowski’s orchestral suites fall somewhere into this middle musical ground, being well-made, nicely proportioned, enjoyable to hear, but scarcely profound. The Berliner Symphoniker under its chief conductor, Hansjörg Schellenberger, certainly gets the lighter side right in the eight Schubert overtures on a new CD from Solo Musica. The two works “In the Italian Style,” which is to say in deliberate imitation and emulation of Rossini, come across especially well here: both the overture in D, D. 590, and the one in C, D. 591, are perky and pleasant, filled with memorable tunes and ultimately signifying very little except that Schubert clearly could write music of this sort (presumably up to and including entire operas) if he wanted to – which, however, he did not wish to do. He did have his own approach to overture-writing, though, whether in openings to stage works such as Fierrabras and Rosamunde (the most-often-heard of the pieces on this disc) or in pure concert-overture mode – as in the overtures D. 8 (the only minor-key work on this CD) and D. 556. Actually, D. 8, as befits a work in C minor, professes greater seriousness than the rest of the pieces heard here; but even in this overture, there is no searching for profundity and no sense of tragedy – the music is serious enough but never hints of despair or high drama. At the opposite end of Schubert’s expressiveness are his overtures to what were in effect musical comedies rather than operas: Der häusliche Krieg (“The Domestic War”) and the intriguingly (and absurdly) titled Der Teufel als Hydraulicus (“The Devil as Hydraulics Engineer”). What is interesting in all these works – and is brought out very well in these performances – is the way in which Schubert’s incessantly tuneful, flowing melodies capture a kind of lighthearted spirit even when (indeed, especially when) contrasted with slightly darker material, such as the slow, minor-key introductions to the Fierrabras and Rosamunde overtures. Certainly not everything Schubert created in his short life was ebullient, but there is so much sunshine pervading the overtures heard on this disc that it is inescapable to think of Schubert, when he was not striving deliberately for intensity, as simply being unable to hold in all the lightness that his music could contain.

     Moritz Moszkowski was also quite capable of writing intense, even dark music, and in fact the shorter works on a new Toccata Classics CD are very much in serious mode. Those works actually bracket Moszkowski’s orchestral creations: the Overture in D was his first orchestral work, dating to 1871 (when Moszkowski was 17), while the Prélude et Fugue pour Orchestre à Cordes of 1910 turned out to be his final piece for orchestra, although he lived a further 15 years. The early overture is derivative, to be sure – Schumann comes repeatedly to mind – but already shows Moszkowski’s skill in orchestration and his ability to encapsulate a dramatic scene, or rather drama in general, since no specific scenario is dealt with here. The two string-orchestra movements show considerably greater maturity of expression, being serious, dignified and mournful, if not quite tragic – Moszkowski wrote the music after the death of his mother, and it serves as an altogether fitting tribute to her. The majority of the material on this disc, though, falls squarely into the “lighter side” musical realm, with Ian Hobson and Sinfonia Varsovia offering what is almost the world première of Moszkowski’s first orchestral suite. That is “almost” because the suite’s final movement, an ebullient and clever perpetuum mobile, has been recorded before, although nothing else in the suite has been. It is not hard to see why this suite has dwelled in obscurity: it runs more than 40 minutes, is even less focused and organized than suites (as opposed to, say, symphonies) usually are, and is a bit of a musical hodgepodge. For example, its central and longest movement is a theme with eight variations, and the fifth variation is itself a miniature excursion into the sort of Hungarian dance popularized by Liszt, with a slow and highly Romantic opening followed by a hectic latter portion. The suite as a totality is somewhat dizzying, changing moods, keys, rhythms and approaches capriciously. Yet it is clear that Moszkowski knew exactly what he was doing here, whether labeling the second movement Allegretto giojoso or creating that perpetual-motion finale: he was celebrating music-making for its own sake, without seeking (much less finding) anything particularly profound or dramatic to convey. The suite is not exactly “salon music,” but is not too far from that designation – which actually fits individual portions of the work rather well. Hobson knows that a work like this needs to be presented with verve and style but without attempting to make it into something more substantive than the composer ever intended it to be. And he and Sinfonia Varsovia do just that: the suite flows pleasantly and with ease throughout, the individual movements disconnected from each other and from the whole but no less enjoyable and entertaining as a result of their distinct lack of profundity. There is certainly a case to be made for lighter music of this sort, and Hobson and this orchestra make it very well indeed.


Benjamin C.S. Boyle: Supplice; Gabriel Jackson: Zero Point Reflection; Spring; Bruno Bettinelli: Madrigali a cinque voci miste—Excerpts; Jeremy Gill: Six Pensées de Pascal; Joanne Metcalf: The Sea’s Wash in the Hollow of the Heart. Variant 6 (Jessica Beebe and Rebecca Myers, sopranos; Elisa Sutherland, mezzo-soprano; Steven Bradshaw and James Reese, tenors; Daniel Schwartz, bass). Open G Records. $15.

Jeffrey Derus: From Wilderness—A Meditation on the Pacific Crest Trail. Choral Arts Initiative conducted by Brandon Elliott; Kevin Mills, cello. Navona. $14.99.

     Vocal works of the late 20th and early 21st centuries tend to be self-limited where audiences are concerned: they are for listeners who are especially attracted to the human voice as an instrument and not averse to hearing it stretched, augmented and otherwise modified in accordance with the taste of today’s composers. There can, however, be more beauty in today’s sung works than uninitiated listeners realize, with composers who focus strongly on voices (rather than voices complemented by instruments) often being especially concerned with the sonic quality their works possess. Thus, the sheer sound of the ensemble Variant 6 is often of more interest on a new release from Open G Records than are the specific pieces the singers perform. Three of the composers heard on the CD – Benjamin C.S. Boyle, Jeremy Gill and Joanne Metcalf – composed or arranged these pieces for Variant 6, and all pay special attention to the balance of a six-member vocal group and the differentiation of ensemble passages from solos. Boyle’s Supplice (2019) is based on a Paul Éluard poem that sounds more evocative in French than in English – the third of the work’s three portions, for example, is Couchons-nous, mon vieux, il est tard, which simply means, “Let’s go to bed, my friend: it’s late.” The music is well-blended and does not overdo its use of dissonance, although portions for the higher voices tend to get screechy. Gill’s Six Pensées de Pascal (2017) also draws on a French-language work: Pensées is Blaise Pascal’s defense of Christianity. All six pieces are based on a rising scale contrasted with a falling one – a technique that is inherently tiresome, but that Gill uses in a variety of ways that make it more interesting than might be expected. The second piece, Il faut se tenir en silence, is especially effective in its use of vocal leaps and its contrast of sung passages with silence. Metcalf’s The Sea’s Wash in the Hollow of the Heart (2020) gets its title from the Denise Levertov poem that Metcalf sets. The setting does not offer any particular clarity of the words, with Metcalf opting to emphasize vocal mixing and blending over attentiveness to narrative. The remaining works on the disc are not tailored to Variant 6 but are nevertheless well-handled by the ensemble. The three excerpts from Madrigali a cinque voci miste (1993) by Bruno Bettinelli are especially attractive in their vocal straightforwardness (not to be confused with simplicity) and the composer’s care to differentiate the voices in such a way as to emphasize the words and their messages. Gabriel Jackson’s Spring (2005) sets Gerard Manley Hopkins in a way that seems to try too hard to communicate a sense of growth and life without varying the tempo appreciably – a sense of genuine brightness is missing. And Jackson’s Zero Point Reflection (2014) comes across as the most avowedly “contemporary” work on the disc, stretching vocal lines – sung only by the ensemble’s three female voices – and including bits of melisma, vocalise, whispers, and other sounds that a listener would not necessarily identify as being “sung” (as opposed to “vocalized”). The work goes on for quite some time (12 minutes) and is the most narrowly tailored piece on the disc, being most likely to appeal only to an audience already steeped in and appreciative of modern vocal music in general.

     A different sort of appreciation is needed for Jeffrey Derus’ From Wilderness, performed by the Choral Arts Initiative under Brandon Elliott on a new Navona CD. Here one must be interested both in vocal material and in a travelogue – a long one, lasting more than an hour. And this is a very specific travelogue, the work being devoted to travel along a single route, the Pacific Crest Trail, and including vocal portraits of and responses to numerous highly specific sites along the way. Derus calls the work a “meditation,” and although it is mostly a cappella, he opens it with extended use of crystal singing bowls (sounding like temple bells) for a segment called Survival Chakra & Journey into Yourself – a very slow-moving, minimalist piece (the voices enter after two-and-a-half minutes) that will either represent highly effective scene-setting (for listeners already interested in this specific trail and in the inward-looking approach that Derus seeks) or will come across as pretentious rather than evocative (for those not kindly disposed to Derus’ approach). Derus follows this opening with more of the same, a section called Sacral: Emotions Chakra, before getting into the location-specific material that makes up the bulk of From Wilderness until, near the end, he inevitably proffers an element called Crown: Cosmic Chakra. Listeners really need to know the landscapes and landmarks along this specific trail to make sense of the communication that Derus seeks – which means being familiar with Cajon Pass and Kennedy Meadows in southern California (among other places in that region), Sonora Pass and Echo Lake (and others) in the Sierras, Donner Summit and Seiad Valley (and elsewhere) in northern California, Diamond Peak Wilderness and Cascade Locks in Oregon (plus other locations in the state), and so forth into Washington state and British Columbia. The use of the cello – very well-played by Kevin Mills – is the most-intriguing part of the work, allowing listeners to hear the cello as an “everyman” figure, or as a guide, or as a spirit guide to the meaning behind the vistas. It is all very mystical and transcendental and achingly meaningful, imploring rather than inviting listeners to be inspired and transformed through appreciation of this specific trail and these specific nature scenes. Although the choral singing is very fine throughout, the self-limiting aspects of From Wilderness in its geographical focus and its insistence on a certain type of meditative engagement mean that this very extended journey is one that only a small subset of the potential audience for modern vocal music is likely to stay with from start to finish.

May 19, 2022


Mellybean 1: Mellybean and the Giant Monster. By Mike White. Razorbill. $20.99.

Mellybean 2: Mellybean and the Wicked Wizard. By Mike White. Razorbill. $12.99.

Mellybean 3: Mellybean and the Villains’ Revenge. By Mike White. Razorbill. $12.99.

     Oh, they just don’t come any cuter than this. Imagine a fluffy, huge-headed, bright-eyed little dog with the improbable-but-apt name of Mellybean, full of unending energy and enthusiasm, encountering fantastic adventures that require all the dedication and pluck inherent in being fluffy, huge-headed, bright-eyed, energetic and enthusiastic – and you still will not have the full flavor of the cuteness that is Mike White’s Mellybean trilogy. The reason you still will not have it is that Mellybean, the aforementioned fluffy, huge-headed, bright-eyed, etc., is but one of the impossibly appealing characters. He also has three henchcats named Butternut, Tugs and Charlie (or Chuck), each with a distinct personality and individual preoccupations within the overall felinity that they share (they all love canned cat food, long naps, and boxes). And this fabulous foursome encounters much ado about something in the land of, well, Ado, which is reachable through a hole in the back yard, where an interdimensional portal emerges from the nostril of a giant monster. Yes, a giant monster (hence the first book’s title); and yes, a nostril (hence a very funny “ewwwww” moment or two).

     Apparently White’s graphic-novel characters come by their endearing natures naturally: he bases the fantastic foursome on his own canine and feline companions. Presumably his household does not also include characters such as enormous monster Narra (in all the books), Hetty the hippocorn (introduced in the second book), Lemmy the griffinbear (third book), and Retta the dragonseal (also third book). White’s mind does include them, though, and that is just fine. White associates each fantasy creature with one of Ado’s four elements: air (Hetty), earth (Lemmy), water (Retta), and life (Narra). Okay, there is no “fire,” but these are books for very young readers, after all, and the “life” association creates all sorts of possibilities for reversing aging, making plants and people flourish, and gaining power if one happens to be evil. Oh – and Narra’s “eye boogers” also turn out to be genuine gold, allowing for other “ewwwww” moments as well as additional opportunities for baddies to do bad things.

     The baddies are certainly never going to win in this series – that is apparent throughout – but the way they lose, and what happens after they do, are two things that make the Mellybean books so enjoyable. The key to all this is that Mellybean has no special powers or abilities beyond puppy-ness; and that turns out to be more than enough. Mellybean’s effervescent personality helps her make friends with the understandably suspicious Narra, whose tail has been stolen by the evil wizard Wilma; and Mellybean’s penchant for running at top speed pretty much all the time helps her win the crown of Ado from an evil, self-centered king who agrees to race Mellybean because he knows a dastardly shortcut – which turns out to be his own undoing.

     There are some good human characters in the books to help balance the nasty ones: orphans Liam, Leah and Lou, and orphanage director Ms. Cooper. But there is never a doubt of where the focus and the heroism of these stories lie: in the animals. Mellybean and the Giant Monster has the pup alone in Ado, unraveling the king’s plots and power and upholding all that is good and right and happy and all that. The Mellybean-vs.-king race is the climax of the book. Mellybean and the Wicked Wizard brings the pup and all three cats to the kingdom – now ruled by Narra – and features an extended and hilarious battle between the four animal heroes and Wilma, who turns out to be pretty inept and eventually is stripped of her powers and appointed Royal Can Opener, in charge of making sure the cats always have plenty of their favorite food. The point of Mellybean and the Villains’ Revenge is that you can’t keep a good character down – or a bad one, either. The deposed king and the de-powered wizard join forces to take back the kingdom and the power, with Wilma inventing a hypnosis machine that initially puts Lemmy under her control and eventually wreaks havoc of various sorts until, inevitably, it is turned against her and the king and helps stop their scheming once and for all.

     Or is it once and for all? The trilogy is highly pleasurable both as individual books and as a totality, and certainly it seems to come to a satisfying conclusion by the end of Mellybean and the Villains’ Revenge. But these villains have returned to their menacing ways once already, and Mellybean actually says to Narra, near the third book’s end, “Hey, maybe you can visit us next time!” And Narra replies, “Now that sounds like an adventure!” So there are plenty of possibilities for even more marvelous magical hijinks if White chooses to chronicle further Mellybeaning, whether here or there. For now, as the sun sets gently over the earthly home of Mellybean, Butternut, Tugs and Chuck, young readers can be delightfully certain that the only remaining conflict will involve who, during a “good ol’ game of nap time,” gets dibs on the sunbeam.