Now Hear This 

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The Hackensaw Boys, "Look Out!" (Nettwerk)

In late 1999, a 12-headed behemoth was dispatched from Charlottesville with the intention of creating a foot-stomping, head-banging amalgam of bluegrass, old-time and punk music. Known as The Hackensaw Boys, the beast roamed the countryside -- in these United States and beyond — leaving dazed and elated crowds (and four albums) in its wake. In the present day, the head count has been trimmed to six, but the music remains high-energy, thoughtful and well-executed. On their second album from Nettwerk, the Boys rip through blistering tracks like "Gospel Plow" and "Sweet Petunia," keep it slow and greasy on "Too Much Time," and sad and sweet with "Sally Ann." "FDR" (with its allusions to the Katrina devastation) and "Radio" allow the band to flex their social commentary muscles without sounding preachy or saccharine. Eight years has given the band time to fully flesh out its sound; even with half the heads, this monster still storms and swaggers. — Josh Bearman

The Hackensaw Boys perform at Toad's Place Thursday, Sept. 13, with headliners Cowboy Mouth.

Kanye West, "The Graduation" (Def Jam)

Although it's pared down to 13 tracks (his last two hit records had 21 each), hip-hop's version of John McEnroe brings new stylistic offerings to bear with "The Graduation." While not as personal as his past efforts, the lyrics come from an Everyman. Kanye reminisces about the past, surviving the present, and romanticizing the future with aplomb and trademark wit. And yes, the arrogance is still there. The Alvin and the Chipmunks-sounding samples from Michael Jackson's "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" and the "The Glory" (from Laura Nyro's "Save the Country") are the closest West gets to his hyper-fast soul samples of old. His experimentation continues with a synth-pop approach in "Stronger" and "Flashing Lights," a soulful track that targets those in search of celebrity and nightlife. However, Kanye gets poor marks on class projects such as Chris Martin's tepid "I Wonder," while mix-tape wonder Lil' Wayne's word association is pure silliness in "Barry Bonds." But perhaps Kanye can now quit worrying over skittish award academies and buyers who check blogs and industry gossip. Maybe this is the accolade West is truly in search of: loyalty from fans based on the strength of his consistently high marks alone.

— William Ashanti Hobbs

Rene Marie "Experiment in Truth" (Self-produced)

True to the title, the experiment starts with "Weekend," a twisty bit of erotica contrasting an abusive husband and an idealized rapist. Rene Marie wrote the song when she was shifting to sets of her own material. Its perverse romanticism was a slap to the face of club owners who wanted her to stick to standards. The singer's delivery makes the mix of sex and domination both intimate and disturbing. A marketer would have wanted to place it later in the set; Rene throws it down as an opening challenge. This is the singer's first independent release, and she takes unfettered advantage of her freedom. The set mixes new songs with pieces she's done live for years. High points include her unlikely re-imagining of Bob Seger's "Turn the Page," her one-and-a-half entendre "Rim Shot," and of course the brilliant "This Is Not a Protest Song" (although buying the single donates all the proceeds to the homeless). Her trio is great, but there are times, as in the spare "Colorado River Song," where an additional instrument would have been welcome. But as the former Richmond singer follows her own course with headlong integrity, it's a pleasure to get swept up and carried along. — Peter McElhinney

The Third Ear

What kind of folk do we want?

This October marks the last year for the free National Folk Festival in Richmond. We may have an ongoing festival of our own after that, but none of the details are ironed out yet, especially who would cover the projected $1.4 million-plus cost. If the project does move forward, I hope they seek input from local musicians/artists (and media types) when deciding on the kind of festival and performers. If the thing gets overrun by suits, you know it's gonna go down in flames in a year or two. Make it unique and creative, and it may have a chance to stand out, causing people to actually want to come to Richmond for a change.

Call it daydreaming, but I can imagine quite a few artists who would draw fans from here and around Virginia: Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (great new school/traditional folk country); Joanna Newsome (amazing harpist the indie kids love); Richard Thompson (brilliant songwriter/guitarist); Precious Bryant (old-time blues); Konono No. 1 (vital African music with homemade instruments); Dengue Fever (funky Cambodian music); Wayne Hancock (old-school country the way Hank did it); Michael Hurley (former Richmonder and folk legend); Devendra Banhart (king of the current freak folk scene); Bert Jansch (former Pentangle guitarist and master folkie). The list of affordable artists goes on — and these could be mixed in with local acts.

Why not charge $5 to $10 bucks a day to help with costs and have children get in free? Make it a diverse community effort that highlights the local arts scene and does it proud with vital artists — not a corporate pat-on-the-back-fest with wasteful spending and lame choices. Variety is key, and folk can be interpreted many ways. For an idea of how to put on a free music fest, look at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival ( in San Francisco, staged every October by loaded investment banker Warren Hellman (not the mayonnaise heir) — it's been a major success.

"The film U.S. networks dare not show!"

Sure, a wholphin is a rare hybrid of a bottle-nosed dolphin (mother) and a false killer whale (father) — but it's also a quarterly DVD magazine containing interesting, rarely seen short films. Among the highlights since it began in 2005: a candid Spike Jonze documentary on Al Gore; a Turkish version of "The Jeffersons"; a short of people eating "sour death balls" to the music of Pérez Prado; director Alexander Payne's UCLA film school project; and more.

But I was looking forward to the latest edition mainly because it had the third and final installment of an important BBC documentary, "The Power of Nightmares," by Adam Curtis. Every American should see this chilling film. Unfortunately, it's hard to find on DVD and television (even HBO) is afraid to show it. Does it promote pedophilia, incest or celebrity dogfighting? Nope. It examines the rise of neoconservatives who have elevated and used al-Qaida to replace our old (similarly irrational) fears of communism. But as this film shows, today's most powerful political leaders are the ones who can craft the most powerful nightmares for their citizenry. Watch and see how influential but creepy dead theorist Leo Strauss believed average Americans should be kept in the dark (a perversion of Plato's noble lie) because we can't handle the truth, don't you know.

Plus! If you order a subscription to Wholphin now (, you get a chance to win an original painting done by Cheetah, the 75-year-old chimpanzee who starred in the original Tarzan movie from 1932. Yep, the oldest primate around is chilling in Palm Springs, painting colorful ape-stract art to raise money for his sanctuary. I already bought mine online straight from his handler/pal, Don. It's a great conversation piece. Better than the war, anyway.

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