Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., photographed at the Capitol in Washington in March, announced Thursday that he would introduce legislation to raise the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products to 21.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced he will introduce national legislation to raise the minimum age for people buying tobacco products from 18 to 21. Some anti-tobacco advocates worry that the plan could actually harm children by heading off other regulation efforts.
The proposal from McConnell, who hails from a top tobacco-producing state, came Thursday at a conference with the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, a Louisville-based organization. He has received more than $160,000 in contributions from Altria, a major cigarette manufacturer.
McConnell said he was spurred by an “unprecedented spike” in the number of teenagers who were vaping, or smoking e-cigarettes.
“We have an epidemic of nicotine consumption either through cigarettes or through vaping in high schools and even middle schools, not only in our state but around the … country,” he said.
McConnell plans to introduce a bill next month. “This is going to be a top priority that I’ll be working on,” he added.
Across the United States, 12 states have already raised the minimum purchasing age to 21 with so-called Tobacco 21 laws, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
McConnell’s announcement was met with praise by giants in the tobacco industry, who say they support the age increase on tobacco product purchases. “By raising the minimum age to 21, no high school student will be able to purchase tobacco products legally, adding another hurdle to help reduce social access,” Altria said in a press release.
Yet some members of the anti-smoking community are skeptical about what’s really going on.
Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, says the organization does not yet have a position on McConnell’s legislation because it has not seen the bill. But Myers said he is concerned that tobacco companies are attempting to include special-interest provisions that would hinder protections for kids.
“Congress must not allow tobacco companies to use Tobacco 21 legislation as a Trojan horse for provisions that benefit the industry at the expense of kids and public health,” he tells NPR by email.
He says tobacco companies have worked to include state provisions that limit the regulation of tobacco products, including flavored tobacco products.
At the federal level, a provision introduced by Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., would allow certain items, such as the heated tobacco product IQOS, to be classified as vapor products, thereby evading stronger regulations than cigarettes.
Stanton Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California San Francisco, tells NPR that tobacco companies are trying to “co-opt” a movement to protect kids. “They try to get in front of it by introducing bad legislation that preempts good legislation to make it look like they’re supporting a pro-health situation,” he says.
Glantz says provisions backed by tobacco companies can criminalize youth for buying tobacco products instead of retailers who sell them the products, while other provisions have meaningless implementation language that makes the laws harder to enforce.
“To bring McConnell in, that’s like the super, biggest gun you could bring in,” he says.
Philip Morris International tells NPR it has applications pending before the Food and Drug Administration to commercialize its product IQOS in the U.S. “Increasing the legal age of purchase for tobacco and nicotine products can play an important role in further guarding against youth use of such products,” spokesperson Ryan Sparrow says. “However, that process must first begin with companies themselves.”
A spokesperson for Juul, a popular e-cigarette, tells NPR in a written statement, said the company supports “category-wide actions to reverse the trend in youth use, while preserving this unprecedented opportunity for adult smokers, and we will continue to work with federal, state and local policymakers in a transparent and collaborative fashion to achieve that goal.”
Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA, has taken a major stake in Juul.
McConnell’s state, Kentucky, has one of the highest cancer mortality rates in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Along with West Virginia, Kentucky also has the highest rates of death linked to smoking.
The senator says the bill will uphold the current system, which makes retailers responsible for verifying the age of anyone who buys tobacco. The measure will also have an exemption for members of the military, something that anti-tobacco groups have urged Congress not to offer.
Jaclyn Schildkraut, associate professor of Criminal Justice at SUNY Oswego, leads a lockdown drill at Ed Smith Elementary School in Syracuse, N.Y., last month.
Heather Ainsworth/Colorado Public Radio
Heather Ainsworth/Colorado Public Radio
On the morning of her 16th birthday, in her AP music class, Megan Storm thought she was going to die.
The sophomore at Lake Brantley High School in suburban Orlando, Fla., said she heard an announcement over the intercom that the school was in a code red lockdown — it was a drill, but Storm said students were not told that. She and her classmates hid in the dark, behind an instrument locker.
“It was just really quiet. And we all sort of huddled together,” Storm said.
In the 20 years since the Columbine High School shooting in April 1999, a generation of American children have learned not just how to prepare for a fire or tornado or earthquake — but also how to hide from a potential shooter. Some drills are sedate, where teachers lock doors, turn out lights and tell kids to hide in a corner. Others are hyper-realistic, with plastic pellets and fake blood.
Locks, lights, out of sight
There’s little academic, peer-reviewed research that can answer a big question for school administrators: What types of school security systems, including these drills, actually work?
At Lake Brantley High, Megan and her classmates heard loud noises that sounded like gunshots and door knocks. Other students were crying and texting their family and friends.
“I wish I had brought my phone,” she said. “I thought I was going to die.”
And then, a second announcement: The lockdown was just a drill. The loud noises turned out to be nearby construction crews. Megan resumed classes and went home at the end of the day. She then “got off the bus and just immediately broke down,” said Megan’s father, David Storm.
He and other parents were highly critical of school officials after that botched drill in December 2018. In response, district officials said future drills would be announced before they actually start.
Helping schools make informed choices
It’s generally up to state or local governments to decide how, or if, to drill their students. But they have little hard data to base their decision on.
“Research on security measures is in a very sad state,” said Jeremy Finn, a professor of education at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Just a three-hour drive east from Finn’s office in western New York, a researcher is trying to change that. Jaclyn Schildkraut, an associate professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Oswego, is helping the Syracuse City School District implement lockdown drills, and collecting data on how effective they are.
She decided to tackle the question, in part, because of the lack of research into school security overall. The relative rarity of school shootings makes it difficult work, and Finn added that it’s difficult to measure a security program’s effect on a negative — a shooting that didn’t happen. Schildkraut also said that too many schools have gravitated toward unproven yet tangible measures, like metal detectors and bulletproof backpacks.
“As a nation, we’re throwing a lot of money at problems and we don’t know if those things are going to work,” she said. “But they make us feel better because we can see them.”
Lockdowns, when well executed, can slow a gunman
If lights go out and doors are locked, Schildkraut said, the perpetrator will have fewer opportunities to kill students before police arrive.
So since last fall, Schildkraut and a team of undergraduate assistants have run drills at some 30 schools in Syracuse. They arrive, unannounced, at a school and ask the principal to read an announcement to inform students that a lockdown drill is about to start. Then Schildkraut’s team fans out and checks every classroom in the school.
“We look at the proportion of the rooms that are secured properly, the proportion that have their door locked, the proportion that have their lights off, etcetera,” she said.
Schildkraut keeps data for every classroom and then drills the same school again months later to check for improvements. She also surveyed more than 10,000 Syracuse students on how safe they feel at school, both before and after the drills.
She hopes to present some of her findings at the upcoming American Society of Criminology conference. Eventually, she’ll submit it to peer-reviewed journals. It would then be accessible to any school district in the country trying to make the tough decision of how to keep their students safe.
Schildkraut is understanding of parents who worry about lockdown drills and said they are clear examples of them getting out of hand. But she said they are as necessary now as fire drills, or duck-and-cover nuclear bomb drills 50 years ago.
“You have to give kids tools to keep themselves safe,” she said.
Her own motivations are deeply personal. Schildkraut grew up near Parkland, Fla., and her brother went to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which experienced a deadly shooting last year. The Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 pushed her to get back into school and pursue criminology. She has a newly published book about Columbine’s legacy.
“While I may only be one person, I really believe that I can make a difference,” she said. “And if it takes tough love, or it takes teaching moments, or it takes coming down on administrators, or whatever needs to be done, like they have to understand the seriousness of this. That ‘not one more’ really means, ‘not one more.’ And maybe that doesn’t mean not one more to everybody, but it does to me.”
Jahira Edwards, a sophomore at Institute of Technology at Syracuse Central, has been through a handful of Schildkraut’s drills. For one of them, she said she was momentarily confused as to whether it was just a drill. Then she figured it out.
“I knew it was a drill because somebody knocked at the door, and like everybody was scared. I’m like, ‘No, if he actually wanted to shoot us, he would come in, not just knock at the door.’ So I was like, ‘It’s a drill,'” she said.
Edwards is the type of prepared student Schildkraut wants. All the drills have had another impact on Edwards: They make her think about how vulnerable she is at school.
“I try not to think, ‘Oh, it couldn’t happen at my school,'” she said. “But I know it could.”
A truck travels along the Trans-Canada Highway at dusk in Banff National Park in 2017 in Alberta, Canada. Three climbers are presumed dead after an avalanche in the park.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
Three of the world’s most elite climbers are missing and presumed dead by park officials after an avalanche in Alberta, Canada.
Jess Roskelley, a U.S. citizen, and David Lama and Hansjörg Auer, who are both Austrian, had been attempting to climb the east face of Howse Peak in Banff National Park. They were reported overdue on Wednesday, according to the park.
“Based on an assessment of the scene, all three members of the party are presumed to be deceased,” the park said.
A statement from Parks Canada said that responders “observed signs of multiple avalanches and debris containing climbing equipment.”
“Search and recovery efforts are not currently possible due to weather and dangerous avalanche conditions,” it said. The avalanche hazard is expected to continue continue, Parks Canada said, because of more strong winds and precipitation.
Washington native Roskelley, 36, was the youngest American to summit Mt. Everest. He accomplished the feat when he was 20 with his father John, who is also a well-known climber.
“It’s how he lived, really. He took life by the horns,” his father told the newspaper. “When you’re climbing mountains, danger is not too far away. It’s terrible for my wife and I. But it’s even worse for his wife.”
Austrian climber David Lama climbing the Kursaal building during the 2013 San Sebastian International Film Festival in San Sebastian, Spain.
Juan Naharro Gimenez/Getty Images
Juan Naharro Gimenez/Getty Images
David Lama, the 28-year-old son of a Nepali mountain guide and an Austrian nurse, made waves extremely early in his career. According to the trio’s sponsor The North Face, “at age 12, David became the youngest climber in the history of the sport to complete an 8b+,” an extremely difficult rock climbing grade.
Lama made the first free ascent of the southeast ridge of Cerro Torre in Patagonia, which was documented in a film called Cerro Torre: A Snowball’s Chance in Hell.
Auer, 35, who grew up in the mountains of Austria, was known as “one of the world’s top solo climbers,” as Outside reported. In 2007, he famously free-soloed “The Fish,” a legendary route on the south face of Italy’s Marmolada.
“All three of them, they had in common this similar goal of going and doing remote climbs on big mountains in a very pure, alpine way,” Gripped magazine Editor-in-Chief Brandon Pullan told CBC. The difficult route that the group was on had only been climbed once, according to the broadcaster.
Parks Canada described the route the trio was attempting as a “remote and an exceptionally difficult objective, with mixed rock and ice routes requiring advanced alpine mountaineering skills.”
It has closed the Howse Peak area to all traffic and travel until further notice. The area generally sees “few travelers,” according to the park service, and was used by the First Nations “as a route through the mountains to bison.”
Debris from Hurricane Michael rests along a canal on Oct. 18, 2018, in Mexico Beach, Fla. NOAA upgraded the storm to a Category 5 after completing its analysis.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scientists at NOAA’s National Hurricane Center have found that Hurricane Michael had an intensity of 160 mph when it made landfall at the Florida Panhandle last October. That means it was a Category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale — just one of four such U.S. storm on record.
Hurriane Michael had previously been classified as a Category 4, at 155 mph. The last hurricane of such intensity at landfall was Hurricane Andrew, which struck South Florida and Louisiana in 1992.
Michael made landfall near Mexico Beach and Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. It caused 16 deaths and $25 billion in damage in the U.S. Before arriving in Florida, the storm passed over western Cuba as a category 2 hurricane.
Hurricane Michael is the strongest hurricane on record to make landfall on the Panhandle, and it devastated communities there. In Mexico Beach, more than three-quarters of the homes were flattened by winds. Six months later, some businesses have reopened, but the area is far from recovered.
The other two category 5 hurricanes on record in the U.S. were the Labor Day Hurricane in 1935 and Hurricane Camille in 1969.
NOAA’s analysis found that storm surge brought water 9 to 14 feet above normal level along parts of the Panhandle, and reached the highest levels at Mexico Beach. It brought storm surge flooding elsewhere in Florida, as well as along portions of the North Carolina and Virginia coasts.
Michael also produced at least 16 tornadoes, though they caused only minor damage.
NOAA’s report also notes the direct and indirect casualties of the storm. Among the 16 deaths directly attributed to the storm, five people drowned in Florida because of storm surge and two died from falling trees. Three people in North Carolina and one in Georgia also died from falling trees. Five people died in Virginia from freshwater flooding. Another 43 deaths in Florida were associated indirectly with Michael: falls during cleanup after the storm, medical issues made worse by it, and traffic accidents.
You can read NOAA’s whole report on Hurricane Michael here.
An animated Lil Dicky holds a skunk, voiced by Wiz Khalifa, in the star-studded video for “Earth.”
YouTube screenshot by NPR
YouTube screenshot by NPR
Lil Dicky unveiled the absolutely star-studded, possibly not-safe-for-work animated music video for his charity single “Earth” today — featuring Leonardo DiCaprio as a human and Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, Halsey, Bad Bunny, PSY, Zac Brown, Miley Cyrus, Sia, Snoop Dogg and countless other celebrities as animals pitching in to save the earth.
Turns out, Lil Dicky is this generation’s Band Aid. “It really kind of started out as, ‘I love animals. I’d love to make a song where different artists play the role of different animals,’ ” he told Time, adding, “What started as a silly joke of an idea along the way became the most important thing I’ll ever do.”
Watching it feels like watching Madagascar as recounted by DJ Khaled’s Rolodex, or an absurdist rendering of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” rewritten in the language of meme rap and meta-commentary. It’s one of the more enjoyable offerings from the joke-rapper, and its intentions are good (proceeds from the single will go towards the environment-focused Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation). Still: How did this guy manage to land a music video that rivals this year’s Coachella lineup?
It was 2013 when a burgeoning ad man named David Burd adopted the Lil Dicky moniker. He first grew notoriety as a DIY joke rapper, inheriting the DNA of The Lonely Island and incorporating frat-rap into the mix. He made songs like “Ex-Boyfriend,” a lewd rap about the envy that comes with meeting your partner’s more alluring ex. In a (since-deleted) blog post from 2013, he penned his statement of purpose. “Unless you’re an extremely stupid person that began life as a poor, violent man, only to see your fortunes turn once you started rapping, you won’t be able to relate to 99 percent of today’s rap music.” He goes on to add: “So I decided that if I wanted to be absurd, I’d have to do it differently. I’d have to do it in ways that I could relate to. That’s my right.”
He transformed that theory into a handful of viral hits, spinning his shtick as a white rapper into bits that resonated with the masses. His breakthrough arrived with “$ave Dat Money,” a song from 2015 that preached fiscal responsibility, subverting the tropes of rap extravagance. It featured (at-the-time) buzzing rappers Rich Homie Quan and Fetty Wap, and went on to chart at No. 71. The following year he joined the likes of Anderson .Paak, 21 Savage and Lil Uzi Vert in the 2016 XXL Freshman Class, a hotly-anticipated roll-call of buzzed-about rappers.
Following that came his biggest hit to date, “Freaky Friday.” Produced by hitmakers DJ Mustard and Benny Blanco, its essential premise is simple: a Joe Schmo white guy swaps bodies with Chris Brown — a la the Lindsay Lohan film from 2003. Dicky (voiced by Brown) goes on to say the n-word recklessly. (This part resulted in a scandal involving the women’s lacrosse team from Virginia Tech.) Chris Brown gets to live life unhindered by his history. Both despite and because of its association with Brown, the song netted Lil Dicky his first Top 10 song. At this point, he’s become a legitimate star, signed by superstar handler Scooter Braun, who manages Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, in 2016 (soon after his XXL feature).
So, when Lil Dicky announced on Wednesday that a collaboration titled “Earth” was impending, and that it would feature a bill stacked with stars, it stoked speculation as to what that could possibly result in. Now we know.
Checkered context and all, a jokester using his newfound network to make an anthem about climate change certainly isn’t the worst thing he could have done. And, for what it’s worth, there’s no Chris Brown this time around.
Clemantine Wamariya, who fled Rwanda as a girl, is now a U.S. citizen. She is a human rights advocate and a speaker.
Steve Jennings/Getty Images for Free The Children
Steve Jennings/Getty Images for Free The Children
Twenty-five years ago this month, more than 800,000 Rwandans, mostly Tutsi, were slaughtered over the course of 100 days by members of the country’s Hutu majority.
Among those who lived through the terror is Clemantine Wamariya. Her memoir, The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War And What Comes After, recounts in wrenching detail her six-year trek in search of refuge from her country’s killing fields. Co-authored with Elizabeth Weil, the book was published to acclaim in 2018 and is now out in paperback.
The title comes from a favorite story that Wamariya heard from her childhood nanny about a girl who disappears leaving no trace except beads. In her prologue, she writes, “Often, still, my own life story feels fragmented, like beads unstrung.”
Wamariya was just six and her sister Claire, 14, when the fighting began in 1994. Their parents sent them to their grandmother’s house, located closer to the border with Burundi, with the hope that they’d be safer there.
After several days of sleepless nights filled with the noise of bombs exploding, there was an ominous knock on the door. Their grandmother told the sisters to run. Together, they traveled thousands of miles, often by night, usually by foot, sometimes by truck and once by boat on a route that took them to Burundi, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique and South Africa before being granted asylum by the United States in 2000.
Wamariya went on to graduate from Yale. Now 31, she is a human rights advocate and speaker based in San Francisco. We spoke to her about her experiences and about the 25th commemoration of the Rwandan genocide. The conversation has been edited for clarity and for length.
Was it difficult to relive your story in your book?
I have spent 15 years learning how to best share our experiences and I had to sacrifice every part of my privacy to share my story.
You have said you don’t like the word genocide.
The word is clinical. It has been used to quantify the numbers of those killed. But it does not tell you about the [individual] people who were hurt or lost.
It is just the entry point for talking about the horrors and what actually happened [in Rwanda] and elsewhere. I am more interested in expanding on how it feels, the emotional, personal side of the horror, the before, during and after.
You also prefer not to be called a “refugee.” What vocabulary should we use?
I would prefer being called by my name or a person who sought refuge.
The word refugee leads to stereotypes or expectations that don’t allow us to see who someone is. During our travels, Claire and I learned to speak seven languages, but you could see the surprise in the faces of anyone who thinks that people seeking refuge [could not have such knowledge or] did not have a meaningful life before they fled.
We need to see beyond the projections that we cast onto each other. In America, we all have stories about how we [or an ancestor] sought refuge. We clash when we forget that was the case or when [we] start to believe that one person’s refuge story is better than or worse than another’s.
You wrote that you found a way to begin talking about those horrors after you read Elie Wiesel’s Night, his memoir about the Nazi genocide of the Jews during the Holocaust.
I read it when I was in eighth grade [in Chicago]. It awakened me to a shocking side of humanity. It offered me words to feel what I had thought was unspoken, and Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison gave me the freedom to speak.
You later wrote about Elie Wiesel in a submission to the Oprah High School Essay Contest and said that maybe if Rwandans had read Night, they wouldn’t have decided to kill one another. That essay also led to your appearance on Oprah, who arranged to fly your parents and siblings from Rwanda to her studio for a surprise on-air family reunion.
We had not seen each other in 12 years. I felt gratitude and joy that I still have yet to find words to describe. But also anger that nothing could restore the time we had lost with each other. I have learned to forgive … all that happened to separate us.
Do your parents talk about the past?
My parents live in a never-ending present, unable to talk about what happened to us. At first it was frustrating, but now I can understand that attitude.
Your story is deeply intertwined with that of your older sister, Claire. Tell us about her.
She is a heroine, like Xena the princess warrior, real and of our time. The map [of where the sisters traveled] is all Claire, her decisions about which place would be farther from wars and give us opportunity to live freely and to be seen for who we are and have a sense of agency and where we would have respect. For the past 10 years she has worked with many who have sought refuge in Chicago and with an organization called Women United for Immigrants and Refugees.
You discuss the many difficulties of living in refugee camps in Burundi and elsewhere. How did you feel as a person?
It is easy to get lost because all aspects of who you are, at least the things that used to make you a person, are stripped away.
What are the important points for refugees to share?
The person who has lived and survived in these conditions has to break the silence and talk not only of gratitude but the horror in these camps. In most, people have to walk at least hours to fetch water. Monthly food portions, if camps are lucky to receive any, are [often] maize.
I invite everyone who is involved with refugee camps to have a meaningful conversation [with the refugees] they serve about what would make these places a place of refuge.
What are your thoughts as you commemorate the 25th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide?
Every American and every person who wants to know what hate can do should look at what happened in Rwanda. If you want to know that peace is possible, you should also look at Rwanda now: [Rwandans] working together every day to create peace and to live beyond hate. I am very proud of Rwandans.
Diane Cole writes for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal and The Jewish Week, and is book columnist for The Psychotherapy Networker. She is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges. Her website is dianejcole.com.
Gina Rodriguez, DeWanda Wise and Brittany Snow star in Someone Great.
One crazy night.
It’s the foundation of movies both silly and not so silly, including After Hours, Superbad, American Graffiti, Adventures in Babysitting, Go, Can’t Hardly Wait … there are a lot to choose from. A new one coming to Netflix this week that’s of the “female friendship forever” variety is Someone Great. Written and directed by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, it’s a comedy about three New York women who just want — of course — to get into one big event and to get a little crazy.
The catalyst is that Jenny (Gina Rodriguez) has just broken up with her boyfriend Nate (Lakeith Stanfield) right before she’s supposed to move to California for work. She’s alternating between sobbing and drinking, so she calls up her friends Erin (DeWanda Wise) and Blair (Brittany Snow) and tells them she wants one last big-city adventure, and she knows just the concert they need to get into. (And the drugs they need to procure along the way, since procurement of drugs is often an element of the out-all-night craziness picture.)
Jenny’s friends have their own complicated love lives: Erin is afraid to meet her girlfriend’s family, while Blair carries on a boring relationship with a boring man. Will they find their own resolutions even as they chase Jenny’s quest across the city? Well, yes, of course.
Is that RuPaul Charles playing Hype the molly dealer? Why yes, it is.
Like most similar movies, Someone Great is episodic and studded with cameos. Episodes include classics like The Girls Hit The Convenience Store. The Girls Buy Molly From RuPaul. The Girls Steal Weed From Jaboukie Young-White. The Girls Bump Into Nate’s Cousin, Rosario Dawson. Some work better than others, and none lasts very long — one of my very favorites comes at the very beginning of the film, when Jenny commiserates on a subway platform with a woman played by the very funny Michelle Buteau, who’s gone before you know it. I would have watched another 10 minutes of Rodriguez and Buteau snorfling and admiring each other’s beauty — and I’m pretty sure you can see Rodriguez break at one point, too.
And yet, Someone Great is seriously invested in the emotional toll of Jenny’s breakup. This is the first time I’ve seen Stanfield (who appears mostly in Jenny’s memories) as a straight-up romantic lead, and he’s very good. The relationship feels lived-in and significant, making her grief — while it’s often funny — also rather poignant. Predictably, the needling of those memories means Jenny winds up wondering whether she’s sure she should be breaking up with Nate at all, a question that seems legitimately open until the very end of the film. That’s hard to do.
If you know Gina Rodriguez as the gentle lead on Jane the Virgin, you’ll find a very different version of her here. This character is, for the moment, a mess, and Rodriguez really digs in, especially when Jenny’s drunk. Who knew Jane was a fun filthy-mouthed drunk?
Rodriguez is also a producer on the film, as is filmmaker Paul Feig, who’s been responsible in varying capacities for a heap of comedies that star and elevate women, including Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy. Someone Great isn’t as strong as any of those, but it’s deeply felt and a lot of fun, and as a streaming weekend treat, it gets the job done.
Caroline Shaw’s album, Orange, is devoted to music for string quartet.
Kait Moreno/Nonesuch Records
Kait Moreno/Nonesuch Records
Caroline Shaw‘s new album, Orange, is a love letter to the string quartet. The North Carolina native burst onto the music scene in 2013, when she was the youngest composer to win a Pulitzer Prize. She’s still in her 30s and now, for the first time, there’s a recording devoted entirely to her work.
The album is like a garden, Shaw says in the liner notes. The soil contains musical remnants of the old masters which nourish her own new compositions — a refreshing twist on a centuries-old genre. In a piece called “The Cutting Garden,” she grafts sprigs of Mozart then Ravel onto her own new quartet.
The musicians playing Shaw’s music — tending her garden, as she puts it — are members of the Attacca Quartet. It takes agility and precision to pull off this music, which tends to shift gears suddenly. The album’s opener, Entr’acte, is all about abrupt juxtapositions and was inspired by a particularly lovely transition in a string quartet by Haydn. At one luminous point in Shaw’s piece, the Attacca players negotiate a thicket of pizzicato, then pivot to a single viola bowing across all four strings.
Shaw is inspired by more than just the classic composers. In a piece called Limestone & Felt, she imagines herself in a Gothic cathedral, where shards of melody bounce off the walls and intertwine. In another, Valencia, she creates an ode to the noble, store-bought orange, marveling at its architecture, its tiny sacks of juice explode via a pulsating spray of plucked notes.
Shaw doesn’t like to be called a “composer.” She’s more comfortable with just “musician.” And, I guess, that’s appropriate. Shaw has a master’s degree from Yale in violin. She’s also an accomplished singer with a quirky a cappella group called Roomful of Teeth, for which her Pulitzer-winning piece was composed. And she’s contributed vocal tracks to songs by Kanye West and Nas. Still, when you hear all the imaginative sounds on Orange, you know you’re listening to the voice of a strong composer.
If you thought everything that could be said through the medium of the 250-year-old string quartet has already been said, the conversation just got a lot more interesting with Caroline Shaw’s Orange.
(Caroline Shaw’s Orange, performed by the Attacca Quartet, is released April 19 on New Amsterdam and Nonesuch Records.)