Friday, September 29. 2006
Here's the latest installment in my F5 Record Report. Roster this week:
Got off on a Jewish kick this time. Started off planning on doing the Klezmatics and Art Brut. After I wound up quoting the latter's Israel-Palestine line, I went scrounging. Once I found El Médioni the pattern was set. Fields and London were revised from Recycled Goods. Atzmon was a record that had just missed Jazz CG, but it's worth noting, and doing it let me drop a plug for Exile. Gottlieb was in the incoming queue. It's a not-so-radical release in John Zorn's Radical Jewish Culture series, which could have contributed more interesting records. Rufus Thomas doesn't fit the pattern, but I never planned on doing thematic columns -- although I do tend to pair up complementary records, as with Dylan/Jewels & Binoculars last week. One thing about this week's Jewish music is how varied it all is.
Handed another one in today, with a cluster of world jazz, so the cycle continues.
Monday, September 25. 2006
Didn't get into the replay shelves this week, mostly because I spent the first half working on Recycled Goods. That also explains why this week's prospecting starts with more world-oriented items. More Recycled early this week, then I'll work on pulling a Jazz CG together. Don't know any more about what's going on at the Village Voice, although I can think of some pretty good arguments why they should keep Jazz CG going.
Ayelet Rose Gottlieb: Mayim Rabim (2006, Tzadik): These notes are necessarily quick reactions, as opposed to fully considered reviews, so sometimes my reactions stray from the text. Sometimes I bring up aspects of the process, like when I complain about having to work off slipcase promos -- by the way, I always get fan mail when I do that. This isn't even that: just a CDR in a purple plastic wrapper, stapled to a relatively fancy press kit. I assume this is all John Zorn's fault, but let me explain. When I started this column, Tzadik was very high on my label wish list. I was told that they never send promo copies out, but that as a press person I could buy discounted copies at the same price they sell copies to their artists. Now, if you're a consumer, that's a good deal -- I've bought a couple of things on my long-term wish list, and should buy some more if/when I ever find the time/money. But it's way too expensive to go fishing. And while Tzadik produces some of the most interesting records around, they also put out some very strange, even unlistenable, shit. So the writer economics are, to say the least, dicey, but the "artist price" bothers me too. I do manage to get a few Tzadik records in the mail, either directly from the musician or through a publicist the musician hired, and every time that happens Tzadik's cash register rings in my head. Gottlieb figured a way around that -- while I don't like working off this, I can't say as I blame her. As for the music, she seems to see herself as a jazz singer, but this is something else. She's taken texts from the "erotic biblical love poem Song of Songs." Sung in Hebrew, I suspect the translations lose something -- "My beloved stretched forth his hand from the hole/And my insides beat wildly"? The voices radiate over clever arrangements of clarinet, piano, cello and percussion, unpeeling the popular artifacts of Jewish music to reveal roots that sound timeless. B+(*)
David Krakauer: Bubbemeises: Lies My Grandma Told Me (2006, Label Bleu): Front cover credits also include Socalled and Klezmer Madness. Socalled is credited with samples and sequences. Klezmer Madness is the band. Socalled was around for Krakauer's 2004 Live in Krakow, but fits in much tighter here -- in many cases the tracks begin with the samples, beats and a bit of rap, which sets up a contrast that Krakauer's manic tendencies have long needed. [B+(***)]
Raúl Jaurena: Te Amo Tango (2005 , Soundbrush): Tango may have originated in the brothels of Buenos Aires, but these days it extends from popular dance to classical music. This sounds more classical than most, thanks to the Sinopus String Quintet, the operatic singer Marga Mitchell on four tracks, and to the slow grind of bandeonist Juarena's dense melodies -- an intensity that works, up to a point. B+(**)
Vittor Santos: Renewed Impressions (2005 , Adventure Music): It's very rare to hear a Brazilian record with a lead horn of any sort, much less trombone. Santos doesn't do anything very fancy: his tone is somewhat muted, just short puffs leading the piano-bass-drums (or in two instances Hamilton de Holanda's mandolin). But in the context of this relaxed samba that's definition enough. A Mario Adnet tune, "An American in the Samba," is especially delightful. [A-]
The Andy Biskin Quartet: Early American: The Melodies of Stephen Foster (2000 , Strudelmedia): Biskin is a clarinettist, originally from Texas, studied at Yale, worked for Alan Lomax, now in New York. The quartet gets an old-fashioned sound from Chris Washburne on trombone and tuba; Pete McCann plays banjo as well as guitar, and John Hollenbeck drums. Biskin slips four originals in with the Foster tunes. The latter strike me as sounding ancient and fragile, at points awkwardly so. Not sure to what extent this is deliberate, or matters. [B]
Andy Biskin: Trio Tragico (2005 , Strudelmedia): The contrast to Biskin's clarinet comes from Dave Ballou's trumpet. The third wheel is bassist Drew Gress, who provides background and some pulse, but has neither the ability to drive nor accent that has made drummers the norm in two-horn trios. It also seems like the two horns play in unison a lot, which puts the focus back on the composer and his clarinet. He's doing some interesting things here -- possibly building on his evident interest in early Americana. [B+(*)]
Mark Feldman: What Exit (2005 , ECM): Most of the time I play the stereo at moderately low volume, often opposed to those annoying "play it loud" instructions some labels like to affix. One consequence of this is that I've developed a pet peeve over faintly recorded segments which tend to disappear under the hum of the computer fans, not to mention the notorious Kansas wind and the occasional tornado siren. This got off on the wrong foot with a segment long enough I wound up checking the health of the equipment. When I went back and turned it up, I found interesting composerly moments, with Anders Jormin's bass reinforcing Feldman's violin, and pianist John Taylor taking scenic sidetrips. They can generate some momentum when they want, but not much volume. The sort of record that gains stature the more you get into it, but for my purposes, at 70+ minutes, it's more work than it's worth. B
Keith Jarrett: The Carnegie Hall Concert (2005 , ECM, 2CD): I don't dislike Jarrett. I wouldn't argue with anyone who ranked him as one of the most important jazz pianists of the forty years he's been recording. Beyond that it's hard to say. Few people have recorded as much, as long, at such a high level -- Cecil Taylor is one that jumps to mind, but that's a tough comparison to make; looking through my lists, I'd say the most comparable pianist to Jarrett is Abdullah Ibrahim, and that's high praise. Nonetheless, I get a little tired with the constant volley of trio and solo albums that are about all Jarrett has done over the last twenty-plus years. This one is a solo. The booklet lists all of Jarrett's ECM solos. How many? Counting this one, 24, including 11 doubles and one 6-CD set -- 40 discs in all. The few I've heard, excepting The Köln Concert, all tend to blur together for me. This doesn't strike me as exceptional, but two notes: I thoroughly enjoyed "True Blues," but then I have Otis Spann albums that are at least as true; and I find the applause distracting and ultimately annoying, partly because it makes me wonder what he get to elicit that applause. Maybe it was just being so good for so long? B
Mitchel Forman: Perspectives (2005-06 , Marsis Jazz): Pianist, including electronic keyboards. Not familiar with his own albums. Most of his side credits seem to be fusion (starting with John McLaughlin) and pop jazz (Chuck Loeb, Rick Braun, Jeff Golub, Najee, list goes on), but two early credits were with Gerry Mulligan and Stan Getz. This is half acoustic, half synthesized, often with sequenced percussion. Two originals, two Beatles songs, various covers which most likely represent a personal view of the tradition -- Hancock, Corea, McLaughlin, Shorter, Ron Carter, Russell Ferrante, and most importantly two from Keith Jarrett. Coming after Jarrett in my queue, this popped my ears right up. Will have to play it some more. [B+(***)]
Omer Avital: The Ancient Art of Giving (2006, Smalls): After Frank Hewitt, Israeli bassist Avital is the second little-known Smalls regular Luke Kaven has set out to document. Volume 1 was compiled from 1996 tapes and released earlier this year as Asking No Permission. It featured a long list of post-Branford saxophonists -- the best known being Mark Turner. I found it hard to sort the compositions out from the clutter, but a decade later he's got it nailed down. The quintet features Turner on tenor sax, Avishai Cohen on trumpet, Aaron Goldberg on piano, and Ali Jackson on drums. Avital's pieces set the horns free -- neither Turner nor Cohen have pronounced avant leanings, but they enjoy the freedom. Jackson avoids the hard bop clichés, playing light and letting the rhythm slosh around a bit. Piano gets a few nice runs too. Recorded live on two nights at Fat Cat. Seems like I've been complaining about applause a lot recently, so I should note that there is some here, but unlike the Jarrett record, it's proportional, often coming at opportune moments -- always a good sign when the audience swings with the band. A-
Frank Hewitt: Fresh From the Cooler (1996 , Smalls): Rules of thumb: I know what I like in a piano trio, but I rarely know how to explain just why one is able to pique my interest while so many others just sound like, well, so many others. It's certainly important that the bass and drums stay in the game. Ari Roland and Jimmy Lovelace qualify here, but barely -- aside from some heavy-handed drums on "Tenor Madness," Hewitt's piano is key throughout. He just seems right on the mark. Need to check it again, but my first impression is that this may top his first posthumous album -- Hewitt was one of those guys who played for decades but never made a record, at least before his death at 67 in 2002. [A-]
Gilad Hekselman: Split Life (2006, Smalls): Guitar-bass-drums trio, led by a young Israeli guitarist, with Joe Martin on bass and Ari Hoenig on drums, recorded live at Fat Cat in NYC. Similar to a piano trio, although jazz custom tends more toward improvising single-note lines. Nice record, similar to another half-dozen I've heard, mostly on Fresh Sound. B+(*)
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
Ernest Dawkins' New Horizons Ensemble: The Messenger: Live at the Original Velvet Lounge (2005 , Delmark): This is Chicago's answer to a traditional New Orleans tailgate party, with Maurice Brown's trumpet to shine up Dawk's sax, and Steve Berry's trombone to get it dirty again. No one is credited with vocals, but that doesn't stop the shouts, hollers, whelps and raps, let alone the patter. B+(***)
Von Freeman: Good Forever (2006, Premonition): He's always had a distinctively thin, fragile sound, so the surprise here is how well he keeps it hidden. At 84, he may have slowed down, but that's possibly because this mainstream quartet never pushes him. Even so, sometimes he does reach for notes that aren't there, slipping into a muffled screech. Only then does his sax balladry reverts to form. B+(***)
Sunday, September 24. 2006
It's a couple of weeks old by now, but Tony Karon has a remarkable 9/11 piece posted on his blog. It's about Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, the Middle East, and most pointedly about us. If I started quoting it I'd wind up quoting it all. But here's just the first line:
Postscript: I should have written more on this, but it was late, and there was too much. Karon nominates Rami Khouri as Person of the Year for his coverage and analysis of the recent war in Lebanon, citing Khouri's invitation to Israeli journalists "to take a more Jewish approach to their work!" This isn't irony. It's shared heritage, forgotten by too many on all sides of the divide. Karon cites Hillel's fundamental definition of Jewishness: "That which is hateful unto yourself, do not do unto others; all the rest is commentary." Khouri cites Deuteronomy: "Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue." Personally, I find that the word "justice" has become so poluted with vengeance that I prefer to use a simpler, less combative principle: respect. Pretty much everything I have to say about politics derives from that one principle.
Saturday, September 23. 2006
Ivor van Heerden describes himself as a disaster scientist. He was born in South Africa, but was drawn to Louisiana, first to LSU, then to the wetlands. He holds a Ph.D. in marine sciences, teaches civil and environmental engineering, is deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center, and director of the Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes. His background and strategic position offers a unique perspective on the Katrina disaster, as least in terms of New Orleans.
I've also read Michael Eric Dyson's Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster, which provides a good chronology of the hurricane and what happened after, as well as a longer meditation on how race factors in, especially on the response end. I don't want to go down that rathole, but my own view is that race didn't factor much into the post-disaster fiasco. On the other hand, there's no doubt that the poor were hit hardest and had the least recourse, and the deep history there has much to do with race. Indeed, the race politics of the Jim Crow south laid the foundation for government that recognizes no responsibility to its poor, while serving itself and its wealthy patrons with cronyism. FEMA's response to Katrina is just one example of the application of such Jim Crow politics -- minus the race baiting, mostly, but with the same contempt for anyone not hooked into the ruling class.
But van Heerden is invaluable for understaning just what happened, why it happened, what we knew about it and when, and how Katrina fits into the general pattern of hurricane threats. In addition to his scientific and engineering expertise, he was well connected, both to the media and to various political bodies -- even though he wasn't always welcome, as when the Army Corps of Engineers tried to obstruct his investigation of their levee failures.
The following are some long quotes from van Heerden's book, The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina -- The Inside Story From One Louisiana Scientist (2006, Viking). Mike Bryan is listed as second author, probably deserving much credit for the easy flow of the prose, but the story is told as a first-person memoir. The first quote sums up [pp. 10]:
Van Heerden surveys the various scientists working with him at LSU's Hurricane Center, including a group he calls the "surge warriors" -- the people who gather the raw data for the Center's surge flow models, which predicted the extent of flooding due to overtopping levees [p. 40]:
There are various stories about FEMA's arrogance and incompetence. At one point, van Heerden suggests the use of tent cities for evacuees: they are cheap, easy to assemble, can be provisioned for, and keep folks safe but close by so they can return quickly and maintain a labor pool for clean-up. They're actually common practice in many parts of the world, but FEMA rejected the idea out of hand, explaining that Americans don't live in tents. Instead, they shipped folks everywhere, to places with no provisions, while leasing cruise ships and buying up mobile homes. On the other hand, the Center for Disease Control appears to be just about the last bastion of science and sanity in the federal government [p. 59]:
A major part of the book concerns the levee failures and the Army Corps of Engineers' responsibility and cover-up [pp. 94-95]:
Van Heerden's other major interest is in wetlands restoration [p. 161-162]:
More on wetlands [p. 167]:
And more [p. 169]:
Van Heerden takes apart what he calls the Army Corps of Engineers' party line: "The levees were sound, but the event exceeded the design. Congress told us to design to a Cat 3, and that's what we did. Our hands were tied. Katrina was a Cat 4 storm." [p. 200]:
Finally, this is his summary [pp. 289-290]:
There are various drawings of levee cross-sections, details on the underlying geology -- weak soils, sands, peat, all of which are bad news, requiring steel piling to be driven much deeper than had been done. (The post-flood repairs often go 50 feet deeper.) Also details on the effect of canals, levees, destruction of barrier islands, and so forth on wetlands. Also various political tidbits, like the story of what he calls the "Pelican Brief" -- the short-lived post-flood economic recovery bill that Louisiana's senators proposed, stuffed to the gills with irrelevant pork projects. My favorite was a little item where, just before the flood, Senator Vitter filed a bill to promote mining the cypress trees that hold together the remaining wetlands.
A big part of van Heerden's message is that it is technically possible to build levees and flood control systems that, combined with a major program of wetlands recovery, could keep New Orleans and its key economic infrastructure secure from even a Category 5 hurricane. Of course, that doesn't factor in the likelihood of sea level rise due to global warming. But more immediate problems are still obvious: our system of profit-driven politics, real confusion over risk management and the role of government, and the increasing tide of contempt for science and reason. A good deal more than the future of New Orleans rides on how we face up to those problems, but it's hard to imagine a more graphic or immediate example.
Friday, September 22. 2006
Another F5 Record Report has been posted. Roster this week:
One reason for doing this column is to get a chance to write about some new records that I wouldn't normally be covering. But this one is unusual in that extent. I usually get caught short and wind up recycling, but this time only Jewels & Binoculars and Earl King come from my archives -- King is actually something I wrote for a future Recycled Goods, so even it is appearing first here. Jewels & Binoculars is actually a couple of years old, but occurred to me as a nice tie-in to the new Dylan.
Handed another one in today, so the cycle continues.
Thursday, September 21. 2006
Reading Nikki Keddie's Modern Iran and the following quote [pp. 254-255] jumps out at me, not only because torture is featured:
Of course, Khomeini didn't introduce torture to Iran. Its use no doubt goes back millenia, but before 1978 the practice was primarily associated with SAVAK, Shah Reza Mohammed's US-trained and -equipped secret police. Torture is a political tradition that persists through revolutions, which merely change who is torturing whom. To take the obvious example, the brutality of Lenin and Stalin was learned from the Tsar's police, a continuity that gives Putin license to do much the same. Torture is, therefore, not a practice of left or right, or of any ideological interest. Torture is an instrument of power, used to break whoever threatens that power. It shows who has the power to hurt, indeed to destroy. But it also shows that the torturer has no moral authority to govern -- by claiming power through ruthlessness, they reduce themselves to oppressors, villains, madmen.
Russia and Iran have many such generations of such, as do many nations scattered around the world. But they all have one thing in common: they depend on the exclusion of some or nearly all of their subject population from political representation and power-sharing. The reason for this is that torture entails costs. The torturers are psychically damaged by the experience. The tortured are sometimes broken or killed, or sometimes just hardened. And while the fact of torture may deter some opposition, it confirms the need to resist and raises the stakes, leading to a more desperate, more violent insurgency. Those are costs that political elites don't taken on unless they've already written people off. For proof of this, look not to dictators, who've written damn near everyone off, but to democracies like Britain and France, who limited their torture to the unfranchised in the colonies.
In Iran's case, the Shah, as an absolute monarch, was eventually opposed by everyone, but especially SAVAK's targets on the left and in the clergy. Khomeini led one key faction in the revolt against the Shah, but was able to carve up all the other factions in order to consolidate power first in the clergy and finally in himself as Supreme Jurisprudent. The repression and megalomania of the Pahlavis made this possible, with torture begetting torture, but even there two events brought out the worst in Khomeini instead of holding him to his more liberal pre-revolution advertisements: one was taking the US embassy hostage, allowing him to focus revolutionary fervor in a way that undercut more moderate factions; the other was Iraq's invasion, which threw Iran into a long, brutal war of survival.
George Bush's case for torture is, likewise, pre-conditioned by war, allegedly a desperate matter of survival, but it really seems to be deeper seated -- in some childhood neurosis, where Bush is convinced not only that bullying works but that he'll be applauded for his toughness. This may well tap into one part of the national psyche, but it runs against others: our sense that we are actually decent, dignified, well-meaning folks, and our utter ignorance of what the post-WWII government has done abroad in our name. The latter is what makes us think they attacked us even though they've almost invariably managed to do it over there, and the former makes us think that they are deranged for doing so.
Of course, the other problem is that Bush's torture record hasn't exactly worked out. Guantanamo has turned into a major embarrassment. The CIA's kidnappings, secret prisons, and "special renditions" have undermined public support, especially in Europe. Abu Ghraib was a huge fiasco, and its impact on winning Iraq has been negative -- not that winning was actually ever in the cards. Much the same has happened, more quietly, in Afghanistan, another looming failure. So why exactly Bush wants to keep promoting such tactics isn't all that clear -- or do I mean sane? It's not that torture never works, but Khomeini used it to decimate a domestic opposition among a populace where he started with enormous prestige and credibility -- both for his religious credentials and for his steadfast opposition to the Shah. Even there, it's hard to call isolated, war-torn, repressive Iran much of a success -- worldwide public disapproval added to the high costs of such tactics. On the other hand, Bush has no such advantages, and all the more to lose.
Wednesday, September 20. 2006
I've paid little attention to the various stories and debates over torture that have plagued the Bush administration. Didn't the CIA write the book on torture back in the '50s? Haven't they franchised the practice through the School of the Americas that long? Somewhere along that road I've lost the ability to be shocked, so it surprises me when others are shocked -- especially given how bloodthirsty the administration's supporters seem to be. But today's Wichita Eagle editorial today came out against Bush's bill to cover his ass from the Geneva Conventions, and Richard Crowson's cartoon follows:
The editorial starts: "Several leading GOP senators are taking a brave stand against the Bush administration's creeping moral relativism on torture, which threatens not only this nation's authority on human rights but also its success in the war on terror." It then goes on to urge Sen. Sam Brownback to come out against the bill, buttering him up with: "Brownback has been a notable conservative champion of human rights abroad, opposing the brutal treatment of prisoners in North Korea, Iran and elsewhere. He was one of the first senators to back Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., last year in his amendment blocking White House efforts to undermine the Geneva Conventions." The piece concludes: "Instead of joining a race to the bottom, Brownback should join those senators who are holding America to its higher ideals." In fact, the editorial title is: "Brownback should oppose torture."
It's hard to know how much of this was meant as irony, but one point certainly is: by concentrating on Brownback, they showed up Pat Roberts -- the supposedly more moderate Kansas senator who is already firmly attached to Bush's ass. Brownback's independence from Bush is more likely to swing even further to the right, but it's not inconceivable he could take the bait here -- it would fit his holier-than-thou image, would put some useful daylight between him and Bush, and help set up the argument that Bush's failures were shortcomings of his faith.
Of course, I find US use of torture appalling. Where I seem to differ from the people who single it out as an aberation is that I see it as symptomatic of a more basic, and ultimately worse, problem: aggressive wars of imperial domination. Once you start such wars, torture is just one of many horrors you commit. To isolate it misses the point. In particular, torture is not about obtaining information -- it's a matter of showing folks who's boss, who has the power of life and death. Given that the goal of the War on Terror is to cower folks into not challenging your domination, it's easy to see where torture comes in.
On the other hand, it's good that folks who haven't thought the whole thing through at least recognize that they don't want to represent themselves to the world as torturers.
Monday, September 18. 2006
Spent most of the week prospecting new jazz, putting quite a bit of stuff up on the replay shelves. Didn't get to the replays -- the shelf there is nearly full, so I'll probably shift to it this coming week and start to pull a Jazz CG column together. No news from the Voice, nor have I heard anything lately about Robert Christgau's future search. It's been a rough week for me personally -- had a lot of work done on the house, which has been taking much of my time as well as disrupting my normal hours. Probably another 25 unplayed jazz albums in the queue. I haven't been chasing things down, partly because I don't know what the future will bring.
Mike Melvoin Trio: You Know (2006, City Light): Website says he's been playing piano since he was three, so that gives him 66 years of practice. Mainstream -- so mainstream I was surprised to count five originals wedged in among the obvious standards. I was further surprised to find myself enjoying such straightforward music. And I was further surprised when I went back to the database and found I had given his last album a B+. I notice now that the black and white cover on the self-released album has a thin gold border, just like his black and white website, so it would appear that he has an aesthetic beyond DIY. It's too subtle to sink in, but too elegant to ignore. B+(**)
Barbara Fasano: Written in the Stars (2005 , Human Child): Can't go wrong with Harold Arlen. As I recall, the Arlen records stand out in Ella Fitzgerald's songbook series. I even picked out Carrie Smith's Arlen tribute in my first Jazz CG. I never tire of "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" or "Come Rain or Come Shine" or "One for My Baby" and have no complaints about the versions here. A couple of the more obscure songs may drag a bit, but Fasano has a serviceable voice and a viable band, including Joel Frahm on tenor and soprano sax, and this is a fine survey. B+(*)
Nick Russo + 11: Ro (2005-06 , On the Bol): Ambitious debut project. Russo plays guitar, and in simple contexts, like just bass and drums, can be quite engaging. He also plays a little tenor banjo, a very different sound that leads into his world, or at least Indian, music interests. There are pieces with horns, most notably Mark Turner. Pandit Samir Chatterjee plays tabla. At least three tracks have Miles Griffith vocals, mostly scat effects. Some of this swings easily, some breaks free, some just sort of scratches along. I'm duly impressed, but don't see how it all adds up. B+(**)
Club D'Elf: Now I Understand (1998-2006 , Accurate): I can't say as I understand, but at least I'm intrigued. This is a Boston-based group, with a core membership of one (bassist Mike Rivard), three (website also lists drummer Erik Kerr and oudist Brahim Fribgane), four (website photo) or five (insert photos, none identified). The website also lists lots of "special guests" and "rotating cast" and "occasional conspirators" -- some of each show up now and then, plus there are a few others on the record but not on the website lists (complain to the webmaster; especially the two Kerr girls who make the irresistible closer "Just Kiddin"). Name droppers will recognize John Medeski, Billy Martin, Mat Maneri, DJ Logic, and maybe the Your Neighborhood Sax Trio. Jere Faison, Jerry Leake, Jay Hilt, Randy Roos, and Mister Rourke appear with some frequency, and the writing credits include a name that doesn't show in the performing credits: Jeff Misner (I suspect turntablist Mister Rourke). The music is long on world fusion grooves, layered pretty thick, with "Vishnu Dub" typically self-explanatory and exemplary. Jenifer Jackson gets a feature song. The brief "Introduction" could be by MF Doom. It took them eight years to record all this, so I'm not about to sign off on one play. [B+(***)]
So Percussion: Amid the Noise (2002-06 , Cantaloupe): Three percussionists, schooled on Cage and Reich -- a previous recording is of the latter's Drumming. Not much in the way of a jazz feel: they like chime-like sounds which retain discreteness and definitely do not swing. Back in the '70s I had a minor interest in minimalism like this as well as more arcane forms of post-classical music, but lost the thread and never picked it up again. Thus far I'm ambivalent about this, but since it refers to something out of my experience that, at least in principle, I might pursue further, I'll keep this open, albeit far back on the burner. [B]
DJ Logic: Zen of Logic (2005 , Ropeadope): Just have an advance here, although the record has been out for months. DJ Logic (Jason Kibler) is the most likely turntablist to show up on a jazz album, partly because he's able to draw so much music out of his scratches, but also because his interests in Miles and Trane led him into various jazz circles -- especially those with an interest in bridging from the jazz end. Not sure who all does what here, but the guest list includes John Medeski and Charlie Hunter. Still, despite namechecking Coltrane, this is very much on his home turf: hip-hop beats, lots of scratches, a few raps. My only complaint is that I can't find the hook; otherwise I like this kind of thing a lot. B+(*)
Stanton Moore: III (2006, Telarc): Personnel credits don't list Moore, but he's the drummer. He was probably the main guy in Garage A Trois, whose Outre Mer ranks as my favorite pop-jazz-fusion album of the Jazz CG era -- not that it has a lot of competition. The key there was that they kept the mix lean and the groove sharp. This is even leaner, a bare bones organ trio, at least when the two guests -- Skerik on tenor sax, Mark Mullins on trombone -- don't weigh in. It no doubt helps that Moore's two bandmates have produced memorable albums on their own -- specifically, ones that impressed me more for their instrumental prowess than their overall achievement. The Hammond guy is Robert Walter. The guitarist is Will Bernard. First cut is just the three of them, something called "Poison Pushy," and it clicks. Beyond that I'm less certain, but for now it's worth noting that Skerik earns his keep. He's carved out a niche for himself as a postmodern honker -- a Joe Houston for Coltrane's kiddies. [B+(***)]
Saborit: Que Linda Es Mi Cuba (2006, Tumi): Campesino music from east Cuba -- at one point they translate "campesino" as "peasant," at another they extrapolate: "This is Cuba's answer to country music." Country, sure, like jibaro is Puerto Rican country, but this isn't an answer to anything. The group is named in honor of Eduardo Saborit, who long ago wrote the title song. The group has been around since the early '80s, but this is their first recording. Coming from the Cuban Oriente, this is less Afro and more Spanish -- more guitar and voice, less percussion -- than the urban music of Havana; as such, it travels easily across the Caribbean, mixing son and guaracha with cumbia. Not jazz, but too infectious not to note. I have a pile of Cuban classics on my shelf. I wonder if this will sound so good after I work through the masters. [A-]
Ollabelle: Riverside Battle Songs (2006, Verve Forecast): Five vocalists with a fondness for old-time music, as opposed to the more recent old-timey variety, even when they write it themselves. But their arrangements of old fare, including one by namesake Ola Belle Reed, are easier to gauge. Especially striking is "Riverside" -- as in "down by the" and "ain't gonna study war no more" -- both for its complex layering and its weariness. B+(**)
Solomon Ilori: African High Life (1963-64 , Blue Note): A Nigerian -- sings, drums, plays pennywhistle -- who came to the US in the late '50s with the thought of introducing African music to a nation that only knew it as a deep memory, Ilori hooked up with Art Blakey on The African Beat, and got this album as an afterthought. This is neither as high nor as lively as the later, intensively guitar-charged highlife I'm familiar with, and I wonder if the drummers were really on top of their game. But the reissue has three long cuts from a later, much jazzier session, with Donald Byrd, Hubert Laws, Bob Cranshaw and Elvin Jones jamming with the drums and pennywhistle. They're fascinating, both on their own and for the suggested dialogue that rarely followed. But then who knew? Blue Note shelved them, until now. B+(**)
Pete Zimmer Quintet: Judgment (2006, Tippin): Drummer-led group. Seven credits for this "quintet": two bassists alternate, except on two cuts that are just duos; the other extra is tenor saxophonist George Garzone, who gets a "featuring" plug on the front cover. Garzone's name usually pops up these days as an educator -- seems like every saxophonist who's ever been to Boston has stopped in for some pointers. He doesn't record much, but has a distinctively muscular sound that is the main reason for tuning in here. He also wrote four of nine, but only plays on six. The other tenor saxophonist is Joel Frahm, who tends to fit in neatly while Garzone stands out. Don't know pianist Toru Dodo, but he does some nice work here. B+(*)
George Lewis: Sequel (For Lester Bowie))(2004 , Intakt): Mostly electronics, with "laptop" the most common instrument, but guitar (Jeff Parker, Ulrich Müller), bass (Siegfried Rössert), drums (Guillermo E. Brown), and the leader's trombone make occasional appearances -- the latter most welcome. A lot of quiet spots and odd, abstract, disconnected sounds. Somehow I think Lester Bowie would have preferred something a bit funkier, but this might have piqued his sense of humor. I wish it did more for mine. [B]
Irčne Schweizer: First Choice: Piano Solo KKL Luzern (2005 , Intakt): The first record by the Swiss pianist since I made her 25-year Portrait a pick hit. This one is solo -- no opportunity for interplay, like I saw so impressed with, and a greater demand for inventiveness, which she more/less achieves. Don't have it calibrated yet. [B+(**)]
Mark Helias' Open Loose: Atomic Clock (2004 , Radio Legs Music): This one's so directly up my alley I'm a little suspicious, or maybe just extra cautious. Aside from one cut, this is a trio with Helias on bass, Tom Rainey on drums, and Tony Malaby on tenor sax. Anyone who likes Tim Berne's records with Rainey will have no trouble tuning in this one. All three are often terrific, but I find myself nitpicking on the slower ones, where there's a slight stall risk. The other cut adds Ellery Eskelin for a second tenor sax, but it's one of the slow ones, more contrasting harmony than joust. [B+(***)]
Mario Adnet: From the Heart (2006, Adventure Music): A Brazilian guitarist, but more notable as an arranger -- he passed his last album off as the work of studio legend Moacir Santos, orchestrating his "things" for something like a big band. He works outward from the supple sweetness that has long been samba's soft spot, layering on various combinations of piano, accordion, brass, vocals -- sounds progressive rather than folkloric, but here and there works like magic. B+(**)
Hamilton de Holanda Quintet: Brasilianos (2006, Adventure Music): De Hollanda plays a 10-string mandolin. Backed with acoustic guitar and electric bass, this group has a dense string sound, which they crank up on the fast ones. Instead of horns, the topping comes from Gabriel Grossi's harmonica, adding sweet and sour notes on top of the propulsion. B+(**)
Daniel Santiago: On the Way (2005 , Adventure Music): Three-fifths of Hamilton de Holanda's Quintet, the energy level tuned down without the mandolin and harmonica, and with the bassist going acoustic. Still, there is considerable bite in his strings -- no nylon here -- even when he takes it slow, which isn't all the time. I wonder how real aficionados of Brazilian guitar will react -- I'm not one, but this strikes me as a notable example. B+(*)
Philippe Baden Powell: Estrada de Terra/Dirt Road (2006, Adventure Music): The son of legendary Brazilian guitarist Baden Powell, Philippe plays piano and composes elegant pieces that don't fit into any concept I have. Four pieces are trios. Others bring in an isolated guest -- bass flute, trumpet, guitar, mandolin, strings. Some are quite appealing, like the one with Myke Ryan's trumpet. I suppose that lack of a conceptual hook is why I find myself feeling so ambivalent about this, especially given that the skills and evident intelligence make it so hard to critique. B
Winds of Brazil (Um Sopro de Brasil) (2004 , Adventure Music): Eleven songs, each a feature for a notable Brazilian wind musician -- flutes, reeds, brass, harmonica, backed by a large strings and percussion orchestra. This is classical music in attitude if not necessarily form, something safely removed to the concert hall where proper folks give it proper respect. C+
Willie Bobo: Lost and Found (1969-78 , Concord Picante): Dates are approximate -- not specified per cut, they're gleaned from a booklet that really requires better eyes than mine. Born in Spanish Harlem, played congas and timbales, made his reputation in the '60s recording for Verve. These odds and sods come from after he moved to L.A., where he had a role on Bill Cosby's show; the finds are scattered and discrete, of minor interest to non-specialists. B
Satoko Fujii Orchestra Kobe: Kobe Yee!! (2006, Crab Apple): I need to pace myself here. This is one of four new live big band recordings, differentiated by city -- don't know what else, at least not yet. Just some random notes for now. The baritone sax honks set the tone. Second cut erupts in blares that remind me of the Batman theme -- such humor, inadvertent or not, recurs periodically. Title track is leaner and stronger than the rest, something for her "best of" anthology. The piano stands out more than on her other big band albums -- at least the ones I've heard so far. Three more to go. [B+(**)]
Satoko Fujii Orchestra Nagoya: Maru (2006, Bakamo): Fujii only conducts -- no piano on this one. Program has three of her pieces, two by husband-trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, one by guitarist Yasuhiro Usul. Band has five reeds, seven brass, guitar, bass, drums. The arrangements are very tight, and the integration of the horns is very effective, so you get the volume you expect plus nimbleness. The guitarist gets some space, and is a plus. This could go higher, but length and distractions caution me. The parts I managed to follow closely are quite impressive. [B+(***)]
Satoko Fujii Orchestra NY: Undulation (2005 , PJL): This is more what I expected from Fujii's big band, probably because I've heard this group before, and I'm familiar with most of the NY-based players. They're loud. Sometimes the sheer power delivers the message. Sometimes it just overwhelms you. B+(*)
Satoko Fujii Orchestra Tokyo: Live!! (2005 , Libra): The Kobe and Nagoya Orchestras are brand new, but Fujii has worked with the Tokyo and New York groups for some time now, as they represent her two bases. The New York group seems more of a free for all, whereas this group seems tighter, even when they play as loud. Avant-big band rarely works -- it's just awfully tough to keep all the freedom from canceling each other out -- but Fujii is remarkably adept as keeping her hordes together. Only the NY album strikes me as having peaked. The Japanese groups open up some interesting prospects for large scale arrangement. Comes with a DVD, which I haven't gotten to. [B+(**)]
Territory Band-5: New Horse for the White House (2005 , Okka Disk, 3 CD): Satoko Fujii still isn't the most exhaustively documented jazz artist, even in the big band division. Her four large orchestra discs are marginally outnumbered by Ken Vandermark's Territory Band, with two releases this year totalling five discs. I never got Territory Band-4 -- an oversight, I'm sure, although I wasn't all that kind to Territory Band-3. This one is in the same vein. It's difficult to distinguish between the ones I've heard, as they all offer mixed bags of astonishing improv and unfathomable noise, some of which is exhilarating anyway. Part of the setup here is the use of electronics, but they still haven't emerged from the background. Two studio discs, with two two pieces each ranging from 16:43 to 25:30. The third disc is a live one, with all four pieces reprised in only slightly shorter versions -- the short one actually gained a minute. [B+(**)]
Paul Lytton/Ken Vandermark/Phillip Wachsmann: CINC (2004 , Okka Disk): Wachsmann's violin and electronics are central, which makes this an alternate version of Evan Parker's Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, with Vandermark in Parker's shoes -- at least that was my thought on "Ljubljana 2," where his chosen reed instrument is in the soprano sax range (although I suppose it could be a clarinet, which he plays much more frequently). On tenor sax he beefs up the rough sound. But the group as a whole is much leaner, so the reeds matter more.j B+(*)
Chet Doxas Quartet: Sidewalk Etiquette (2004 , Justin Time): Tenor saxophonist from Montreal, with his drummer brother in the group, as well as a nicely developed keyboard player named John Rooney -- plays Fender Rhodes as well as piano. Mainstream stuff -- Doxas sounds fine on the hard swinging stuff, but I find some minor tics annoying when he slows it down. B
Florian Weber/Jeff Denson/Ziv Ravitz: Minsarah (2006, Enja/Justin Time): Normally I know what I like in a piano trio, but have trouble describing it. Played this one at a time when I couldn't write about it at all, but at least it passes the "like" test. Minsarah is probably the group name, but as a first album with the individual musician name above the line, I'd rather file it that way. Denson and Ravitz both contribute compositions, three and two to Weber's four. Reminds me a bit of E.S.T. [B+(***)]
Kat Parra: Birds in Flight (2006, JazzMa): I get nervous when I read about a singer's 3 octave range. For one thing, I'm not technical enough to know whether I should be impressed. (I do recall reading about Minnie Ripperton's 5 octave range, but I was never impressed by her singing in any of them.) But the main thing is that it suggests a preoccupation with voice over music, a dubious and sometimes dangerous choice. That's unfair given how much care she puts into chosing her music -- mostly Cuban, even when the originals come from Jorge Ben or Duke Ellington -- but is still a recurring thought when I hear her modulate. Where she comes from and how she got here are probably interesting stories, but not ones I've been able to find out much about. Evidently she spent some time in Chile when she was young, now works mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area, and studied with Patti Cathcart. A couple of interesting songs here -- in particular, the Ben opener, which starts in serious trouble and works its way out, eventually dropping in a rap by someone named Pat Parra. Probably an untold story there too. B
Sunday, September 17. 2006
Poor Trudy Rubin. She has brains enough to recognize when things go horribly wrong, but when she tries to draw a conclusion from those insights she short circuits into nonsense. Consider this, from her column "Despite mess, we can't leave Iraq any time soon":
That quote skipped over 75% of her column, which is about how hopeless the situation in Iraq is -- no need to rehearse all that here. Logically, there are two explanations for why the Bush gang screwed this up so bad. One is incompetence, but the simpler one is that it never stood a chance of working in the first place. But before you can answer that, you need to know what "it" was, and that's a subject Bush and company have yet to provide a clear definition of. They had some short-term goals like deposing Saddam Hussein and halting his non-existent WMD programs, but you know that's not "it" because they weren't satisfied when they'd done that. They had some long-term propaganda about democracy, but that's not "it" either, because they kept interfering to push their favored candidates and policies. Rather, "it" appears to have been something like creating a docile client state, friendly to Israel, with US "enduring bases" to intimidate neighbors like Iran, and concessions to US companies to develop the oil industry. The odds of something like that being passively accepted by the Iraqi people are zero. That's why, no matter how incompetent the Bush gang has been in Iraq, their cardinal sin was arrogance.
But if Bush's goals weren't impossible enough before invasion, they've become all that more unattainable since. So, if the goals are unattainable, why keep fighting? The conservative answer is to postpone the discredit of having started and lost a major war. You may gussy that up with something about how losing here would undermine American prestige and embolden our enemies, then reach for rhetoric like "failure is not an option" -- but for Bush this is personal, since he was the one who lost. The liberal answer has something to do with helping the Iraqi people: to settle with the resistance to our invasion and occupation, to resolve the civil war we started, to rebuild all the stuff we destroyed -- hey, why don't we raise the dead while we're at it? The liberal answer is as arrogant, as self-centered and self-serving, as anything Bush has done. But worse than that, it's pathetic.
As president, Bush can act without having to disclose let alone debate the details of his agenda. And he's so dug into his stance that reforming him is out of the question. Indeed, any argument that maintains a US role in Iraq, no matter how critical of Bush's execution, plays into his hands by accepting that the US can play a positive role. Which is why it's such a big problem that people who actually know better, like Rubin, can't bring themselves to say so. As for Democrat politicos, they need guts all right -- to stand up for peace, equality, justice and freedom. But they also need brains, which means rejecting confused experts like Rubin.
I've noted the relative paucity of reporting on the US debacle in Afghanistan compared to the one in Iraq. One recent book may be of help here: Sarah Chayes, The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban (Penguin Press). Chayes moved to Kandahar after the Taliban's fall in late 2001, trading her journalism job to run an aid organization. So her view is no doubt colored by her assumed stake, but judging from David Rohde's New York Times Book Review, she has dug deep into the history and culture of the Taliban's old stronghold. Rohde writes:
It's worth remembering that the Taliban's original rise to power was based largely on reaction to warlord corruption -- for the most part, the same warlords the US restored in 2001. The other base of support for the Taliban was Pakistan. The Taliban fell quickly when the US pressured Pakistan to back away, but evidently some degree of Pakistani support has resumed. Rohde writes:
Well, it's a complicated world. Given how little Musharaf has gotten for Pakistan's War on Terror alliance, and how much risk he runs, it's remarkable that he humors the US at all. On the other hand, if the US pushed harder, they could break Musharaf's regime in half, in the worst case scenario trading a nominal ally for a hostile, nuclear-armed opponent. Such risks justify occasionally looking the other way -- most likely, Musharaf is doing the same with Pakistani factions supporting the Taliban. But the baseline is that the US has long been willing to work with local tyrants as long as they salute when we ask -- that warlord in Kandahar is small fry but typical, and we keep them in the program by not asking too many questions, least of all about who they torture or how much they steal. It's not like we don't do the same.
Pakistani support for Taliban may help explain their recent successes, but corruption and the Karzai regime's inability to deliver any political and economic benefit to the countryside provide the fertile ground necessary for revolt. What remains to be seen is how it plays out within Pakistan itself.
Another New York Times Book Review book that looks interesting is Sharon Weinberger, Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the Pentagon's Scientific Underworld. Way back in WWII the US put many of the world's most notable scientists to work on weapons -- especially, but not exclusively, in the Manhattan Project. Since then, scientific quality has declined, but for a long time DARPA actually developed some useful things in addition to the bombs and guns -- the Internet is a major example. But for some time now many, perhaps most, of their projects have been utterly useless, even for such misbegotten purposes as dominating the earth or, failing that, destroying it. The hafnium bomb is the prime example in this book, but I get the impression such fantasies are the rule and not the exception. The "Star Wars" anti-missile system was a major turning point -- the DOD's prime example of politics trumping science and reason. That the same dynamic has played out in so many other areas implies that dumbing down wasn't invented in the Pentagon, even if that's where it's been most heavily subsidized.
Saturday, September 16. 2006
War in Context cites two recent articles on Afghanistan that make for sobering reading. I was opposed to the war in the first place for many reasons, but I've been ambivalent about insisting on U.S. withdrawal, figuring that the continuing war, with its inevitable damage, is rather limited, and at least partly balanced by development efforts. However, it looks like the war has turned. Graham Usher, in Al-Ahram Weekly, writes:
One theory as to why this has happened is that the war in Iraq drained resources that were needed in Afghanistan, while inspiring further resistance. However, the failure is more political and economic than military -- not that the military approach hasn't caused its own problems.
Iraq was doomed from the start, and there's been a lot written about how and why that disaster unfolded. On the other hand, not much has been written about Afghanistan, and the full measure of the failure hasn't really sunk in, but when it does, it may even more sharply limit the expectations of what US intervention can accomplish. Afghanistan had several advantages over Iraq: foreign troops generally took a support role to the Northern Alliance, so the military footprint was relatively light and Afghanistan was never really occupied by the US, as Iraq was; the US had a broad international coalition, providing both troops and economic aid; Afghanistan was so backward and so war-torn that even relatively modest economic aid might have made a positive impact.
However, it now looks like none of that worked, and largely due to the same fundamental flaws the Bush administration brought to Iraq. The military was preoccupied with fighting and killing its supposed enemies -- Al Qaeda and the Taliban -- and were insensitive to the corrosive political effects of collateral damage, detaining and torturing locals, etc. The US political operatives were more concerned with symbols of success like Karzai's election than with establishing broad, democratic representation -- no surprise, given that the Bush-Rove view of democracy only recognizes elections that can be won by the deepest pockets. Reconstruction and aid projects were marked by the same corruption Bush has promoted throughout the US government, both at home and in Iraq. Ultimately, these problems are deep seated in the view that foreign policy should promote the nation's interests, and that the nation's interests are defined by what's benefits the ruling clique.
Still, Afghanistan is so poor we always figured that something of value might have trickled down and been of benefit. Little of that seems to have happened: on the one hand, Bush's contractors have been remarkably efficient at pocketing government money and delivering nothing for it -- most seems to go for "security"; on the other, by continuing to haphazardly pursue the war for their domestic political purposes -- and the drug economy figures large in this -- they've kept the resistance going, making it impossible to show any real progress.
The other article War in Context cites is an interview with UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, admitting that the biggest mistake he/we made was in not negotiating with the Taliban to bring them into the post-invasion government. The US, of course, wouldn't allow that, because we don't talk to our enemies. The effect is to drive everyone who has a beef with us into a common defense. This is a theme I've brought up again and again. Al Qaeda and the Taliban are not one and the same. They are different groups with different interests which we've joined together by treating them as one -- and note that Bush did this more out of arrogance and spite than anything else.
Still, it's rather surprising how badly the US has fared in Afghanistan. At least four provinces have reverted to Taliban control, but the Karzai government seems to have little power outside of Kabul. The latter has rather perversely turned into a high-rent zone for foreigners, which undermines its potential as an economic engine for Afghans. Whole chunks of Pakistan's frontier provinces are under tribal control, providing redoubts for Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The opium trade has grown huge, possibly larger than Afghanistan's "legit" economy. And there appears to be positive synergy between resistance movements in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's something else we understand little about -- in particular, how the fact of Iraq limits what we can do in Afghanistan.
Like the proverbial bull in a china shop, maybe it would be best for all concerned if we just left.
Friday, September 15. 2006
Another F5 Record Report has been posted. Roster this week:
This was another week that sent me back into the past drafts file. I'll finally get to Bob Dylan and Todd Snider next week. On the other hand, this week's crop are worth reiterating.
Thursday, September 14. 2006
Another Billmon quote, from a post on Al Qaeda's war strategy that starts with a Mao quote, and lays out some comparisons therefrom. The discussion of urban vs. rural redoubts is of minor interest, but the following quote stands out. Nothing here I haven't said elsewhere, but it bears repeating, especially when well written:
Gilles Kepel wrote the book on pre-Bush Islamism and found that the movement was in decline and near bankruptcy before 9/11 -- its key problem lack of appeal to most Muslims, even the relatively devout. Casey Stengel used to say that the secret to successful managing was to keep the guys who hate you -- every baseball team has a couple at the far end of the bench -- separated from the guys who aren't sure and could go either way. What Bush, Cheney, et al. have done is exactly the opposite of that. They've taken a very marginal problem that could be made even more marginal with a modest show of decency on our part and built it up into a war of the worlds -- presumably just because they thought that a little war would be good politics.
Once you realize this, it's obvious that Bush's war only feeds Al Qaeda and its kin, while abandoning the war leaves them without their only attraction: their willingness to fight our imperialism. In this regard, the anti-Islamist wars are nothing like Vietnam: when we left Vietnam, it fell, because most Vietnamese preferred their communist-nationslist liberation movement. No such outcome is guaranteed in the Middle East -- even in Iraq, despite all we've done to ensure the grizzliest outcome possible -- because popular support for extreme Islamism depends almost exclusively on its ability to fight the imperialists and their proxies. Take the fight away, and you take away their usefulness.
More from the same post:
That last statement is particular apt. The understanding I grew up with is that even when the people who run this country can't be counted on to do the right thing (i.e., most of the time) at least you can count on them to do something that more or less works. But that no longer seems to be the case. Lester Thurow used to have this notion that somewhere in the upper echelons of America there was this Establishment -- the people who really controlled things behind the scenes -- so the way to get reasonable things done is to appeal to this hidden Establishment. They Bush-Cheney mob isn't really the Establishment, no matter how much they flatter the rich and promise to do their bidding. They're really just a bunch of crooks and conmen who weaseled their way into big time power. But what if the invisible hand that always seemed to keep America from going over the deep end doesn't exist?
I haven't written much about the Middle East wars lately. Haven't had a lot of time, and haven't had much to add other than to repeat what I've previously said. The one fact that needs to be highlighted right now is that while there is a ceasefire -- always described in the media here as "fragile" -- in Lebanon, nobody has made any effort to arrange a ceasefire in Gaza. The stranglehold there continues, with grave effects, but the lack of interest elsewhere is perhaps the most worrisome. Public opinion, especially in the US and Europe, has always acted as a limit on what Israel could do, but if no one cares, what keeps Israel from doing much worse? And how far can they go without arousing those publics? Clearly, one thing that Israel did achieve in Lebanon is that they pushed the West's tolerance for atrocity to a point where, by backing off a bit, they appear to have gained some leeway.
I haven't been following the news all that closely, but I want to point out that the most useful website for me lately has been Paul Woodward's The War in Context. The following are titles of some of the posts there over the last two weeks. I've added notes in some cases, but didn't track down the permanent links. This is, after all, mostly news, and rather transitory at that. Several stories do appear to be significant. One is that Pakistan has largely given up on reasserting control over frontier provinces effectively controlled by Al Qaeda. At the same time, the US has largely given up on Anbar province in Iraq. Both of these are rather astonishing admissions of defeat. Another story is the Palestinian unity government, which seems likely to at least get Hamas off the terrorism hook with Europe, and possibly move towards a ceasefire there. Third, the US military, at least, appears to be trying to squirm out of the War on Terror yoke. What all of these suggest is a certain amount of exhaustion is setting in. That doesn't add up to any chance of peace breaking out -- the political mindsets, especially the wedged one in the White House, haven't begun to come around.
Most recent first, going back about a week:
Wednesday, September 13. 2006
Yesterday I mentioned a long list of problems the Bush administration has at best ignored, more commonly exacerbated, and in some cases flat out caused. I didn't bother with the tiresome task of enumerating, but Billmon has come up with a reasonable summary, occasioned by the 5th anniversary of the 9/11 atrocity:
The next line is: "It's getting hard to see how these trends can be reversed." Then Billmon starts comparing the US to the Soviet Union in the '80s. He recommends a book by David Satter: Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union. I have some other reading planned on the post-fall depression. The thing I find most interesting about Russia isn't the stupidity of the (especially late) Communist years -- it's the absolute collapse of living tandards following the fall. We're so used to the idea of progress that we have trouble seeing decline even when the facts are hard to read otherwise. This collapse hit Russia so the hard life expectancy metrics declined. A quarter or more of Russia's GDP vanished. There are other examples scattered around the world, especially war-induced losses like in Iraq, and war-inducing ones in parts of Africa.
In some measures living standards in the US have been declining since roughly 1970. This has been masked by technological progress, by debt accumulation, by scapegoating, and by political delusion. Take medicine, for instance: science and technology have advanced, but insurance and delivery of basic health care has in some cases actually regressed, such that US life expectancy has finally begun to decline, especially compared to other wealthy nations. But the new stuff gets the press and sets the perception. Only when you need it do you find out you can't get it, or it doesn't really work, or something else goes wrong.
Immigration is another source of cover-up. Illegals provide low skill labor that compensates for demotivating our own unskilled labor. There's a lot of scapegoating over that, but more important is legal immigration, which is needed to compensate for our failures to educate and develop knowledge workers -- everyone from school teachers to computer programmers to doctors. Immigration stimulates the economy, but it also levels the world. It's not necessarily a problem per se, but what it covers up is.
Beyond the obvious declines, there's a steady build up of risk and liability, as well as plain old depreciation. I've been reading complaints about not putting enough money into infrastructure for decades now. It's like, if you have a house with termites, it may look fine for years, especially if you don't look very close. Then one day a gust of wind, or just gravity, will bring it down. That's basically what happened to the Alaska pipeline. That's what happened to the New Orleans levees. Katrina wasn't the big storm everyone had so feared, but it was big enough anyway, because we didn't realize how vulnerable we had become.
That sort of rot has been accumulating for a long time -- George Brockway dated a lot of recent economic problems to the Republicans' first attempts to dismantle the New Deal when they took over Congress in the 1946 elections. Laws they passed like Taft-Hartley had little immediate effect, but over time undermined labor unions and working wages and the very principle of equal opportunity. Banking laws, as well as later deregulations, have had similar long-term effects. The long-term dip in growth rates occurred during the Vietnam War, which had many other corrosive effects -- especially as the politicos have dug themselves ever deeper in duplicity and cover-ups.
By now they have to keep denying, they have to keep runing from the truth. Acknowledgment is failure, and as long as they keep from failing they can pretend they're succeeding, which is what keeps the whole scam going. But sometimes failure strikes too suddenly and/or unshakeably to spin. The last five years have shown us some examples like that.