Thursday, January 31. 2008
Recycled Goods #51, January 2008, has been posted at Static Multimedia. As I announced earlier, I'm putting this column on the shelf in order to catch up with other things I've been wanting to work on. 2007 was a pretty rough year for me, and I've been struggling to keep up with all the incoming music, let alone the stuff that didn't seek me out that I should have been looking for. I've recently worked up some numbers on the year. One thing I found out is that while the total number of albums I dealt with in 2007 remained about the same, inching up from 1075 to 1099, the amount of old music destined for Recycled Goods dropped from 331 to 222. This does not represent a drop in the industry, although promotion cutbacks have had a small role. It's mostly that I haven't been as aggressive as in the past at searching out things I wanted to write about. (The album count each month managed to hold up, mostly because I've been getting more world music, and have backfilled with a lot of world-flavored jazz.)
I thought it would be nice to break this off at 50 columns, but in trying to clean up I found I had so much I figured I might as well split it in two. So this is the end of the end, mostly leftovers, plus a few recent arrivals I felt like squeezing in. I've always tried to cover everything I got (which may have been one reason I stopped looking so hard), and in the end didn't leave much on the shelves: a pile of recent gospel on Verity, some old Jethro Tull live albums, the daunting Albert Ayler box I still plan to get to some day, a lot of DVDs I never committed to in the first place. (I hear the Jazz Icons series are especially noteworthy. I thought about including them in an "In Series" feature, but just didn't get to it. Maybe later.)
In past January columns I've switched over to a year-end wrap-up. That didn't work out this year, so I figured the least I could do would be to post my year-end list. That's in the Additional Consumer News, although it's already slightly obsolete. Records I've added since sending this in:
Melford was known at the time but inadvertently omitted. One more error is that the total record count is 2157, not 2207. The whole set of columns are archived on my website. The artist and compilation indexes count entries, so adding them up should be right.
I'm already having some remorse over giving this up, especially as I look through the year-end lists and see things I wish I could get. At some point I hope to get another column going, and I fancy that I'll have time for some freelance work. In the meantime I'll do occasional reports here on the blog, or maybe slip some extras into Jazz Prospecting.
Monday, January 28. 2008
Once again, no Jazz Prospecting this week. I've been streaming 2007 records, thinking the year-end wrap-up I may or may not write -- odds are lengthening against it. Recycled Goods is done, finished, kaput. Last one should be posted shortly, complete with a year-end list that is already obsolete. I'm still not tired of the streaming, so I've made a deal with myself: keep doing it through Jan. 31, then freeze the year-end list and move on to the new jazz, including a pile that doesn't fit on my usual incoming shelves and is increasingly resembling the leaning tower of Pisa (or Abu Dhabi, as the case may be).
Jazz CG #15 has been slotted for 2/13 or 2/20 in the Village Voice. I'll know more when I know more, probably when it happens. I'll have a report (or two) on the downloads later this week. I also have a lot of book stuff to get to, and that will start coming out, possibly in large spurts.
Sunday, January 27. 2008
Rob Harvilla: Jay-Z vs. Jay-Z. On the decline of rap in 2007:
Chalmers Johnson: How to Sink America. More like: how far has America sunk? Johnson reviews how much the American military juggernaut costs, and how paltry the returns are for all that expenditure. Johnson is clear enough, but there are even simpler ways of looking at this. If, say, the US had no Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, no Defense Department, no CIA, no NSA, just a modest Coast Guard, would any other country take advantage of our weakness and attack or invade the continental US, Alaska or Hawaii? For a lot of mostly obvious reasons, the answer is clearly no. So all that "defense" expenditure doesn't buy us any defense. Rather, it buys us foreign presence, the ability to project power abroad, to interfere with and possibly dominate other countries. So what's our return on those costs? The simplest short-term measure would be to look at our current accounts surplus, to see if we're taking in more money from abroad than we are spending projecting all that power out there. The problem isn't that the surplus doesn't cover the costs. The problem is that the surplus is actually a deficit, and not just a marginal deficit, but far and away the largest deficit that any country runs. That's hardly the only problem, but it's enough for a sanity test. As Johnson points out, sometimes it's argued that the US can afford a little extravagance, but that fails simple sanity tests as well. If we really could afford such waste, you wouldn't find us neglecting things we really do need, like infrastructure, education, health, welfare, the environment. You'd also find us managing our debt, protecting the value of our money. QED.
Paul Krugman: Stimulus Gone Bad. On what's wrong with the Washington stimulus deal. Krugman doesn't mention this, but proof enough would be to point to Bush crowing about how this is the kind of bipartisanship nobody thought could happen in Washington these days. The real problem with bipartisan anything these days is that the Republicans are one of the parties. By constraining the deal to tax rebates, Bush maintains his record of opposing any kind of relief except from taxes, while preventing the government from doing anything for the poor (or the increasingly poor majority) while assuming ever more debilitating levels of debt. Meanwhile, the Democrats remain suckers for any kind of government spending. Personally, I'm not sure that a stimulus is even a good idea. It seems to me that the economy has been stimulated to death over the last 6-7 years in order to cover up much deeper structural problems. In particular, the most conspicuous feature of the last 6-7 years is that consumer spending has artifically propped up at levels don't reflect real wealth, mostly by the extension of debt. The present recession is partly the exhaustion of that overspending and partly the collapse of illusory wealth based on holding that overextended debt. Both are signs that the game is coming to a close. Putting a bit more spending money into the economy isn't going to change a thing. The only thing that's going to bolster consumer confidence is when people other than the superrich start seeing their real stake in the economy improving.
One thing I haven't seen much comment on is the significance of stock market levels as an indicator of economic health. Maybe it is if the only thing you're interested in is profits, but that's about all it tracks, and the focus is very short term at that. However, the NYSE numbers are published every day and deemed important enough to get notice on the nightly news, so they're unusually prominent in people's minds. With markets falling all over the world, the Fed panicked and dropped its interest rate 3/4 of a point, a preemptive attack if ever there was one. It's rare to see anyone in Washington hustle that fast.
Robert J Samuelson: Capitalism's Enemies Within. Starts promising: "Amid the mayhem on world financial markets, it is becoming clear that capitalism's most dangerous enemies are capitalists." He then concentrates on one small aspect of that insight: the extraordinary compensation acquired by the people who built the subprime mortgage crisis. They're certainly high on the list of suspects, but all sorts of capitalists are getting into similar trouble. A simple explanation is that capitalists are so competitive they don't know when to let up, especially now that they've managed to knock down most of the checks and balances that previously limited their excesses. They have accrued so much power that no one else can stop them, at least short of their own complete collapse. On the other hand, their greed has become so mindless that they're the last people likely to lift a finger. It's hard to see how that combination can play out to any sort of soft landing.
Saturday, January 26. 2008
Here's a letter that appeared in the Wichita Eagle today, writted by someone named L.D. Alford and published under the title "A better world under Bush":
I quote this to give you some measure of how much ignorance and stupidity Bush's recalcitrant followers will carry forward from the end of his administration. Afghanistan and Iraq are neither self-ruled democracies nor allies -- their nominal governments are little more than local faces on a dysfunctional US occupation.
Libya had been begging to get off Washington's terrorism list for over a decade before Bush, hard up for a PR coup, cut a deal. Pakistan had been a steadfast ally as far back as the Baghdad Pact in the mid-1950s, when it joined the British-installed Hashemite king of Iraq and the CIA-installed Shah of Iran in a US-UK pact against the Soviet Union. Syria has never wanted to be an enemy of the US, and wasn't in the 1970s when the US invited it into Lebanon nor in 1990 when Syria joined the US coalition against Iraq. Syria's only problem with the US is that the US supports Israel's occupation of a chunk of Syrian territory. The whole thing on the Palestinian is confused to a ridiculous extent, as is inevitable when you try to analyze what's going on there without considering what Israel might have to do with it, or what the US has to do with Israel. These simple-minded notions of enemies and allies are immune from comprehending anything that's going on over there.
It's clear that as the Bush administration loses its grip on power, such mythmaking is going to be a major industry. We'll wind up hearing about how Bush's successors stabbed the military in the back, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and so forth. It should be obvious that the Bush administration has utterly discredited itself. It takes a shitload of ignorance and stupidity not to see that, but many Americans are up to the challenge.
Friday, January 25. 2008
George Packer has a piece in the Jan. 28 New Yorker on "The Choice" (Clinton-Obama). At first glance, what's missing is mention of the war that Obama opposed and Clinton and Packer did so much to enable. Then I noticed the following paragraph:
This points out one of the big problem with Hillary Clinton: her embrace of the military. Whether she's done this in order to counter the public sense that she's weak on war -- which was a plausible theory why Bill Clinton was so solicitous of military "solutions" to diplomatic problems during his presidency -- or reflects some other character disorder, I don't get the sense that she's ever learned any better. There's a big and critical difference between thinking that Bush and Rumsfeld made mistakes in how they handled Iraq and realizing that nothng the US armed forces could have done would have accomplished anything resembling the goals of the war. Until she realizes that war is the failure of policy rather than an option, and that the military (at least one deployed all around the world) makes war more likely rather than less, that indeed the US armed forces are nothing more than an engine of failure, she'll never get a grip on what needs to be done on foreign policy.
If you want proof of how little she's learned, note that Richard Holbrooke is one of her top advisers (as he was with John Kerry). Holbrooke was one of the main architects of the liberal interventionism (or what he calls "muscular liberalism") that drove so many of Bill Clinton's misadventures. Morally and intellectually he is no better than Richard Perle, who has much the same ardent desire to kill people to make the world a better place. And Holbrooke's hardly the only such one in the Clinton camp. The Mighty and the Almighty Madeleine Albright is another. But what may prove just as damaging is the simple idea that what the past Clinton administration did was a successful application of American power. Bush's disastrous wars were in most respects unwise escalations of conflicts that Clinton had failed to resolve when he had the chance.
There are, of course, other problems with Hillary Clinton's candidacy. A major one is the desire to break out of the rut of Bushes and Clintons, with their aristocratic and nepotistic overtones. But whoever follows Bush will have to start undoing the effects of numerous bad policies that the US has adopted not just since 2001 but a good deal longer. It's not clear to me that Obama or Edwards are up to the task, but at least they don't have the intimate connection to past wrongs that Hillary Clinton has.
Thursday, January 24. 2008
The Village Voice Pazz & Jop Poll is out now. I made a set of predictions last week before the Idolator poll came out. The Voice poll has more critics (577 vs. 451). I speculated then that the Voice would have more mainstream print critics, and would trend slightly toward more mainstream rock albums, less techno, probably more hip-hop. Also that those trends would make my predictions look a bit better. That's pretty much what happened.
LCD Soundsystem's Sound of Silver still won, but this time it was a close three-way race, and it only won on points (1662 to 1611 for both Radiohead and MIA). Radiohead actually got the most ballots (148 to 144 for MIA and 141 for LCD Soundsystem). I don't recall that sort of split ever occurring before, or for that matter any contest that close. I did a lot of research, pouring over various year-end lists, trying to figure out what would happen. It looks now like my predictions underrated LCD Soundsystem (4 on my list, 1 on both polls), Amy Winehouse (7 on my list, 5 Idolator, 4 Voice), and Against Me (38 on my list, 21 on both polls). I overrated White Stripes (6 on my list, 16 Idolator, 14 Voice), Jay-Z (14 on my list, 23 Idolator, 18 Voice), Les Savy Fav (19 on my list, 44 Idolator, 161 Voice).
I had Bruce Springsteen at 12. He came in 25 Idolator, but rebounded to 9 Voice, so maybe that wasn't so bad. The Voice generally favored age over Idolator: Robert Plant/Alison Krauss improved from 19 to 8 (my guess was 20); Wilco from 20 to 12 (I had them at 16); Bettye Lavette from 45 to 30 (28). Some alt-rock bands also improved, e.g. the Shins from 46 to 19 (21), Band of Horses from 49 to 24 (25). Conversely, electronica slipped a bit: Battles to 11 from 17 (15), Burial to 15 from 27 (41), Justice to 31 from 36 (30), the Field from 24 to 37 (not on my prediction list). Many of the records that did better than predicted on Idolator slipped: Of Montreal to 22 from 10 (22), Jens Lekman to 23 from 17 (not on my list), Okkervil River to 31 from 22 (31), Andrew Bird to 43 from 28 (not on my list).
Of the 10 records I had in the top 50 that missed Idolator's top 50, 7 improved (Common from 113 to 42, Kings of Leon from 102 to 55), 3 dropped (2 marginally; Menomena from 56 to 109). Of the 10 that not on my top 50 list that made Idolator's top 50, all slipped in the Voice poll (Britney Spears from 33 to 62, Amerie from 48 to 118).
I found and reported at least a dozen errors in the initial Voice totals. Youssou N'Dour's Rokku Mi Rokka was listed three separate times, totalling 12 votes, 122 points, enough to raise it from 171 to 79. Similar errors cost Davendra Banhart, Andy Palacio, Kevin Drew, Loudon Wainwright III, Holy Fuck, Gram Parsons, the Ponys, and a few more.
PS: The Voice website has been updated fixing a bunch of these errors. Youssou N'Dour is now at 80. I've edited the text above to reflect some of the new numbers, but haven't rechecked everything.
Tuesday, January 22. 2008
In the Jan. 21, 2008, New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones offers this note on the record industry:
One little factoid that I read some years back is that Christmas albums outsell jazz albums. I don't have the data to back this up, but if you throw out pop jazz and vocals, it seems possible that last year there were no more than 2000 jazz albums released and on average they sold fewer than 2000 copies each. Multiply that out and you get less than 4 million, about what one Christmas title sold. Actually, I doubt that as many as 500 new jazz titles sell 2000 copies in their first year. When I surveyed several labels a couple years ago, several larger independents like Palmetto and Sunnyside indicated that 20000 copies was about their top limit. The Balkanization Frere-Jones talks about makes it all the harder for a real jazz record to break out of this ghetto.
The more generally striking thing is that 3.7 million copies seems historically very low for the year's best-selling album. Past years have been led by giants topping 10 million, sometimes several. Groban's way more than 15% off the pace there. While that may be part of the Balkanization trend, there's also a lot of volatility at the top, and it may just be a bad break. The majors seem to be especially dependent on a handful of giant albums each year. If they're suddenly hard to find or make and break, their whole business model falls apart. When that sort of thing happens businessfolk tend to go crazy, which may have something to do with such bizarre behavior as suing ordinary customers for downloading and copying music. It's a lot of fun working in a business that's growing like gangbusters and making money hand over foot. You get to where you think that's normal, and expect it to happen forever, so it's all the more shocking when any sort of restructuring or retrenchment occurs. It looks like something like that is happening in recorded music lately. Beyond that, I haven't done the research, and don't have a lot of opinion. I just try to listen to as much as I can, and note what I find most appealing and/or interesting. But I've started thinking about a new column superseding Recycled Goods, and it would likely start to take a look at the business end -- not least because rather big and disturbing things are happening in business these days. There may be a lot more retrenchment in the near future.
Monday, January 21. 2008
Don't have any further news on when Jazz CG will run. It's not unusual that the Village Voice editors become inaccessible in the weeks before the Pazz & Jop poll is published, so the silence isn't surprising. I'm guessing mid-February. The final Recycled Goods is also stuck in a pipeline somewhere, out of my hands but not yet posted. I'll guess late this week on it. I started working on year-end notes, then tore them up, so at this point I don't know that any will be forthcoming. The one thing I have persisted in doing this past week has been to keep streaming 2007 albums. That was good for an exceptionally high rated count of 40, while still losing ground to the real world queue. It also meant very little jazz prospecting -- in fact, less than I did the previous week when I begged off. I thought about doing the same again, but didn't want to get in too deep of a rut. So here's the first batch of the new cycle.
Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette: Setting Standards: New York Sessions (1983 , ECM, 3CD): Born 1945, Jarrett started recording in 1966, minor bits with Art Blakey and Miles Davis, a major role in Charles Lloyd's quartet at their popular peak. His own records start in 1967 with Life Between the Exit Signs, and picked up the pace in the 1970s when he juggled two distinctive quarters, one US-based with Dewey Redman on Impulse, the other Europe-based with Jan Garbarek on ECM, while recording bunches of solo piano records, most famously The Köln Concert, which at five million copies is probably the best-selling jazz album ever. He had rarely played in piano trios, but put one together for a set of standards in January 1983 -- actually, he revived the trio that recorded Gary Peacock's Tales of Another in 1977, with Jack DeJohnette on drums. He dubbed them the Standards Trio, but more than two decades and two dozen later they're just The Trio. The sessions produced two volumes of Standards and a set of original improvs released as Changes -- now all conveniently boxed for their 25th anniversary. The songbook is neither obvious nor numerous -- 11 songs, averaging 8 minutes, with "God Bless the Child" spread out to 15:32, mostly because they found so much to work out. A turning point in an illustrious career, but more beginning than peak. B+(**)
Alfredo Naranjo: Y El Guajeo (2006 , Cacao Musica): One of five releases from this Venezuelan label, featuring fancy packages which fold out to reveal a lengthy spiral-bound booklet in English and Spanish and a poorly glued sleeve to hold the disc. Naranjo plays vibraphone, xylophone, and piano. He leads a large group supplemented by guests like Jimmy Bosch on trombone. Latin jazz, sound pretty average to me, with those tricky shifts and stops that throw us gringos pretty badly. Big beat, but the vocals get tedious. B-
Jose Luis "Changuito" Quintana: Telegrafía Sin Hilo (2005 , Cacao Musica): Cuban, b. 1948, plays timbale, best known for his work in Los Van Van, probably ranks as one of the major percussionists in Cuban music from 1970. This was recorded in Caracas. It looks like the majority of musicians were Cuban, including numerous percussionists on bata drums, bongo, congas, and many others. Most cuts have vocals -- various singers, no complaints on my part. Fine example of contemporary Cuban pop with some jazz cred. B+(**)
Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez: Italuba II (2006 , Cacao Musica): Cuban drummer, b. 1963, came to the US c. 1993, where he's established himself as a superb Latin jazz drummer. AMG talks about Hernandez's early interest in rock, and how that's inflected his drumming. That isn't clear here. What we have instead is a solid Afro-Cuban jazz quartet, with trumpet and piano. Tricky rhythms, shifts, halts, all sorts of unpredictable happenings. No vocals, just jazz. B+(**)
Vidal Colmenares: . . . Otro Llano (2006 , Cacao Musica): English trot in the booklet starts: "During the late 80's, analists and experts in marketing processes developed a gradual list, by category or importance order, called the scale of audience intensity." I've seen worse mechanical translations, but few so inadvertently and perversely coherent. It's hard to piece together much real information from the booklet, let alone from secondary sources. Wikipedia describes Colmenares' home town, Barinas, Venezuela, thus: "Barina's is a bit grubby, similar to a rubbish tip. Hot chicks, but they all have the child running behind them." Oh well. Colmenares was born there in 1952, has a gray moustache and a nice smile. Presumably he sings and plays cuatro (a four-string guitar common in Venezuela) -- credits don't say what he does, but the lead vocals are consistent, a slightly pinched sound reminiscent of Speedy Gonzales caricature, but more pliable. The llanos are the highlands straddling Venezuela and Colombia. The booklet includes pictures of cows and Colmenares on horseback, suggesting this is the real c&w of the llanos. Sounds about right. B+(***)
Santos Viejos: Pop Aut (2006 , Cacao Musica): Rock en español from Venezuela, what they call pop autóctono. In the long run, I figure rock en español will be as great and as awful as rock in english, but not speaking the language it's hard to get the fine points. This comes off as middlebrow, vaguely folkish, not distinctive nor outrageous enough to crack the ice, but it does get more comfortably listenable over time. B
Norman Howard & Joe Phillips: Burn Baby Burn (1968 , ESP-Disk): A trumpet player from Cleveland, Howard's discography was hitherto limited to appearing on two Albert Ayler albums. He recorded two sessions for ESP-Disk in 1968 which weren't released at the time. It isn't clear from the booklet whether this is only the first or includes parts of the second (referred to as "Signals"). (It also isn't clear whether the subject of the first line -- "I was born August 25th of 1944 in Cleveland, Ohio" -- is Howard or writer Michael D. Anderson. Philips plays alto sax -- don't know much more about him. The other musicians are just names: Walter Cliff on bass, Corney Millsap on drums. Before I dug into the booklet, the record struck me as austere free jazz, somewhat old-fashioned, although there are noisy stretches later on. Makes more sense as part of Ayler's undertow, opened up by the lack of a clear leader. An interesting piece of history. B+(**)
Jimmy Blythe: Messin' Around Blues: Enhanced Pianola Rolls (1920s , Delmark): Born 1901 in Kentucky, moved to Chicago in 1916, died 1931, played piano, best known for his classic jazz sessions with clarinetist Johnny Dodds. These solo recordings are taken from piano rolls -- they're described as "enhanced," but the only detail given is that the tempos have generally been slowed down -- elegant and robustly rhythmic rather than hot frenzy. Don't have dates, but mid-1920s are probable. B+(***)
Deepak Ram: Steps (2008, Golden Horn): Born in South Africa; plays bansuri, a long Indian flute, which he studied under Pandip Hariprasad Chaurasia, a name I recognize despite my general ignorance of Indian classical music. Ram has half a dozen albums since 1999, presumably more conventionally Indian and/or inflected by his South African experience -- e.g., he shows up on The Rough Guide to South African Jazz. This, however, is a straight jazz album, a quartet with Ram's deeper, less tinny flute set off against Vic Juris's guitar, with Tony Marino on bass, Jamey Haddad on drums/percussion. Two originals don't stand out against Davis and Coltrane covers, "Summertime" and "My Funny Valentine." Not without charm, but if anything, too straight. B
No final grades/notes this week on records put back for further listening the first time around.
Sunday, January 20. 2008
Got to the end of the week and found I hadn't flagged a single web article. The main reason is that I haven't been looking much. I might write this off to having had a miserable week. Indeed, I've spent very little time at the computer, which is likely to make Jazz Prospecting another casualty, and when I have surfed I've mostly been chasing down loose ends on year-end poll 2007 records. But I also haven't liked much of what I did find, not least because so much of what I've seen just rehashes what we already know. On the other hand, the constant reiteration of nonsense is getting really tiresome. A good part of the blame here can be laid on the presidential primaries, which appear to be dedicated to lowering everyone's grasp on reality. But all sorts of stories have become numbing. For instance, I was only vaguely aware that Bush went on a Middle East tour -- no one I read regularly paid any attention to him, and Bush popped up in the Wichita Eagle only when he announced an arms sale to Saudi Arabia. The numbing insists that violence is down in Iraq even on days when 80-90 are killed. The numbing passes over anything Israel does in Gaza. There are stories that should have some traction, but they seem to disappear without comment. The week started with the New York Times doing a feature on Iraq War veterans who killed again after returning to America. You'd at least figure someone would point out how that disproves the old saw about fighting over there so we don't have to here, but I didn't find a link either to the article or to any subsequent discussion. The Times had a piece today on the fire sale of US corporate assets to foreign businesses -- especially sovereign funds that had been holding shrinking dollars. There's a lot more that can be done with that story, but thus far I'm not seeing it.
One of the big unexamined stories of the whole Bush era is what has happened to the dollar. Economists like to say that a lower dollar helps exports (and therefore jobs), but that assumes that you're building exportable products, which isn't really the case in the US. One way to show this is that the declining dollar hasn't had any effect on the current accounts balance: we still import much more than we export. You'd think that the decline of the dollar would be of utmost concern to the supposed beneficiaries of the Bush regime, the rich, since they're the ones with the most dollars to lose, but you never hear about that. On the other hand, they at least get to sell their assets to foreigners with real money, at what appears to be a tidy profit -- so are they really coming out ahead? And even if they are, what does that mean for the rest of us? There's a lot there to chew on.
Another real question beneath all the surface nonsense is what are the real costs of Bush's War on Terror? A couple of years ago Joseph Stiglitz worked up some relatively obvious indirect costs like veterans disabilities and debt service and came up with a $1-2 trillion figure. Revisiting his figures today will show that we're closer to the upper bound of his assumptions than the lower, but you have to wonder whether he factored enough stuff in. On the low end, take those murders the Times has been documenting. On the high end, look at the effect of the debt and the export of wealth on the value of the dollar and everything that entails. One thing we've started to notice during the Bush years is that the US is starting to take on traits of a third world country: oligarchy, corruption, cronyism, foreign ownership, militarism, an encroaching police state, illiteracy, rampant crime, population growth. One can find stories on all these things (e.g., murder increased by 65% in Wichita last year), but not on how they all fit together.
Wednesday, January 16. 2008
Based on my tracking of numerous year-end lists, here's my WAG -- (stands for "wild ass guess," shortened from the SWAGs we used to estimate software projects) -- for the big year-end critics polls. I'm thinking more of the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop Poll, but also Idolator's anti-Voice poll (more on that below):
The top two could go either way. Same for the next two. Actually, my raw data puts Radiohead ahead of MIA and LCD Soundsystem above Arcade Fire, in both cases by tiny margins. Spoon is pretty clearly next. The next five slots are actually a toss-up. The raw data favors Panda Bear, then the National, both of which strike me as marginal (not to mention not that good, not that I'm a fan of the others).
Beyond that, the list is likely to look something like this:
My raw data also nominates records by: Ryan Adams, Andrew Bird, Björk, Blonde Redhead, Caribou, The Field, Jens Lekman, Liars, Queens of the New Stone Age, Joshua Redman, Rihanna, St. Vincent, Robert Wyatt. The raw data didn't nominate Wu-Tang Clan or Ghostface Killah, but they came out late, and as good records by well-known artists are likely to do better than my data suggests. I've tended to upgrade rap and to downgrade electronica -- Burial and Justice do better in the raw data than on my projections, but I doubt most voters have heard them. My data includes a lot of jazz lists, so that's one skew that won't show up in the polls.
I've heard most of these records (exceptions: Battles, Grinderman, Lil Wayne, Menomena, Kings of Leon, Deerhoof, Beirut). I'm not offering any opinion on the listed records: some I like, some I don't. There may be slight tweaks according to my taste, but they're pretty minor. My own ballot included one of the top 10, one more in the next 40 -- although Mavis Staples would have cracked my top 10 had I heard it in time. Only 4 of the top 10 made my A-list, 15 of the top 50 -- I doubt that's any different from past years (may be up, since I doubt that I've ever heard 43 of 50 pollwinners before).
OK, the Idolator Pop 07 poll (451 critics) is out now. I had 4 of the top 5, 9 of the top 10, 40 of the top 50. The top spot went to LCD Soundsystem, which I had at 4. My top 3 shifted down one slot. Amy Winehouse bumped Spoon from 5 to 6. My only top 10 projection that slipped was White Stripes, which finished at 16. It was replaced by Of Montreal, which I had at 10. Some others that did significantly better than my projections: Battles (11/15), Lily Allen (13/24), Burial (15/41), Animal Collective (18/33, Against Me! (21/38), Okkervil River (22/31), Tinariwen (30/40). Some of my picks that slipped but still wound up in the top 50: Jay-Z (23/14), Bruce Springsteen (25/12), Iron & Wine (34/23), Les Savy Fav (44/19), Bettye Lavette (45/28), Rilo Kiley (46/17), The Shins (46/21), Band of Horses (49/25), Modest Mouse (50/27).
The following 10 records made the Idolator top 50 but weren't on my list:
Three of those (Lekman, Field, Bird) were in my leftover list, with 10-12 mentions. UGK, Deerhunter, Spears, and New Pornographers has 7-10 mentions, making them outside shots. Tegan & Sara, Low, and Amerie had 3-4, putting them way out of my mind. I've only heard 2 of the 10 (Lekman, Spears; didn't like Lekman, and, well, you know about Spears). The ten I projected instead finished as follows (my projected finish in brackets):
It took 15 votes to get into the top 50. At 113, Common got 8, which isn't all that far off. Most of these mismatches can be blamed on my decision to skew the raw data toward hip-hop and away from electronica. I expect the Voice poll will be closer to my expectations. For one thing, the Idolator poll is run by electronica specialist Michaelangelo Matos. The Voice poll will have a lot of overlap, but should be larger, with more print journalists, a bit older and more mainstream. The big split last year between the two polls was over Bob Dylan. I expected Bruce Springsteen to do better in the Voice poll, and now it looks like White Stripes will too.
As I expected, MIA and Radiohead were neck to neck, 141 to 137. But LCD Soundsystem more than doubled Arcade Fire, 169 to 77. That's a huge shift from my raw data. It will probably close up a bit in the Voice poll, but it's too big to imagine it being reversed. Lily Allen picked up votes from 2006, when her album got a lot of advance publicity. I expected that to improve her standing, but didn't have a good idea of how to gauge the effect.
By the way, I've put together a page with the Village Voice Jazz Poll results. I list each of the albums, then by album the critics who voted for it. I haven't tabled this up into a database yet where one could make some interesting queries, like what would the totals be if you threw out everyone who voted for 3 of the top 5 albums. One thing you can see is that the top album I voted for camd in at 24, which is pretty far back, but not the farthest out.
Tuesday, January 15. 2008
This is the second batch of short notes/reviews based on streaming records from Rhapsody. They are snap judgments based on one or two plays, mostly meant to check out records that have some backing in year-end lists -- I'm keeping something of a scorecard as I go along. I'm thinking I'll do one more of these by the end of the month. At least, I'm not tired of the exercise yet, and I'm not in a huge rush to dig into the jazz prospecting. So we'll see how far this goes. It does at least give me a way to sample stuff that I wouldn't normally get to hear. But it doesn't give me everything I'd like -- I'd say about one out of every five records I've looked for aren't available (and it turns out that many of the hip-hop albums are missing tracks). Other problems include lack of documentation and the impracticality of getting back to a record that is interesting but not easily judged. With jazz prospecting, I often jot down an estimate and put the record back for further play later. Here I'm not doing that, although there are records here that I do want to return to in the future.
Mary J Blige: Growing Pains (2007, Geffen): Two guest shots come early, one with Ludacris, the other with Usher, both pretty good but far short of transcendent, and in the long run they seem like commercial expedients, more hint that she's less auteur than businesswoman. That's one reason I have trouble with her albums. Another is that she's got a voice that seems normative for a post-whatever soul niche that lost most of its appeal a decade or more before she came around and took it over. But once she's done her business, a series of relatively simple songs comes along building thoughtfully on her title theme -- maybe she's got a touch of auteur after all? I like this as much as anything I've ever heard from her, confirming her SFFR status, but on such short notice I'm still hedging my bets. B+(***)
Jill Scott: The Real Thing: Words and Sounds, Vol. 3 (2007, Hidden Beach): A softer, thinner, lighter voice than Blige, with music to match, but a near match nonetheless. Another SFFR. B+(***)
Rihanna: Good Girl Gone Bad (2007, Def Jam): Robyn Rihanna Fenty, b. 1988, Barbados; claims African, Irish, and Indian (Guyanese mother, so presumably from India) descent. Third album, with hits in each -- "Umbrella" is the one here, goosed by a Jay-Z feature. Doesn't sound like a teen star, other than that she depends on pro help, with Timbaland living large here. Looks hot enough to be a Blender favorite regardless of talent (cf. Paris Hilton). I like the dance pop well enough, but there are weak spots -- "Hate That I Love You" is pretty awful, and there are better songs about "Rehab" floating around. Wonder if I got this lyric right: "I think Christ sucks sometimes/but when you're in the spotlight everything feels good." B
Iron & Wine: The Shepherd's Dog (2007, Sub Pop): Alias for singer-songwriter Samuel Beam. Has several well regarded albums, evidently starting from a folkie lo-fi base. This is low key and easy going, but fairly developed, elegant even, musically. Can even be catchy, but I didn't catch much in the way of lyrics, which eventually determine whether you like or hate such artists. B+(**)
Busdriver: Road Kill Overcoat (2007, Epitaph): Most sources elide the title into one word. I can't verify that, and suspect it's a matter of interpretation anyway. Underground rap, rapid fire wordiness over fanciful beats. Possible political content, although it's hard to say how deep. One line I noted is "in the face of neocon Nazis/I'm no Noam Chomsky." B+(**)
The Fiery Furnaces: Widow City (2007, Thrill Jockey): Brother-sister duo from Oak Park, IL, Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, the latter doing most of the singing. They have an annoying habit of shifting rhythms, melodies, and trains of thought within songs. There are occasional moments where all this chaotic ADD threatens to pay off -- "My Egyptian Grammar" and "The Old Hag Is Sleeping" sound promising, but they are songs 6-7. C+
Los Campesinos!: Sticking Fingers Into Sockets (2007, Arts & Crafts, EP): Welsh group, rocks hard, a bit too fancy for punk, male and female voices, no Latinos I can detect. Six songs, totals 18:38, including the 6:14 "You! Me! Dancing!" Full length album, Hold on Now, Youngster due out February. B+(**)
Mekons: Natural (2007, Quarterstick): First album since 2004's Punk Rock -- scattered across at least two continents their recording rate has slowed but hasn't slowed to the point of serious hiatus. First song ("Dark Dark Dark") seems way too dark, less for its theme than its dirgelike pace, which covers up the looseness of the remaining material, which gains traction after the initial despair wears off. Still, they seem neither inspired nor outraged. They know what they're up against, and pace themselves accordingly. B+(**)
The Oohlas: Best Stop Pop (2006, Stolen Transmission): Los Angeles group, mostly nonstop groove, layered guitar, and Olivia Stone singing, but one called "From Me to You" stands out, possibly in contrast, more likely because the guitar groove kicks up a notch. B+(**)
Peter Bjorn and John: Writer's Block (2006 , Almost Gold): Swedish group: Peter Moren (vocals, guitar, harmonica), Bjorn Yttling (vocals, bass, keyboards), John Eriksson (drums, vocals). Third album, originally released on Wichita in 2006, reissued with bonus tracks (remixes) in 2007. Leads off with strongly strummed guitar, which seems to be a trademark. Catchy middlebrow pop-rock, didn't catch much in the way of lyrics, even though they were in English (more or less). B+(*)
Prince: Planet Earth (2007, NPG/Columbia): This suffers from self-comparison, which is inevitable in a major artist so prolific for so long. "Guitar" is a good hot one, and "Future Baby Mama" is a good soft one, but neither threaten his best-ofs. Better the second time through, and probably gets better still. B+(**)
Dee Dee Bridgewater: Red Earth (2006 , Emarcy): Didn't get this from Verve, which like other units of Universal has suffered the cutbacks in employees and interns with diminished service. Enough other jazz critics did get it to tie up Abbey Lincoln's much adored albums in the Voice jazz poll. I'm way short on details here, but the subtitle is "A Malian Journey," and Malian musicians are prominent -- including a number of co-writing credits and vocals. This works to remarkable effect on "Bad Spirits," where a Malian singer sings in some Malian language with Bridgewater picking up the refrain in English. But other collaborations don't mesh so well, making me wonder whether this works either as jazz or Malian pop. Bridgewater is on more secure ground with the covers: the opening "Afro Blue," the closing "Compared to What," and declaiming Nina Simone's "Four Women" asserting the slave connection which mostly missed Mali. Hard to predict whether I'd go up or down with more exposure. Among Mali tourists, she's more imposing than Ry Cooder and more ambitious than Hank Jones or Roswell Rudd, but not as clever as Damon Albarn, who got the best album out of the deal. B+(*)
Ponytail: Kamehameha (2007, Creative Capitalism): Hard guitar riffs, too crunchy fast for heavy metal but made of some lighter alloy, to which one Molly Siegel adds annoying shrieks. Christgau describes this as "kiddie-pop hardcore no wave assault/playground game/initiation ritual." I don't doubt that it's meant as a joke, and give it some credit for that, but not a lot. B
Mary Gauthier: Between Daylight and Dark (2007, Lost Highway): An alt-country singer-songwriter who made a big impression with Mercy Now turns to measured storytelling instead of intense first person experience. It's hard to tell from one play how deeply these stories will sink in, but I'm reminded of several cases where I wound up treasuring similar milder follow-ups as much as their more obvious predecessors -- Marshall Chapman's Inside Job after Dirty Linen one good example. B+(***)
Linda Thompson: Versatile Heart (2007, Rounder): Another one that could inch up with more listening -- what strikes me at first as plain may well just be subtle. I'm also not clear how big a role son Teddy Thompson plays: he's likely the key to the musical improvement, if not necessarily to the lyrics. Not as searing or as sore as she was with her soon-to-be-ex-husband, but wiser, better paced. I get the feeling she could do this more often than she has in the past. B+(**)
Northern State: Can I Keep This Pen? (2007, Ipecac): Christgau downgraded this after giving their first two albums (and a teaser EP I've never seen) full A grades. I liked those albums less, and now find myself enjoying this one more. They basically do old school rap with college girl voices and left-liberal (i.e., not new or old leftist) politics, with all three swapping rhymes. The deviation here is that they sing more, which works for me. It gives them a cheesy pop vibe that I rarely hear anymore -- check out "Good Distance," or "Better Already." Of course, smart, clever, and up yours help, especially on top of cheesy pop. A-
The Pipettes: We Are the Pipettes (2006 , Interscope): English girl group, modelled on early '60s prototypes, replete with wall of sound production. It only works on occasion, maybe because postmodernism innoculates one against going back to a period that depended on such innocence, or maybe because it's just harder to do than it looks. B
Jens Lekman: Night Falls Over Kortedala (2007, Secretly Canadian): Swedish singer-songwriter, working in English, has a self-pity streak like Morrissey and a flair for excessively ornate arrangements like Sufjan Stevens, although less extreme than either. I initially found him appalling, but bits of melody proved irresistible, leaving me merely uncomfortable. "Friday Night at the Drive-In Bingo" is a relatively straight one, catchy enough they picked it as the single. B
Michael Hurley: Ancestral Swamp (2007, Gnomonsong): Simple, patient, humble folkish songs, mostly just sung over guitar, a couple adding a bit of fiddle. Not as funny as he used to be, but then he never was Peter Stampfel nor Jeffrey Fredericks, authors of the funnier songs on Have Moicy! (the most hilarious were actually penned by Antonia). B+(**)
The Good, the Bad, & the Queen (2007, Honest Jons/Virgin): Supergroup project, assembling Damon Albarn (Blur), Simon Tong (Verve), Paul Simonon (Clash), and Tony Allen (Fela Anikulapo Kuti's drummer), produced by Danger Mouse. Presumably Albarn is singing, although I found the vocals on the first cuts awful tedious, especially against the blippy music effects that seem typical of Danger Mouse. The title cut could almost be a different group, with serviceable vocals and guitar rave. B
Wilco: Sky Blue Sky (2007, Nonesuch): Knowing that jazz whiz Nels Cline was added to the band, I can't help but notice the guitar, which while not jazzy is powerfully sharp even if the songs and singer-songwriter are still on the lame side of alt-country. At least that's my first impression. But they're tuneful, and while I didn't follow the words any more than usual, nothing stuck out like a sore thumb. B+(***)
Lupe Fiasco: The Cool (2007, Atlantic): Chicago Muslim, doesn't like Cool any more than he liked Liquor last time, but knows enough about it to take it for a ride. This takes a while to get in gear -- the thing about his town being the best town falls short of convincing residents of any other town, even those who live in towns they admit suck, but "Hip Hop Saved My Life" makes up for it, and he hits more often than misses from there out. After two plays I'm not as solid with this as I ought to be, but for once feel like gambling by rounding up. A-
Jay-Z: American Gangster (2007, Roc-A-Fella): I'm tempted to dock this conspicuous commercial tie-in simply on anti-gangsta principle, but the most obvious connections are far and away the strongest cuts, especially musically. A bigger problem is the "ignorant shit" (a title) he subcontracts out to his lessers -- he may stand behind his brand name, but he's not above stretching it a bit. Another problem is that Rhapsody's download is three songs short, so that's another reason to hedge. B+(*)
Colombiafrica -- The Mythic Orchestra: Voodoo Love Inna Champeta-Land (2007, Riverboat): Not sure how this breaks down. Champeta is Colombian, reportedly from Cartagena. Most of the percussion sounds Latin (and plausibly Colombian, although I can't be sure, and I see one credit to Camerounian drummer Guy Bilong). The guitars trend African, mostly Congolese -- Diblo Dibala is the best known, followed by Sekou Diabaté (from Guinea, if memory serves). The voices are mostly Colombian, except for Nyboma (who I figure for Congo, but can't be sure). The album was produced by Paris-based Congolese guitarist Bopol Mansiamina, but I don't know where it was recorded. The label's hype talks about afrobeat and mbaqanga and all sorts of other things, which appear to be reflected radiation. Nor do I know if this is just a one-shot, which is what it looks to be. In any case, it keeps its various pieces balanced and hopping along, the sort of rhythm-first album that bridges all language barriers. A-
Okkervil River: The Stage Names (2007, Jagjaguwar): Austin TX group, by reputation a folk-rooted group with particular debts to the Carter Family and the Stanley Brothers. Don't know about their earlier albums (AMG lists 4), but this one sounds like typical midwestern singer-songwriter fare, with the one compelling riff swiped from the Beach Boys. B
The Sadies: New Seasons (2007, Yep Roc): Country band from Canada. Did a pretty good album with Jon Langford once. Without him, they still do pretty good background, but don't have a strong lead. B+(**)
The Pierces: Thirteen Tales of Love and Revenge (2007, Lizard King): Two sisters from Birmingham, AL, on their third album. Songs about evenly divide between awkward ones that feel forced and others that flow well enough they could be hits. More of the latter would put this over, but even the awkward ones get by on intelligence and wit. Reminds me a bit of Voices of the Beehive, but not as loud or irresistible. An interesting album, one that could charm its way into becoming a favorite. B+(***)
Britney Spears: Blackout (2007, Jive): Nothing here Madonna hasn't done better and a lot smarter, but she's got enough libido and practice as a poseur that her limited pipes and brains aren't huge liabilities. Obviously, she had help, and it makes a difference. Despite my fondness for this kind of dance music, she never made much of an impression before, but I never disliked her either. This isn't great, but it's very solid. B+(***)
Tabu Ley Rochereau: The Voice of Lightness: Congo Classics 1961-1977 (1961-77 , Stern's Africa, 2CD): Early material, starting when the all-time soukous great was 21. The earliest cuts do favor lightness, but this picks up a powerful groove as it progresses. This has been on my shopping list for a while, and sooner or later I'll pick it up. Hope the booklet is useful. But even on music alone it's possible that this could pick up a notch (or two). A-
Band of Horses: Cease to Begin (2007, Sub Pop): Indie rock band, from Seattle, second album. Songs are mostly catchy, guitars have some punch and wail, singer isn't bad, can do a little country twang, but doesn't depend on it. B+(*)
Nellie McKay: Obligatory Villagers (2007, Hungry Mouse): Third album, second on her own label after a well publicized spat with Columbia. Not sure whether to consider her a jazz singer. She's more like a Bette Midler who insists on writing her own songs, and is smart enough to get away with it (mostly). Her model seems to come from show music, which often suffers from overdramatization, not to mention excessive fanciness -- unless, of course, it really works, in which case all is forgiven. I don't think this works often enough, although two plays is certainly not enough to be sure. B+(**)
St. Vincent: Marry Me (2007, Beggars Banquet): Alias for Annie Clark, a singer-songwriter, high voice, eclectic pop arrangements, clever and whimsical, maybe with a literary bent. Reminds me of Kate Bush. B+(*)
Konono No. 1: Live at Couleur Café (2007, Crammed Discs): From Congo, a group with junkyard instruments and thumb pianos, all groove all the time. Two previous albums capture the same sound, making them more/less interchangeable, but this set, recorded in Belgium, is at least their equal, maybe better -- at least more consistent. A-
Wu-Tang Clan: 8 Diagrams (2007, SRC/Universal/Motown): Another hip-hop album missing a track, but this time I doubt that it can make much of a difference. Only one cut I don't much care for ("Stick Me for My Riches" featuring Gerald Alston), a couple of platinum samples, a lot of deft beats, plenty of rough and/or smart talk. A-
Wax Tailor: Hope & Sorrow (2007, Decon): A DJ from France, JC la Saoût, stakes out his political position early regarding cultural reuse, then proceeds to make his case artistically. Spoken bits can be educational or just underscore a line or bridge a passage; raps go a bit further, and there are a couple of soul vocals, including one by Sharon Jones. The beats are loose, almost bow-legged, giving the whole thing an air of goofiness. The best culture, indeed. A-
The Chalets: Check In (2005 , Setanta): Irish pop-rock group, both male and female singers, big hooks, catchy, harder than most such groups. Christgau docked them for being "a little too cute," but not a lot. I find them a bit too much, but for two or three songs they sound really great, which means they got it in them. If they were better they'd be the B-52s. (On "Love Punch" they are: "I know you love me but you're fucking crazy.") B+(***)
Apparat: Maps (2006 , Shitkatapult Strike): German, a/k/a Sascha Ring, although I don't know if that's a real name or another level of alias. Done work with Ellen Allien, a name I've been curious about but never got to. The electronica is full-fleshed, elegant, songlike, with half or more vocals -- don't know who sings, but I've seen comparisons to Thom Yorke. B+(***)
Monday, January 14. 2008
No jazz prospecting to report this week. Jazz CG #15 is in the Village Voice's court. Don't know when they'll run it. I imagine that they are overwhelmed at present trying to pull the Pazz & Jop poll together. I'm not sure when that's coming out either. I regret missing their deadline for comments, but there's been not nearly enough time for that. I'd still like to do a year-end comment piece, if only to weigh in on how much 2007 sucked. As it is, I haven't frozen my 2007 list yet, which is one of my world's signs that the year has ended. Maybe tomorrow: I'm just putting the finishing touches on my last Recycled Goods column, and I'm thinking I'll tack a year-end list onto it.
Jazz prospecting should be back next week. By then I will have worked through my transitional paperwork. Recycled Goods will be done. Hopefully I'll start to get over 2007. And I can start to delve into the pile of new 2008 advances that I haven't touched yet. Meanwhile, I'll post another collection of snap judgments based on 2007 downloads from Rhapsody. And maybe some year-end notes and resolutions.
Sunday, January 13. 2008
Chalmers Johnson: Imperialist Propaganda. Another anti-imperialist screed about Charlie Wilson's War. Of course, Johnson is right (as is Tom Engelhardt, in his intro). Steve Coll's Ghost Wars is a better source on the conflict, which neither started nor ended with Charlie Wilson. (Interesting that Wilson retired to a lucrative job as a lobbyist for Pakistan: "mostly tradition," as he explained in the movie.) Johnson quotes a previous review that he wrote of the book:
It makes sense that Johnson would focus on the blowback, but this foolish war hurt us far worse than it hurt Afghanistan, which after more than 25 years of constant war is worse off than ever. The war also adversely affected every other country it touched, and it takes a pretty cold hearted bastard to exclude the former Soviet Union from that list.
Matt Taibbi: Merchants of Trivia. The target here is not the presidential candidates, although they provide plenty of illustrations, so much as the media that covers, and trivializes, them. For example:
It's unlikely that politicians would be such shitheads without the media egging them on, although the media certainly favors some natural shitheads, GW Bush being an obvious example. Taibbi's book, Spanking the Donkey, is already the best book on this presidential campaign -- it was written about 2004, and the candidates have changed this time, but its main subject, the media, is very much the same.
Ari Berman: The Democratic Foreign Policy Wars. Useful review of which foreign policy mandarins are plugged into which Democratic candidate ears. None are likely to push the sort of serious rethinking US foreign policy needs, but the one that makes me most nervous is Richard Holbrooke and his "muscular liberalism" -- humanitarian-masked imperialism is more like it: "In the 1990s Holbrooke warned of 'Vietnamalia syndrome,' the aversion to using military power because of failures in Vietnam and Somalia, and says we cannot retreat now, either." He's reason enough to oppose Clinton, although he's hardly the only one (e.g., there's also "the mighty and the almighty" Albright).
Friday, January 11. 2008
I watched Bill Maher tonight, mostly to catch Matt Taibbi -- just read his Rolling Stone piece, and was writing a bit on it when I found out he was appearing. He's sharper as a writer than as a pundit, but his big problem tonight was Tony Snow, who jumped all over him with well rehearsed talking points. One of those points was the Surge, which is only a success relative to past failures -- Snow claimed the violence in December was the lowest since December 2004, which was the month after Fallujah was levelled by the Marines, more like a brief retrenching. One thing people have already managed to forget about the Surge is that there was no evidence of it working back in September, the initial test date. It was only after failing the report that the scheme of paying Sunni tribal leaders to suppress Al-Qaeda came into play. Equally important was US forces backing off, an option that was always available, and that obviously didn't require the 30,000 extra troops. Also important was Moqtada al-Sadr's cease fire, and some form of rapprochement with Iran. I'm reminded of The Battle of Algiers, which a minute before the end of the film looks like the French had won.
Maher's response to this snow job was lame -- something about Bush only realizing that he needed more troops after fucking it up for four years. I really doubt that any conceivable number of troops ever could have done the job. The big problem was always the expectation that Bush's team had that they could mold Iraq into a compliant client state, after the US had double crossed, starved and raped the country for a whole generation. That was never really in the cards: Iraq was too broken, and America was too corupt and incompetent, or to put a more philosophical point on it, too dedicated to our own gratification. The only thing that might have worked was to earnestly serve the Iraqis, but why would such a self-interested, self-important nation do anything like that? Especially one led by a claque convinced of their ability to manage perceptions, allowing them to sweep inconvenient reality out of sight. (The Surge hype shows they still have the knack. Who, after all, asks whether a relatively safer Baghdad is safe enough for reporters to cover without armed convoys, like they could in 2003? How does that safety translate into real reconstruction gains?)
But the issue Snow jumped on faster than any other was Maher's question to Taibbi about why the class-oriented Edward campaign doesn't seem to have much traction despite the economic downturn that most working people (Maher's term was "middle class") have experienced. Taibbi started to answer that the media just aren't interested in anything that resembles a real issue, when Snow jumped in with an argument that populism doesn't fly because workers are "too smart": they realize that any effort against corporations will rebound and cost them jobs. It's a nonsense argument, but was stated so emphatically everyone was taken aback. Still, it is a good example. The one thing corporate power, and more generally conservative power, depends on above all else is that people affected by it will fail to recognize that their problems can be addressed by democratic politics. Edwards is no Mother Jones, but Snow's sponsors haven't merely become so greedy that he threatens them. Their whole political order depends on people not realizing that any other way is possible. It's remarkable how brazen their con job is. Also remarkable that they seem to be getting away with it.
Monday, January 7. 2008
This is the last jazz prospecting of a cycle that has gone on way too long. The column is done except for the long procrastinated annointment of the featured dud. I actually have more candidates than usual this time, but little stomach for working on them. Some finished high on the Village Voice's Jazz Poll: Maria Schneider, Sky Blue (the winner); Herbie Hancock, The River: The Joni Letters (#6); Paul Motian, Time and Time Again (#15); Chris Potter, Song for Anyone (#35). Others include folks I've previously recommended, like Eric Alexander, Satoko Fujii, David Hazeltine, Nicole Mitchell, and Miroslav Vitous. Or I could look for something I don't care about at all. I dug up an awful Brazilian album by Ed Johnson, played a few cuts, then took it off -- why bother? Hancock would be easiest to explain, but I don't feel right singling him out twice in a row. Schneider is too daunting to deal with at the last minute. I have no clue why so many critics like her albums so much, while my own reaction is invariably numb -- not much to write about there.
I'm not real happy with my pick hits either, but they'll do. Chris Byars was the top-rated still-unreviewed album from the year-end list, so that one should be obvious. It was a tough one to write about, and I must have played it ten times hoping for inspiration, but I never quite felt compelled to kick the grade up to A. My A grades have been stingy this year: only 3 jazz albums, and only 4 non-jazz. (Christgau has at least 11. I'm actually only down 1 from 2006, but down 22 through A-.)
The album that would have complemented it best is Mostly Other People Do the Killing's Shamokin!!!, which plays off the same bebop tradition in a very different way. But I got to it too late to plan on getting it in -- for that matter it likely would have made my year-end list had I played it a week sooner. Besides, I have much more to say about Allen Lowe's That Devilin' Tune, which I reviewed as a unit, rounding the grade up (for once) -- the A almost insists that it head the list.
While I've had trouble all year with pick hits, the main section and honorable mentions have always had way too many contenders. Jazz CG 14 ran with 11 main section reviews (not counting the 3 obligatory) and 14 honorable mentions. Right now, I have 22 and 21, respectively, so my next task will be to cut both nearly in half. You'd think that would make the next one easier to write, and maybe even make it come out sooner. Hope that's the case.
So I still have a bit of tuning before I hand this in. Next time I'll start prospecting for next round.
Cynthia Sayer: Attractions (2006 , Plunk): Plays banjo, sings; originally from Massachusetts, now in New York. Resume spotlights 10 years with Woody Allen's New Orleans Jazz Band, and soundtrack work on Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo and with Marvin Hamlisch on Sophie's Choice, but I'm more curious about "The New Spike Jones Show." Several albums, starting with The Jazz Banjo of Cynthia Sayer, which I don't have a date on. That one had "featuring" credits for Dick Wellstood and Milt Hinton. This one features Bucky Pizzarelli, but aside from a duet he hardly stands out beyond a superb trad-oriented band, with Scott Robinson (saxes, clarinet), Randy Sandke (trumpet), Jim Fryer (trombone), Sara Caswell (violin), Greg Cohen (bass), and Joe Ascione (percussion). Half vocals, starting with Sidney Bechet's reefer song "Viper Mad" and Hank Williams' "Half as Much," and winding on through "Romance Without Finance" and "You Are My Sunshine" and "Aba Daba Honeymoon." Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody" is reduced to a banjo feature, which is fine with me. B+(***) [Mar. 1]
Arjun: Pieces (2007, Pheromone): Guitar-bass-drums trio, with namesake Eddie Arjun Peters playing the guitar, composing, arranging, and producing. Website features a news item announcing that Pieces "is number 14 on the Jamband Top 40!" I don't recognize most of the competitors, but those I do seem to be an arbitrary mix of rock (Wilco, Patti Smith, Son Volt) and semipop jazz (Chick Corea/Bela Fleck, Will Bernard, Bad Plus). This is rockish guitar bop, or boppish guitar rock -- at times reminds me of Cream, but then doesn't deliver much on the hint. B
Jon Larsen: Strange News From Mars (2007, Zonic Entertainment): Norwegian painter-guitarist, traces his inspirations back to Salvador Dali and Django Reinhardt and is able to confuse them. The Reinhardt connection is presumably developed fully in his Hot Club de Norvège group, which has 17 albums going back to 1981. Add another half-dozen under his own name, which look to be scattered all over the map, with a string quartet on one end and this piece of sci-fi fusion on the other. Jimmy Carl Black narrates short bits like "Unwanted Sexual Attention in Space." The music is spacey, racey keybs, marimba, guitar, and trombone -- amusing stuff. B+(*)
Normal Love: 2007 (2007, High Two): Inscrutable record, not much helped by the lack of information -- I'm not even sure I'm parsing the title correctly. Group consists of violin (Carlos Santiago Jr.), two guitars (Alex Nagle and Amnon D. Freidlin), bass (Evan Lipson), and drums (Eli Litwin). No vocals. Rough sound, sort of a postpunk fusion that might turn interesting but never quite coheres. B
Dion: Son of Skip James (2007, Verve Forecast): Nephew of Muddy Waters, cousin of Chuck Berry, both of whom figure larger here than James, but it's worth noting that the latter's comeback came after Dion's Belmonts faded into doo-wop history. At the time, Dion was refashioning himself as a folk singer, and he was remarkably good at it -- cf. Bronx Blues: The Columbia Recordings (1962-1965). He makes a pretty fair bluesman too. B+(*)
Ellen Johnson: These Days (2005 , Vocal Visions): Singer. Grew up in Chicago, teaches in San Diego. Has three albums starting with Too Good to Title in 1993, plus a couple of instructional things. This particular album puts her in line behind Sheila Jordan, who repays the compliment with two guest vocals: a duet on Jordan's "The Crossing" and background on Johnson's tribute to Jordan, "Little Messenger." Elsewhere, Johnson acknowledges such Jordan signatures as duetting with bassist Darek Oleskiewicz (Oles here) and adding words to Mingus' "Nostalgia in Times Square" reminiscent of Jordan's birdwatching. B+(**)
Andy Bey: Ain't Necessarily So (1997 , 12th Street): Recorded live at Birdland in 1997, with Bey singing and playing piano and the Washingtons for rhythm (Vito Leszak subs for drummer Kenny Washington on two cuts). Bey's a subtle, graceful singer, able to turn even "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" into seduction. The live format lets the band stretch out agreeably. B+(**)
Louise Rogers: Come Ready and See Me (2007 , Rilo): Singer, originally from New Hampshire, in New York since 1997. Three previous albums include two jazz-for-kids things and a duo with husband/bassist Rick Strong. This is a good sample of her range: scoring a Nikki Giovanni poem, adding lyrics to pieces by Mike Mainieri and Jerry Bergonzi, arranging a trad folk song, reworking an original from 1991, sailing through a couple of standard standards. She scales the high notes, scats, swings, gets a song and some nice sax from Gottfried Stoger. The ballads drag a bit, but "The Song Is You" is a choice cut. B+(*) [Feb. 1]
Júlio Resende: Da Alma (2007, Clean Feed): Portuguese pianist, don't know much about him other than that he studied in France. Leads a quartet here with either Alexandra Grimal or Zé Pedro Coehlo on tenor sax, João Custódio on bass, and either João Lobo or João Rijo on drums. I'm not familiar with any of these names, and have very little to go on, other than the music, which is attractive postbop with a free edge. Label website claims: "The future of jazz in Portugal will come from here." I'm not convinced they're wrong. [B+(**)]
Tony Malaby: Tamarindo (2007, Clean Feed): A trio, with Malaby playing tenor and soprano sax, William Parker on bass, Nasheet Waits on drums. Malaby owns all the song credits, but it has a loose improv feel. Parker gets quite a bit of space, and his arco work is spectacular. But the album doesn't quite click for me: maybe too much soprano, or maybe there's a mismatch between Parker and Waits -- the latter is best known for his work with Jason Moran and Fred Hersch. Malaby is remarkably adaptable at playing with both types, but not quite forceful enough to lead them. B+(**)
MI3: Free Advice (2004 , Clean Feed): Boston group, consisting of pianist Pandelis Karayorgis and two-thirds of Ken Vandermark's Boston trio, bassist Nate McBride and drummer Curt Newton. Karayorgis' website lists 18 records going back to 1989, and I'm way behind the learning curve on them. MI3 was formed to play in Boston's Abbey Lounge, a bar usually featuring rock bands. On their previous album (We Will Make a Home for You) Karayorgis played Fender Rhodes and featured pieces by Monk and Dolphy, while McBride recycled his Spaceways Inc. funk grooves. This is more conventionally an avant-garde piano trio, with acoustic piano and bass, more originals, but also pieces from Sun Ra and Ellington -- the latter filtered through Steve Lacy. The result is one of the more satisfying piano trios I've heard lately, a mix of strong rhythms and surprising offsets. A-
Stephen Gauci's Basso Profundo: Nididhyasana (2007, Clean Feed): Gauci is a tenor saxophonist, b. 1966, based in Brooklyn, has appeared on 10+ records since 2001, mostly with bassist Mike Bisio. The group here is a quartet with two basses presumably the source of the name: Bisio and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (of various Ken Vandermark bands). The fourth member is trumpeter Nate Wooley, which gives the group a two horn front line. No drummer, but there is some percussion, presumably from tapping on the bass. The horns split free, but they're less interested in fireworks than in coloring. [A-]
Steve Lehman Quartet: Manifold (2007, Clean Feed): First, apologies to Nasheet Waits, who has no problems with Lehman's difficult music, and whose assertive free drumming makes the opener, "Interface D." Lehman plays alto and sopranino sax, the latter on an exercise titled "For Evan Parker" which I can't swear isn't a parody, although I doubt it. Jonathan Finlayson's trumpet adds a freewheeling second horn, and John Hebert is expert as usual on bass. Recorded live in Brazil, this is more off the cuff than Lehman's Pi albums. B+(***)
Chris Barber: Can't Stop Now (European Tour 2007) (1986-2007 , MVD Audio): The cover is misleading in several respects: only one cut was recorded in 2007 (although it's given two dates and locations); all but two of the rest were recorded in the UK in February and November 2006, which isn't exactly what you'd expect from a European Tour; the two loose ends date from 1988 or 1986 (one is listed both ways); Andy Fairweather Low is pictured as "special guest," but he's only appears on three songs (more/less those named on the cover, with "Worried Man Blues" advertised as "It Takes a Worried Man," and a medley with "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" reduced to "Lay My Burden Down." Barber sings two others, including "Can't Stop Now," which I originally took as Low making a joke of his foundered rock and roll career. Still, this confusion has remarkably little effect on the music. Low's "Worried Man Blues" triangulates perfectly with Barber's skiffle sideline, picking up where Lonnie Donegan left off. And Barber's trad jazz is timeless: he's done it for 53 years, so slipping a couple decades is hardly noticeable. B+(**)
Jim Snidero: Tippin' (2007, Savant): Alto sax player, has a bunch of records since 1987, hard bop or postbop, of varying levels of ambition. He takes it easy with this organ quartet, letting Mike LeDonne and guitarist Paul Bollenbeck do the heavy lifting, topping it off with his exquisite riffs. Evidently there's a market for this sort of thing, and this is much better than par for the course. B+(**)
John Stein: Green Street (1996-98 , Whaling City Sound): Guitarist, originally from Kansas City, MO; now based in Boston, teaching at Berklee. Has a half-dozen albums starting in 1995. This was his second, released in 1999 on A Records (or Challenge; sources differ, but if I recall correctly Challenge is the parent label). It's a fairly conventional organ-guitar-drums trio with guest tenor sax on 5 of 12 cuts. Stein's guitar and Ken Clark's organ hit the right notes, but the real soul jazz comes from Fathead Newman's tenor sax. Wish there was more of it. B+(**)
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
Happy Apple: Happy Apple Back on Top (2007, Sunnyside): Bad Plus drummer Dave King's other power trio, with Erik Fratzke's bass plugged in and Michael Lewis leading on one sax or another. Given their Minneapolis address, it's tempting to call them the Husker Du of free jazz, assuming you can make all the necessary translations. It is jazz, after all, and while they like rock grooves more than most, they never leave it at that. A-
Rafi Malkiel: My Island (2007, Raftone): Latin jazz, with all the bells and maracas and a few old fashioned vocals, the songs broken down by style and country, ranging from Brazil to New Orleans, with Cuba predominant. The leader is an Israeli trombonist, and occasionally a klezmer vibe slips in. His island is Manhattan. A-
Freddy Cole: Music Maestro Please (2006 , High Note): A pretty good soft crooner album with Bill Charlap's trio for backup, a high class move that doesn't translate into anything fancy. He has a lock on the family sound, but has moved on to a new level of maturity. B+(**)
Robert Wyatt: Comicopera (2007, Domino): I used to think I was one of his biggest fans, but I'm not able to come up with the enthusiasm of more than a few bigger fans who've posted this on their year-end lists. (In fact, The Wire has given their top spot to his last two albums.) The album does have its moments, including "Hasta Siempre Comandante," his best Che Guevara song since "Song for Che" on Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard. I like the duet on "Just as You Are," the sax and vibes, his less-than-virtuosic trumpet/cornet, and a few other things. But I also find it awkward and ungainly, difficult and inaccessible -- things that the real fans are able to overlook. I must not be one anymore, which saddens me. B+(**)
Trio M [Myra Melford/Mark Dresser/Matt Wilson]: Big Picture (2006 , Cryptogramophone): Taking a clue from first names, they call themselves Trio M, but are established enough to keep their names on the spine. I figure the complex cerebral stuff is pianist Melford's and credit the bouncy bits to drummer Wilson. There's no doubt that the weird arco bass is Dresser's. He has a huge reputation, but rarely makes albums you can kick back and enjoy. This is the exception. A-
Evan Christopher: Delta Bound (2006 , Arbors): A young student of the New Orleans clarinet tradition, starting with Lorenzo Tio Jr. and leading through Tony Parenti but with no explicit reference to George Lewis. Whereas most New Orleans jazz uses clarinet for contrast against the brass, this quartet, with Dick Hyman textbook perfect as usual, singles it out. For better or worse, without the competition Christopher never gets the chance to go wild. B+(**)
Muhal Richard Abrams: Vision Toward Essence (1998 , Pi): An hour or so of solo piano, recorded live at Guelph in Canada, and a decade later acclaimed a masterpiece and finally released. I wax and wane on it: there are masterful bits, but an hour of nothing but piano can grow tedious, and there are also parts that seem designed to produce that effect. Abrams is an important figure, one I've long admired, but I have no way to gauge this. I guess I worry that it's over my head, or beyond my attention span, or (worse still) not quite as good as it ought to be. Could be any of those things. B+(**)