Wednesday, July 30. 2008
Record count grew from 12 to 14 to 17 the last three months since I brought Recycled Goods back off the shelf and into some limited form of revival. Count drops to 11 this month, and most of that is overflow from Jazz Prospecting. It's been that kind of month. Could complain about the well drying up, but actually I'm behind on world music.
Steinski: What Does It All Mean? 1983-2006 Retrospective (1983-2006 , Illegal Art, 2CD): Doug DiFranco (Double Dee) and Steve Stein (Steinski) cut up a legendary homage to "The Message" back in 1983, then had it almost instantly chased from print for not clearing the numerous copyright bits they mixed in. As far as I know, Steinski hasn't gotten more legal since: a CD briefly appeared in 2002 called Nothing to Fear: A Rough Mix, and another in 2003, Steinski's Burning Out of Control: The Sugarhill Mix. This new compilation recycles most, or possibly all, of the above. The squashed beats shuffle endlessly, many from sources you'll recognize at once and never grow tired of, but the spoken word humor lifts this above any competition, even when it isn't as obvious as the Marx Brothers. A
Mary Lou Williams: A Grand Night for Swinging (1976 , High Note): Got her start playing church organ on her mama's lap. Turned pro at age 6, and hit the road at 12. Cut her first records at 17 in 1927, really making her mark in the 1930s as pianist-arranger for Andy Kirk's Kansas City big band, going on to write extended works like The Zodiac Suite. Picked up bebop almost as naturally as she took to swing, and after a long hiatus reappeared in the 1970s as the hippest old lady in the business. This is just a live set caught in Buffalo, her trio mostly playing covers, a nice showoff spot for drummer Roy Haynes, the title cut reprised. It's all dazzlingly alive, spirit-lifting -- maybe all that praying paid off. Ends with a bit of interview, you won't mind hearing more than once. A-
George Cables: Morning Song (1980 , High Note): Two sides of Art Pepper's favorite pianist of the period: six tightly wound solo cuts, mixed with four loosely sprung quartet takes, with Eddie Henderson's airy, boppish trumpet out in the lead. B+
Can't You Hear Me Callin': Bluegrass: 80 Years of American Music (1925-2002 , Columbia/Legacy, 4CD): First disc ends with bluegrass founder Bill Monroe, a set of old-time country classics; next two discs run heavy with Monroe, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin, Jim & Jesse, Osborne Brothers -- a label comp in absolute control of its subject; only the last disc wanders with the Byrds and the Dixie Chicks among the odd choices. A-
Lou Donaldson: Here 'Tis (1961 , Blue Note): A turning point as the alto saxophonist moves from Bird bebopper to soul jazzer, helped along by organ funkmeister Baby Face Willette and even more so by Grant Green's tasty guitar licks; not quite recognizing the challenge, Donaldson goes with the groove. B+
John Patton: Soul Connection (1983 , Just a Memory): Soul jazz organist, had a strong run with Blue Note in the 1960s, trouble finding work thereafter, picked up this session in Switzerland -- his only record between 1969 and 1993 -- with guitarist Melvin Sparks consistently in the groove, and trombonist Grachan Moncur III interesting even when off on his own; boogaloo with brains. B+
Alvin Queen: Jammin' Uptown (1985 , Just a Memory): A front line including Terence Blanchard blows hot and heavy, but all the interesting spots here come from the back benchers in the rare moments when they can break in -- pianist John Hicks, trombonist Robin Eubanks, and the leader, a drummer more subtle than his hard bop rep suggests. B
Wally Rose: Whippin' the Keys (1968-71 , Delmark): A pianist in San Francisco dixieland bands led by Lu Watters, Bob Scobey, and Turk Murphy, Rose cut a couple of solo records of ragtime classics in the 1950s, and dug further into the genre in two later albums reissued here -- 16 of 21 songs have "rag" in the title somewhere, with "Pickles & Peppers" a typical exception. B+
Willie "The Lion" Smith & Don Ewell: Stride Piano Duets: Live in Toronto, 1966 (1966 , Delmark): The old stride piano master, reinforced by one of his finest students; The Lion can't sing, but he only tries twice, and he's such a charming rogue you don't mind, especially when the keys tinkle so sprightly. B+
Cy Touff & Sandy Mosse: Tickle Toe (1981 , Delmark): Two obscure Chicago jazzmen -- Touff plays bass trumpet and has connections that landed him a West Coast rep based mostly on an album for Pacific Jazz; Mosse plays tenor sax and is happy just to remind people of his idol Lester Young, author of the title song; both dead now, this easy-going swing/bop session, something for the curious to remember them by. B+
Stanley Turrentine: Return of the Prodigal Son (1967 , Blue Note): A Duke Pearson-produced tentet session brought back to its original shape after 7 of 10 tracks were cast off on various releases; in theory a big band for a big man, in practice he gets a little overwhelmed until the alternate take of "Dr. Feelgood," but the band never loses interest. B+
Tuesday, July 29. 2008
While stumbling around my website the other day, I discovered that the music index page had various problems, starting with its notion that I was still working on my 2006 lists. I spent a bit of time cleaning that up, including adding some relatively new things, like the metacritic pages. The page I send to publicists is still pretty old and increasingly shoddy. Haven't done much to it yet, probably because I'm a little confused myself about what I want to do in terms of music reviewing. But it occurred to me that perhaps there is enough critical mass to the Rhapsody Streamnotes (new term, just thought of it) to warrant their own section. So I hacked together a little something based on the old F5 framework -- actually, the newest of the old music writing folders -- and scrounged through the blog, the notebook, and a few other nooks and crannies, and voilà. I rounded up notes on 215 albums, mostly from my year-end round-up posts.
The notes should be taken with several grains of salt: they are summary judgments based on one or two plays, never (to my recollection) more; they are often done when I'm working on something else; they play on the computer speakers, which aren't bad but aren't as good as I normally use, and aren't connected to follow me around the house; I don't have access to the packaging, which cuts into my information flow as well as doesn't look or feel right. Also, Rhapsody itself isn't all that satisfactory: some cuts are missing (especially on hip-hop records); sometimes it skips over a cut (which I'm unlikely to notice unless I'm actually looking at the screen -- like, almost never); sometimes the stream chokes leaving an annoying break in the sound; sometimes I have trouble finding a record, or find multiple versions and am not certain which is best. Also, a lot of records aren't available, but that's not a caveat -- just a gripe I wanted to get in.
The streamnotes are organized into chunks, mostly corresponding to previous blog posts (often with introductions, since I had them). In general, I collect them until they reach some critical mass, then dump them out. I tend to do this in fits and starts, often just because I want a break from the jazz grind. I did another dozen or so (not out yet) last week while I was working on the update of Robert Christgau's website -- seemed like a good time to check out his CG picks.
Monday, July 28. 2008
Johnny Griffin died this weekend, at age 80. He was a second-tier tenor saxophonist who burst onto the scene in 1956 and rarely took a break thereafter. By "second-tier" I mean he obviously wasn't Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, or Joe Henderson; more like Sonny Stitt, Lockjaw Davis, Benny Golson, Clifford Jordan, Hank Mobley. I never paid him a lot of attention, but early on in my second jazz phase Robert Christgau pointed to Griffin as the first saxophonist he had really heard. The record was Thelonious Monk's Misterioso, and Christgau has alluded to this experience on several occasions. I'm pretty sure Christgau regards Griffin as second-tier also, or maybe even third. While Monk remains his first jazz love, he transferred his Griffin experience to Charlie Parker, who invented much of Griffin's vocabulary and played it notoriously fast -- a feat Griffin was almost uniquely able to match on tenor.
My own first saxophone experience came later with Ornette Coleman, which only reflected poorly on Parker, whom I've never much liked even after I begrudgingly came to respect. For a long time, I had a very negative opinion on bebop, which gradually broke down from the edges -- the drummers, the pianists, Milt Jackson, then finally I surrendered to Dizzy Gillespie. Griffin was initially too bebop for me, but ultimately he was too irrepressible to dislike. His two albums with Monk -- the other is Thelonious in Action, cut the same time as Misterioso and at least as good -- mark the first point where someone snatches Monk's music the auteur's control and runs off with it, the first hint that Monk's songbook was going to inspire much more jazz than the composer could ever record. Everyone was surprised that it was Griffin (as opposed to Monk's previous saxophonists, Messrs. Rollins and Coltrane) would be the one, but Griffin was bold to the point of recklessness, and he had the chops to back it up. Must have shocked Monk too; he went right out and hired the more studious and deferential Charlie Rouse.
Griffin's discography is extensive and scattered, and I only know a modest slice of it. But some records I do recommend (all A-) are:
The latter was the best of a furious series of jousts, starting with Tough Tenors. A lot of solid B+ work followed, including minor comebacks like The Cat (1990, Antilles) and The Rev and I (filed under Phil Woods, 1998, Blue Note), not that he ever went away -- he managed a half-dozen albums each in the dry decades of the 1970s and 1980s.
Don't have anything to add on Jazz CG, except that I know it's overdue, and will try to get it done this week. Failed last week. It's been a tough summer, and not over yet.
Paul Bley: About Time (2007 , Justin Time): Solo piano. I'm not sure whether Bley or Keith Jarrett holds the record for the most solo piano albums. Probably depends on how you count Jarrett's marathons. Bley's records are more modest. This one starts with a thoughtful meander, the 33:28 title track. Then adds a quite charming 10:25 "Encore." B+(*)
David Liebman/Roberto Tarenzi/Paolo Benedettini/Tony Arco: Negative Space (2005 , Verve): Liebman refers to his group as "this wonderful trio" and they don't let him down. But he's the star, and they're playing his book -- the record rises and falls on that. Despite Liebman's eminence, it seems that he's never moved out from the shadows of his heroes: Miles Davis and John Coltrane. More Coltrane here, especially his rowdy take on the familiar "Afro Blue." B+(**)
Conrad Herwig: The Latin Side of Wayne Shorter (2007 , Half Note): Trombonist; b. 1959 Lawton, OK; graduated from North Texas; based in New York. I'm way behind the learning curve on him, tending to regard him as a latin specialist -- he's best known for having done this same "Latin Side" treatment to John Coltrane and Miles Davis, and has a second Coltrane volume called Que Viva Coltrane -- but most of his 17 albums (starting from 1987) look to be mainstream, mostly on Criss Cross. Seven-piece band, with Brian Lynch trumpet, Ronnie Cuber baritone sax, Luis Perdomo piano, Ruben Rodriguez bass, Robby Ameen drums, Pedro Martinez congas. Eddie Palmieri drops in for the last three cuts -- a shot of adrenalin, not that Perdomo needs any help. This goes a lot deeper than just dressing up Shorter's tunes with congas, but still feels a bit like an exercise. B+(**)
The Paul Carlon Octet: Roots Propaganda (2008, Deep Tone): Carlon plays tenor/soprano sax and flute, mostly in Latin frameworks that dig deep into African (e.g., Yoruba) roots. I first noticed him in tresero Benjamin Lapidus's group Sonido Isleño. He also looms large in Grupo Los Santos, whose Lo Que Somos Lo Que Sea probably ranks as my favorite Latin jazz record of the last year. Second Octet album, after 2006's Other Tongues. Group has five horns, including double trombones, plus piano-bass-drums. Guests include Christelle Durandy (vocals, 3 cuts) and Max Pollak (does what he calls "rumbatap" on 1 cut). Interesting stuff, but oddly hit-and-miss. B+(**)
Emilio Solla y Afines: Conversas (Al Lado del Agua) (2007 , Fresh Sound World Jazz): Solla is a pianist from Argentina, now based in New York. Fourth album; second with Afines. Solla also plays in Pablo Aslan's Avantango. A previous album is called Suite Piazzollana, further evidence of tango heritage. Group here features Gorka Benitez on tenor sax and flutes, Carlos Morera on bandoneon, David Gonzalez on double bass, David Xirgu on drums. The tango influence is hushed here, with the wide mix of pieces leaning towards the lush -- Benitez often sounds gorgeous. Some guests complicate things, including a crooning vocal by Xavier Casellas. B+(*)
Jesse Stacken: That That (2006 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Pianist, b. 1978, based in New York. First album, a piano trio with Eivind Opsvik (bass) and Jeff Davis (drums) -- two names familiar from elsewhere, especially with Kris Davis. I need to hold this one back: didn't seem very interesting the first time through, but figured I didn't hear it clearly enough, and the second play started to click together. Moderately paced, dense, with more than a little dramatic tension. May be on to something. [B+(**)]
Jordi Rossy Trio: Wicca (2007 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Drummer, first attracted attention in Brad Mehldau's trio. First album under his own name, and for a change this time he plays piano, in a trio with Albert Sanz on organ and RJ Miller on drums. The piano-organ combination is unusual and comes off even odder here given that Sanz is the more skilled pianist. He doesn't settle into the bass register to support the piano; more like he sets up the basic texture of the music which Rossy merely decorates. Still, it has a bright, sunny allure. Title cut adds trumpet and tenor sax, a big plus. B+(*)
Guus Janssen: Out of Frame (2008, Geestgronden): Dutch pianist, avant-garde, b. 1951, AMG credits him with 7 albums and 14 more credits since 1986, but his website shows almost twice that many. I like his trio album Zwik a lot. This one is solo, which makes it tougher, especially over the long haul. The piano here is loud and percussive, and some pieces -- notably one called "Toe-Tapping Tune" -- have the hands split so far apart they could be duets. B+(**)
Spoon 3: Seductive Sabotage (2007 , Evil Rabbit): Dutch group, with pianist Albert Van Veenendaal and bassist Meinrad Kneer, who've recorded more as a duo, and vocalist Jodi Gilbert -- also credited with "little instruments, live sampling." I gather that Gilbert originally hails from California, but works out of Amsterdam, shrouded in the anonymity of groups (The Voice Is the Matter, Rasp/Hasp). She wrote most of the lyrics here, and makes sounds beyond them. The short pieces have an operatic art-song feel, demanding more focus than I can really muster. The bass and (more or less prepared) piano take focus as well, the results often fascinating. B+(**)
John McLaughlin: Floating Point (2008, Abstract Logix): New label. Back cover says: "File under: Jazz/Rock." McLaughlin has been returning to his fusion roots lately, playing a lot of guitar synth as well as old-fashioned electric. Core band here adds keybs, bass guitar, drums. Most cuts add a little extra, usually something picked up from his studies in India: Shankar Magadevan's voice, U Rajesh's electric mandolin, Naveen Kumar's bamboo flute, Debashish Bhattacharya's Hindustani slide guitar, Sivamani's konokol, Niladri Kumar's sitar. Most make for minor exotica, but they're just along for the ride. Good news is that McLaughlin hasn't moved this fast in years. What's questionable is why we should care. B+(**)
David Berger Octet: I Had the Craziest Dream: The Music of Harry Warren (2008, Such Sweet Thunder): Arranger/conductor, took his label name from the Duke Ellington album. This is the fourth of his albums I've heard, and by far my favorite, not just because he roped Harry Allen and Joe Temperley into the Octet, although that certainly has something to do with it. Warren's music holds up pretty well sans vocals. B+(**)
Alvin Queen: Jammin' Uptown (1985 , Just a Memory): Hard bop drummer, b. 1950 New York, credits list suggests he's spent a lot of time in Europe, with Kenny Drew a regular. Cut several albums in the 1980s; not much since then, although I liked a 2006 album, I Ain't Looking at You, quite a lot. This old one is bright and bubbling, but I don't much care for it. Terence Blanchard (trumpet) and Manny Boyd (tenor/alto/soprano sax) are often over the top -- I don't often mind flat-out jamming, and Blanchard in particular can play, but I don't get the point either. John Hicks (piano) and Robin Eubanks (trombone) do nice work when the pace breaks and they get shots to solo. Drummer is fine at any speed. B
John Patton: Soul Connection (1983 , Just a Memory): Organ player, 1935-2002, sometimes credited as Big John Patton. Had a good run at Blue Note in the 1960s, with Let 'Em Roll (1965) a standout. Recorded rarely thereafter. This, cut in Switzerland, is his only album between 1969 and 1993. The group includes Grant Reed (tenor sax), Grachan Moncur III (trombone), Melvin Sparks (guitar), and Alvin Queen (drums). Sounds like boogaloo with brains, with Sparks consistently in the groove, and Moncur interesting even when out of it. B+(**)
Fulminate Trio (2007 , Generate): Drummer Michael Evans, bassist Ken Filiano, guitarist Anders Nilsson. Evans and Nilsson write, so I figure them for the pecking order. Filiano is a first-call bassist, with an uncanny knack for showing up on records that are better than you'd expect. Evans lists a lot of stuff I've never heard of on his discography, going back to 1981, nothing under his own name. Nilsson is a guitarist I like a lot. He seems to be struggling to stay within the framework here, rather than busting out. The tension works more often than not, but I wouldn't mind something more. B+(**)
Adrian Iaies Trio + Michael Zisman: Vals de la 81st & Columbus (2008, Sunnyside): Iaies is an Argentine pianist; b. 1960, Buenos Aires; has 7 CDs since 1998, including a couple with a group called Tango Reflections Trio. Haven't heard any before, but it seems to be a safe bet that virtually all of them have a strong tango interest. Trio includes Pablo Aslan, who has a strong tango catalog of his own, on bass, and Pepi Taveira on drums. Zisman plays bandoneón; b. 1981, Buenos Aires, still based there, not the same as the San Francisco-based mandolinist of the same name. Two cuts add Juan Cruz de Urquiza on trumpet. Don't think I can suss this out right now. I'm a sucker for tango, and in that this delivers, plus something more, to be determined. [B+(***)]
Houston Person/Ron Carter: Just Between Friends (2005 , High Note): So easy, but the sort of set you -- or at least I -- can't help falling in love with. My present quibble is that I suspect Person of holding back so as not to overwhelm the bass -- Carter even gets a fair amount of solo room. Songs they scarcely had to look up: "How Deep Is the Ocean," "Blueberry Hill," "Darn That Dream," "Lover Man," "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," "Always," like that. [A-]
Jerry Bergonzi: Tenor Talk (2008, Savant): Tenor saxophonist, from Boston, b. 1950, 25 albums since 1982, mainstream player with a minor in Coltrane, teaches at New England Conservatory, about as dependable as any saxophonist around. Third album on Savant. Judging from the titles -- Tenor of the Times, Tenorist, now Tenor Talk -- all they ask him to do is blow. Still, the series keeps getting better. His "European band" -- Renato Chicco on piano, Dave Santoro on bass, Andrea Michelutti on drums -- crackles, and Gonz lives up to his nickname. Possibly his best ever. A-
Steve Turre: Rainbow People (2007 , High Note): Poll-winning trombonist, also plays conch shells (and sometimes wins polls for that as well), on his 13th album. I've heard most of them, and like most of what I've heard, but I've never managed to characterize his sound -- how many ways can you spell eclectic? -- and I still don't have a clue what the shells sound like. With Sean Jones (trumpet), Kenny Garrett (alto sax, 4 tracks; note Charlie Parker cover), Mulgrew Miller (piano; note McCoy Tyner cover), Peter Washington (bass), Ignacio Berroa (drums), Pedro Martinez (percussion, 1 track, note Latin move). Starts with the strong title track, and pulls off various surprises after that. Liked it more the first play. [B+(***)]
Al Foster Quartet: Love, Peace and Jazz! (2007 , Jazz Eyes): Live set, recorded at the Village Vanguard. At the end Foster introduces everyone, thanks the crowd for supporting jazz, then explains that peace, love, and jazz are all one needs to live. One thing I've noticed in writing this blog is that there's an exceptional bond between jazz and peace. I keep pushing peace issues in the most political posts here, but that hardly seems out of keeping with jazz: Foster's sort of spontaneous outburst is merely par for the course. Foster is one of the younger drummers from the hard bop era. Born 1944, he broke in with Blue Mitchell around 1965, and has worked steady ever since -- AMG's credits list goes to three pages, with Miles Davis, Joe Henderson, Horace Silver, Dexter Gordon, Cedar Walton, Art Pepper, Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Hank Jones (in what was called the Great Jazz Trio), just a few of the names that jump out at me. Not much under his own name, but he wrote 3 of 6 songs here -- the covers comes from Mitchell, Davis, and Wayne Shorter. He's playing with young guys here, well tuned to his wavelength: Eli Degibri on various saxophones, Kevin Hays on piano, Douglass Weiss on bass. Degibri had a Fresh Sound New Talent record in 2006 that wasn't ready for prime time, but he's looser and more confident here. Happens a lot with Foster. B+(**)
Glenn White: Sacred Machines (2007 , OA2): Dynamod Web Portals website -- first one I've seen that doesn't let us Flash-o-phobes view an HTML version. I realize that musicians like Flash because it makes it relatively easy to inundate browsers with music, but as far as I'm concerned it's still evil, a source of numerous bugs and glitches, and flat out annoying. But more than anything else, it represents a specific wrongheadedness towards the web. The generic coding in HTML put all the focus on content -- in an ideal world HTML writers will produce worthwhile content because that's all HTML is good for. Flash, on the other hand, is all about experience, which is to say, about the designer trying to control us browsers. So White's website is useless. From other sources, we know a little bit about him: b. 1973, originally from Phoenix; played around Denver, Boston, Kentucky, Alaska; now lives in New York. Put out a self-produced album in 1999; producer on this one is Dave Binney. Plays tenor sax, with a strong, foursquare tone, some authority on the solos. Writes, 6 of 7 on this sextet with Jamie Baum's flutes, Roberta Piket's keyboards, Patrick Hay's guitar, Gary Wang bass, Jeff Hirshfield drums. Postbop; fancy where I'd rather hear him blow. Has a future. Hope he fixes that website. B
Geof Bradfield: Urban Nomad (2007 , Origin): Cf. Glenn White for his problematic taste in websites. Saxophonist. Lists tenor first, but record starts with soprano. Second album. From Houston, now based in Chicago. Name and sound somewhat familiar from Ted Sirota's Rebel Souls -- I still like an album they did in 2003 called Breeding Resistance, one of my first Jazz CG picks. Quartet here, with Ron Perrillo on piano, Clark Sommers on bass, George Fludas on drums. Wrote 6 of 9 songs, with covers from Harry Warren, Thad Jones, and Dizzy Gillespie ("Con Alma"). I like him quite a bit when he opens up on tenor. B+(*)
Bill Frisell: History, Mystery (2002-07 , Nonesuch, 2CD): A major jazz guitarist with a checkered history, comparable to Dave Douglas not least in how his muse can stray in directions I'm ill prepared to follow, or that he occasionally pulls off a miracle anyway. The bulk of this sprawling set is built around a string section -- Jenny Scheinman violin, Eyvind Kang viola, Hank Robets cello, Tony Scherr bass -- suggesting chamber jazz, something polite and formal, with touches of the postbop classical modernism he sometimes flirts with, much as he fiddles with recreating American folklore. It's a relief when Greg Tardy (tenor sax, clarinet) cuts loose, but it's hardly ever tedious with just the strings. There's much too much going on here to digest in a single sitting -- for some reason Nonesuch never sends me Frisell's records, although they're generous with the rest of their catalog -- so take this grade with a grain of salt. A- [Rhapsody]
Walter "Wolfman" Washington: Doin' the Funky Thing (2008, Zoho Roots): Blues singer, b. 1943 in New Orleans, broke in as a guitarist for Johnny Adams. Ninth record since he graduated to leader status with Wolf Tracks in 1986, breaking a drought since 2000. The title funk grack is the best thing here, split in two pieces to bookend the record. Makes me think he's out to revive his career by tearing a page from Johnny "Guitar" Watson. Might as well: he doesn't have the voice or timing to follow Howlin' Wolf. B
Jamie Davis: Vibe Over Perfection (2005 , Unity Music): Singer, hooked onto the Basie ghost band, and does a terrific Joe Williams impersonation. Second album that I've heard: I slightly prefer the previous It's a Good Thing, probably because the songs are first choice, but this is very close. He's one of the few jazz singers still working in the KC blues shouter mold, and possibly the best. Shelly Berg helms the massive orchestra this time. Mrs. Joe Williams contributes a blurb. B+(**)
Wayman Tisdale: Rebound (2008, Rendezvous): Former NBA forward, mostly a second-tier star, averaged 15.3 points, 6.1 rebounds per game over 12 years (1985-97). Started his second career as a pop jazz bassist in 1995, past prime but before he retired from basketball, with an album called Power Forward. This is his 8th -- 1st I've heard. Bass groove is funky enough, but that only goes so far, so Tisdale piles on the guests -- the usuals like Dave Koz and singers like Marvin Sapp. The exception is a Barry White piece, with the deep croak vocal credited to Toby Keith. I wouldn't call it a choice cut, but it's a good one to tease your friends with. B
Nick Colionne: No Limits (2008, Koch): Smooth jazz guitarist, sixth album since 1994. Sings a little. Not that good at it, but the occasional vocal seems to give some purpose to the ubiquitous and most undifferentiated guitar-bass-keyboard groove. B-
Raoul Björkenheim/William Parker/Hamid Drake: DMG @ the Stone: Volume 2 (2006 , DMG/ARC): DMG is Downtown Music Gallery, a small record shop on the Bowery that looms large for anyone in the US (and possibly elsewhere) interested in free jazz. Their weekly newsletter is more than a little verbose, but essential for anyone trying to track what's new and interesting (especially since the demise of Jazzmatazz, a fallen project that someone really should pick up and get going again). DMG's owners have some sort of relationship with John Zorn and the Stone. At one point in 2006 they "currated" a series of concerts, and for their trouble have been allowed to release at least two of them. Vol. 1 we'll get to in due course, but the personnel here beat it to my CD player. Björkenheim is a Finnish-American guitarist, b. 1956 in Los Angeles, based in New York, but has done most of his recording in Helsinki -- with UMO Jazz Orchestra, and in his own groups, Krakatau and Scorch. I've heard very little by him, but I've really liked what I've heard -- an album with Lukas Ligeti called Shadowglow made an early Jazz CG. Parker and Drake need no introduction. They're all over the record, dynamic engines of enormous variety and vitality, the only surprise being a stretch where Parker switches to shawm (an ancient double reed precursor of the oboe) and instead of just farting around plays with Rahsaan-like intensity. Otherwise, the guitarist tries to keep out front, with intense hornlike leads. Not his most interesting mode, but strong enough to stay in the game. A-
The Stone Quartet: DMG @ the Stone: Volume 1 (2006 , DMG/ARC): Group name comes from the venue, although none of the principals are especially associated with it, nor for that matter with each other. Rather, this looks like a supercollider experiment dreamed up by DMG honcho Bruce Lee Galanter: let's smash some quarks together and see if any muons emerge. Top quark is Roy Campbell Jr. (trumpet, flute); bottom Joelle Leandre (bass); charm Marilyn Crispell (piano); strange Mat Maneri (viola). Even in such close proximity, they tend to keep to themselves. B+(**)
No final grades/notes this week on records put back for further listening the first time around.
For this cycle's collected Jazz Prospecting notes, look here.
Sunday, July 27. 2008
Aunohita Mojumdar: Taliban winning the war of words. Even before 9/11/2001 the Taliban's reputation in the world wasn't much better than cannibals. So the notion that now they've become more credible than the Karzai government and its NATO backers and Blackwater helpers is mind-bending. Flunking Redevelopment 101 should have been expected; blowing Counterinsurgency 201 may have been in the cards as well. But the one thing the US brought to the party that was truly world class was the PR machine. If the US can't win there, things are really in sad shape. Just how the US adventure in Afghanistan managed to go so badly is something that will be much studied in the future.
There is a lot more stuff on Afghanistan, most of it damning, little hopeful in any sense. This just struck me as a tipping point, given that the one thing the Taliban has never been known for is their mastery of the arcane arts of PR. But then this may not be Mullah Omar's Taliban any more. They engage in tactics that the old Taliban never touched, and they've clearly learned a few tricks from the resistance in Iraq. For a long time lots of people liked to blame Pakistan for the resurgent Taliban -- a posture Bush couldn't really indulge in because even he realized that there were limits to how much the US could piss on Musharaf.
I've been thumbing through Michael Kinsley's Please Don't Remain Calm, and I came across a piece of his dated Feb. 28, 2002 (about a year before the Iraq war started) where he plainly stated, "We avoided a quagmire in Afghanistan." Clearly, he was wrong about that. Interestingly, he was still wrong even though the US didn't make a lot of the mistakes Bush made in Iraq -- e.g., he went in with substantial local support, he lined up quite a bit of international support, he didn't try to mold Afghanistan into a wet dream state of the GOP think tanks, he didn't have to fend off suspicions that he was only in it for the oil (indeed, he wasn't in it for much of anything) -- and still they screwed it up coming and going. I remember thinking when this started that Afghanistan was going to be the death of a third world empire. That prediction still seems to be pretty much on track.
Wednesday, July 23. 2008
I've been collecting these book notes as I go along, and they've been piling up faster than expected. Last time I published them, I speculated that I'd have more come September. I think what I'll do from here on out is to post them whenever I get up to 40. In that case, I should have done this a week or two ago. Again, the previous ones from various posts have been collected here.
Paul Alexander: Machiavelli's Shadow: The Rise and Fall of Karl Rove (2008, Rodale Books): One advantage this book has over all other Rove books -- for some reason I haven't been collecting them in these notes -- is that it gives us a taste of fall. Still has a good ways to go -- preferably to jail.
Rick Bass: Why I Came West: A Memoir (2008, Houghton Mifflin): I read one of his first books, a novel called Oil Notes that read more like a memoir. He has a long list of short books since then. Always meant to read more.
Walter Benjamin: The Arcades Project (paperback, 2002, Belknap Press): A Marxist literary critic of great depth and sweep, this somehow assembles his unfinished, perhaps unfinishable, great project. Back when I was devoted to critical theory I was aware of this, but not as something that actually exists -- an analogy might be the Beach Boys' Smile. Haven't read Benjamin or any other Frankfurt School eminence in 30 years, but regard him as an old, dear friend.
Graydon Carter: What We've Lost: How the Bush Administration Has Curtailed Our Freedoms, Mortgaged Our Economy, Ravaged Our Environment, and Damaged Our Standing in the World (2004, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Vanity Fair editor. Seems like a fair and balanced summary.
Rodney Clapp: Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction: Christianity and the Battle for the Soul of a Nation (paperback, 2008, Westminster): Short book from a writer who specializes in religion -- an interesting past title is: A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society.
Tyler Cowen: Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist (paperback, 2008, Plume): I looked Cowen up after seeing Paul Krugman dis him. Easy to see why. His previous books include In Praise of Commercial Culture and Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World's Cultures. Even the subtitle of this reductio ad absurdum economicum gives me the shivers: I don't want my dentist motivated; I want him to act like a conscientious professional, not a cash register.
Andres Duany/Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk/Jeff Speck: Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (2000; paperback, 2001, North Point Press): The authors are urban designers, evidently Jane Jacobs fans, upset at what they see in most American suburbs. Just running across a bunch of books on suburbia: James Howard Kunstler: The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape, and Home From Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century; Dolores Hayden: Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000, and A Field Guide to Sprawl; Robert Bruegmann: Sprawl: A Compact History; Joel S Hirschhorn: Sprawl Kills: How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health and Money; Robert Burchell et al.: Sprawl Costs: Economic Impacts of Unchecked Development; Anthony Flint: This Land: The Battle Over Sprawl and the Future of America; Robert Fishman: Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia; Kenneth T Jackson: Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States; Becky Nicolaides/Andrew Wiese, eds: The Sururb Reader; Joel Garreau: Edge City: Life on the New Frontier; Jane Holtz Kay: Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back; Alex Marshall: How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl, and the Roads Not Taken. And that doesn't begin to scratch the literature of suburban anomie.
Barbara Ehrenreich: This Land Is Their Land: Reports From a Divided Nation (2008, Metropolitan Books): Looks like a short collection of columns from the last few years. Brilliant, I'm sure; I can't think of a deeper or more fearless thinker on the left. Only big mistake she ever made was wasting The Worst Years of Our Lives on the 1980s, not realizing that even worse could still be in the cards.
Tom Engelhardt, ed: The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (paperback, 2008, Verso): 320 pages scraped from one of the best-written, best-edited web sources, consistently ahead of the learning curve on the numerous interlocking threads of the great war of our times (GWOT?).
Marc Gerstein/Michael Ellsberg: Flirting With Disaster: Why Accidents Are Rarely Accidental (2008, Union Square Press): Examples include Chernobyl and Katrina, Vioxx, the Iraq War, Arthur Andersen/Enron, the 1994 Mexican peso crisis, a half dozen more. Gerstein's a management consultant. Ellsberg's an editor who helped his father publish the Pentagon Papers -- the father adds an introduction nominating Vietnam for the list. I'm on record as saying that how we handle disasters will be the most important political issue of the next few decades -- anticipating and preventing disasters looks like too tall an order, but understanding them when they happen is essential. This looks like a good place to start.
Peter Gosselin: High Wire: The Precarious Financial Lives of American Families (2008, Basic Books): Los Angeles Times reporter tells stories about how the "great risk shift" (Jacob Hacker's term, the title of a good book) has affected dozens of ordinary families. Everyone rates the reporting here as superb, but evidently it doesn't go much into causes -- more interesting to me, since I have no trouble envisioning the problem.
Michael Heller: The Gridlock Economy: How Too Much Ownership Wrecks Markets, Stops Innovation, and Costs Lives (2008, Basic Books): Well, one way there's too much ownership is in the way we parcel out legal monopolies known as patents. That's one of Heller's examples, but it looks like he'd like to see more use of eminent domain -- e.g., he complains about the inability to build 25 new runways that would eliminate most air travel delays. You always have conflicts between private ownership and public utilities, and lately we've leaned so far toward the private side that the public has suffered.
Maggie Jackson: Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (2008, Prometheus): There's a growing perception that people are getting dumber, and there are a lot of theories as to why -- some of which can be taken as proof that people are getting dumber. I imagine that a case can be made for distraction (as PW puts it: "our near-religious allegiance to a constant state of motion and addiction to multitasking"). Jackson previously wrote: What's Happening to Home? Balancing Work, Life, and Refuge in the Information Age.
Antonia Juhasz: The Bu$h Agenda: Invading the World, One Economy at a Time (paperback, 2007, Harper Perennial): Hadn't mentioned this before because it looked like a fairly standard anti-globalization rant -- maybe I was just reacting to the dollar sign, because it shouldn't be hard to make the case, and there are examples that could use some press: Iraq you probably know about, but what about Haiti? She has a new book coming out, another easy mark, even timelier: The Tyranny of Oil: The World's Most Powerful Industry -- and What We Must Do to Stop It.
Baruch Kimmerling: The Invention and Decline of Israeliness: State, Society, and the Military (2001; paperback, 2005, University of California Press): Argues that Israeli identity has broken down into seven major cultures, which fits in with Richard Ben Cramer's argument that post-2000 Israeli hawkishness has been fueled by the disunity of the Israeli polity -- the repression of the Palestinians is the only thing all those Israeli factions can agree on. Like Tom Segev's Elvis in Jerusalem, written at a point when the events of the last 8 years didn't seem inevitable.
Baruch Kimmerling: Clash of Identities: Explorations in Israeli and Palestinian Societies (2008, Columbia University Press): Looks like a collection assembled over 20 years, updating arguments from Kimmerling's earlier The Invention and Decline of Israeliness: State, Society, and the Military.
Mark LeVine: Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (paperback, 2008, Three Rivers Press): Historian, rock guitarist, political activist, sometimes gets his careers confused, although few Middle East scholars are more insightful, or interesting.
Michael Lind: The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution (1995; paperback, 1996, Free Press): I only know Lind from his 2004 book, Made in Texas: George W Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics -- as sharp as any book published on Bush around that time. I gather he started as a rabid anti-communist conservative, then started to distance himself from conservatism in the 1990s. This book seems to be transitional, his embrace of liberal nationalism itself a conservative impulse.
Michael Lind: Up From Conservatism: Why the Right Is Wrong for America (1996; paperback, 1997, Free Press): Offhand, this one looks prescient. The target is big enough, but at the time it hadn't really sunk in how extreme the Gingrich upheaval was, let alone where it might go once someone like Bush got into the White House. Ariana Huffington's Right Is Wrong had it easy.
Michael Lind: Vietnam: The Necessary War: A Reinterpretation of America's Most Disastrous Military Conflict (1999; paperback, 2002, Free Press): Lind argues that it was necessary for the US to intervene in Vietnam -- something about global communist conspiracy -- but that the tactics chosen were all wrong, leading to the disaster. I believe that the Cold War itself was wrong, and Vietnam was just a particularly egregious case of why. Lind may have moved up from his conservatism; he still needs to grow out of liberal interventionism.
Michael Lind: The American Way of Strategy: US Foreign Policy and the American Way of Life (2006, Oxford University Press): Bad as Lind was on the Cold War, he was one of the first to identify the perils the neoconservatives posed in its aftermath. Argues that US policy abroad shouldn't undermine the American way of life at home. Seems obvious, but I can show you 60 years of presidents who didn't get it. (Doubt that Lind agrees on the whole list, but GW Bush is certainly one he has in mind.)
Tom Mast: Over a Barrel: A Simple Guide to the Oil Shortage (2005, Hayden): Short (128 page) primer, probably too basic at this point, unless you're not up on the subject.
Jane Mayer: The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals (2008, Doubleday): Another book on the chic torture clique in and near the White House. I recoil a bit at the contrast to "American ideals" given the shoddy record self-appointed Real Americans have established. This has gotten some press -- Mayer writes for New Yorker, and this promises to be one of the more definitive books on the subject. She previously wrote Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas.
Nan Mooney: (Not) Keeping Up With Our Parents: The Decline of the Professional Middle Class (2008, Beacon Press): Probably the most normal thing in the world, at least if you're American, is to think that each generation makes progress moving up the proverbial Dream ladder. Still, I know a lot of people who are old enough to take retirement seriously but are still dependent on their parents for support -- especially true with middle class professionals, who did well for themselves before many conspired to kick the ladders out that might have allowed other people to advance.
Paul Muolo/Mathew Padilla: Chain of Blame: How Wall Street Caused the Mortgage and Credit Crisis (2008, Wiley): Two journalists track down the chain of responsibility for the subprime mortgage meltdown. Looks like the leader in the race to cash in, already joined by: Edward M Gramlich: Subprime Mortgages: America's Latest Boom and Bust; Robert J Shiller: The Subprime Solution: How Today's Global Financial Crisis Happened, and What to Do About It; Mark Zandi: Financial Shock: A 360° Look at the Subprime Mortgage Implosion, and How to Avoid the Next Financial Crisis; Richard Bitner: Confessions of a Subprime Lender: An Insider's Tale of Greed, Fraud, and Ignorance. I don't think Dean Baker has a book out yet, but he's been on top of the crisis from before anyone else knew it was happening.
Kenneth Pollack: A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East (2008, Random House): As an Iraq War hawk, Pollack did much to get us into the mess he now feels so eminently qualified to get us out of. Favors a humbler, more humane, more realistic, and more cohesive set of policies. Evidently he gets paid for such profound insights.
Jules Pretty: The Earth Only Endures: On Reconnecting With Nature and Our Place in It (2007, Earthscan): Author is an expert in sustainable agriculture, which he has written several books on. Collection of essays, ranges wider.
Dani Rodrik: One Economics, Many Recipes: Globalization, Institutions, and Economic Growth (2007, Princeton University Press): Argues that there is no one single formula for development success, but all recipes that have worked are rooted in economics fundamentals, which themselves imply no single development path. Puts him in a good position to pick on everyone else's pet theory. Previously wrote: Has Globalization Gone Too Far?; The New Global Economy and Developing Countries: Making Openness Work; In Search of Prosperity: Analytic Narratives on Economic Growth.
Fernando Romero/LAR: Hyperborder: The Contemporary US-Mexico Border and Its Future (paperback, 2007, Princeton Architectural Press): Robert D Kaplan described the US-Mexico border as the starkest dividing line on the planet. This provides pictures, diagrams, details covering all aspects of cross-border interaction. Author is an architect, based in Mexico City.
Jacqueline Rose: The Question of Zion (paperback, 2007, Princeton University Press): Another in the growing list of histories and critiques of the Zionist idea. Rose has several other recent books, including The Last Resistance (on Israel) and Sexuality in the Field of Vision, both published by Verso.
Robert Scheer: Playing President: My Close Ecounters with Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Reagan, and Clinton -- and How They Did Not Prepare Me for George W Bush (paperback, 2006, Akashic Books): Scheer starts his new The Pornography of Power off with a story about Nixon that concedes that even the Madman Theorist had a clue about toning down a confrontation. The thesis here seems to be that the second Bush is flat out off the scales, and that thesis seems well-founded.
Raja Shehadeh: Palestinian Walks: Forays Into a Vanishing Landscape (paperback, 2008, Scribner): Ostensibly a travel book, a series of hikes through the occupied landscape of the Jordan's west bank. Shehadeh's memoir, Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine, is one of the few books on the subject that can really turn heads. Also wrote When the Birds Stopped Singing: Life in Ramallah Under Siege.
Rob Simpson: What We Could Have Done With the Money: 50 Ways to Spend the Trillion Dollars We've Spent on Iraq (paperback, 2008, Hyperion): Short book throws some alternatives out, ranging from the silly ("pave every highway in America with gold leaf") to serious. The underlying principle is what economists call opportunity costs: when we spend money on one thing, we forego other possible uses for that money, some of which would have turned out to be much better.
Lewis Sorley: A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam (1999; paperback, 2007, Harvest Books): Tries to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in Vietnam, touting the modest successes of Gen. Creighton Abrams and how they were undermined by the loss of political will in Washington. This is the fount of the argument that the antiwar movement (not the warmakers themselves) lost us the war -- although it should be noted that that argument was already an article of faith on the right, no matter what happened in Vietnam.
Cass R Sunstein: Radicals in Robes: Why Extreme Right-Wing Courts Are Wrong for America (2005, Basic Books): Prolific writer, both on law and economics; strikes me as a centrist, but smart enough to tear through nonsense on the right, which makes this potentially useful. More recently wrote Worst-Case Scenarios, Republic.com 2.0, and co-wrote Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.
Cass R Sunstein: The Second Bill of Rights: FDR's Unfinished Revolution -- And Why We Need It More Than Ever (2004; paperback, 2006, Basic Books): I've been thinking lately about how quickly the US dropped two of Roosevelt's "four freedoms" and what the implications of that shuffle have been. Parts of Roosevelt's thinking did slip into the early construction of the postwar institutions, particularly the UN. A move to back them up instead of curtailing them to fight communism and restore imperialism would have profoundly changed postwar history.
John R Talbott: Obamanomics: How Bottom-Up Economic Prosperity Will Replace Trickle-Down Economics (paperback, 2008, Seven Stories Press): Former investment banker, writing for a lefty publisher, not sure how that all adds up, but Obama's take on business issues and choice of economics advisers is somewhat idiosyncratic. Talbott has a couple of previous books, like The Coming Crisis in the Housing Market: 10 Things You Can Do Now to Protect Your Most Valuable Investment, and Sell Now! The End of the Housing Bubble. Those books came out in 2003 and 2006 respectively, so you have to give him some credit there.
Jeffrey Toobin: The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court (2007, Doubleday): New Yorker writer, probably a good narrative portrait of the court and all its warts, including Roberts and Alito.
Philip C Winslow: Victory for Us Is to See You Suffer: In the West Bank with the Palestinians and the Israelis (2007, Beacon Press): Most reviews see this as an intensely personal account. Seems to me that he's found an essential, deeply troubling, truth.
David S Wyman: The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945 (paperback, 2007, New Press): Looks at what the Roosevelt administration actually knew about Hitler's "final solution" and what little the US did about it. Several other books on this general topic: Robert Beir: Roosevelt and the Holocaust; Arthur D Morse: While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy; Robert N Rosen: Saving the Jews: Franklin D Roosevelt and the Holocaust; Henry L Feingold: Bearing Witness: How America and Its Jews Responded to the Holocaust; also, William D Rubinstein: The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews From the Nazis.
Tuesday, July 22. 2008
Matthew Yglesias: Maliki's Walk Forward. Many Iraqi politicians, including Prime Minister Maliki, have been saying in vague terms how they want US military forces to quit Iraq. Polls indicate that most Iraqis are even more adamant on the point. Maliki crossed a line last week when he more/less endorsed Obama's 16-month pullout proposal, much to the chagrin of McCain (with his 100 year plan) and the Bush administration. Yglesias walks through this whole incident, including the denial that wasn't. Quote:
This does a nice job of highlighting one of the most important unreported stories of the Iraq War: how the Bush administration has managed to prolong the war by dissuading Iraqi politicians from calling for a pullout. This has been done in lots of ways, like the scheme to arm Sunni tribal leaders, whom the Americans are able to keep in check. All this changes with Obama, who has no reason or desire to continue the subterfuge.
Meanwhile, back in the deep red plains states, this is Wichita Eagle editorial cartoonist Richard Crowson's take on the Maliki timetable affair:
I've continued to watch FiveThirtyEight almost obsessively, an activity not far removed from watching paint dry. Over the last couple of weeks, I've seen Obama's 3-point popular vote lead decline to 1.5 points, a slip that cost him slim edges in Indiana and Virginia. Presumably the big world tour will give him a bit of a boost, and indeed the margin inched up today to 1.8 points. In the electoral count, Obama is consistently running four states better than Kerry: Iowa, Ohio, Colorado, and New Mexico. This seems much closer than it should be, but there's a long time to go, and there's a good chance lots of people are enjoying the relative quiet between the primaries and the conventions. A lot of money is riding on the election, which will become painfully obvious soon enough.
My interest in grimey details of electoral politics predates my late-1960s-vintage embrace of the new left. I've colored in county-by-county vote results going back to the Civil War (much as Kevin Phillips did), so I have a lot of framework I can hook these new numbers onto, and enjoy using it. Obama is locked in right now as the officially designated lesser evil, but from a practical standpoint he also provides a measure of where the country is: if he can't win a majority, it's very unlikely that someone much better can. So tracking how he's doing has some relevance to tracking where we're at.
Monday, July 21. 2008
Should have finished a Jazz Consumer Guide by this point in the cycle, but the last two weeks were wiped out by the funeral trip to Detroit. Got back late Thursday, and resumed jazz prospecting on Friday, starting with unpacking my travel cases. Most of the records below I've played several times during the trip -- some of the Nik Bärtsch records I repeated many times, not least because they kept my mood in tone. Still have a lot of unprospected records at this point, including some fairly major prospects, but sometime in the next week I expect to switch mode and try to close out this Jazz CG. Fact is, I already have words enough to fill my page. I also have several good ideas for pick hits. Given the current format, I'm not going to lose any sleep if I don't have enough duds. Could be time to give last year's Maria Schneider one more spin and see if it still fails to impress.
Nik Bärtsch's Mobile: Ritual Groove Music (2000-01 , Ronin Rhythm): After A-listing Bärtsch's two ECM albums, I asked for some history and got a big package of self-released CDs. I then put them off, needing to concentrate on new releases clamoring for my attention. But I wound up playing more Bärtsch than anything else the last two weeks, so figured I should start with them as I try to get Jazz Prospecting going again. Mobile is the precursor to Ronin, but basically the same group, with the leader's piano augmenting the drums and percussion, and Don Li's bass clarinet/alto sax available for backdrop. All pieces are titled "Modul" and numbered, with two offered in a second take. Most are based on small, repeated rhythmic figures -- most attractive when there is some velocity and/or volume, although sometimes he used quiet to set up a ringing bell or the blast of marimba that startlingly launches one piece. B+(***)
Nik Bärtsch's Ronin: Randori (2001 , Ronin Rhythm): Despite the name change from Mobile to Ronin, still a quartet, trading the bass clarinet/sax and marimba in for bass and shakers. That narrows it down a bit, and the pieces -- especially the three part "Modul 8,9" -- stretch out in repetitiveness. Nothing much wrong with that, least of all when something comes along to rock the boat. B+(**)
Nik Bärtsch: Piano Solo (2002 , Ronin Rhythm): Subtitled Ritual Groove Music 3. I usually regard solo piano as underdressed, and didn't expect much from a pianist whose calling card is rhythm, but the album is a revelation. First thing is that the "no overdubs, no loops, all sounds are purely acoustic" motto on the first two Ritual Groove Music albums is gone here. Bärtsch dubs percussion onto his piano, and a lot of it sounds bass-like, wherever that may be coming from. Most pieces are repeated from the first two albums. They hang together and maybe even grow a bit with the simpler arrangements. The new one is called "Modul TM" -- based on Lennie Tristano's "Turkish Mambo." A-
Nik Bärtsch's Ronin: Live (2002 , Ronin Rhythm): Volume 4 of Ritual Groove Music, with the same Ronin quartet lineup as Vol. 2 (Randori): Bärtsch on piano, Fender Rhodes, and DX-7; Björn Meyer on bass; Kaspar Rast on drums; Andi Pupato on percussion. No overdubs, no loops, of course. Six "Modul" pieces, the shortest clocking in at 9:17, the longest at 15:50. The live context liberates them to expand on the minimal frameworks, and the experience pays off. The quartet meshes but not mechanically so much as chemically. A-
Nik Bärtsch's Ronin: Rea (2003 , Ronin Rhythm): Back to the laboratory, with the bass/drums/percussion group. The five "Modul" pieces are new, with numbers in the 18-26 range. Again: simple, seductive rhythmic features, fleshed out with bass groove, with a hint that the piano is more improvisatory. Nothing flashy or startling, but this 5th volume of Ritual Groove Music settles comfortably into a new plateau. At this plateau, it's hard to make value judgments on Bärtsch's albums: it's all moderately wonderful, and moderation seems to be as much a defining trait as anything else. This gets a slight edge because it is so near perfect -- among other things it starts out modestly and sneaks up on you until the final piece pulls it all together. I'd hestitate to conclude that this slight perfection makes it a better record than the later ECMs (Stoa and Holon) that I rated lower -- and may ultimately have to bump up now that I'm getting over seeing Bärtsch's limits as limits. A
Nik Bärtsch's Mobile: Aer (2003 , Ronin Rhythm): This makes Ritual Groove Music 6, a return to the group lineup from the first album, with Mats Eser on marimba/percussion and Sha (aka Stefan Haslebacher) replacing Don Li on bass clarinet/alto sax. The lineup adds some zip and color, but otherwise the same sort of beatwise pieces, ending a shade down where Rea ended a step up. A-
Sha's Banryu: Chessboxing Volume One (2007 , Ronin Rhythm): Namewise, Sha sounds like Switzerland's answer to Skerik. Both play reeds in fusion-like settings, but that's about as far as the comparison goes. Skerik plays tenor sax and likes to honk; Sha plays alto and a lot of bass clarinet, and tends to fill in background vamps -- more so on Nik Bärtsch's records, of course, but even here. Born 1983; given name Stefan Haslebacher; has played with Bärtsch since 2004, first in Mobile then in Ronin. Banryu is, like Ronin, another Japanese reference, described as: "the dragon ready for jumping, lets everything come up and roll by, while not loosing its tension and posture at any moment and ready to strike anytime." Sha's songs all have three-digit zero-filled titles, like "012" and "031." The title suggests he intends to work inside the box, but that the box isn't going to be overly simple or ultimately all that constraining. Pianist Mik Keusen enforces strong similiarity to Bärtsch's records -- if anything, the piano is more prominent here. Bassist Thomas Tavano and drummer Julian Sartorius are role players, but the fifth group member, vocalist Isa Wiss, is a change. She comes out singing on the opening "012," but later on tends to merge her scat into the groove. The latter rarely works, but is mostly seamless here. B+(***)
Frank Catalano: Bang! (2008, Savoy Jazz): Tenor saxophonist, from Chicago, born circa 1980; cut a couple of previous albums for Delmark, at least one as a teenager. Has a patent on a sampling keyboard gadget that attaches to a saxophone. Has a loud, boisterous sound, reminiscent of the 1950s honkers. Upbeat songs wear funk on their sleeves, with titles like "Bang!," "Soul Burner," "Shakin'," "Damn Right," "Funky Dunky," "Night Moves." B+(**)
Michael Jefry Stevens Quartet: For the Children (1995 , Cadence Jazz): Pianist. Born 1951 in New York; moved to Florida at age 8, back to New York at 20, to Memphis some time after 1995. Discography gets going around 1990 with groups led by Mark Whitecage and Dave Douglas (The Mosaic Sextet). Not sure how many -- his steadiest gig has been the Fonda/Stevens Group, which gets filed under bassist Joe Fonda. This is part of "The Cadence Historical Series": previously unreleased tapes of some historical significance. The quartet is fronted by saxophonist David Schnitter, with Dominic Duval (bass) and Jay Rosen (drums). The pieces are a mix of avant and familiar, including blues and a waltz. Stevens slips in and out without leaving a firm impression. Sound is less than perfect. B+(**)
Wally Rose: Whippin' the Keys (1968-71 , Delmark): Pianist, born 1913 in Oakland, CA, died 1997; played in Lu Watters Yerba Buena Jazz Band during the 1940s, later with alumni bands led by Bob Scobey and Turk Murphy. During the 1950s Rose developed (reverted?) into a ragtime specialist, with a 1958 Good Time Jazz record of Rag Time Classics the centerpiece in his discography. This reissues two later albums, Rose on Piano from 1968 and Whippin' the Keys from 1971. More than half of the songs have "rag" in the title. The others are nearly as old-timey -- "St. Louis Tickle," "The Kangaroo Hop," "Elite Syncopations," "Pickles & Peppers." B+(*)
Willie "The Lion" Smith & Don Ewell: Stride Piano Duets: Live in Toronto, 1966 (1966 , Delmark): Ewell was a stride pianist, 1916-1983, born Baltimore, lived much of his adult life in Florida. Recorded several well-regarded records, especially for Good Time Jazz in the late 1950s, but more often accompanied other leaders: Bunk Johnson in the 1940s, Jack Teagarden 1956-62. He's a valuable, underrated player -- a precursor to Ralph Sutton and Dick Hyman. Smith, of course, was one of the originators of the stride piano style. He was born in 1893 or 1897 (accounts differ), and died in 1973. Full name is worth repeating: William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith -- Bertholoff was his father's name, Smith his stepfather's. I've always assumed that "The Lion" became part of his canonical name to distinguish him from the brilliant (but these days mostly forgotten) alto saxophonist Willie Smith. I can't figure out who plays what, and don't much care -- any weakness you might be tempted to attribute to the elder is readily compensated for by his understudy. Smith tries singing twice; he can't, but he's such a charming rogue you won't mind. B+(**)
Cy Touff & Sandy Mosse: Tickle Toe (1981 , Delmark): Tough (1927-2003) played bass trumpet. He grew up in the Chicago neighborhood that produced Lee Konitz and Lou Levy, which may have given him a "west coast" jazz connection even though he lived his whole life in Chicago. Mosse (1929-1983) played tenor sax, taking Lester Young as his model. He was born in Detroit; moved to Chicago in 1955, and on to Amsterdam in the 1970s. An easy-going swing/bop session, something for the curious to remember them by. B+(**)
Yoon Sun Choi/Jacob Sacks: Imagination: The Music of Joe Raposo (2008, Yeah-Yeah): Singer, originally from Toronto, now based in New York. Second duo album with pianist Sacks. Raposo was a songwriter, did a lot of TV work, a lot of offbeat stuff -- Spike Jones was an influence -- died in 1989 at age 51. The notes cite his "unique blend of depth and playfulness," but the music doesn't bear that out. The piano accompaniment is short and arch, the vocals arch and arty. B-
The Joel Futterman/Alvin Fielder/Ike Levin Trio: Traveling Through Now (2007 , Charles Lester Music): Avant-garde group, likes to bring the noise, and does so a little too often and too loud for my taste. Fielder is a drummer who goes back to the early Chicago AACM. Futterman is a pianist who takes Cecil Taylor seriously. Levin is a saxophonist who can play along in this crowd: mostly tenor here, but his bass clarinet may be more interesting because it dampens the tendency to squawk. I've heard three albums by this trio. That I've rated them with declining grades may have more to do with my patience than the music. At best, an exciting, vibrant group that can knock you out of your expectations. B+(*)
Ben Wolfe: No Strangers Here (2007 , MaxJazz): Bassist, born in Baltimore MD, raised in Portland OR; worked with Harry Connick Jr. from 1989, Wynton Marsalis from 1994, Diana Krall from 1998 -- side credits favor singers about 2-to-1. Composes and arranges, with five albums under his own name since 1997. Says this is the one he always wanted to do, which you can believe because there's so much kitchen sink in here. He has Greg Hutchinson on drums, but still brings in Tain Watts for a cut; he has Marcus Strickland on tenor/soprano sax, but still taps Branford Marsalis twice. Terrell Stafford drops in for a couple of tracks on trumpet. At least he has the good sense to stick with pianist Luis Perdomo. Also has a string quartet which seeps out of the mix when the horns don't scare them off. Chalk it up to postbop excess. But as Mingus showed so often, nothing is really excessive so long as you can key on the bassist. B+(**)
No final grades/notes this week on records put back for further listening the first time around.
For this cycle's collected Jazz Prospecting notes, look here.
Two short pieces on the news page of the Wichita Eagle this morning are noteworthy follow-ups to my recent Afghanistan post. They show once again how the US cannot fight "terrorism" without screwing up worse. First, from Afghanistan:
Then, from Iraq:
Not sure whether to put any special weight in the fact that these stories managed to get reported at all. Most such stories don't get reported, and even when they do they come slathered with spin. Nobody questions the appropriateness of calling airstrikes against "militants" or "suspected al-Qaida in Iraq operatives," but such airstrikes almost invariably add to the collateral damage, undermining US political credibility (if such a thing even exists).
Big story on the page was "Most food aid not reaching Haitians": only 2 percent of 16,000 tons of aid food reaching Haiti's harbors have been distributed to the people who need it. Article doesn't explain why.
Sunday, July 20. 2008
Rory Stewart: How to Save Afghanistan. Stewart wrote a pretty good book, The Places In Between, about walking across Afghanistan from Herat to Kabul in 2002. He later spent a year in the British government in Iraq, wrote a book about that, and returned to Kabul to found a NGO. He provides a succinct list of what the US/NATO/etc. have done right and what's gone wrong, and seems to be personally committed to keep doing his part. But he starts off criticizing both McCain and Obama for their campaign planks to put more troops and money into Afghanistan. He argues for fewer troops and less money, albeit some of each, much more intelligently used. Don't know whether he's right, but he's certainly less wrong than McCain and Obama (let alone Bush, who's escalated bombings to new record levels). Final line is one I do agree with: "We do not have a moral obligation to do what we cannot do." From the beginning, there were two big reasons to reject America's Afghanistan war: one is that we would, by the very nature of who we are and how we think and act, do far more damage than we could ever possibly repair; the other is that in doing so we would make ourselves even worse. We've seen both happen, but we keep falling for the argument that we have to hang in there until we succeed. To some extent Stewart's still making that argument, but at least he's hedging it in the right direction.
Barnett Rubin: Afghan Government Charges on Killing Afghans -- U.S. 47, Terrorists 41. Rubin's another western Afghanistan expert who wants to help but is generally appalled by everything that's happening there. That makes him a particularly good source for information on Afghanistan. This is just one example of his posts at Juan Cole's "Informed Comment: Global Affairs" blog, worth following mostly for Rubin's posts. But it is a good example to follow up on Stewart's assertion that the US is doing more harm than good. And not just by a 47-41 margin: the 41 killed in the terrorist bombing were 41 the US strategy failed to stop.
Meanwhile, Air Force Times reports that the US dropped a record number of bombs on Afghanistan for the first six months of 2008. Also, Obama started his world tour in Afghanistan, where he argued for an additional 7,000 troops, while looking grimacingly at the Pakistani border. One might hope that he'll develop a sense of reality once he actually has to face it, but running for office in the US isn't conducive to that. On the other hand, once he has to face reality one reality he'll have to face is the established biases of the military-security state he'll inherit, and they're still pretty much the same as the ones who pushed/followed Bush into disaster after disaster. Obama may be different, but so was Jimmy Carter in 1976 and John Kennedy in 1960, and they still got swept along with the tide, sometimes catastrophically.
Right now, Obama doesn't seem to be any closer to calling a halt to the War on Terrorism than Carter was to ending the Cold War in 1976 (or to falling the logic of his human rights stance toward a clean break with the Shah of Iran). This despite the fact that the War on Terrorism is a bogus charade, a pretense at doing the impossible, showing the world we're boss when we only have the vaguest clue how our own country is working.
Saturday, July 19. 2008
I saw a segment on the PBS news hour that tried to blame the troubles with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac on moral hazard. This is, of course, nonsense. Moreover, it's a pretty good rule of thumb to recognize that any time anyone argues anything on the need to avoid moral hazard they're up to no good and trying to pull a fast one on you. Most commonly this boils down to the argument that the government shouldn't insure anyone against any risks because doing so lets people be less vigilant against those risks. You can only say that if you believe that all risks are volitional, or if you're rich enough to self-insure and don't give a hoot about anyone who isn't.
Moral hazard is a hypothetical state that serves as a practical limit in the writing of insurance. It occurs when the insured value exceeds actual value by so much that the beneficiary is tempted to cash in by destroying the asset. For instance, if you have a house insured for $800,000, but the house is termite food and water damaged and home to a family of skunks, it might occur to you that you'd be better off if the house mysteriously burned down so you could collect the insurance. In other words, the deal is set up in such a way that it gives you an incentive to drop your moral sense.
That sort of thing makes sense in theory, which is why it often makes an effective argument, but in practice it's pretty easy to avoid such situations. For starters, almost everything that you can buy insurance for errs on the side of leaving you underinsured: the insurance reduces your pain, but it doesn't eliminate it, let alone reward it. Secondly, most of what you can deliberately do to trigger a claim is illegal, including the wide range of deceptions known as fraud. (The example above is at least fraudulent, even if the house burns down due to negligence and not arson.) Insurance companies can also limit their exposure by inspecting and regulating their risks, either directly or through other agencies (e.g., airline insurers can assume that the FAA is inspecting and regulating airliners).
The point here is that moral hazard isn't something that undermines the whole insurance industry. It is an easily managed technical issue. Moral hazard can only appear as a plausible explanation in cases where insurer discipline has broken down. The Savings and Loan crisis in the late 1980s is commonly given as an example, but that was really a case where deregulation and lack of oversight and exposure enabled bankers to assume more risk than was prudent -- especially given that their willingness to trade paper profits for risk was so prone to fraud. Still, it's hard to credit that deposit insurance made bankers any more likely to make risky loans. Bankers are always more concerned with their assets and profits, which is what they gambled with and lost on, than with their deposits.
Even after the PBS report I can't tell you what moral hazard might have had to do with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The story there is that Congress, back when privatization was coming into vogue, took a couple of perfectly functional government agencies and turned them into Government Sponsored Enterprises. In a nutshell, that meant that investors and management could scam them for profits while liabilities would still fall back onto the government. As government agencies all they had to do was to provide the public with services as efficiently as possible. As private companies, their management's mission changed: now it was to extract profits for their investors (who in turn lavishly rewarded management). The result was the predictable hollowing out of business that has been occurring in virtually every sector of the US economy since the 1970s when we started shifting our focus from goods and services to finance. (Kevin Phillips has a lot to say about this.) Basically, they got away with it as long as real estate appreciated, and got caught up short when the real estate bubble burst. (Same event sequence as the S&L's.)
Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac won't be a disaster because the government is there to pick up the pieces and keep mortgage finance running. But the one thing this shows is that the privatization vogue didn't amount to anything useful. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could have functioned at least as well, with a lot less scandal, as government agencies. One interesting thing that's coming out of the current financial meltdown is how much space is opening up between the conservative ideologues of pundit-world and that the conservative bankers who are running the system. You don't hear the latter talking about moral hazard and how the markets will correct themselves if only you allow them to fail when the time comes. Rather, they are straining to hold the system together and save us from even worse collapse, and mostly making prudent and reasonable moves along the way. I'm not prepared to go so far as to argue that the Bush administration has switched over to the side of sanity, but there is at least some of that going on now, and it makes the far-right punditocracy look even dumber than ever. (Cf. John Bolton on Iran for an unrelated case in point.)
Friday, July 18. 2008
Paul Krugman: L-ish Economic Prospects. Argues that the last two recessions -- officially, starting in 1990 and in 2001 -- are different from previous recessions. The older ones were often instigated by the Fed as a way of controlling inflation, so they were able to recover relatively quickly once the Fed returned to normal interest rates. On a graph the earlier recessions would look like a V. The 1990 and 2001 recessions were different, in that they were caused by the collapse of asset bubbles -- the former real estate, the latter stock market. When the bubbles burst, the economy shrunk. But when the shrinkage stopped, there was no rebound: growth remained sluggish for several years, so most people didn't sense any real recovery from the recession. These plot out more like an L -- a sharp fall then a flat recovery. The recession we are either in or rapidly approaching is like that, with real estate and other financial bubbles deflating while oil prices make it all the worse. Krugman points out that this makes it more likely that Obama will win in November, but also likely that he won't be able to pull much in the way of quick fixes. I'm even more pessimistic: I think the magnitude of the problem has been much understated, and I also think that the right things to do will in many cases look wrong in the politically critical short term. On the other hand, Obama didn't get to run on a "change" platform because it's a clever marketing take; he's running on change because it's needed.
David Warsh: Getting On With It. Starts with a line that could benefit from more elaboration than the mere mention of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac: "It is becoming clear that the US is indeed facing its most serious economic crisis since 1932." Then this turns into a book review, principally of Peter Gosselin's High Wire: The Precarious Financial Lives of American Families, even though Warsh's interest is as much in the decline of newspapers -- Gosselin works for the Los Angeles Times. The book sounds like a reporter's version of academic Jacob Hacker's The Great Risk Shift: The New Economic Insecurity and the Decline of the American Dream.
The term "beta" seems rather spurious here: fairly clear what he means, but not why he calls it that. The less insurance people have against catastrophes and mishaps, the more important it becomes for one to save money -- in effect, to self-insure. Hence, the more important it becomes to make more and more money -- the need can be infinite because one never knows all of life's future risks. All this money-making and saving can be politically justified as a personal virtue, but spread across the entire population it becomes impossible -- as should be obvious from what's happened in the US over the last 20-30 years.
We all know that inequality has increased over the last 30-40 years, but we systematically underestimate how much because we tend to just look at tangibles like income or wealth and don't adequately factor in the costs of increased risk. Moreover, this oversight has been essential to the rise of the conservatives, who not only refuse to acknowledge it but go further -- e.g., through their gospel of personal responsibility -- in trying to make think that the inevitable victims of these risks bear some fault in their misfortune.
In a world of infinite growth people might conceivably make enough progress to, if not catch up in terms of equality, at least become sufficiently well-to-do to have little to complain about. However, we're becoming increasingly aware that we live in no such world: essential resources like oil are fixed and becoming increasingly exhausted and expensive; the carrying capacity of the earth is also limited; and in many regards our lifestyles would be richer and saner if we developed a limited set of widely attainable needs instead of dog-eat-dog struggle of capitalism. Given these limits, we're actually better off increasing social insurance: it's more efficient economically and more fair politically.
Thursday, July 17. 2008
Made it back to Wichita late today: 995.8 miles house to house from Oak Park, Michigan. First time I measured the drive it came out very close to 1000, so I figure anything shorter is a testament to efficient driving. Left about 2:30 PM yesterday and got as far as Terre Haute, IN: almost 400 miles. Corn is more mature than two weeks ago, with golden tassels providing contrast to the green stalks. Not sure when it ripens, but I saw none of the gold on the way out. Good weather. Moderate traffic. (Saw a used car lot in Terre Haute that was almost all SUVs and monster pickups. Still a lot of trucks on the road.) A couple of construction delays. Saw a hideous backup the other direction, where a jacknifed semi on I-70 in Indiana stopped about 20 miles of late-night traffic -- at least two-thirds trucks.
This has been a difficult, tiring trip. I did no jazz prospecting while I was away, and no Jazz CG writing. Also nothing on the book, and not much on the blog. I went to one record store. Got there ten minutes before closing, and came away empty-handed. Spent very little time in bookstores. Read a couple of books -- far less than I took with. None of which is surprising under the circumstances, but past trips allowed me more latitude. Should start to get back to normal now, but it may take a while.
Wednesday, July 16. 2008
Clearing out of Detroit today, headed back on the road again. Drove downtown this morning to clear up a legal snafu -- advice: never do business with National City Bank. (It took us the intervention of an expensive lawyer to close out an account there.) A lot of corn between here and Wichita.
Tuesday, July 15. 2008
Tom Engelhardt: Collateral Ceremonial Damage. A report on five or six weddings Bush was involved in, all but one ending badly as US air power rained death on unfortunate parties.
Juan Cole: Obama on Iraq and Afghanistan: A Friendly Critique. On Obama's recent posturing, Cole offers a "quibble" -- that keeping a small force in Iraq to fight Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia wouldn't be effective, let alone prudent -- and a bigger complaint. The latter concerns Obama's proposal to build up US forces in Afghanistan: an extra 10,000 troops over current levels that only seem to be making matters worse. The most obvious problem is that the US (or NATO, if you prefer) is no longer fighting the war they started: instead of chasing Al-Qaeda, which has largely vanished, they're fighting an indigenous group of people (whose links to the vanquished Taliban are uncertain at best) just to show who's the real power, and mostly failing at that. Cole sees this as even more unwinnable than Iraq, and asks:
Many Democrats still entertain the vogueish idea that Afghanistan is the good war and Iraq the bad war -- that if we hadn't gone into Iraq we could have focused and won in Afghanistan, which because of the centrality of 9/11 and Al-Qaeda was the struggle that mattered. Obama's playing into that sentiment. The problem is that regardless of how foolish the Iraq misadventure was, the Afghanistan war was the original US blunder: the US couldn't attack Afghanistan, at least with its cherished military power, without assuming imperialist robes, and imperial subjugation is just something that isn't possible any more, least of all in Afghanistan.
Helena Cobban: Obama's Plan for Iraq: Strengths and Weaknesses. Another analysis of Obama's op-ed -- similar conclusions, more details.
TalkingPointsMemo cites a post-op-ed speech by Obama where he leads: "I Strongly Stand By My Plan to End This War."
Mark Benjamin: McCain, Obama find common ground on Afghanistan. After noting a New York Times headline "Obama and McCain Duel Over Iraq," Benjamin lines up quotes from both showing very little space between the two on Afghanistan. As Iraqis take Iraq off US hands -- the difference between the two candidates there is that Obama should welcome the reprieve -- Afghanistan becomes the more important war. At one inspirational moment Obama promised to change the way we think about war -- note that Helena Cobban has lately dropped the Obama quote she featured on her blog -- but he keeps falling back on the old nostrums himself.
Meanwhile, note that the Green Party nominated Cynthia McKinney to run against Obama, McCain, and fellow Georgian Bob Barr. The left will probably cut Obama a lot of slack this time around, but there are essential issues (and not just Israel) where McKinney would be a much better choice. (Hell, even Barr beats Obama on civil liberty issues, starting with FISA.)
Monday, July 14. 2008
Still in Detroit, working on cleaning things up following the funeral of my father-in-law, Kalman Tillem. Have scarcely managed to listen to any music, much less write about it. Doubt that I will until we get back to Wichita, hopefully by the end of this week.
In the meantime, I thought this would be a good time to dump out my ongoing file of short review notes based on listening to Rhapsody streams. This has lately become the main way I keep track of new non-jazz. They are based on one or two plays, with no consideration of the packaging, and little background research, so take them with more than the usual grain of salt.
Kelley Polar: I Need You to Hold on While the Sky Is Falling (2008, Environ): Original name, Mike Kelley, suggests this should be sorted under K. Worked with Morgan Geist, whose Metro Area has made some very attractive disco revival records. Plays viola, of no particular importance here. Songs, mostly, the best with sweeping themes like "We Live in an Expanding Universe" and "Sea of Sine Waves," some barely emerging from the ambient. B+(*)
Gnarls Barkley: The Odd Couple (2008, Atlantic): Not sure that Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse are really good for each other. There's a fractal brittleness to DM's beats that shines like ice on their own but is likely to get smothered with gravy when CL chimes in. Similarly, CL seems a little undernourished here -- man needs some greens, some fatback too. He does pull off a couple of memorable songs, especially "Who's Gonna Save My Soul." Don't hear anything like "Crazy" here, but I didn't hear it last time either. B+(**)
Mike Doughty: Golden Delicious (2008, ATO): Former front man in Soul Coughing, an alt-rock group with a couple of good records in the 1990s. This is slimmed down to solo act size, although he picks up backup singers and spare musicians when he feels like it. Songs well crafted, varied, etc. None sounds like a hit. B+(*)
James McMurtry: Just Us Kids (2008, Lightning Rod): Songs like "Ruins of the Realm" and "Cheney's Toy" pull no punches, least of all in the hard edged music. The spare but emphatic music also drives home the detailed everyday portraits -- the man was born to literature as well as country, and learned to rock when he finally had too much rage to vent any other way. A-
Robyn (2007 , Konichiwa/Cherry Tree/Interscope): Swedish answer to . . . well, more like Britney than Madonna, but I'm not sure if even that holds up. Beats seem hollow, a little straight-laced. Songs have some sass to them, but that's all she's got, and she may just be confused by the language. B
The B-52s: Funplex (2008, Astralwerks): Way past their prime -- 1983's Whammy! was the last time they really pulled a first rate record together, not that they've been trying very hard. The new label must have nudged them back into their old sound, for they go fishing for "Rock Lobster" three or five or seven times and come up with everything from sea urchins to the narwahl. As one who remembers seeing them at Max's before their first album dropped, that would score nostalgia points if it didn't dredge up so much fun. A-
Robert Forster: The Evangelist (2008, Yep Roc): With Grant McLennan dead, the surviving author of the Go-Betweens. I never made a point of sorting out who did what, partly because I was so much less conscious of Forster -- McLennan's solo albums seemed to capture the whole sound, while I missed Forster's four completely. This is his fifth, spiked by a couple of joint songs that would have been solid on a group album. Meanwhile, he has the detailed sense of wordplay that made the group delight, and enough of the songsmithing to keep it going. A-
Santogold (2008, Downtown): Not sure whether Santogold is an alias for singer Santi White or something more like a group, with Joseph Hill (of ska-punk band Stiffed) the main collaborator. Eponymous debut album, following the angular single "Creator" -- reprised here. Good beat, a bit on the foursquare side. B+(**)
No Age: Nouns (2008, Sub Pop): A Los Angeles lo-fi drum/guitar duo, more new wave than punk -- although the latter is better remembered -- with a little Jesus and Mary Chain fuzz but a lot more intricate structure. Last year's UK-released debut sounded promising in two plays. Two plays of this one sound like an advance, although this is the sort of thing that could take many plays to really flesh out. A-
Tokyo Police Club: Elephant Shell (2008, Saddle Creek): Montreal group, had a well-regarded EP a couple of years ago, which I didn't bother with because EPs don't strike me as substantial enough for the paperwork -- the contrary point is that brevity is a virtue we encounter less and less these days. In any case, their debut has a straightforward alt-rock beat, a singer who's just appealing enough to keep you with him, and songs that are just enigmatic enough to keep one thinking they might pan out. A-
Al Green: Lay It Down (2008, Blue Note): I remember two occasions when I first heard a new record playing while loitering in EJ Korvettes (Herald Square, NYC), recognized that the record wasn't up to the artist's usual standards, knew I'd rarely if ever play it again, but couldn't go home without it. One was Van Morrison's A Period of Transition; the other was an Al Green album, probably Have a Good Time, maybe Full of Fire. Only God broke me of the habit of buying Al Green records, and even that didn't come easy: I have 4-5 of his 1980-94 gospel records, like some, might even like more. The first of Green's Blue Note albums was a return to his secular form, even if it wasn't much better than Full of Fire, and ultimately due to languish on the shelf -- I get around to Green so rarely these days that I go straight to the 1972-73 classics, or 1977's Belle Album, or the faultness Greatest Hits. The new one reminds me of Korvettes because the sensation is the same: he still operates on his own unique level, an amazing singer, backed here with a very studious band, but compared to his oeuvre this isn't especially distinguished. Kind of like this year's Van Morrison album, which I have slotted a bit further down my list of near misses. I don't shop as impulsively as I did in 1977, but I still wouldn't mind having both albums on my shelf. I imagine that's because the sense of wonder is still evident even when it's faint. B+(***)
Emmylou Harris: All I Intended to Be (2005-08 , Nonesuch): Midway through she does one of Billy Joe Shaver's almost too good to be true songs, "Old Five and Dimers Like Me." This reminds me that she's got good taste, but errs cautiously on the obvious side. She does it as a duet -- not sure who with -- but that just reminds me she's the world's finest backup singer. She also tackles Merle Haggard's "Kern River" and Rodney Crowley's "Beyond the Great Divide" to similar effect, except the songs are a bit less obvious and suit her better -- the latter is a choice cut. She sneaks some originals in, collaborating with the McGarrigles on a couple -- that's where she really shows her good taste. B+(***)
John Hiatt: Same Old Man (2008, New West): I never wrote about Hiatt; no doubt I was meant to. (John Piccarella did but fate dealt him Hiatt's worst album to date -- possibly worst ever.) Shortly after I started writing for the Voice, Christgau sent me Hiatt's first two LPs, figuring Midwestern weirdos are meant for each other. A couple of years later I had a uniquely serendipitous experience: I caught Hiatt performing solo at a bar on the north side of Indianapolis -- just happened to be passing through and stopped to see an old college chum who had moved back home and was hip enough to be able to add it all up. The first two albums had great off-the-wall songs like "I Killed an Ant With My Guitar" and "Motorboat to Heaven"; two later albums rocked more consistently (Slug Line and Riding With the King) without losing much of his surrealism. Then I lost track of him, catching few of his evidently successful A&M albums, none until now of his 3-4 on New West. His voice has gotten odder -- he's always had this bass-type voice pinched into a soprano, which was always weird enough, so maybe he's just gotten more comfortable singing in it. Songs jump out less, but they always took a little time to sink in (when they did, that is) -- one line about being a young man just interested in food registered. Title track is memorable. B+(**)
Old 97's: Blame It on Gravity (2008, New West): Blame what? The songs are hard to fault, and they lift off so effortlessly you wonder how they managed to suspend gravity. A-