Sunday, August 31. 2008
Matthew Yglesias: Killing the Brand. This strikes me as the most astute piece I've seen on the McCain-Palin ticket. It also has a theory about why McCain manages to keep so close to Obama, despite the fact that there is no remotely plausible reason why virtually anyone in the US of A should prefer McCain. It's that Obama is running a methodical turtle race, while McCain is playing the hare, jumping on every opportunity to edge a bit ahead, even at the expense of his credibility come November.
Seems less like a crazy pick to me than a cute one. That's not just a comment on her looks, but on the superficial level McCain and most Republicans campaign on. After all, they don't really have to understand issues -- when the time comes their masters will tell them what to think. Meanwhile, they gladhand the press and spout their daily talking points. It's only Democrats that have to have experience, smarts, people skills, and common sense, because once they get elected they're on their own.
Palin's political record seems to indicate she's a person who'll do what she's told, and be personable along the way. She's earned her cred with the far right -- like the bit about giving birth to a mutant to show off her opposition to abortion. Given her state's history, I doubt that hardly anyone in the nation would go as far out on a limb to trash the environment in order to extract mineral resources. If McCain has his way, the only economic issue that will register this fall is the need to slice gas prices by drilling and polluting everywhere. Palin will not only support him in that; she's practically Exhibit A.
On the other hand, even if cute makes a nice first impression, it can wear thin over the long haul -- like between now and November. If Obama can get people to realize that the election is about something serious -- not a proposition I have a lot of faith in, but if things get worse voters may start moving that direction on their own -- McCain's superficiality will fall hard.
Andrew Leonard: Sarah Palin: Drill, drill, drill -- all the way. Some background on Palin and the oil industry.
Over at FiveThirtyEight, Obama's popular vote margin has shrunk again, down to 0.2%, although something weird is going on with their "SuperTracker" thingy, with the Trend Line jumping up 6 points and the Projection dropping.
Friday, August 29. 2008
Dennis Perrin: O, Bomb It On the Mountain. One more little thing on the author of Savage Mules: The Democrats and Endless War. He mentioned this in the Greenwald interview, but more in passing:
I don't buy this argument. I, too, worry about Obama's postures toward Iran and (especially) Pakistan, and I don't trust him to get out of Iraq, let alone Afghanistan, as gracefully as he should. And let's not get started in Israel/Palestine. And then there's the crises we don't know about yet, the ones that have been smoldering over the last 8, 16, 60 years that haven't engulfed us in flames yet: how's he going to react to those, given his political sense, the foibles of his hundreds of advisors, and the state aparatus he'll inherit from Bush's deliberate politicization of everything. All these things considered, it's certainly possible that Obama's administration will be bellicose and reckless enough to fill out another chapter in the second edition of Perrin's book. I hope that's not the case, and I can think of some good reasons why it may not be the case, but right now you got to grant the possibility.
On the other hand, where Perrin's argument falls flat is in his naïve idea that Obama's belligerence will be so aggressive and so dysfunctional that it will finally drive Americans to an antiwar stance so firm that it rejects the Democratic as well as Republican parties. Short of nuclear war I don't see that reaction. No matter how belligerent Obama becomes, the Republicans will demand more, because that's their brand identity; and the Democrats will split, with the hawks shaming the doves into knuckling under otherwise it will be their fault if the Republicans get back in. We already had a dry run for this with Clinton. Nor did the argument that by outdoing their wettest dreams Clinton would fuck with Republicans heads amount to much: by then the Republicans were so divorced from reality and wrapped up in their own rhetoric that they scarcely noticed when Clinton did their bidding. Indeed, hardly anyone noticed, except for the Naderite fringe.
The reason for supporting Obama and the Democrats in 2008 is the old sad one: they represent the lesser evil, and confused as they were they are still far less culpable for the last eight years than the Republicans. Actually, I'm a bit less pessimistic than that. I see a few things in Obama's political approach that I like, plus I see an intellectually flexible realism that gives me some hope that Obama will try to respond to new problems in ways that actually address them, rather than kick them into an ideologically cocked hat. Where I am pessimistic is that I think many of our problems, if not exacerbated at least neglected for 8 (or 16, or 28) years may be approaching catastrophic shifts, that will prove too much for anyone acclimated to our political culture.
Thursday, August 28. 2008
Dennis Perrin: Demver -- Day Three. Looking at Glen Greenwald's blog last night, I noticed that he did a "radio" interview with Dennis Perrin, author of a short book called Savage Mules: The Democrats and Endless War. I can't recommend the interview, which mostly consisted of Greenwald trying to browbeat Perrin into admitting that Obama isn't as bad as McCain, and for that matter Gore wouldn't have been as bad as Bush, and Perrin trying his best to resist. If the art of the interviewer is to make the guest look good, Greenwald has a lot to learn, but Perrin could have made some useful points but didn't. Two probable differences between Bush and Gore are that Gore would have factored more reconstruction into war cost estimates and Gore would have been more realistic about what the US could afford. Bush handwaved the whole postwar expense in order to rig the balance sheet, not that he ever had a clue how to rebuild a country anyway -- indeed, where he got caught was in his administration's failure to handle Hurricane Katrina. Whether those factors would have made much difference in Afghanistan is something one can argue many ways about: Gore would certainly have launched that war; the initial war itself would likely have been the same, given institutional constraints; Gore probably would have made a more concerted rebuilding effort, but many of the reasons "nation building" failed were deeply structured; it's impossible to say whether Gore would have done a better job of handling the critical diplomatic relationships with Pakistan, Iran, India, and Russia. Gore might have done better in Afghanistan if he had been able to defuse the major festering sores in the middle east -- Israel and Iraq -- but his whole past history was aligned with keeping those sores festering. Again, the only good reason for thinking Gore might have done better is how badly Bush actually did. Remember, though, that before Bush invaded Iraq, the sanctions and bombing programs under Clinton-Gore had undermined Iraqi living standards possibly with a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives. Doing nothing in that context may have been better than doing what Bush did, but not much. But to do anything else would have required a mindset adjustment and political will that Gore (for instance) had never shown any proclivity towards. (Only by losing did he manage to free himself up to the point where now such a change seems plausible.)
On the other hand, Perrin's convention reporting takes some amusing digs at the Democrats, not least the donkey pics. The times mean that we're all Democrats now, but some sense of critical distance is still necessary. Greenwald kept pressing Perrin to admit that we would have been better off had Gore won over Bush in 2000. The obvious response is that we would have been better off still had Ralph Nader won. I watched the Bush-Gore foreign policy debate in 2000, and the only military intervention they disagreed on was Haiti -- which, by the way, Bush wound up invading to overthrow the president that Clinton had re-installed after a right-wing coup resulted in tens of thousands of refugees heading towards the US. Most of those policies Bush and Gore agreed on were dangerous and despicable and, significantly, were opposed by Nader. In foreign policy, at least, Nader was the only candidate in 2000 who offered an alternative to America's increasingly hapless imperial stance. If Gore really was a "lesser evil" than Bush, he should have made an effort to win back the Nader voters, either by showing some concern and respect for Nader's positions, or by showing that Bush was far worse than anyone imagined. He did neither, preferring to build his majority on the right, against the left. He lost his gamble, then went meekly into retirement, quickly forgetting anything he had said about fighting for his voters.
I don't mean to rub this in, but I don't see much value in backing down either. Clearly we underestimated the Bush threat. Clearly, so did the Democrats. The difference is that most Nader voters recognized what Bush was doing in real time, whereas the Democrats kept playing along, making things worse. Even now they aren't all that sure what happened to them, why, what their role in it was, let alone what to do about it. How pathetic is that? Pathetic enough that they keep blaming the people who were right all along for their half-hearted losses in 2000 and 2004.
Glen Greenwald: What's missing from the Democratic convention? Once again, the Democrats have failed to use their opportunity to educate the electorate to fully take the Republicans to task for "the sheer radicalism and extremism of the last eight years." Greenwald has a list, which starts with the trampling of the very fundamentals of American law and civil liberties that woke him from political apathy and drove him to write his little broadside, How Would a Patriot Act? One could add a long book to that list. Instead, Greenwald provides quotes from Republican speakers back in 2004, showing how pros use their convention to hack to shreds a candidate like John Kerry. The point is especially well taken given how parallel Kerry's and McCain's weaknesses are. As Greenwald points out, the Republicans are unlikely to miss their opportunity to do the same to Obama.
Looks like Gallup is showing about a 6-point bounce for Obama from the convention. Thus far that's netted a 0.7% gain over at FiveThirtyEight, nudging Nevada into Obama's column, while Ohio and Virginia are still narrowly leaning McCain (1.1% and 0.6% respectively).
I hear Al Gore gave a good speech tonight. I remember pundits going on and on about how obsessed Gore is with becoming president -- how if he lost he'd lose all purpose in life. This, of course, was from the same people who told us that Bush was so secure in himself that he'd just shrug off defeat -- the same people who told us that Bush would be a fun guy to have a [non-alcoholic] beer with.
Wednesday, August 27. 2008
I've seen a number of reports that Iraqi PM Maliki is insisting that all foreign troops, which these days are virtually all American troops, leave Iraq by 2011. I saw another report that Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, evidently still in a bad mood after the latest US air action that left 90 civilians (read: mostly women and children) dead, wants to get in on that deal. Given the growing pressure from the socalled legitimate governments of the nations Bush invaded and occupied, John McCain may be hard pressed to fulfill his campaign promise of keeping those wars going another hundred years. At least he has Georgia, Russia, and WWIII to fall back on.
Given Bush's record even before 9/11, few people remember that in the 2000 Republican primaries it was McCain who was the neocon darling, while Bush was calling for a "more modest" foreign policy with fewer or none of those "nation building" adventures Clinton kept getting into. Of course, now we can go back and parse Bush's pre-election statements more carefully, where we find occasional hints of later policy. We can track how McCain's neocon legions infiltrated the Bush administration, settling into strategic cells waiting for opportunities to offer heavy stick solutions to any and all problems that may arise -- or would inevitably arise: if war and the threat of force is your only tool for solving conflicts, no effort need be made to defuse conflicts short of war.
Some people remember how in 1964 Johnson had painted Goldwater as a dangerous crackpot warmonger -- a view that wasn't falsified but at least took on an ironic hue as Johnson spent his presidency ever more deeply mired in Vietnam. I suppose Democrats have some reluctance to do the same to McCain, but the latter's track record is even worse than Goldwater's.
Andrew Sullivan: America Against the World. I don't normally read Sullivan, but TPM quoted this, referring back to a WSJ op-ed by Lieberman and Graham. This resonated a bit more because another conservative, "Crunchy Con" Rod Dreher, had an op-ed in the Wichita Eagle this morning expressing horror at McCain's "We are all Georgians" bluster. (See below.) Sullivan: "In my view, the fear card has only one truly compelling target this election: McCain."
Rod Dreher: Sorry, We Are Not All Georgians. Quotes McCain, then scratches his head:
Then he takes a swing at Obama:
Well, of course they are. Personally, I think Obama and Biden could have drawn a line against McCain over Georgia which would have gone far toward painting McCain as the war psycho he is, but they ducked the issue instead. Dreher goes on to quote Bacevich about no differences hetween the party standard bearers, which is comforting for the few war-weary conservatives out there. I took a look through Dreher's blog, and didn't find anything of value there. In fact, I had to dig further to convince myself that there aren't two Rod Drehers.
Glenn Greenwald: Warnings to Russia from Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham. Another reaction to the Lieberman-Graham war council op-ed, with more background. One thing worth noting is that the people who keep getting identified as McCain's foreign policy team are way outside even the Republican mainstream. Speaking of which:
ThinkProgress: John McCain's War Cabinet. This probably isn't a complete listing, but it's quite a rogues gallery. Wonder where Michael Ledeen is.
Tuesday, August 26. 2008
These are short notes/reviews based on streaming records from Rhapsody. They are snap judgments based on one or two plays, accumulated since my last post along these lines, back on April 17. It is at least a way to keep up on new releases without having to track down all that product. Past notes are collated here.
Blitzen Trapper: Wild Mountain Nation (2007, Sub Pop): Portland group, third album. I figure what they're trying to play is old fashioned psychedelia, except that nobody who cared about it knew what it was in the first place. The country-ish "Summer Town" is very nice, and "Murder Babe" has some bounce to it, but there's other stuff that AMG charitably described as "a hippie marching band," and there's reason to suspect that somebody slipped some bubble gum into their acid, or vice versa. B
The Kills: Midnight Boom (2008, Domino): Third album. Duo, female singer, male guitarist. Expected more thrash -- AMG calls them "garage punk"; Christgau made a comment about "feel the power" -- but this is pretty stripped down, with elemental beats, short rhymes, sharp enough to feel. Ends with a Velvets cop, "Sunday Morning" turned into "Goodbye Bad Morning." A-
Beck: Modern Guilt (2008, Interscope): Obviously, he's not a real loser. He's turned out solid albums every year or two since 1994 -- nothing as monumentally improbable as Odelay, which ranks as one of the signpost albums of the 1990s. I've never spent enough time with any of this decade's albums to get comfortable with them, which seems to be key. Some day he will be a project for a substantial career overview. Meanwhile, this is as credible as any -- a little folkie, a little pathetic, a keen sense of how to mix the drums. The one talent he doesn't seem to have is the ability to make us care. B+(**)
Atmosphere: When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Sh*t Gold (2008, Rhymesayers): Not sure whether the music is sneaky or just understated; not sure if the rhymes are deep or just observant. Either way comes close to working. Packaging evidently contains a book or something. B+(***)
Seun Kuti + Fela's Egypt 80 (2008, Disorient): Fela's band, led by his sun. "Don't Give That Shit to Me" lays it on a little thick, but maybe he has a point. Up to then you're thinking what a great band they have always been. Beyond that you start to get impressed by this specific record. Some disagreement on title, rendered above as it appears on front cover. A-
Coldplay: Viva la Vida (2008, Capitol): Keyboard heavy group, a few decades back would be considered prog, but probably just Brit rock now. Took me 4-5 plays to warm up to the latest Radiohead; haven't given this the same break, but it's ahead of the curve. Looks like Brian Eno produced, probably hoping to rub some U2 off, but he's done better things in the past, especially with keybs. B+(***)
Ry Cooder: I, Flathead: The Songs of Kash Buk and the Klowns (2008, Nonesuch): Reportedly the third album in Cooder's "California Trilogy" -- following Chavez Ravine and My Name Is Buddy -- which doesn't convince me there won't be a fourth. Package comes with a 104-page novella, which I know nothing more about. All songs are originals, although there's a lot of "fair use" in "Johnny Cash" -- the only thing Cooder's period pieces have over his choice of vintage material is that they're guaranteed to be obscure. A "homeland security" song called "Spayed Kooley" would have been a find. "Steel Guitar Heaven" and "Pink-O Boogie" and "Filipino Dancehall Girl" and "5000 Country Music Songs" are self-explanatory. Took a long time for Chavez Ravine to slip over the A- cusp as its literate mix of history and myth settled into reality. Haven't had that luxury with its successors, but can't swear they wouldn't do the same. B+(***)
Elvis Costello and the Imposters: Momofuku (2008, Lost Highway): New label, after unsatisfactory pretensions at Deutsche Grammophon and Verve Forecast, promises something countryish, but we get no closer than pub rock, a superficial gloss on something like Blood and Chocolate. More hard rockers than anything in about that long. Still, they feel brittle and muddled, like replicas with no sense of the originals. But the two songs that stand out -- "Mr. Feathers" and "My Three Song" -- are ballads, which open up for his narrow but dramatic voice. Maybe Nashville was the right idea, but he just didn't get comfortable enough. B
Was (Not Was): Boo! (2008, Rykodisc): Detroit pseudo brother act (David Was = David Weiss, Don Fagenson = Don Was), started out as jokesters on the much loved ZE label, wound up in 1990 with a great offbeat soul album, Are You Okay?, then one more in 1992 noticed by no one. First album since then, although Don Was has a long list of producer credits in the meantime. Uses guest vocalists, like old hand Sweet Pea Atkinson, who sounds a little rough for the wear. At their straightest, sounds like Motown, but usually a bit kinkier. B+(*)
Cat Power: Jukebox (2008, Matador): One of those acts I read about but never read anything compelling enough to make me want to check out. Evidently just an alias for Chan Marshall. About six records since 1995, a set of somewhat obscure covers, done with measured professionalism but no special panache. B-
Death Cab for Cutie: Narrow Stairs (2008, Atlantic): Another fairly successful band I'm only familiar with only by name. Seventh album since 1999. This one has garnered solid-plus reviews, and hit #1 briefly. Mostly seems like neither here nor there -- soft voice, writerly, melodic, can ride a groove: "I Will Possess Your Heart" starts with a hypnotic repeating riff, adds the lyric organically, even pumps up the volume. Other songs fill in pleasantly enough. B+(*)
My Morning Jacket: Evil Urges (2008, ATO): Another big one, six albums since 1999, this one peaked at #9, probably the top rated record of the year, at least from Rolling Stone to Blender to Spin, with an A from Entertainment Weekly but a 4.7 from Pitchfork. Singer can run falsetto, and can slip back into his sweet Louisville twang -- I don't hear the Neil Young comparisons -- but other songs show no evidence of either, and they can transform into a pretty slick hard rock group. I can see how people can be impressed, but find it too eclectic to care about. B+(*)
Portishead: Third (2008, Mercury): Trip-hop group, featuring pathetic singer Beth Gibbons. Probably their third album, or maybe just the third one worth counting -- after their absurdly hyped first album I lost count. Starts off sounding like they may have broken out of their funk rut, but soon enough it slows down and the machine starts spitting bolts and nuts. B-
David Bowie: Live in Santa Monica '72 (1972 , Virgin/EMI): Official reissue of a legendary booleg from the Ziggy Stardust/Spiders From Mars tour. The usual caveats with live albums of the era apply -- sound a little tinny, songs less fully fleshed out than the studio versions -- but the excitement is palpable, and the show pulls several good records up to a new plateau. A-
Randy Newman: Harps and Angels (2008, Nonesuch): The words are slurred even when he isn't trying to pull his punches, and the melodies are the low lying fruit of years of oft inspired hack work. This is the closest thing to a real album he's done since Bad Love in 1999, which I suppose means he's trying to revive satire from its recent demise. He doesn't come up with much in "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country" -- still, it's worth googling for the lyrics, which are hard to follow in this slight but charming stab at country music. A sharper line appears in "A Piece of the Pie," where he notes that if you're "living in the richest country in the world/wouldn't you think you'd have a better life?" B+(**)
NERD: Seeing Sounds (2008, Interscope): Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, aka the Neptunes, made their mark producing, where their hook sense was uncanny. First album was as irresistible as ear candy comes, but I haven't followed them closely. Still have the same basic sound, same basic hook sense, some beats. Just don't have songs I care all that much about. It's like it's just become a production to them. B+(**)
Loudon Wainwright III: Recovery (2008, Yep Roc): Song titles seem like throwaways -- "Muse Blues," "Motel Blues," "The Drinking Song" -- or sometimes easy pickups -- "Saw Your Name in the Paper," "Movies Are a Mother to Me" -- but they're sharply observed, often self-lacerating. Not sure whether the charm is that he's still chasing sex at his age, or that he's so pathetic and obvious about it. [Oops: looks like the concept is recovering old songs. Embarrassingly, I only recognized one, which I recall hearing Johnny Cash play. So maybe his age has nothing to do with it. He could always be pathetic and obvious. He could always write sharp songs, and picking old ones is even more surefire than writing new ones.] A-
Teddy Thompson: A Piece of What You Need (2008, Verve Forecast): Richard and Linda's son, on his fourth album. Like his father, he's better at playing them than writing them, but he writes anyway, and they're not bad -- just not as strong songwise as his previous mostly-covers album. Ends with an uncredited take of "The Price of Love"; QED. B+(**)
Ponytail: Ice Cream Spiritual! (2008, We Are Free): Christgau like this group, but he's always been amused by Japanese bubblegum punk, whereas I've never tolerated the shrieks and squalls enough to bother getting the joke. This one is more developed than the previous one, their debut Kamehameha. That's probably an improvement, but I can't swear to it. It does make it less annoying. B
Lykke Li: Youth Novels (2008, Atlantic): Young Swedish pop singer, the slow music adds gravitas, but the whispery vocals are uncommonly slight, and her command of the English language doesn't give you much reason to hang on every word. B
The Hold Steady: Stay Positive (2008, Vagrant): Fourth album for Craig Finn's group. On two plays it's not clear that this is any weaker than the other three. The religious themes remain quirky enough to convey human frailty rather than celestial hubris, and I can't help but find the spaced-out girls seductive. The growled vocals and the guitars are a constant. A-
T Bone Burnett: Tooth of Crime (2008, Nonesuch): Singer-songwriter, after an interesting series of albums cut his best in 1992 (The Criminal Under My Own Hat), then nothing until 2006 (The True False Identity, nearly as good) -- all that time he was very visible as a producer. Several songs run spoken word over rough, primitive riffing with echo, an interesting effect even on the trivial "Swizzle Stick." But none of the songs grabbed me like the last two albums -- yet, anyhow. B+(**)
Etran Finatawa: Desert Crossroads (2008, Riverboat): A group from Niger, a big desolate chunk of the Sahara, populated by Wodaabe and Tuareg. Second album, following Introducing Etran Finatawa from the World Music Network's series; this on their subsidiary label. Coarse rhythmically, chant-oriented, grows on you without seeming to ever amount to much. B+(***)
Man Man: Rabbit Habbits (2008, Anti-): Philadelphia alt-rock group, third album, shows a Brecht-Weill influence, which they probably got from labelmate Tom Waits, but there's also something from further eastern Europe, and maybe a little Beefheart, a little circus music. Could be fun, but haven't proven their case yet. B+(**)
Heidi Newfield: What Am I Waiting For (2008, Curb): Former frontwoman for a group called Trick Pony I've never heard of. First solo album, which I take to be country -- a bit more rockish than pop or neotrad, but she has some twang in her voice and trends toward Miranda Lambert territory, just a little short on songs. It helps that Lucinda Williams wrote the opener. B+(**)
Amy MacDonald: This Is the Life (2007 , Decca): Young Scottish singer-songwriter. Maintains a good, sharp beat, with various levels of pop layering. Catchy, serious, not so much of a good time. B+(*)
Menya: The Ol' Reach-Around (2008, Menya, EP): Six songs, I tend to grade against EPs on the grounds that they're excess paperwork. Clearly they didn't have more, but when they do they'll be worth revisiting. Dance crunk, the first and last are standouts, with keyb cheese and lines like "girl I'm down to fuck tonight" and "suck my dick/blow your mind" (or what that "girl you're mine"?) repeated ad infinitum. Actually, those are the minority male lines; a female named Coco Dame has a nice way with "nice tits." B+(***)
Steve Wynn/Scott McCaughey/Linda Pitmon/Peter Buck: The Baseball Project, Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails (2008, Yep Roc): Leader Wynn was in the Dream Syndicate, which had a decent album back in 1982, and later did another memorable album as half of Danny & Dusty; McCaughey was in another 1980s group, the Young Fresh Fellows. Pitmon is evidently in Wynn's more recent groups. Buck does something (I forget what) in R.E.M. Evidently, all like baseball; more importantly, at least the first two know something about it. "Ted Fucking Williams" suggests they're going to be funny or at least irreverent, but they don't follow it up. "Satchel Paige Said" and "The Death of Big Ed Delahanty" bring up two notable names from way back with enough detail to show you they've done their homework and thought about it. "Harvey Haddix" is more homework, rendered in list form. Lists are important to baseball fans; almost as important as statistics, which this at least shies away from. B+(***)
Records I looked up but didn't find on Rhapsody:
Monday, August 25. 2008
Hit the wall on jazz prospecting this week. Thought I would start with the older music, which still mostly gets shunted off to the abbreviated Recycled Goods, and that went OK. But I didn't get into the new stuff, and by the time the week was over didn't much feel like listening to anything. Wound up pulling some new non-jazz from Rhapsody, which will be good for another post. Enough here for a post, especially since I found some junk I had misfiled last week. In the malaise, didn't get the lists updated with new mail. Didn't get much, but some of it looks promising.
Tito Puente & His Orchestra: Live at the 1977 Monterey Jazz Festival (1977 , MJF): A typical set by the great timbalero and his venerable orchestra, featuring signature tunes like "Oye Como Va" and "El Rey del Timbal," rhumbas and mambos, a dash of riskier Afro-Cuban jazz, and a cha cha take on Stevie Wonder. B+(*)
Cal Tjader: The Best of Cal Tjader: Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival 1958-1980 (1958-80 , MJF): A short set from 1958 with Buddy DeFranco bebop over the vibraphonist's Latin stew, and four choice 1972-80 shots, starting with Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry teaching him how to play "Manteca." I remember going through my database once and deciding that Tjader was the most accomplished jazz musician on the list that I hadn't heard yet, so I'm far from an expert, but these cuts strike me as a well chosen primer. B+(**)
Jimmy Witherspoon: Live at the 1972 Monterey Jazz Festival (1959-72 , MJF): The last of the Kansas City blues shouters, in a surly mood that could pass for spirit if you cut him some slack; his Jimmy Rushing tribute is heartfelt but not up to snuff; his praise for guitarist Robben Ford is earned but not such a big deal; the bonus track from 1959 towers above the later performance, not just because Messrs. Hines, Herman, Hawkins, Webster, and Eldridge are in the band, but they sure help. B
Shirley Horn: Live at the 1994 Monterey Jazz Festival (1994 , MJF): Very cost-effective: a singer with such voice and poise a piano trio suits her best, plus she plays a pretty mean piano; just turned 60, at the peak of her fame coming off a series of well-regarded albums on Verve, she nails her whole range here -- "The Look of Love," "A Song for You," "I've Got the World on a String," "Hard Hearted Hannah." B+(***)
Dave Brubeck: 50 Years of Dave Brubeck: Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival 1958-2007 (1958-2007 , MJF): Starts with Paul Desmond for three 1958-66 quartet cuts and closes with three 2002-07 quartets with Bobby Militello on alto sax -- a sense of continuity and balance unlikely in any 50-year span. Gerry Mulligan figures in between, and only one cut lacks a horn, but the unique pacing of the pianist comes through again and again. A-
Art Blakey and the Giants of Jazz: Live at the 1972 Monterey Jazz Festival (1972 , MJF): Not a happy period in the drummer's career, but he plays with great physicality here, leading a ragtag crew of superstars in what could pass as a Jazz at the Philharmonic blowout; Roy Eldridge, Clark Terry, Sonny Stitt, and Kai Winding are natural jousters who offers great excitement but no surprises; the mystery is left to the troubled pianist in one of his last performances, but Thelonious Monk comps engagingly and takes a nice feature on "'Round Midnight." B+(***)
The Soprano Summit in 1975 and More (1975-79 , Arbors, 2CD): Clarinetist Kenny Davern and saxophonst Bob Wilber, two impeccably backward-looking players, ran into each other in Colorado in 1972, finding common ground as a soprano sax duo dedicated to Sidney Bechet. Their summits continued through the 1970s, with occasional reunions into 2001, sometimes with pianist Dick Hyman and other kindred souls -- guitarist Marty Grosz is prominent here, but Bucky Pizzarelli also played. Dan Morgenstern picked these sessions from the archives, including one from April 1975 focusing on Jelly Roll Morton, and two non-Summit sets: a Davern trio with pianist Dick Wellstood from 1979, and a 1976 Wilber group with Ruby Braff. The album never strays from the soprano range, but lively rhythm sections make up for the lack of contrasting horns. Superb trad jazz. A-
Gene Harris Quartet: Live in London (1996 , Resonance): A popular pianist in the Oscar Peterson mode with an occasional nod to Erroll Garner, not as well known in large part because he spent most of his career recording first as the Three Sounds, then in bassist Ray Brown's trio. Jim Mullen's sinuous guitar enlarges this from trio to quartet. Standards like "Blue Monk" and "In a Mellow Tone" stretch out past ten minutes because they're enjoying themselves. B+(***)
Lionel Hampton Orchestra: Mustermesse Basel 1953 Part 2 (1953 , TCB): Another Swiss radio shot, with the vibraphonist's big band -- names include Art Farmer, Clifford Brown, Jimmy Cleveland, Gigi Gryce, and Quincy Jones -- doing their usual "Hey-Ba-Ba-Re-Bop": "Setting the Pace," "Flying Home," "Drinking Wine," always "On the Sunny Side of the Street." B+(*)
Dianne Reeves: When You Know (2008, Blue Note): Love songs -- "Lovin' You," "I'm in Love Again," "Once I Loved," including some treacly pop tunes and one piece of Jon Hendricks vocalese. "Over the Weekend" is probably the melodramatic worst. Two cuts flow the violins, but most are just guitar, keyb, bass, drums. George Duke produced. The exception to all the above is the finale, called "Today Will Be a Good Day" -- the only cut Reeves wrote, citing her monther for inspiration; it marches to a different beat, with Russell Malone's guitar rockish, a choice cut. B-
Rebecca Martin: The Growing Season (2007 , Sunnyside): Singer-songwriter, classified as a jazz singer based on her labels, but the thin voice, light guitar, straightforward songs, and primitive arrangements all better fit the folk genre. Band here has impeccable jazz credentials -- Kurt Rosenwinkel, Larry Grenadier, Brian Blade -- but don't really do much. B
Andy Pratt: Masters of War (2008, It's About Music): Singer-songwriter, plays piano, cut his first record in 1969; had something of a breakthrough on his third album, Resolution, in 1976: Stephen Holden gave the record an incredible hype review in Rolling Stone. I got suckered into buying a copy; hated the overweening popcraft and sententious, witless songs. 32 years and maybe 15 albums later, he's still quoting Holden's review. I haven't heard any of the others, but I have to admit I recall the voice -- pretty distinctive. The arrangements are simpler here, with rhythm and voice differentiating three covers -- including a slowed down, shaded Beatles song ("And I Love Her") and a hepped up, choppy Dylan (the title cut). His originals don't stick, but they fit the flow. B+(*)
Cynthia Felton: Afro Blue: The Music of Oscar Brown Jr. (2008, Felton Entertainment): Young singer, certified with: bachelor of music from Berklee, master of arts in jazz performance from New York University, doctorate in jazz studies from University of Southern California. Based in Los Angeles. First album. Long list of musicians includes Ernie Watts, Jeff Clayton, Wallace Roney, Cyrus Chestnut, Donald Brown, Jeff "Tain" Watts, Terri Lyne Carrington; also uses vibes, harp, and violin. Bookends 12 Oscar Brown Jr. songs with two short takes of "Motherless Child." I don't think the album works. It has something to do with the chemistry between singer, song, and band, but I haven't isolated just what it is. Brown was a unique case: he followed up on the basic vocalese idea but mostly aimed at writing novelty songs, which were inevitably hit-and-miss and often even when they worked didn't fit together, novelties being what they are. Perhaps the songs can't support this much seriousness. B-
Mathias Eick: The Door (2007 , ECM): Norwegian trumpet player, b. 1979, also plays guitar and vibraphone here, in a quartet with Jon Balke (piano, Fender Rhodes), Audun Erlien (electric bass, guitar), Audun Kleive (drums, percussion), plus Stian Carstensen (pedal steel guitar) on 3 of 8 cuts. First album, although he's had a lot of side credits since 2001, notably on Jacob Young's two albums. Slow, somber ambient jazz, sometimes sumptously gorgeous, but mostly just plods along, which is fine with me. Balke makes a particularly good showing. B+(**)
Wolfert Brederode: Currents (2006 , ECM): Dutch pianist, b. 1974. AMG lists one previous album. This one adds clarinets (Claudio Puntin) to piano trio. Starts with an easy-flowing rhythmic piece, a mode he returns to now and then. In between are tone poem things, where the clarinet leads. Seems simple, and probably is, but as it sinks it it's very attractive. B+(***)
Five Play: What the World Needs Now (2007 , Arbors): Drummer Sherrie Maricle's small band, a quintet, contrasts with her big band, DIVA Jazz Orchestra. Both groups are all-female, more/less swing oriented. (DIVA's latest album was a Tommy Newsom tribute.) The Burt Bacharach title cut is a bit yucky but helplessly catchy. Other songs include "Slipped Disc" (Benny Goodman), "Jo-House Blues" (Toshiko Akiyoshi), "I Am Woman" (Helen Reddy). Musicians are: Jami Dauber (trumpet, flugelhorn, cornet), Janelle Reichman (tenor sax, clarinet), Tomoko Ohno (piano), Noriko Ueda (bass). The piano shines in solo spaces, the rhythm section swings, and the horns take some chances. B+(*)
Rosa Passos: Romance (2008, Telarc): Brazilian singer, has recorded more than a dozen albums since 1994, though she may be older than that -- I've heard tell of a 1979 debut album. Grew up in Salvador, Bahia. Gary Giddins, who wrote the liner notes, places her in the bossa nova tradition. Sounds a bit slower and more thoughtful to me -- no matter how slow she goes she still gets traction. Brazilian band, nobody I know, but the sax and piano stand out among the solos, and drummer Celso de Almeida plays with the subtle shiftiness you hope for in Brazilian jazz. B+(***)
Dominique Di Piazza Trio: Princess Sita (2007 , Sunnyside): French bassist, primarily electric, b. 1959 in Lyon. First album, but appeared on a Gil Evans album in 1987, in John McLaughlin's trio since 1991, with Bireli Lagrene, and a few others. Trio includes Nelson Veras on guitar, Manhu Roche on drums. Di Piazza wrote 8 of 12 pieces; Roche one; the others include "Nuages." Sounds to me like the guitarist has the upper hand, with the bass woven craftily into the background, but I'm having trouble unpacking it. Veras has one album on his own. He's an attractive player. B+(*)
Bennett Paster & Gregory Ryan: Grupo Yanqui Rides Again (2006 , Miles High): Paster plays piano; Ryan bass. They met in 1993 as faculty members of the Stanford Jazz Workshop, found a common interest in Latin jazz, and put out their first Grupo Yanqui album in 2001. Current group is a NYC-based sextet, with trumpet (Alex Norris), sax (Chris Cheek), drums (Keith Hall), and percussion (Gilad). This makes all the basic moves, but little of special interest emerges. B
Warren Hill: La Dolce Vita (2008, Koch): Pop jazz saxophonist, plays alto mostly, also soprano. Has ten or so albums since 1991. Plays alto with some authority. Hill also programs drum lines, plays some keyboards, and sings two cuts. The vocals are a waste, and the grooves are standard issue, bright and bouncy. B-
Emily Bezar: Exchange (2008, DemiVox): Singer, keyboardist, from San Francisco or Berkeley, has 5 albums since 1993, maybe more. AMG has her as Alt Pop/Rock, likening her to Kate Bush -- the vocal resemblance is obvious, although I find Bezar a little more idiosyncratic at times, more arch at others, and overall much less interesting. C
No final grades/notes this week on records put back for further listening the first time around.
Some corrections and further notes on recent prospecting:
I erroneously identified Eri Yamamoto's Cobalt Blue as on AUM Fidelity. It was released on Thirsty Ear.
I got a couple of letters from musicians with B records -- explaining, cajoling, teasing, hoping I'll give their records another spin. Fat chance. While there are many combinations of good and bad that can sort out to B, one thing the grade notes is that I don't feel any need or reason to listen to the album again. Lack of time factors in -- especially the sense that putting more time into the record isn't going to return enough to write about. That, of course, is a guess. In JCG history, I can think of one record that I originally graded [B] that turned out A-, but there I was tentative for good reason. I can also recall one record Christgau originally graded B then returned to at year-end and re-reviewed as A-. (I had that particular record in my year-end top ten.) That that sort of thing can happen shows our fallibility, but it doesn't happen often. Most of my tentative grades wind up on target, and few shift more than one notch. On the other hand, I recognize that many records improve with familiarity. If I could really focus on records that I quickly dismiss I'd no doubt learn to like some quite a bit. But that's not how I work. What I do is more like triage, where we quickly and somewhat arbitrarily sort out who can survive and who can't. Stakes are lower. Anyone with a B record will probably get a chance to make a better one, and that's the one I'll take time to hear.
A few weeks back, I wrote a rant about Dynamod's Flash
websites, which are pretty popular with musicians. They used
to have a HTML mode, and still do if you follow the URL with
For this cycle's collected Jazz Prospecting notes, look here.
Sunday, August 24. 2008
Andrew Leonard: Obama: The big-spending fiscal conservative. Basically an intro to David Leonhardt's New York Times Magazine essay on Obama's economic programs. I bring it up again because I wanted to add a couple more comments. One is that a lot of people have become confused over markets and capitalism, especially since the Communist collapse c. 1990. Markets enable the exchange of goods and services among large numbers of uncoordinated participants with price adjustments resolving differences between supply and demand. Markets work better in theory than in practice, mostly because in theory you can assume things like perfect information and rational behavior that do not exist in the real world. The failure of Soviet command economies, along with the conservative critique of distorted and inefficient effects in our own regulated markets, has led many people to market approaches to problems that had traditionally been subjected to bureaucratic regulation -- good examples of this are the cap-and-trade schemes for managing pollution externalities and auctions for divvying up commons resources like broadcast bandwidth. These schemes wind up being attractive both to the left and to the right, at least to segments of both that are not in thrall to moral absolutes.
One reason these schemes are attractive to (at least some of us on) the left is that markets are largely separable from capitalism. If you look at pro-capitalist propaganda over the last few decades, you'll see that much of what they're saying is really just pro-market, and nowadays that's relatively uncontroversial. Capitalism itself is fundamentally about the private ownership of capital, and if you look at that carefully you'll see that capitalists more often than not are at odds with free markets: capitalists seek to limit competition, to fix prices, to obscure and bias information, to maximize rents due to ownership. You'll also notice that many capitalists have invested heavily in lobbying, using their political influence to subsidize and distort markets. Given all this, it's possible for leftists to see markets as a means to undermine the worst aspects of capitalism. One more attractive thing about markets is that they limit the overshoot problems associated with seizing political power.
For various reasons, including his University of Chicago environs, Obama is hipper on markets than any other politician I can think of. He may be too much of a believer -- Robert Kuttner and others have done important work in showing cases where markets are dysfunctional, most obviously in health care -- but he is coming closer to promising economic solutions than anyone else I can think of. This also means he's way out in front of the masses in his thinking, which is going to make it difficult to explain and sell. Just to pick one example, much of the campaign to date has revolved around gas prices. McCain has a nice, simple story: cut consumer taxes, drill more wells, build more refineries, cut back on environmental regulations, get government out of the way and let the industry and the market bring prices back to normal. Problem is, none of these things will work, for reasons it would take a couple thousands of words to explain, but so far McCain's narrative is winning, partly because it sounds plausible, and partly because it's what people want to hear. Politically, Obama has to fit his more complex, more sophisticated, more nuanced narrative into a McCain-sized sound bite. Whether he can do so or not will be the real test of his skills as a politician, but he's operating under a major handicap: clearly, he knows better.
The only real political hope I have in this debate is that, while most Americans won't be able to grasp Obama's understanding of what needs to be done, they will at least shy away from McCain's canned cluelessness. They do, after all, have Bush's example of eight years of simplistic, flattering, market-tested bullshit assertions, and all the trouble they have caused.
Jacob Weisberg: If Obama Loses. Subhead: "Racism is the only reason McCain might beat him." That's probably true, although I for one am still worried about stupidity -- a more general, but not unrelated, ailment. At FiveThirtyEight, the popular vote poll projection currently favors Obama by a mere 0.1%, a fairly steady erosion from a peak lead of about 3% in mid-June. The peak occurred shortly after Obama clinched the nomination, so he picked up a bit of the shine that winners enjoy. Since then he's been subjected to a steady drip of innuendo, especially as the right wing noise machine has coalesced around a candidate they weren't all that fond of in the first place. You can argue that Obama is either under or over expectations -- that a black Democrat is doing as well as Obama is doing wasn't necessarily something you'd predict a year or two ago. One thing that's certain is that this will get nastier. I'm reminded of the two Jesse Helms-Harvey Gantt races, which both went to the white guy by narrow margins even though Helms by then was widely regarded as an embarrassment. On the other hand, Helms didn't carry North Carolina by much -- about the same edge McCain has in the polls now.
Glenn Greenwald: The right and men who live off their second wives' inherited wealth. John McCain and John Kerry have so much in common. They were both born into established and well-connected but not-especially-wealthy families. They both enlisted into the Vietnam War, both distinguishing themselves well enough to parlay their experiences into political careers. They both went on to marry very rich second wives. They both have checkered careers of principled demagoguery combined with flip-flops on nearly every issue they were once noted for. Both managed to be nominated by their parties for president. Hopefully, McCain will join Kerry in the loser's column. Kerry was excoriated for all of these traits during his 2004 run. McCain is due the same treatment. The media has lagged way behind on McCain -- I saw one survey recently showing that McCain had received favorable treatment in 47% of newspaper articles, compared to 28% favorable treatment of Obama -- but Greenwald has dug up a set of things that right-wing pundits said about Kerry's numerous houses and outrageous wealth, on the theory that one could and should offer McCain the same treatment. Greenwald's latest book is called Great American Hypocrites, so this seems to be right up his alley.
In fairness, we should note one difference between McCain and Kerry. While Kerry has often been eager to sign up for a war, he's also been known to change his mind once his war turns into a giant fiasco. On the other hand, McCain has never seen a war he didn't lust for, and he's never changed his mind about a war no matter how badly it turned out. Kerry has at least has shown some capacity to learn from his mistakes. As his flip-flops suggest, McCain is also adaptable, but he's got a blind love for war.
Andrew J Bacevich: The next president will disappoint you. That's more than likely, of course, especially in the foreign policy realm, which has been dominated by an enduring (to use a popular DOD euphemism for permanent) bipartisan clique that seem more dedicated to each other than any actual interests most Americans share.
But even among Bacevich's names, there are real partisan differences. The Obama (actually Clinton) list reads "same old, same old." The McCain list, on the other hand, are not just people who followed Bush into Iraq; they're people who tried hard to lead Bush into even more wars, people who grow even scarier advising the trigger-happy McCain. Bacevich is right that the Washington establishment limits what a president can do, and he's right that structural problems like "a looming crisis of debt and dependency" undermine American power. Under these circumstances, we could do far worse than see a return to the "same old, same old" Clinton regime.
Heather Havrilesky: I Like to Watch. Part of the column concerns HBO's Generation Kill:
There are many such examples. Colbert makes a big point about using non-lethal force (smoke grenades as warning shots) at a roadblock, but a few moments later a soldier panics and kills an approaching driver. Colbert's reaction is to comfort and defend the soldier. Nor is that the first time. Nearly every attempt at scrupulous restraint is screwed up by someone up or down the line, and nobody is held accountable for anything. The effect is that the de facto Rules of Engagement is made by the lowest denominator. The mentality is inevitably colonial: the worst of us is always held above the best of them.
What this proves is what I've been saying all along: Americans, or for that matter anyone else, can't go to war without producing atrocities. That much is guaranteed by the training, the camaraderie, the weapons, the pecking order, the promotion system. To enter into a war without expecting the worse is purest negligence. It is one of the things most Americans understand least about themselves.
Saturday, August 23. 2008
Sean Wilentz: How Bush Destroyed the Republican Party. I wish I could buy this, but with McCain virtually tied in the polls, the Republicans don't look anywhere near dead enough for me. One no doubt small but voluble segment of Bush's defectors are those who claim he lost faith with true conservatism. A larger segment think he had the right idea but just executed badly. Neither shows any evidence of learning, and both are willing to give it another go with McCain, even if they trust him less now than they did Bush in 2000. But as McCain's steady rise in the polls shows, Republicans are still able to sway voters with some of the most hypocritical nonsense imaginable.
Historian that he is, Wilentz pulls out various examples of past debacles, including the collapse of the Federalists after 1800 and the demise of the Whigs in 1854 -- obscure examples today, but right in Wilentz's prime period. In those cases the parties actually died, but for the Democrats in 1896 and 1980 and for the Republicans in 1932 the parties merely struggled on in a lesser role, preserved in their geographical redoubts. That at most is what may still happen in 2008. The Republicans will still hang on to their hard core, because the hard core hasn't learned any better.
Wilentz isn't much of a political theorist, but he does touch on some important history:
This worked even more improbably in 2004, mostly through the trick of keeping the war going, and continuously taunting the Democrats with their lukewarm support/opposition.
Bush's failures were well in evidence by 2004, but his supporters rallied to the cause anyway, a case of willful self-delusion the likes of which we hadn't seen since Nixon's 1972 rout. Republican interests held firm in 2004 because facing what Bush had done honestly would have cost them everything. The same interests are rallying around McCain for the same reasons -- money, political careers, ideological quirks.
While DeLay is out of Congress now, it isn't clear that his (and Rove's, and many others') projects to bias non-governmental groups -- lobbyists, corporations, media, etc. -- to perpetuate Republican power have failed. As the Democrats gain power, the lobbies will become more bipartisan, but they may also grow mostalgic for the culture of corruption the Republicans thrived in.
David Leonhardt: How Obama Reconciles Dueling Views on Economy. Before getting into Obama's curious sense of economics, a little preliminary background worth quoting:
This runs against the fundamental American religion: the notion that things are getting better, especially from each generation to to the next. This has happened because Republicans have made no effort to check against growing inequality -- indeed, deliberately or not, they've promoted growth inequality. Obama intends to nudge against inequality by raising income taxes on incomes over $250K while reducing income taxes on everyone else. That hardly qualifies as redistributionist, but it starts to make the point.
Leonhardt quotes Obama: "Reagan's central insight -- that the liberal welfare state had grown complacent and overly bureaucratic, with Democratic policy makers more obsessed with slicing the economic pie than with growing that pie -- contained a good deal of truth." I agree with that, but don't give Reagan any credit for it because he didn't do anything with the insight. For Obama, it seems to be a way of rebaselining Democratic politics, which isn't exactly how Leonhardt puts it:
There is some gimmickry in Obama's market propositions, but they offer a way around the bureaucratic inefficiencies derided by Reagan, and also around the corruption and dysfunction Reagan favored.
I can't speak for "even liberal economists" but this argument is patent bullshit. If true, nobody would have started a business in the US between 1935 and 1980 -- obviously, many businesses were started in that period. Where tax policy may have had an effect, it was because capital gains were taxed much less than income, so it made more sense to build long-term value in business. With Reagan there was less long-term incentive, which resulted in much profiteering as companies were plundered through LBO and similar deals. While such deals made some people extremely rich, they added virtually nothing to the productive economy.
I don't advocate restoring New Deal marginal income tax rates, but I also don't find them much of a disincentive for the rich to get richer. What I would do is make unearned income tax (capital gains, interest, dividends, profits, gifts, inheritance) steeply progressive over an individual's lifetime: it would be easier to get that first million, but extra millions would be taxed more and more heavily, with an especially stiff inheritance tax at the end -- it is, after all, the one tax that never incentivizes anyone. (E.g., people don't become more death-prone when estate taxes drop, or less when they rise.)
There is a good deal more in this piece. One thing that is clear is that Obama has a more nuanced understanding of economics than almost any politician I can think of. I doubt that will help him much during the campaign, since nuance (or for that matter logic) isn't something that people seem to want in their leaders. Whether it helps him as president isn't totally clear either. The two presidents who, at least relative to their time, seemed to understand economics best were probably Hoover and Carter, neither of whom was judged much of a success. On the other hand, Obama is much closer to the right answers here -- and not just much closer than McCain, who's only clue is that rich people seem to be doing pretty well for themselves.
A lot of people are saying nice things about Joe Biden today. He seems to be pretty well regarded by just about everyone who finds themselves to the left of McCain and to the right of Noam Chomsky. For example, David Brooks, who's unlikely to wind up supporting Obama, endorsed Biden. Chuck Hagel said nice things about him. So did Hillary Clinton. But also most of the leftish bloggers I read had a good word for him. I don't have anything to add in that vein. I found his handling of the Georgia war to be irresponsible and provocative, by any standards other than those set by John McCain. The best I can say for his advocacy for partitioning Iraq is that it was unhelpful. I don't exactly know where he stands on Israel/Palestine, but one guess should suffice. Still, I don't think he's on the ticket to consult on policy. Hopefully he's there to chew up McCain's ass. How well he succeeds will make a lot of difference.
Thursday, August 21. 2008
Alex Kingsburg interviews Andrew Bacevich: How America Is Squandering Its Wealth and Power. Andrew Bacevich is getting a lot of press for his new book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Excpetionalism, and it looks like it's turned into a surprise bestseller. When I looked last night, it was #6 on Amazon's bestseller list, but it was also out of stock, with more copies promised for delivery Sept. 6. One thing that I think is driving these sales is that with his conservative credibity intact, he's willing and able to slam both McCain and Obama for continuing the mindset that got us into this mess. Most of the interviews I've seen or read he's pretty even-handed about this, which is unfair in the sense that McCain's way off the scale, but it does say something that hardly anyone -- with a major league soapbox, anyway -- is willing to say, which is that Afghanistan has gone as bad as Iraq and isn't any more amenable to fixing with our imperial war machine. I'm not sure how far he goes with this -- his attachment to the military gets him arguing that we don't have enough soldiers to deal with such problems, not that no number of soldiers would make a difference because the way US soldiers train and operate is itself dysfunctional. But it's good to remind Obama that the bad-Iraq/good-Afghanistan war isn't a clean or valid analysis. (Given that Kerry, in particular, argued the same thing in 2004 doesn't give it much of a track record, either.)
Note that his laundry list of dysfunctions doesn't include the US military itself. One problem with blaming all this stuff on domestic consumption is that it implicitly assumes that there is a rational economic case for imperial domination: that fighting is necessary to sustain out standard of living. Bacevich argues something else: that our standard of living's not worth the fight, and he's not wrong in that regard. Someone like Joseph Stiglitz should take a look at the overall balance sheet for our military empire abroad. I think there's very little that would show up on the top line.
Simon Jenkins: In Europe, as in Asia, Nato leaves a trail of catastrophe. Glad someone said this:
Helena Cobban: NATO's Supply Lines in Afghanistan. Pop quiz: how does NATO deliver basic supplies like gasoline to the troops in Afghanistan? They can airlift them, but most things are a lot cheaper by ground transport, if you have a safe route. For Afghanistan, that means: 1) Pakistan; 2) Iran; 3) Russia and Uzbekistan. Given that (1) is problematical and (2) is out of the question, this doesn't seem like a good time to burn your bridges on (3) over a tin-pot dictator in the Caucasus. Pakistan isn't just a matter of iffy politics in the post-Musharraf era. All the Pakistan routes run through Taliban strongholds:
In another post, Cobban points out:
Of course, deterrence works best against foes who didn't intend to attack you in the first place, which turns out to be a better explanation of NATO's success.
A third post (actually, the first in sequence) goes deeper into why NATO has no practical reason to exist any more.
Helena Cobban: The Outlook on a Triple-Superpower World. And this is Cobban's summary of the no-longer-unipolar world. This all ties back to Bacevich's book, which while presumably focused on the decline of US power is fortunately less specific. One thing we've found more and more over the past few decades is that power in itself doesn't get you very far.
Wednesday, August 20. 2008
Tom Engelhardt: Six Questions About the Anthrax Attacks. The revelation that Bruce Ivins, conveniently suicided, was the lone anthrax terrorist ties up another loose end before the clock runs out on the Bush administration. Or does it? One thing is that it reminds us of a set of events that had a powerful effect at the time, but have been largely forgotten since. I clearly remember some talking head on TV shortly after 9/11 but before the first anthrax attacks arguing that it was not a question of if but only of when the first bioterror attacks would occur. In the 7 years since then, the only such attacks occurred a few days later, almost on cue. Moreover, we now know that they weren't done by the people who did 9/11; rather, they originated from within the US military.
The six questions:
I have another question here: why did the attacks stop? One reason would be that they had done their job, in which case their purpose would have been limited by their effects. The lone madman theory doesn't fit very well with the discipline to halt an operation that had been successful but would have gained risk for diminishing returns.
I don't think much of any 9/11 conspiracy theories, but this anthrax matter sure smells.
Tuesday, August 19. 2008
Paul Krugman: The Great Illusion. A gloomy take on the Georgia war, arguing that we take the threat of nationalism and war too lightly, as did cosmopolitan Europeans up to the eve of World War I -- a period like our own where globalization was more prominent and productive than during the following decades of depression and nationalist protectionism. Krugman writes: "And today's high degree of global economic interdependence, which can be sustained only if all major governments act sensibly, is more fragile than we imagine." As much as one would like to, one can't argue that the Bush administration has been acting very sensibly, at least in the lead-up to the war and the kneejerk propagandizing that has followed. In this regard, the most dangerous trend has been to treat oil supplies as imperial spoils, which in turn sets a bad example for Russia and China, much as Britain's and France's colonial possessions set a bad example for Germany and Japan.
Billmon: Anatomy of A(nother) Fiasco. Not on the Georgia war itself so much as the political maneuvering in the US that set Georgia up for the fall. In particular, shows how a succession of undebated, unreasoned, clandestinely approved Congressional bills set out to expand NATO all the way to Russia's border. And the list of names on those bills not only includes the usual McCain-Lieberman suspects but names like Biden and Obama.
I see now that Biden has returned from his myth-finding trip to Georgia with the recommendation that we salve their wounds with a cool billion dollars in aid. Don't have the details, but Georgia had spent almost a billion on US and Israeli military gear that the Russians have just turned into smoldering junkheaps. I don't mind sending aid, but it's hard to imagine any investment in the world that would be more counterproductive than rearming Georgia. I'd also make any aid contingent on Georgia recognizing and setting up normal diplomatic relations with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, so it is clear where Georgia's borders are and that the grudges and ambitions are behind them. Unfortunately, the bipartisan line in the US is wedged in the Cold War.
Anatol Lieven: The West Shares the Blame for Georgia. As I was just saying.
Andrew Bacevich: The Lessons of Endless War. A second piece excerpted from Bacevich's new book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. I've ordered a copy of the book, so we'll see. I watched Bacevich interviewed by Bill Moyers the other night, and there were a couple of things I didn't like. One is that Bacevich still sees a lot more value and need for the military than I do -- he's a military man, and still thinks of himself as a conservative, where I despised the military way before I started thinking of myself as a pacifist. The other issue is more technical: he makes a big point of criticizing America's materialistic way of life, arguing that we have to effect a change of lifestyle before the big political problems can be dealt with. That may be true, but he also argued that we weren't always like that, that before the Vietnam era the American economy wasn't built on domestic consumption. The latter point is untrue: the US economy from 1900 on, but especially in the 1950s and 1960s, was spectacularly driven by domestic consumption: single-family houses, cars, appliances. The difference was that before 1970 Americans were buying American products, including gasoline. After 1970 all that changes, except for the consumption habits.
Monday, August 18. 2008
Something of a letdown this week, but not as big a drop as my usual post-column break. Probably listened to as much non-jazz as jazz, but certainly not a big edge. Record of the week (possibly year) is K'Naan: The Dusty Foot Philosopher -- Canadian hip-hop artist, originally from Somalia; been through more than I can imagine, coming out much better than I'd expect. Maybe there is hope for the world after all.
The Stephen Anderson Trio: Forget Not (2008, Summit): No recording date. AMG thinks this was released in 2004, but booklet refers to later events, and cover is copyright 2008. A lot of google noise on Anderson's name, but as best I can figure he studied at UNT, got a Ph.D., and teaches at UNC-Charlotte. Plays piano. This is his first album, although he plays on a couple of albums under bassist Lynn Seaton and one with drummer Joel Fountain. Wrote 7 of 8 songs here, the exception "For Sentimental Reasons." Jeff Eckels plays bass, Fountain drums. Solid stuff, thoughtful, logical, forceful -- he's not shy about power chords. Extensive liner notes, with lots of references to clasical composers. B+(**)
Chip Shelton & Peacetime: Imbued With Memories (2007 , Summit): No birth date given, but if he was in high school and college (Howard, studying dentistry) in the 1960s, he must be close to 60 now. Recording career starts in the 1980s. Mostly plays flute, along with piccolo and a little sax. Band relies on guitar (Lou Volpe, sweet and tasty), keyboards, and extra percussion, with a persistent groove. In other words, this is smooth jazz, maybe with a little higher aims and less cash in prospect. Jann Parker guests on the obligatory radio vocal cut. C+
Jim Shearer & Charlie Wood: The Memphis Hang (2008, Summit): Shearer is based in New Mexico, where he teaches his instrument: tuba. I've seen references to a "tuba jazz" deal with Jim Self, but AMG doesn't credit him with any records other than this one. He cites Sam Pilafian ahead of Howard Johnson and Bob Stewart on his MySpace influences list, so figure he likes old timey jazz. Also dabbles in some classical, playing with the Roswell Symphony Orchestra. Wood is a Memphis guy, filed under blues by AMG. He plays organ and sings; has a group he calls New Memphis Underground. Strikes me as a possible Memphis answer to Dr. John. Harmonica player Billy Gibson gets a "special guest" credit on the front cover. Some surprises in the song set here, starting with a vocalized version of Monk's "Well, You Needn't"; a couple of Andy Razaf lyrics; Joni Mitchell's words to "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat"; some other oddities. Need to play it again. [B+(**)]
The David Leonhardt Trio: Explorations (2008, Big Bang): Pianist, from Louisville, spent time in New York, based now in Easton, PA. Claims 35 years experience; has 12 self-released records out since 1991, including Jazz for Kids and an Xmas album. This is a trio with Matthew Parrish on bass, Alvester Garnett on drums. Half originals, half covers: four rock songs from the late '60s (or maybe 1970), one each from Jerome Kern and Horace Silver. The rockers, especially "Sunshine of Your Love," come off like crufty old metal, loud and clunky. The originals don't offer a lot more. B
Eri Yamamoto Trio: Redwoods (2008, AUM Fidelity): Pianist, from Osaka, Japan, arrived in New York in 1995; cut three trio albums on Jane Street (presumably her own label) 2001-04, then fell in with bassist William Parker, recording his excellent album of piano trio music Luc's Lantern and joining his Raining on the Moon group for Corn Meal Dance. Meanwhile, she now has three more albums on AUM Fidelity, a 2006 trio called Cobalt Blue, and two records this year -- this new trio and a set of duets called Duologue. The trio here repeats from Cobalt Blue: bassist David Ambrosio and drummer Ikuo Takeuichi (also on her three Jane Street albums). All original pieces. It all seems very measured and sensible, nothing that really sweeps you away, but each cut with its own bit of interest. Choice cut: "Dear Friends." B+(**) [Sept. 9]
George Colligan: Runaway (2007 , Sunnyside): Pianist, mainstream to postbop, although he's developed a sideline on Fender Rhodes that qualifies as semi-fusion. Is still under 40, but has nearly 20 albums since 1996: prodigious, very talented, has dazzling speed and dynamics ("Ghostland" is a good example here), a lot of range. Don't think he's every made a weak record, but this one wanders more than I'd like: four cuts on Fender Rhodes and/or synths, five cuts with guitarist Tom Guarna, two with Kerry Politzer vocals, one with Politzer taking over piano while Colligan plays trumpet. (He previously played drums on Politzer's piano trio album.) B+(*)
Aaron Parks: Invisible Cinema (2008, Blue Note): Pianist, from Seattle, reportedly 24, first album, although he has a number of side credits since 2003: Terence Blanchard, Christian Scott, Kendrick Scott, Ferenc Nemeth, Tim Collins, Nick Vayenas, Mike Moreno, 3 or 4 more I don't recognize. Obviously, some folks think he's a comer. After two plays I don't think much one way or the other. Most of the cuts are quartet with Moreno on guitar, Matt Penman on bass, and Eric Harland on drums, with the guitar wrapping it all together, the piano largely reduced to a rhythm role. (Some guitar-piano combos work the other way around, which is more usual on pianists' albums.) [B+(*)]
Jeff Barone: Open Up (2008, Jazzed Media): Guitarist, b. 1970 Syracuse, NY; studied at Ithaca College and Manhattan School of Music; based in NYC; second album. Most of the cuts here are in a group with Ron Oswanski on organ and Rudy Petschauer on drums, so much so that the record often falls into a slick groove bordering on smooth. There are horns, too, which ultimately prove superfluous, although Joe Magnarelli opens on trumpet like it's his own album. I like the exceptions better, including a solo piece called "Quiet Now." Ends with an alternate take of "Falling in Love With Love" which holds up better than the main take, possibly because it's set off from the flow, or maybe because it comes off less cluttered. B
Todd Herbert: The Tree of Life (2007 , Metropolitan): Tenor saxophonist, Flash-only website and not much else, so I'm short on background. Mainstream player -- label website says he "takes John Coltrane as a point of departure" but he sounds more like Dexter Gordon to me. Leads a quartet with Anthony Wonsey (piano), Dwayne Burno (bass), Jason Brown (drums) -- Wonsey gets a lot of space and makes good use of it. First album was pretty good, and this one is better. B+(**)
Willie Nelson/Wynton Marsalis: Two Men With the Blues (2007 , Blue Note): Recorded live under from two dates organized by Marsalis's Jazz at Lincoln Center empire. Neither man has any real claim to the blues, but it was only an organizing idea in the first place; in any case, the album reverted to Nelson's songbook, with two originals ("Night Life" and "Rainy Day Blues"), two Hoagy Carmichael standards Nelson has done before ("Stardust" and "Georgia on My Mind"), "Bright Lights Big City," "Caldonia," "Basin Street Blues," "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It," "Ain't Nobody's Business," and a Merle Travis joke called "That's All" -- not sure how many of those Nelson has recorded before, but the answer could be all ten. Marsalis provided the band, framing Nelson's silky voice with polished brass. A quickie, the sort of trivia that Nelson routinely tosses off as proof of his genius. B+(***)
Curlew: 1st Album/Live at CBGB (1980-81 , DMG/ARC, 2CD): NYC group, founded in 1979 by saxophonist George Cartwright, with Tom Cora (cello, indingiti), Nicky Skopelitis (guitar), Bill Laswell (Fender bass), and Bill Bacon (drums), who gives way to Denardo Coleman for the CBGB disc. Cartwright plays alto, tenor, and soprano (listed in that order). The group has gone on to record 6-8 more albums, mostly on Cuneiform. AMG styles them as: experimental rock, experimental, avant-prog, avant-garde, modern creative, jazz-rock, avant-garde jazz. I don't hear anything particularly rock-ish, but haven't heard their later albums. The more obvious reference is Ornette, who had started working with electric guitar a bit earlier, but when my wife walked in on this, she speculated that it was Anthony Braxton -- her general-purpose definition for ugly sax, but not inappropriate here. Will look into this further. [B+(***)]
Bill Cole's Untempered Ensemble: Proverbs for Sam (2001 , Boxholder): Another live recording from the Vision Festival, belatedly recycled for the rest of us. Sam is alto saxophonist Sam Furnace, present here, but deceased in 2003. The Proverbs are from the Yoruba of Nigeria. Cole was born 1937 in Pittsburgh, where he got BA and MA degrees; got his Ph.D. at Wesleyan, writing his dissertation on John Coltrane, and taught from 1974 until retiring in the 1990s at Dartmouth. He's written books on Coltrane and Miles Davis. His first album under his own name appeared in 2000; AMG lists 3 prior side credits: Jayne Cortez, Blaise Siwula, and Ken Colyer. Cole plays exotic wind instruments, mostly squeaky double reeds from Asia -- Chinese sona, Indian shenai and nagaswarm, Ghanaian flute, didgeridoo. He has a half-dozen albums, either duos or Untempered Ensemble. The latter, as well as many of the duos, include William Parker, who most likely developed his own taste in exotics from Cole. Also present here: Furnace (alto sax, flute), Joseph Daley (baritone horn, tuba, trombone), Cooper-Moore (diddly bow, rim drums, flute), Warren Smith (percussion), Atticus Cole (more percussion). A-
Mauger: The Beautiful Enabler (2006 , Clean Feed): I have no idea where the group name comes from. The group is an alto sax trio, led by Rudresh Mahanthappa, with Mark Dresser on bass and Gerry Hemingway on drums. The latter have played much together, not least in Anthony Braxton's 1980s quartet. All three write. And while the young saxophonist shows poise in navigating this tricky material, it's worth concentrating on the mastery in the rhythm section. B+(***)
Mark Dresser/Ed Harkins/Steven Schick: House of Mirrors (2006 , Clean Feed): Bassist Dresser is by far the best known of the three, but Harkins, who plays various trumpets and mellophone, is co-author of the eight pieces. Harkins has a previous album on Vinny Golia's 9 Winds label, although may far understate his experience. Schick plays "multiple percussion." Trumpet always appears somewhat muddled here, never bright or brassy. One result is that the record has little sonic presence. Knowing Dresser, that's probably not the only one. B
California Guitar Trio: Echoes (2007 , Inner Knot): Three guitarists, none from California except in their minds: Hideyo Moriya (Tokyo, Japan), Paul Richards (Salt Lake City, UT), Bert Lams (Brussels, Belgium). Started playing together in 1991 and have a dozen albums now. This is the first I've heard. All covers, with Pink Floyd providing the title cut, and someone named Ludwig Van Beethoven raided twice. Most of the songs sound tolerably New Agey, with little variation from "Bohemian Rhapsody" to "Tubular Bells." Two come with vocals, a mistake. C+
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, August 17. 2008
I noticed that in the Recent Reading list over left Geert Mak's In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century is about to slip off. That's a shame for two reasons. One is that I haven't finished the book yet. I got up to page 732, a little more than 100 shy of the end, before I had to put it down to deal with some books that I had picked up on 14-day loan from the library. I'm still in that pile, dealing with them as briskly as I can, and I've just picked up Ahmed Rashid's Descent Into Chaos: The US and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, which seems likely to be one of the more important books of the year. Also have some things that I bought that I'm itching to get into, like James K Galbraith: The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too, and Thomas Frank: The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule. (Also on order are: Arno J Mayer: Ploughshares Into Swords: From Zionism to Israel, and Andrew J Bacevich: The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. So I have plenty on my plate.
The other reason it's a shame is that I've simply gotten more pure pleasure out of Mak's book than any other book I've read this year. It's a travel book across Europe during the fin de siècle year of 1999 to a series of spots selected for what they reveal of the serial history of Europe from 1900 on. Part of the book consists of interviews with witnesses and actors, as interesting as Studs Terkel. Part is a survey of what survived and what did not. Most is relevant history. It's not purely sequential, especially in the thickly eventful interwar years. And it doesn't get to everywhere -- I would have expected a bit on the pre-1914 Balkan Wars. (Post-Tito Yugoslavia might still be in the last 100 pages.) But it's a magnificent book, revelatory, a real delight. I can hardly wait to get back to it.
Saturday, August 16. 2008
Paul Krugman: Know-Nothing Politics. Been meaning to mention this one, since it's high time someone said this:
Examples follow, but barely scratch the surface. Another quote:
Well, he's put that notion pretty definitively to rest. There's more to the Republicans than just dumb; they're also aggravated and belligerent, beneficiaries of what one pundit called "voting to kill." Neither of these traits stand them at all well to cope with much less solve the sort of problems we face -- not least of which are the problems their cults of ignorance and action have put into play.
Friday, August 15. 2008
CNN: Georgia signs cease-fire with Russia. Picked this link up from TPM, which headlined it: "Rice Slams Russia, Announces Cease-Fire." Rice flew first to Paris, picked up the cease-fire papers Sarkozy had negotiated with Georgia and Russia, and delivered them to Georgia's president Saakashvili, who had no alternative but to sign them. Evidently not even Rice had the stomach to wait out the birth pangs of a new Caucusus. The consolation prize for their little war was to let Saakashvili and Rice sing a chorus denouncing Russia's vile act in attacking plucky little Georgia. Saakashvili also got in a dig at NATO for turning down Georgian membership in NATO, spoiling his chance to start WWIII. He also said, "Never, ever will Georgia reconcile with the occupation of even one square kilometer of its sovereign territory," to which Rice added, "We support Georgia's sovereignty; we support its independence; we support its territorial integrity; we support its democracy and its democratically elected government." The article includes similar quotes from Bush, including this gem: "bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century." (He should know.)
It should be clear by now that this whole line of posturing is based on a huge and monstrous lie. This war was started by Saakashvili with a nighttime artillery attack on civilian neighborhoods in the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali. It is not clear whether this was intended to panic Ossetes into fleeing the country, but can be viewed as an attempt at ethnic cleansing -- Georgia's ability to hold South Ossetia would certainly be helped by having fewer Ossetes living there. Russia responded to Georgia's aggression, quickly driving Georgia's troops out of South Ossetia. Russia also sent troops into Abkhazia, which Georgia still claims, and entered into Georgian territory to attack positions Georgia had used for launching the war, including occupying the nearby town of Gori. As far as I've been able to tell, Russia has not attacked the Georgian capital of Tbilisi or the US-built pipeline that runs across Georgia.
By continuing to characterize this war as Russia's initiative, Bush and Rice are making it harder for both sides to back down and reduce the tension level. In fact, Bush is still adding to the tension, not just by his rhetoric but by announcing agreement with Poland to stage his ridiculous anti-missile system there. That deal had been held up in face of Russia's vehement objections, so one is tempted to argue that provoking Russia has played into Bush's hands, even if it wasn't much help for Georgia.
Michael Dobbs: 'We Are All Georgians'? Not So Fast. The Washington Post finds someone who actually knows something about this subject. He points out the Ossetians' longstanding fear of Georgian rule, and how Russia is their only support for autonomy. However, he also notes: "Playing one ethnic group off against another in the Caucasus has been standard Russian policy ever since czarist times." And he notes that Putin's high regard for South Ossetian autonomy is at odds with his brutal suppression of Chechen autonomy. He also takes a rare critical look at the US:
He then points out that the US is virtually powerless in this matter, "overextended militarily, diplomatically and economically [ . . . ] the American policeman has been loudly lecturing the rest of the world while waving an inreasingly unimpressive baton." Actually, I don't think any amount of military power works here: South Ossetia and Abkhazia have revolted every time Georgia came after them, and no further aggression is going to change that. The only way Georgia wins is through genocide, and that's no victory. On the other hand, give them real independence, and see how long they stay in love with Russia. If forever, so be it. If not, Russia would then have no more claim than Georgia does now. What the US lacks here isn't military, diplomatic, or economic power. It's common sense, decency, and respect for others.
Moon of Alabama: War Sells. Bernhard notes that his hit count has more than doubled since the Georgia war started. He wonders, "Is there a human desire to read about inhuman self?" There's certainly nothing like a war to get your attention, especially one as senseless and stupid as this one -- I don't think I've read or written as much in such concentration since the last time Israel invaded Lebanon. Still, Bernhard has earned his hits. The piece includes links to 11 posts he wrote over the last week, and that skips the one attacking Juan Cole's Salon piece. (Pace Cole, before acting militarily, Russia did appeal to the UN, where evidently the US and UK refused to condemn Georgia or demand a cease fire.) His pieces have been refreshingly sharp and informative -- more pro-Russian than I would venture, but there's plenty of counterweight elsewhere (and sometimes, as with Cole's piece, appears to be gratuitous and wrong, something dropped in to provide a false sense of balance).
Mark Almond: Caucasus Conflict. An Oxford historian who evidently has spent a good deal of time in Georgia. He was asked by several UK publications for comments on the conflict, and noted that his views "usually differed from the 'experts' who had not been there." He publishes three such pieces in this post, providing three slightly different takes depending on how you post the question. For instance, on how this fits into the Cold War framework:
On the question of how this could blow up into WWIII, he picks a different historical analogy: Sarajevo, 1914. Little countries can't do much damage, unless big countries let themselves get tangled up in their fights, which properly speaking they shouldn't. He quotes Kissinger again: "Great powers don't commit suicide for their allies." Still, the neocon's blind faith in good-vs-evil is something to worry about.
He also has some things to say about Georgia's vaunted democracy, which elected Saakashvili with a suspicious 97% of the vote:
Almond has written about Georgia before. The following is from a November 2007 post, in a section called "The Ceausescu of the Caucasus?":
He also has another post, Caucasian Bloody Circle, where he reprints a piece he wrote in 2004, titled "US Blinded by Love for Saakashvili." It's worth reading, especially for the US's long track record of promoting nationalist discord in Georgia -- and for how completely Democrats as well as Republicans have contributed to it. It's like a death wish -- which right now strikes me as a fair description of McCain's politicking on this issue.
Postscript: Didn't want to get started on yet another Georgia post (there have been 5 in the last week), but couldn't resist passing this one along, on the Charles Krauthammer column I mentioned a while back.
Matthew Yglesias: Krauthammer: Russia Must Leave Georgia by 2014 . . . Or Else!. Just read it. And note that he didn't even use the Charlie Wilson's War bit.