Monday, February 28. 2011
Starting to think about closing this round. I hear that there is yet another space squeeze in the Village Voice, so my column word count has to drop from 1600 to 1300. I have more than that already written, so no real reason not to wrap it up sooner rather than later. The only way I can dig out of this hole would be to file more frequently. I've often wanted to but never pushed hard, so I don't really know whether the Voice would go along. As usual, don't have a clear idea on pick hits or duds. Have a lot of rated records still unreviewed, so the next two weeks will probably focus more on them, as I pick and choose what to push up or hold back.
Well into this past week I was so frustrated with prospecting that I figured I'd blow off this week. Indeed, don't have much below. Even so, my rated count for the week topped 30, so I must be piling up a lot of Rhapsody Streamnotes. They'll run in about a week, after Downloader's Diary and Recycled Goods, but I'll include a couple of jazz items now -- usual caveats apply, but right now they're the most promising records below. Did get a package from Arbors, which included a Sportiello trio but not the Hamilton-Sportiello duo below.
Negroni's Trio: Just Three (2010, Mojito): Piano trio, fourth album since 2003. The pianist is José Negroni, from Puerto Rico; his son, Nomar Negroni, plays drums, and Marco Panascia plays bass. Fast, percussive, not much more. B+(*)
Ralph Bowen: Power Play (2009 , Posi-Tone): Tenor saxophonist, can't find any record of when born but 1965 is a fair guess; 7 or 8 albums since 1992, more going back to 1985 if you count his group Out of the Blue. Mainstream player, imposing on tenor, plays a little soprano or alto (not specified which) here, not his strong suit. Quartet with pianist Orrin Evans, who does what the role requires but doesn't make his usual strong impression. "My One and Only Love" is a highlight. B+(**)
Harrison Smith Quartet: Telling Tales (2007 , 33 Records): Tenor saxophonist, with soprano sax and bass clarinet for change-ups. From England, b. 1946. AMG lists one previous album, from 1998, but played in District Six for much of the 1980s with South African pianist Chris McGregor, and also shows up with the London Improvisers Orchestra. Quartet, with piano (Liam Noble), bass (Dave Whitford), and drums (Winston Clifford). B+(*)
Donny McCaslin: Perpetual Motion (2010 , Greenleaf Music): Tenor saxophonist, you know, an awesome player when he builds up a full head of steam. Most tracks have Fender Rhodes (Adam Benjamin, sometimes on piano; two tracks add Uri Caine on piano, and one subs Caine on Fender Rhodes), electric bass (Tim Lefebvre), and drums (Antonio Sanchez or Mark Guiliana). Dave Binney produced, dabbles in electronics, and plays alto sax on one track. The Fender Rhodes/bass grooves go on way too long and rarely rise above the pedestrian. The sax is something else, but you know that. B+(*)
Barton McLean: Soundworlds (2010, Innova): Avant composer, b. 1936, student of Henry Cowell. The five pieces date from 1984-2009; don't know if those are composition or recording dates, since no separate recording dates are given, and the groups vary although most was worked out by McLean on his computer and/or tape recorder. Opener is a concerto with piano solo with Petersburgh Electrophilharmonia. Closer picks up some Amazonian and Australian bird samples. B+(**)
The Jazz Passengers: Reunited (1995-2010 , Justin Time): Group formed in late 1980s by Roy Nathanson (alto sax), Curtis Fowlkes (trombone), with Bill Ware (vibes) a long-time member. Cut six albums in 1990s, starting out as an avant-skronk group with occasional novelty vocals and winding up as a showcase for ex-Blondie Debby Harry. First new album since 1998, although Nathanson has had several increasingly vocal albums in the meantime. Mostly new, that is, because it ends with two live cuts from 1995 with Harry singing -- "One Way or Another" is a special treat. The other outlier is a cover of "Spanish Harlem" with Fowlkes and Susi Hyidgaard vocals and Spanish intro and outro chatter, cut in 2010. The rest were cut in 2009, with guest Marc Ribot on guitar and Sam Bardfield on violin -- the 1995 cuts included a lineup credit with Rob Thomas on violin. The one cover in that group is the title song, a 1978 hit for Peaches & Herb, the perfect joke for breaking a decade-long hiatus. Elvis Costello warbles another, strategically placed first. B+(***)
Terrence McManus: Brooklyn EP (2009 , self-released): Solo guitar, five tracks, only 16:52, just a few bites, albeit tasty ones. Better is his duo with Gerry Hemingway, Below the Surface Of, and not just because drums make life better. B+(*)
World Saxophone Quartet: Yes We Can (2009 , Jazzwerkstatt): Live in Berlin, about two months after Obama took office as president of the United States. WSQ dates back to 1977, their initial album (Point of No Return) also released on a German label (Moers). Back then the foursome were Hamiet Bluiett (baritone), David Murray (tenor), Oliver Lake (alto), and Julius Hemphill (alto): four major players each in his own right, but Hemphill was arguably the leader, the one most focused on the harmonic possibilities of four saxophones and nothing else. With Hemphill's death in 1995, the survivors diversified, sneaking in drums, auditioning a wide range of fourth horns, even juking up a terrific collection of Political Blues. This one goes back to their roots, four saxes, nothing else. Not sure why Lake sat it out; his alto is replaced by Kidd Jordan. The other slot goes to James Carter, playing tenor and soprano; not only a great player in his own right, but early in his career he was played on Hemphill's sax-only Five Chord Stud, and briefly ran his own sax choir, recorded as Saxemble. As much as I admire the individuals in WSQ, I've always found the sax-only palette to be a bit narrow, and that's a limit here, which they work around ingeniously. B+(***)
Eric Reed: The Dancing Monk (2009 , Savant): Mainstream pianist, recording steadily since the early 1990s, in a trio with Ben Wolfe on bass and McClenty Hunter on drums, plays ten Monk songs, with a little more dexterity and a lot less mystery than Monk himself. Interesting that music that was so idiosyncratic as to be unplayable in the 1950s now seems so routine. B
Paul Tynan & Aaron Lington: Bicoastal Collective: Chapter Two (2009 , OA2): Trumpet/baritone sax respectively, met at North Texas State, nowhere near any coast. Quintet, with Scott Sorkin's guitar central and essential. B+(**)
These are some even quicker notes based on downloading or streaming records. I don't have the packaging here, don't have the official hype, often don't have much information to go on. I have a couple of extra rules here: everything gets reviewed/graded in one shot (sometimes with a second play), even when I'm still guessing on a grade; the records go into my flush file (i.e., no Jazz CG entry, unless I make an exception for an obvious dud). If/when I get an actual copy I'll reconsider the record.
Scott Hamilton/Rossano Sportiello: Midnight at NOLA's Penthouse (2010 , Arbors): Duets, tenor sax and piano respectively. Sportiello is a swing pianist, b. 1974, modeled on Ralph Sutton and many others from Earl Hines to Bill Evans; has some solo albums, a couple of duos with bassist-vocalist Nicki Parrott, but has never been so completely at ease as here. Same for Hamilton, a very relaxed, easy swinging set. B+(***) [Rhapsody]
Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House Ensemble: The Tide Has Changed (2010, World Village): Saxophonist, alto is his mainstay but I hear a lot of soprano here, some clarinet. From Israel, b. 1963, based in London. Writes a lot of political screeds about Israel, which I mostly agree with but he has a chip on his shoulders I don't share. Names his band after the headquarters of the PLO in East Jerusalem. Combines traditional Jewish and Arab music, a dash of Weimar cabaret, some Coltrane-ish sax, accordion, some exceptionally lovely piano. B+(***) [Rhapsody]
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 to date, look here.
Unpacking: Found in the mail over the last week:
Sunday, February 27. 2011
Some scattered links I squirreled away during the previous week:
Friday, February 25. 2011
I feel like I should write something about Boeing being awarded a $35 billion Air Force contract to convert obsolete 767 airliners into tankers. The tankers would replace the existing fleet of KC-135 tankers, based on vintage Boeing 707 airliners, in service since the late 1950s -- seems like a long time, but they've periodically been retrofitted with new wings, engines, electronics, and so forth. In fact, keeping them flying has been a boon to the Wichita economy -- their replacement will cost jobs in Wichita that could well be moved elsewhere, a downside no one has bothered to mention in the perpetual hype over how many new jobs new tankers will provide.
Some Wichita Eagle links:
The Eagle also ran a useful timeline on the history of the scam, but I haven't found a link on their website. A slightly better article on the lobbying efforts is at OpenSecrets: Eric Chiu: Boeing Wins Refueling Tanker Contract After Massive Sustained Political Influence Effort. This points out that EADS, the military spinoff of Airbus, spent $3 million on lobbying last year. Boeing spent more than $17.5 million.
People like to talk about jobs here, as indeed they do with every serving of military pork. Even Republicans who've waged a holy war recently against John Maynard Keynes and the very suggestion that any government spending program could create jobs -- there's a very musty classical economics theory by David Ricardo that says as much, and has been miraculously resurrected recently long after Nixon insisted that "we are all Keynesians now" -- get all misty-eyed over defense contracts. And Democrats like Dicks, or former Boeing favorite Richard Gephardt, go positively ga-ga. Still, if you buy the estimates at face value, those 50,000 jobs will wind up costing $700,000 apiece. You don't have to be Harry Hopkins to come up with a more efficient jobs program than that.
Then there's the question of why the hell do we need these things anyway? The main purpose of a tanker is to act as an airborne filling station for fighters and bombers, to help them go further without having to find a landing strip. The main reason for doing that is to start wars in faraway countries. Now that we've spent the last decade blundering around the far side of the globe blowing up wedding parties and generally making ourselves a public menace, what everyone should be asking is why do we want to spend a lot more money to do even more of that?
Then there is the political corruption angle. The initial idea for a new tanker fleet wasn't thought up by the Air Force -- they were much more obsessed with future generations of stealth attack aircraft. The idea came from Boeing, and the main thing that spurred it on was that Boeing had this whole manufacturing line tooled up for the 767, which would soon be rendered obsolete by a new generation of advanced technology airliners -- the so-called Dreamliner, which Boeing has yet to deliver after more than ten years of mismanagement. So Boeing figured that there would be easy profits if they could get the Air Force to buy up their obsolete technology. The problem was that the Air Force didn't have any money to do so, so Boeing came up with a crackpot scheme to finance the planes privately and lease them to the government, so they would only appear as an operating expense on the Air Force books -- a real fat one, to be sure. That scheme blew up, and ended with several Boeing officials going to jail, but eventually the lobbying produced a new round of bidding. EADS got involved in the second round. They figured that if the US wanted Europeans to fight and die in Afghanistan, they should get a shot at the Pentagon booty, and they wound up winning the contract -- only to have Boeing go bezerk pulling in political favors to rebid the whole deal. Indeed, Boeing has such a huge home-field advantage, in political clout, lobbying dollars, flag waving, etc., that it's surprising that this was even close. But Boeing also has a horrible record of producing the things they sell -- indeed, their core competency has moved from airframes to crony capitalism, which seems to be the only thing they're at all competent in these days.
I've written about this several times in the past. My father, my brother, a couple of uncles, and numerous friends and acquaintances worked for Boeing. It is a company that has at times accomplished remarkable things, but lately has become a prime example of everything wrong in American business, and America more generally, today. You'll find many of the same points made over and over here:
Also found pre-blog notebook entries dealing with Boeing and most often the tanker scam. Dates: 2003-04-03, 2003-05-24, 2004-01-28, 2004-07-19, 2005-02-23, 2005-03-09, 2005-03-20, 2005-06-10, 2005-06-20. I used to have a website where a lot of this older stuff was archived, but it's down for now.
The key points are: that we already have way more tanker capacity than we need; we certainly don't need any more, and over the long run should radically cut back; the lobbying process is intensely corrupting, both of our elected officials, of the so-called public servants working in the Pentagon, and ultimately of Boeing itself; Boeing has lost its corporate soul.
Of course, the tanker contract award won't be the last that is heard of this whole thing. EADS will protest, and Europe and Alabama will feel shafted -- has their ever been a politician more in the pockets of foreign capitalists than Sen. Richard Shelby? The ridiculous price tag will look like a ripe target for anyone looking for government waste -- both by Tea Partiers and possibly by a Pentagon that never really wanted the thing in the first place. And Boeing's become so inept at manufacturing that we'll see innumerable delays and cost overruns before any plane appears. Maybe the whole thing will be scuttled by a labor dispute over at Boeing's subcontractors in China. I bet I've read over a thousand pieces on this over the last decade-plus. I'm sick of it, and amazed that other critics of US military-industrial policy haven't taken it up. (Robert Scheer does write about it a bit in his The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America.)
But right now Boeing is happy, thinking that crime really does pay. We'll see.
Thursday, February 24. 2011
Update: Added a paragraph toward the end.
I don't feel like I'm getting very good information on whatever's happening in Libya these days, so haven't had much to say. One thing that I do think is that the longstanding antagonism the US has shown toward Libya ever since Gaddafi seized power and forced the US to give up its military presence in Libya -- Wheelus Air Force Base, founded in 1943 to bomb Italy and Germany, but kept as a major cold war installation -- in 1970. Gaddafi rightly saw the US presence as a remnant of the Euro-American colonial past and as an affront to Libyan independence and sovereignty, but the US never forgave the impudence. The US withdrew its ambassador in 1972 -- an act Gaddafi rightly called "childish" -- starting off a long series of affronts and acts of spurious revenge. A useful historical timeline is here -- a couple years old, and could use more detail, especially on dealings with US oil companies which are a nontrivial part of US foreign policy in the region.
It should be clear that Gaddafi's support for terrorism came more often than not in response to US (and Israeli) policies and acts. Also that the various instances of US and Israel shooting down Libyan aircraft and Reagan's 1986 bombings of Tripoli and Benghazi were themselves heinous acts of terrorism. I don't mean to make excuses for Gaddafi, but it is significant that the site he chose for his speech where he vowed to die a martyr was the ruins of the 1986 bombing. That little bit of stage decoration was one of many ways the US has inadvertently kept Gaddafi in power.
I don't know much about Gaddafi's rule of Libya: whether he has been a progressive force, or a kleptocrat, or what, or how repressive he has been, or what his day-to-day role has been since he gave up any official position in the government -- he seems to be a rare example of what you might call "dictator emeritus" (Fidel Castro may be another). I know a little more about Gaddafi's interference with neighboring African states, where his incursions into Chad and his involvement in Darfur appear to have been disastrous -- that all by itself provides plenty of reason to wish for his demise.
Despite Bush's 2006 efforts to restore normal relations between the US and Libya, the US has little actual influence in Libya, and as such is ineffective in trying to restrain Gaddafi from using brute force to put down the rebellion. (Compare with Egypt, where Mubarak was practically on the US dole. Syria is another country where the US has no constructive influence.) Moreover, Gaddafi is so readily and universally despised in the US that policy makers are fervently looking for ways to meddle, oblivious to the fact that we've already messed up Libya quite enough, thank you. At this point it's hard for me to see how any outside pressure the US can apply can do much good. One can, of course, reiterate how much we disapprove of violent repression, and we can promise that all past differences will be forgotten once Libya is a democracy. Maybe there are funds that should be frozen, but sanctions in the midst of chaos seem like a pointlessly self-gratifying gesture, and a "no fly zone" seems like the perfect way to remind Libyans of our past crimes.
Besides, I expect that on their own Libya's elites will split against Gaddafi. When the Iron Wall fell, each nation in eastern Europe broke its own way -- most violently in Romania, the nation with the most charismatic leader and the greatest personality cult, not that either saved Ceausescu. Rather, they clarified the choice.
By the way, as all Marines know, US military involvement in Libya predates WWII. It goes all the way back to 1804 under Thomas Jefferson, the first time US forces were used overseas. At the time, Tripoli was a poorly managed outpost of the Ottoman Empire, much engaged in piracy, much like Somalia today. It's not clear that the intervention actually accomplished anything, other than to be remembered in song. But with piracy in the news again today, we should reflect on how badly we fucked up Somalia in the past before we rush in to fuck them over again.
Monday, February 21. 2011
Should start thinking about closing this column out. Plenty of records in the bag already. Haven't felt like concentrating on the task. In fact, was so down on jazz midweek I thought I'd scratch this week, but came up with enough for now. Not much mail either, so I actually reduced the backlog for once.
One frustration remains having to chase things down. Not below, but I streamed a good jazz record from Rhapsody last week, one by an artist with a couple past A-list records, on a label (Arbors) I used to get regularly. Pictured to the right is a Ken Vandermark record. You'd think as much as I've writen about him I'd get new ones automatically, but I still don't have heard Vandermark 5's The Horse Jumps/The Ship Is Gone. In my book, the last V5 album that fell short of A- was Burn the Incline, back in 2000, more than ten records ago.
Yaron Herman Trio: Follow the White Rabbit (2010 , ACT): Pianist, b. 1981 in Israel, studied at Berklee, fifth album since 2003. Trio with Chris Tordini on bass and Tommy Crane on drums, recorded in Leipzig, Germany. Four covers plus ten originals (one group-credited); covers include one from Nirvana and one from Radiohead. B+(*)
Norman Johnson: If Time Stood Still (2010, Pacific Coast Jazz): Guitarist, b. in Kingston, Jamaica; studied at Hartford Conservatory, was dean there for nine years. First album under own name, has scattered credits, mostly backing vocalists. Credits George Benson for inspiration, and Earl Klugh as an influence; sole cover is from Pat Metheny. Plays some nylon-string as well as electric and acoustic. Mostly stays in comfortable grooves with piano-bass-drums-percussion, dressed up with string on one cut, brass (Josh Bruneau and Steve Davis) on three, with Chris Herbert's sax on more, flute on one. B
Anthony Branker & Ascent: Dance Music (2010, Origin): Composer-arranger, b. 1958, evidently started off playing trumpet but just runs things here. Second album, mostly a sextet plus vocalist Kadri Voorand, who wrote lyrics to four Branker pieces. Not so danceable, but bold compositions, strong sax breaks, especially tenor Ralph Bowen. B+(**)
Gene Pritsker: Varieties of Religious Experience Suite (2010, Innova): Following spine here; cover has two blocks of type: on top, "Varieties of Religious Experience Suite Gene Pritsker's Sound Liberation"; below and larger, "VRE Suite." Pritsker is a guitarist and -- sometimes but not here -- rapper. Can't find much discography, but website claims Pritsker "has written over three hundred ninety compositions, including chamber operas, orchestral and chamber works, electro-acoustic music, songs for hip-hop and rock ensembles, etc." This group is string-driven, with two guitars, cello, bass and drums. Title comes from William James, who is namechecked in 3 of 8 titles; Tolstoy gets one more. B+(**)
Dadi: Bem Aqui (2009 , Sunnyside): Brazilian singer-songwriter, full name Eduardo Magalhães de Carvalho, b. 1952 in Rio de Janeiro. Hard to find much info: has at least one previous album (Dadi, from 2005, released on a Japanese label) and some (maybe a lot) of session work -- was on a Mick Jagger record, and several by Marisa Monte. He plays guitar, keyboards, percussion, and sings. This one has been sitting patiently in my queue for over a year now. Got zero metafile mentions. All in Portuguese, one cover (Chico Buarque), only one solo credit among the remaining eleven songs, several shared with Marisa Monte or Arnaldo Antunes -- makes me wonder if he isn't some sort of Billy Joe Shaver-type songwriter recycling his hits-for-others. Reinforcing that is that everything here is catchy, the quirks engaging, the flow irresistible. A-
Mike Olson: Incidental (2009 , Henceforth): Composer, from Minneapolis, plays keyboards but looking at his web site there is little there other than his compositional theories and focus. Six numbered pieces here. Haven't found any other albums by him. Large cast of musicians, including strings, flutes, bassoon, guitars, and the usual jazz horns. Fairly dense and gloomy; makes for an interesting framework. B+(**)
Eddie Gomez/Cesarius Alvim: Forever (2010, Plus Loin Music): Gomez is a bassist, b. 1944 in Puerto Rico, AMG credits him with 17 albums since 1976, plus more than a hundred credits, with Bill Evans looming large on the first page, also Chick Corea. Don't know much about Alvim: I've seen him described as "Brazilian-French"; AMG lists one more album (from 2000) and a few side credits, starting in 1982 playing bass with Martial Solal. (Discogs has three 1976-79 credits with Alvin playing bass with pianist Jean-Pierre Mas.) Plays piano here, not very splashy. Low key, intimate, rather lovely duet. B+(**)
Vijay Anderson: Hardboiled Wonder Land (2008 , Not Two): Drummer, based in Oakland. Works with Lisa Mezzacappa's Bait & Switch (real good album on Clean Feed) and Aaron Bennett's Go-Go Fightmaster (haven't heard their record, but I've bumped into Bennett on Mezzacappa's record and an even better one by Adam Lane). First album under his own name. Two guitars (Ava Mendoza and John Finkbeiner), two reeds (Sheldon Brown on alto/tenor/soprano sax, Ben Goldberg on clarinet), and vibes (Smith Dobson V). Starts with slick textures, and the horns always remain rather soft, rarely standing out. Nice feature with the vibes. B+(**)
Doug Webb: Renovations (2009 , Posi-Tone): Saxophonist, plays 'em all but is pictured with a tenor, and that's mostly what I hear. Lives in LA, where he's done a ton of studio work. Second album on mainstream-focused Posi-Tone -- has also recorded for avant-oriented Cadence/CIMP in a group with Mat Marucci. Quartet, with bass (Stanley Clarke), drums (Gerry Gibbs), and a changing cast of pianists. All covers, like "Satin Doll" and "They Can't Take That Away From Me." Big, bold sound, perfect for saxophone lovers. B+(***)
Chad McCullough/Michal Vanoucek: The Sky Cries (2009 , Origin): McCullough plays trumpet/flugelhorn, is based in Seattle, has a previous record plus a later one in my queue -- I've been negligent getting to this one. Vanoucek is a pianist, b. 1977 in Slovakia; studied in Bratislava and The Hague. No idea how he hooked up with McCullough, but together they've "toured major venues in Washington, Oregon and Idaho." They split ten compositions, with a post-hard-bop quintet, Mark Taylor on alto sax, Dave Captein on bass, Matt Jorgensen on drums. Lively compositions with fluid piano leads. B+(*)
Tom Culver: Sings Johnny Mercer (2010, Rhombus): Singer, based in Los Angeles, second album, does a nice job on 18 Johnny Mercer songs, with enough grit and resonance to salvage even things like "Moon River." B+(*)
Serafin: Love's Worst Crime (2010, Serafin): Singer, from Canada, b. in Vancouver, grew up near Toronto, surname LaRiviere, third album. Touts a five octave vocal range that effectively made the opener "Comes Love" sound female, becoming more ambiguous later on. He wrote most of the songs -- the other covers are "My Baby Just Cares for Me," "Don't Explain," and "Skylark." Has a cabaret feel, most seductive in the dark. B+(***)
Roger Cairns and Gary Fukushima: The Dream of Olwen (2010, AHP): Vocalist and pianist, respectively. Cairns was b. 1946 in Scotland; is based in Los Angeles; has two previous albums, his 2006 debut titled A Scot in L.A. All standards, Alec Wilder and Marilyn and Alan Bergman getting multiple calls. Very minimal, like Tony Bennett and Bill Evans, not quite that special. B+(*)
Lisa Maxwell: Return to Jazz Standards (2010, CDBaby): Singer, b. Nov. 29 sometime in the 20th century; second album, standards as advertised -- Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers & Hart, Loesser, the obligatory Jobim -- produced and arranged by pianist George Newall, replete with goopy, anonymous strings. Nice voice, all smiles. B
Stephan Micus: Bold as Light (2007-10 , ECM): German composer, b. 1953, plays various zithers, flute-like things, and percussion instruments from all around the world. Has a couple dozen albums since 1976, most on ECM. Did this solo, including three cuts where he multitracked his own voice. Too exotic to fall into the New Age genre AMG assigned him to; too minimalist for AMG's Ethnic Fusion style. An interesting set of upset expectations. B+(**)
Dolores Scozzesi: A Special Taste (2010, Rhombus): Singer, b. in New York, don't really grasp her comings and goings but wound up from 2005 on producing cabaret programs, the first called "Stuck in the 60s." Covers not quite standards -- Bob Dylan gets two calls. Voice takes some getting used to but has authority. Mark Winkler produced. B
Free Fall: Gray Scale (2008 , Smalltown Superjazz): Ken Vandermark's clarinet trio, modelled on Jimmy Giuffre's famous trio, with Håvard Wiik on piano for Paul Bley and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on bass for Steve Swallow. Fourth album for the trio. I've always found this to be the hardest of Vandermark's groups to connect with, but then I was mostly baffled by Giuffre's Free Fall album -- unlike the Steve Lacy-Roswell Rudd School Days, inspiration for one of his most boisterous groups. Still, this record has slowly gained on me, in part because the piano moves beyond prickly abstract to provide a multi-faceted structural underpinning, partly because of the way Vandermark can muscle up his clarinet, and partly because working all that tension out the group can occasionally just relax and enjoy the flow. Memo to self: should pull Free Fall out some time and give it another chance. A-
No final grades/notes this week on records put back for further listening the first time around.
Unpacking: Found in the mail over the last week:
Sunday, February 20. 2011
Some scattered links I squirreled away during the previous week:
Let yesterday's Expert Witness thread go -- the mob quickly moved on to rock movies, a subject not very fresh in my mind. Did want to make some points about unions. Beyond any doubting, the stronger the union movement was in America, the better off working people were -- even ones who didn't belong to unions. That was partly because the credible threat of unionization made non-union companies -- IBM was the most famous such example -- more sensitive to worker complaints. But it's also because unions -- at least once the movement put Samuel Gompers to rest -- cared about more than just dues-paying members: unions were in the forefront of civil rights and civil liberties issues for all Americans.
The collapse of the union movement was by no means inevitable in the US. We could very well have found ourselves akin to Germany with workers recognized as stakeholders on the boards of companies, but we had this one completely anomalous election in 1946 which swung Congress to the Republican Party, allowing them to pass Taft-Hartley. (The same Congress passed the first law dismantling parts of banking law, also over Truman's veto, and that in turn eventually led to the return of depression economics in the 2000s.) Taft-Hartley did two things: it immediately convinced the AFL-CIO that they wouldn't be able to organize effectively in the South, so they stopped trying; and over the long term it gave companies powerful tools to keep unions from organizing, and eventually to break unions, with no real risks even when their anti-union activities were technically illegal. The Republicans lost Congress as quickly as they had won. Had they been stopped, it's hard to see how they ever would have pushed such laws through.
Truman vetoed Taft-Hartley. Southern racists provided the extra votes the Republicans needed to override Truman's veto. However, Truman was not without fault. During WWII businesses had grown fat on government spending and wages were held in check by government wage-price controls. When those controls were lifted, unions sought a fair share of those gains, and often went on strike. When they did, the one person most likely to condemn and attack the strikes was Harry Truman. As such, Truman did as much as anyone to feed anti-union fervor, ultimately undermining both the working class and the Democratic Party. This was not the first time and sure not the last when the Democrats in power worked hard to undermine their supporters, making it possible for their enemies to walk all over them.
Personally, I don't think that unions were ever the right answer but they often provided a necessary check on the normal drives of business to dominate and consume labor. Back during the New Deal, the favored term was countervailing power. It was commonly observed that "power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely" -- and the way to minimize that corruption was to make sure that all power centers were balanced off by countervailing power centers. Unions were an elegant solution to corporate powers -- especially to the ever-larger corporations that dominated the US in the mid-20th century. Up through the 1970s, most company-union deals involved an equitable split of returns from productivity increases. Since then virtually all productivity benefits were captured by companies. It shouldn't surprise anyone that productivity increased faster in the period when both companies and workers benefited than in the subsequent era. Nor that in the former era wealth was more equitably shared.
The secret was to align worker and company interests: unions helps to do this, but employee ownership is even more effective. I became convinced of this working in high-tech startups -- even when the ownership distribution was limited the gains were little short of amazing. So that's where I think we should be moving, at least in the long-term. Still, here and now any gain for unions is a plus, and every attack on unions is an attack on the public welfare, and indeed on the community and nation as a whole.
Saturday, February 19. 2011
Since Robert Christgau's Expert Witness blog started appearing, his twice-weekly posts have been garnering a few dozen comments early on, up to as many as 500 more recently. More like a discussion group, with a dozen or so regulars contributing heavily, another dozen or two hangers on offering the occasional comment. I would be in the lower half of the latter group. I've also been logging my comments, along with some other notes, in my online notebook -- a file I don't expect anyone else to read but I find it a handy place to find things later on. (E.g., all of my blog posts wind up there, plus all of the Jazz CG notes, plus more or less junk, like some first drafts I gave up on.
Mostly on music, but with Wisconsin's Republican governor calling out the National Guard to smash public employee unions, the comments section took a political turn. I wrote two longish comments which I thought worth sharing here. Will throw in some more bits for context, and some further comments.
I keep peeling away layers as I go back. Christgau wasn't the first person to mention Wisconsin, but parenthetically replied:
This is quite an insight, getting both the scorched earth flavor of the Republican strategy, and its understanding that the victims are people who are likely to matter to us.
Robert Christgau responds, with what looks like an invite to me:
True, I do have a lot to say about centrism, but I didn't really follow up on that aspect. Christgau added another post linking to a recent Robert Reich blog post (I've substituted the link below for the one on Salon where I read it):
I would have been tempted to argue that nobody in Sweden could possibly swell Krugman's head any further, but BurtM responded more sensitively:
I finally wrote my post, adding more on Reich/Krugman although that wasn't the main point. The asides wound up in a second post due to some space constraint. They referred back to other comments, including Cam Patterson's one on "why I live in America."
Robert Christgau responded kindly:
I would have been more defensive about the living standards of union officials. In my experience (and I must admit I never knew Jimmy Hoffa) they're not far out of line from the people they represent. Of course, you heard the same innuendo about "welfare queens" -- a species that to my knowledge has never been proven to exist. Anyone who wants to track down solidstatendc on why unions suck or japadsfdf on centrism can do their own digging. The anti-union spiel is particularly tiring, an example of the echo chamber endlessly beating propaganda into our brains. The only real question is: if not the union, who else will stand up for workers getting screwed over by the bosses? Find me a better solution, otherwise you're just asserting that the powerful are right to trample over the weak.
He followed that up with some stats about illegal immigration in Kansas, then wound up:
I responded with this:
The Democrats do have a problem fielding candidates in Kansas. They don't have an infrastructure that grooms candidates from the precinct level up like the Republicans do, and they don't have anyway near the level of access to media and funding.
Some other comments popped up. NickiFrooj:
Again, personal experience begs to differ, not that I'm so sure it matters anyway. This is an example of the cognitive dissonance I talked about above.
No doubt this is true. One can even argue that this is what Obama is doing, although not with enough passion and conviction to convince the people who voted for him that he's really on their side. I just think Obama gives too much away on the rare occasions he argues anything, and his conciliatory approach turns off his supporters even more than an abrasive approach would turn off the other side.
Still, I don't think the path to peace is paved with war, and I do think the most essential goal is mutual respect, so we do have to find ways to make the means consonant with the ends. Just hard to do that when you're trying to engage people who hate you, reasoning with those who abjure reason, whose heads are so full of nonsense you can't even fathom where it's all coming from.
Should have mentioned that the specific comment stream is here, 169 deep at the moment and certain to grow larger by the next Expert Witness post. Much more that could have been quoted, including sharpsm:
Not sure how serious Milo Miles was in wanting to shut us all up, but hint taken.
Wednesday, February 16. 2011
The main topic this week seems to be Obama's budget proposal, which is hugely disappointing in practically every way I can imagine. Yet the only way that directly matters is how it holds up against schemes even worse being bandied about by the House Republicans. As Andrew Leonard points out, even with last year's Democratic majorities Congress didn't actually wind up passing a budget, so the odds of that happening now are even slimmer. What Obama's presumably doing is staking out the ground he wants to argue over in the runup to the next election. Thus he wants to be able to point to lots of spending cuts. And while his budget arguably enables the Republicans to insist on deeper and more painful cuts, it's not like they're going to turn around and accuse him of counterstimulating the economy, since they've already locked themselves into that position.
Still, the whole debate as presently constituted is just disgusting. I've warned all along that it would be nothing short of insane to give the Republicans any perch of power in Washington, and we've already seen that prediction born out in the House. All I really have to say about it is I told you so, and I'm sure you'll be as sick of hearing it as I'll be of saying it two years from now. At this point, I don't even care if Obama's budget strategy works or not. I've never been an advocate of making things worse to get a better reaction, but if the American people are stupid enough to empower Republicans, they clearly need to be smashed around with a harder, sharper stick. I don't know how else to get through to people. (In retrospect, those of us who supported TARP made a mistake. Clearly now, we should have made sure that people realized that chasm wasn't just a colorful colloquialism. Instead, what we got was an even more concentrated banking system and nothing to help an economy that was, if you subtract the bubble of the financial system, already ailing.) Even if Obama does win the big budget cuts showdown on points, he's already sacrificed both principle and understanding to do so. Nothing good will come of it.
Meanwhile, some links that might have been interesting if we were actually in a situation where political policy mattered:
The Reich-Leonard flap about marginal tax rates is an example of one of those things we can't talk about because we have to stay focused inside the box, which is a place where we can't talk about taxing the rich.
You can't say that Boehner isn't completely insensitive about the employment effects of government spending cuts. He did, after all, keep the F-35 second engine scam in his budget, possibly because the GE plant that would make the engine is located in his district. That's just the sort of fatally compromisd message that fails to convince, as evidenced by the bipartisan House vote against the program. Also suggests that military spending isn't as sacrosanct as Obama seems to believe.
Monday, February 14. 2011
Another week in the doldrums of the column cycle, plus in the middle of the month when I have few tasks to wrap up or bear down on, plus in the middle of a winter that fairly sucks -- will, I guess, be one to recall when global warming makes such things nostalgic.
Ernestine Anderson: Nightlife (2008-09 , High Note): Veteran r&b singer, came up with Johnny Otis 1947-49, moved on to Lionel Hampton, and has been moving ever since. Cut some records 1956-60, then dropped out of sight until Concord revived her in 1976 with 12 albums through 1993, and now has 3 since 2003 on High Note, this one sampling two Dizzy's Club Coca Cola sets straddling her 80th birthday. Voice is a bit gruff; songbook is mostly blues. Should be ordinary but actually she gives a remarkable performance, with a big boost from the label's resident saxophone genius, Houston Person. B+(***)
Joey DeFrancesco/Robi Botos/Vito Rezza/Phil Dwyer: One Take: Volume Four (2010, Alma): Something the label and producer Peter Cardinali do: round up a set of musicians, bust them loose on standard songs with no rehearsals, everything done in one take. Lineup varies a little. Volume One had DeFrancesco, Guido Basso, Lorne Lofsky, and Rezza; Volume Two had Dwyer, Botos, Marc Rogers, and Terri Lyne Carrington; Volume Three went with Don Thompson and Reg Schwager. Volume Four returns with four repeaters from previous lineups. DeFrancesco does his usual organ shtick, although with out his usual guitarist he stands out a bit more, even with the Botos' contrasting keyboards. But Dwyer is key -- one of those broad-toned tenor saxophonists born to play soul jazz. B+(**)
Alison Ruble: Ashland (2009 , Origin): Singer, second album, mix of traditional standards -- "S' Wonderful," "Let's Fall in Love," "Night and Day" -- and rock-era pieces, if only up to the early 1970s -- "Route 66," Dylan, King Crimson, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris. Arrangements by guitarist John McLean, flute and sax by Jim Gailloreto, Hammond B3, cello, bass, and drums. Pieces are handsomely framed and elegantly sung. B+(*)
Patti Austin: Sound Advice (2010 , Shanachie): Soul singer, church-style although she actually got her first break with song-and-dance-man Sammy Davis. Checkered career, her RCA contract at age 5 doesn't seem to have left anything in her discography, then there were patches from 1976 with CTI, Qwest in the 1980s, and GRP in the early 1990s. She probably has more records than any soul singer who never appeared in Christgau's Consumer Guide. Probably one of the most famous singers I've never heard before this album. This one wasn't easy either: in some sort of "wardrobe malfunction" the disc I received, with her name and number clearly printed on it -- final product, not an advance -- has someone else's music on it: no idea who, but the lead instrument is some kind of electronic keyboard backed by chintzy Latin percussion and virtually no vocals (not that I bothered listening to much of it). Finally resorted to Rhapsody (although I won't flag it as such, since I do have the packaging, just didn't get the music). Mixed bag of things, including a sturdy "Lean on Me," but I found the cleanup slots (4-5-6 if you're not into baseball) to be rather disorienting: the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want," McCartney's "Let 'Em In," and Dylan's morosely Manichaean "Gotta Server Somebody" -- annoying in any context, but certainly Christianist here. I've rarely hated a song more, although the grade doesn't really reflect that. B
BANN: As You Like (2009 , Jazz Eyes): Acronym group, quartet: Seamus Blake (tenor sax), Jay Anderson (bass), Oz Noy (guitar), and Adam Nussbaum (drums). Anderson leads on points: he's credited with "recorded, mixed and mastered"; also wrote 3 of 5 new songs -- one each for Noy and Nussbaum, four covers (Jerome Kern, Thelonious Monk, David Crosby, and Joe Henderson). Anderson is a bassist from Canada: a couple of albums in the 1990s, a long list of side credits starting with Woody Herman in 1978. He keeps the rhythm loose and limber here. Nussbaum is the only American, same type of drummer. Blake is a saxophonist from England, a mainstreamer with a big, bold tone, always a welcome presence. Noy is an Israeli, probably a good deal younger, does some of his best work here. B+(***)
Roland Vazquez Band: The Visitor (2010, RVD): B. 1951 in California, drummer, AMG credits him with 7 albums since 1979's Urban Ensemble. His band is a big one -- four trumpets, four trombones, five reeds, piano, guitar, electric bass, drums, congas, vibes. Vazquez composed and conducts but doesn't play. A lot of star power in the band, but it rarely stands out. B
Chico Pinheiro: There's a Storm Inside (2009 , Sunnyside): Guitarist-vocalist, from Brazil, 5th album since 2003. Mostly originals, a couple co-written with Paulo César Pinheiro; two English lyrics: Gershwin's "Our Love Is Here to Stay" and Stevie Wonder's "As" -- the latter a guest spot for Diana Reeves. The other name guest is saxophonist Bob Mintzer. Pinheiro's a talented guitarist and a tossaway vocalist, backed by large bands of evanescent texture -- on three cuts fortified with a large string section. Oddly brilliant, but I can't say I enjoyed it. C+
Laurie Antonioli: American Dreams (2009 , Intrinsic Music): Singer, b. 1958 in California, based in Oakland; third album since 2005, including a duo with Richie Beirach. Wrote most of the songs -- co-credited with five others, so I figure her for the lyricist. Covers include "Moonlight in Vermont," "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," and a dreadful "America the Beautiful." Arty high voice. Good band, usually picks up when she lets go. Especially notable is soprano/tenor saxophonist Sheldon Brown. B-
Patty Cronheim: Days Like These (2009 , Say So): Singer-songwriter, b. 1960, probably based on New York, first album. Wrote 7 of 10 songs, covering "Summertime," "Superstition" (lists Stevie Wonder's Talking Book as a desert island disc), and "Bye Bye Blackbird." Has a slight scratch to her voice, which works well in a jazz context. Covers aren't especially notable, although her "Bye Bye Blackbird" is the best of three I've heard in the last week -- she lets it romp free instead of using it to end the Beatles' "Blackbird" on an up note. Originals are pretty solid, with "Don't Work Anymore" outstanding. And she gets terrific sax breaks from Dan Wall. B+(**)
Gabriele Tranchina: A Song of Love's Color (2008 , Jazzheads): Singer, b. in Germany, based in New York, second album, the first self-released in 2003. Most songs are credited to pianist Joe Vincent Tranchina; one based on Hindu trad, another a trad Spanish lullaby. Multilingual: English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, the latter leaning heavily on Jobim. Band mostly piano and Latin percussion: Bobby Sanabria, Renato Thoms, Santi Debriano on bass. B+(*)
Erika: Obsession (2009 , Erika): AMG finds 10 entries for "erika"; no idea which one this one is. Booklet makes a point of always printing "ERIKA" all caps. Actual name: Erika Matsuo. Very striking on the right song -- opener "Night and Day" and the sure-fire "Moondance"; otherwise she leans heavily on Brazilian music: Jobim, of course, but also Nascimento, Djavan, Caymmi, Lins, nicely done -- the band includes Paulo Levi and Yosvany Terry on saxes, Romero Lubambo on guitar, Essiet Essiet on bass, and Nanny Assis on percussion. B+(*)
Yelena Eckemoff: Cold Sun (2009 , Yelena Music): Pianist, from Russia, in New York since 1991. Most of her reputation is based on classical music, but this is jazz, a low-key but smart and sharp piano trio, with Mads Vinding on bass and Peter Erskine on drums. B+(**)
Kurt Rosenwinkel and OJM: Our Secret World (2009 , Word of Mouth Music): Guitarist, b. 1970 in Philadelphia, based in Berlin, Germany; tenth album since 1996 -- a prominent figure, but one I haven't followed closely. OJM is Orchestra de Jazz de Matosinhos, a Brazilian big band conducted by Carlos Azevado and Pedro Guedes, with Ohad Talmor also arranging. Most impressive when the guitar is cruising away from the band. B+(*)
Jerry Bergonzi: Convergence (2008 , Savant): Tenor saxophonist, b. 1947 (Wikipedia) or 1950 (AMG, AAJ), website doesn't offer an opinion; has thirty-some records since 1983, the ones I've heard (i.e., since 2006) consistently excellent. This one has bass, drums, two cuts with piano, and a fair amount of overdubbed soprano sax, a self-interaction that pushes him to new heights. A-
Gord Grdina Trio with Mats Gustafsson: Barrel Fire (2009 , Drip Audio): Grdina, from Vancouver, plays guitar and oud. He has an interesting string of recent records, none of which quite prepare you for the electric charge he shows here. The hint you do get is the presence of Norwegian saxophonist Gustafsson, who has a group called the Thing which specializes in free jazz blowouts of postpunk rock tunes and has a long history of jousting with Ken Vandermark in various groups, including the three-for-all Sonore. Also key is bassist Tommy Babin, whose highly flamable Benzene group pointed this way. Gustafsson comes out loud and ugly, but Grdina rises to the occasion. Then, surprisingly, he picks up the oud and cranks it to another level, with Gustafsson's noise tunnel trailing in his wake. A-
Joan Soriano: El Duque de la Bachata (2010, IASO, CD+DVD): Supposedly the rougher, cruder country version of merengue, fit for small-time royalty, the 7th of 15 children with scant education, just a fine sense of how to keep a guitar rhythm rolling, with a seductive voice. DVD gives you more personal sense, less music. B+(***)
Amina Figarova: Sketches (2010, Munich): Pianist, b. 1966 in Baku, currently Azerbaijan; studied in Baku, Rotterdam, and at Berklee; based in Rotterdam; 8th album since 1998. The piano leads are very striking, but most cuts add horns -- Ernie Hammes on trumpet, Marc Mommaas on tenor sax, Bart Platteau on flute -- which seem less focused. B+(*)
Shauli Einav: Opus One (2010 , Plus Loin Music): Saxophonist, b. 1982 in Israel, based in New York, second album. Has a silky, slinky postbop sound; helps when it's offset by Andy Hunter's trombone. B+(*)
No final grades/notes this week on records put back for further listening the first time around.
Unpacking: Found in the mail over the last week:
Sunday, February 13. 2011
Some scattered links I squirreled away during the previous week:
Saturday, February 12. 2011
Second batch following the one I posted on Thursday -- thought I'd get this out Friday but events intervened, and even now I'm running late and will cut this short. Don't have enough right now for a third installment, but it shouldn't be long coming.
Peter L Bergen: The Longest War: Inside the Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda (2011, Free Press): Bergen's big claim to fame was personally interviewing Osama Bin Laden, which is probably why he keeps his focus on the prime suspect, even though the US military often gets sidetracked wiping out wedding parties. Also refusing to let dead dogs lie is Michael Scheuer, the former analyst of the CIA's Al-Qaeda unit, who must feel as intimately connected to Bin Laden as Bergen does, because he's written yet another book on the subject, this one titled Osama Bin Laden (2011, Oxford University Press).
Ha-Joon Chang: 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism (2011, Bloomsbury Press): Development economist, not a big fan of the neoliberal Washington Consensus prescription, which he's described as Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective and Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism -- I've read the latter and think it's a pretty fair summary.
Avner Cohen: The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with the Bomb (2010, Columbia University Press): Previously wrote Israel and the Bomb in 1998, one of a number of books on Israel's nuclear program, evidently one of the more authoritative ones. I would expect this one to focus more on politics of deniability or ambiguity, whatever they call it, which mostly seems to be a concession to the US desire to insist on non-proliferation everywhere except Israel.
Robert Dallek: The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953 (2010, Harper): A revised look at history from Roosevelt's death to Stalin's death, a period that in the first four years moved from the grand alliance that utterly defeated fascism to a class war that split the world, polarized further in the second four years. You can slice this up various ways, but Truman -- savvy about domestic politics; naive, unimaginative, and reactive in foreign affairs -- had a great deal to do with the polarization that has ever since pushed us into war, inequality, and injustice.
Rochelle Davis: Palestinian Village Histories: Geographies of the Displaced (paperback, 2010, Stanford University Press): Some 400 of those villages were snatched by Israel in the 1948 war, their occupants driven into exile, in most cases the vacant villages erased, so this book at least starts to return them to history.
Philip Dray: There Is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America (2010, Doubleday): Goes back to the early 19th century textile mills, plenty to write about, hefty at 784 pp but still necessarily brief -- e.g., shorter than EP Thompson's landmark The Making of the English Working Class. Probably useful, both to help labor find its bearings and to recognize where and when the wheels fell off.
Susan Dunn: Roosevelt's Purge: How FDR Fought to Change the Democratic Party (2010, Harvard University Press): Roosevelt had huge Democratic majorities in Congress, but many of those Democrats were old-fashioned conservatives -- some old-fashioned in the sense of pining for the days of slavery. This digs up the story of how FDR backed some liberal Democrats in primaries against his conservative Democratic opponents in 1938 -- "the purge" was how the opponents successfully presented the events.
Barry Eichengreen: Exorbitant Privilege: The Rise and Fall of the Dollar and the Future of the International Monetary System (2011, Oxford University Press): Probably an important book. Eichengreen has staked out the international monetary system as his specialty, and the dollar is still the big kahuna there, just not one whose virtues are especially appreciated these days. Flaunting its status as the world's reserve currency, the US has been able to run trade deficits and float debt to an extraordinary degree. That's certainly been an exorbitant privilege for someone, and I'd like to know who.
Laila El-Haddad: Gaza Mom: Palestine, Politics, Parenting, and Everything in Between (paperback, 2010, Just World Books): The first release on blogger Helena Cobban's book imprint picks up the story of a blogger in Gaza, covering everyday life under unusual duress, including the occasional Israeli terror bombing. Also on the same imprint: Chas Freeman: America's Misadventures in the Middle East, Joshua Foust: Afghanistan Journal: Selections From Registan.net, Reidar Visser: A Responsible End? The United States and the Iraqi Transition, 2005-2010
Evan DG Fraser/Andrew Rimas: Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations (2010, Free Press): The old adage is that an army travels on its stomach, so an analogy might be that empires rise and fall on their ability to feed themselves. Touches on Mesopotamia, China, medieval Europe, Malthus and all that. The authors previously wrote Beef: The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat, and Muscle Shaped the World (2008, William Morrow), the credits listing Rimas first there.
Martin Gilbert: In Ishmael's House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands (2010, Yale University Press): Churchill biographer, Israel-friendly, combined those biases to write Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship, which wasn't exactly true even if you think Churchill's Zionism was good for the Jews. There are numerous Israeli books that seek to hype up Islamic discrimination against Jews, both to give Mizrahi Jews a sense of historical oppression comparable to that of European Jews and to read the Israeli-Arab conflict back into the past. On the other hand, I don't get the sense that a contrary views, like Zachary Karabell's Peace Be Upon You: Fourteen Centuries of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence in the Middle East (2007, Knopf), while more correct overall, glosses over a lot of dirt. Gilbert's book may be a useful historical corrective to both ends, although I suspect he has his own political ends.
Edward S Greenberg/Leon Grunberg/Sarah Moore/Patricia B Sikora: Turbulence: Boeing and the State of American Workers and Managers (2010, Yale University Press): A subject long deserving attention: over the last decade, in particular, Boeing has been much more effective at wringing concessions from labor than in competing with Airbus, let alone in building planes. (Anyone seen a 787 Dreamliner lately?) The biggest symbol of this was when they moved their headquarters from Seattle to Chicago so that managers would be further removed from workers, but there are plenty more examples. Although Boeing is nominally America's biggest exporting company, much of what they've exported recently has been jobs. No lobbyists worked harder than Boeings to grant China most favored nation trade favors, and Boeing is only nominally an aircraft company: their real "core competency" is pulling strings in Washington, even if sometimes they're inept enough to land their officials in jail.
SC Gwynne: Empire of the Summer Moon: Quannah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (2010, Scribners): Not sure if "powerful" is the right word, but the Comanches were relatively effective at putting up a guerrilla struggle against encroaching US settlers, and their story has been rehashed far less than the Custer debacle (Nathaniel Philbrick's The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of Little Bighorn is the latest). Steven Walt recommended this book while thinking about the Taliban.
Bernard E Harcourt: The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment and the Myth of Natural Order (2011, Harvard University Press): If laissez-faire economics produces so much freedom, why do we have so many prisons? That's probably not the only question here. One of the preconcepts of laissez-faire is the idea that there is natural order that functions even in the absence of government regulation. Harcourt previously wrote Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing, Against Prediction: Profiling, Policing, and Punishing in the Actuarial Age, and Language of the Gun: Youth, Crime, and Public Policy.
Ruth Harris: Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century (2010, Metropolitan Books): That would be the 19th century, although the 1895 L'affaire Dreyfus had profound implications for the 20th, including inspiring Theodor Herzl to come up with his program of colonialist Zionism, although France's ultimate rejection of the antisemitic attack on Alfred Dreyfus could have been developed in a wholly different direction. This looks to be the big (560 pp) book on a subject that has also been recently reviewed in Louis Begley: Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters (2009; paperback, 2010, Yale University Press), and Frederick Brown: For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus (2010, Knopf).
William Hartung: Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex (2011, Nation Books): I'm more familiar with Boeing because Boeing is closer to home, but Lockheed Martin is an even bigger cog in the military-industrial complex, mostly because it's more purely military. First thing I did when I saw this was to look up my cousin (a former Lockheed VP) in the index, but he slipped by. Probably too much real dirt to report on. Hartung previously wrote How Much Are You Making on the War, Daddy?: A Quick and Dirty Guide to War Profiteering in the Bush Administration.
Steve Hendricks: A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial (2010, WW Norton): The CIA kidnapped a terrorism suspect in Milan, in Italy, in 2003, and flew him to Egypt to be tortured. This was illegal, and Italian prosecutors investigated the case, eventually indicting a number of CIA operatives, and thereby exposing the entire covert operation. Some of this was previously covered in Stephen Grey's more general book, Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program (2006).
Steven Johnson: Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Inovation (2010, Riverhead): Pop science/history writer, gets to dabble in a bit of everything here on the theory that there is something to "innovation" more general than the specific innovations. Has dabbled in neuroscience before -- first two books were Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software (2001) and Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life (2004), and he's tried to argue that Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter (2005).
John Keay: China: A History (2009, Basic Books): Big, broad history; big subject (642 pp). Keay previously wrote the similar India: A History (2000), which I had initially been interested in but mixed reviews dissuaded me. Both subcontinents are vast and important and, certainly for me and most likely for you, barely understood, so such books should be welcome, at least if they are well done.
James Ledbetter: Unwarranted Influence: Dwight D Eisenhower and the Military Industrial Complex (2011, Yale University Press): Fairly detailed account of Eisenhower's famous (and ultimately ineffective) farewell speech.
Derek Leebaert: Magic and Mayhem: The Delusions of American Foreign Policy, From Korea to Afghanistan (2010, Simon & Schuster): Why do smart people wind up acting so stupidly when they enter America's foreign policy establishment? They believe in magic? "When we think magically, we conjure up beliefs that everyone wants to be like us, that America can accomplish anything out of sheer righteousness, and that our own wizardly policymakers will enable gigantic desires like "transforming the Middle East" to happen fast. Mantras of 'stability' or 'democracy' get substituted for reasoned reflection. Faith is placed in high-tech silver bullets, whether drones over Pakistan or helicopters in Vietnam." Leebaert previously wrote The Fifty-Year Wound: How America's Cold War Victory Has Shaped Our World, one of the few books that considers what the Cold War cost us.
Bethany McLean/Joe Nocera: All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis (2010, Portfolio): Business writers finally weigh in. McLean wrote The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron. Hard to imagine how much of this was still hidden by the time this book came out.
Barbara Moran: The Day We Lost the H-Bomb: Cold War, Hot Nukes, and the Worst Nuclear Weapons Disaster in History (2010, Presidio Press): That would be 1966, when a USAF B-2 bomber crashed off the coast of Spain, losing four H-bombs.
Ian Morris: Why the West Rules -- For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future (2010, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Big (768 pp) book, claims to cover 50,000 years of history plus at least some slice of the future, puzzling out mankind's pecking order as if that's what the great game is all about.
Ilan Pappé: The Rise & Fall of a Palestinian Dynasty: The Husaynis 1700-1948 (2010, University of California Press): The best known was Hajj Amin al-Husayni, appointed Mufti of Jerusalem by the British when they set up the future Jewish National Homeland. The Mufti later split from his British minders, led the 1937-39 revolt that resulted in Palestinian power being crushed, and fled to his notorious haven in Nazi Germany. The British, meanwhile, leaned toward the rival Nashbashibi family.
Ilan Pappé: Out of the Frame: The Struggle for Academic Freedom in Israel (paperback, 2010, Pluto Press): One of Israel's few historians specializing in the Palestinian side of the deal -- A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples is a book everyone cites, and The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine is the best short book on the expulsions -- so he has a stake in academic freedom and no doubt too much experience with those who attack academics who question Israeli orthodoxy.
Christopher A Preble: The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free (2009, Cornell University Press). Strikes me as completely right, although many will find the idea of dominance making our lives more risky to be counterintuitive. Author is a Cato Institute fellow, so he must really go to town on the latter two points.
Robert D Putnam/David E Campbell: American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (2010, Simon & Schuster): Putnam wrote one of the most famous sociological studies in recent times: Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000). Campbell has written Why We Vote: How Schools and Communities Shape Our Civic Life (2006) and A Matter of Faith: Religion and the 2004 Presidential Election (2007). Large (686 pp) survey of religion and politics in America, how they interact.
Gary Rivlin: Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. -- How the Working Poor Became Big Business (2010, Harper Business): One of those subjects that makes you realize how contrary to common sense so-called free markets can be: those least able to afford things often have to pay more for less, while those dealing with them exact premium profits.
Dani Rodrik: The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of Globalization (2011, WW Norton): Development economics, tends toward unorthodox views. Andrew Leonard is a fan; has already flagged several interesting findings, including that most countries that have opened their markets up to globalization have built up large governments for effective regulation and safety nets -- something the US has failed to do, which is largely my our experience with globalization has been so unfortunate.
Gideon Rose: How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle: A History of American Intervention From World War I to Afghanistan (2010, Simon & Schuster): Editor of Foreign Affairs, hopes to be helpful to future interventionists by pointing out the follies and foibles of past efforts to clean up past interventions (not that Iraq or Afghanistan, or for that matter Korea, are really in the past). Max Boot, who has argued that we don't need to plan how small wars should work out because we're generally pretty lucky with them anyway, likes this book.
Nir Rosen: Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World (2010, Nation Books): Arabic-speaking American journalist, has spent time embedded with US military forces but has also worked far off the beaten path -- his 2006 book, In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq was the first book to get a real sense of the anti-American revolt in Iraq. This picks up the story from then, covering the "surge" and the "awakening" movements in Iraq, and adding a lot more on Afghanistan. Big (608 pp), important book.
Mary Elise Sarotte: 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe (2009, Princeton University Press): Focuses less on what led to the fall of the Berlin Wall than on what came after, especially in Germany, where unification was just one of several possible paths.
Timothy Snyder: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010, Basic Books): A broad history of the struggle for eastern Europe between Germany and Russia, fought with unfathomable viciousness and brutality from 1939 to 1945, with significant preludes and legacies -- the book covers from 1933, when Hitler came to power, to 1953, when Stalin died.
Rebecca Solnit: Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas (paperback, 2010, University of California Press): A history of San Francisco, built around 22 color maps. Not sure how it all works, or if it's too specific to a city I've developed no special fondness for. Haven't really gotten into Solnit either, although she's politically sharp and has written about many topics of seeming interest.
Seth Stern/Stephen Werniel: Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion (2010, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt): Based on a lot of long-awaited private papers. Brennan was on the Supreme Court 34 years, "arguably the most influential liberal justice in history." He's a big part of the reason liberals still look to the courts for protection of constitutional rights against conservative assaults -- something that hardly anyone familiar with the history of the Court would have expected before FDR packed the court with Brennan, Black, and Douglas.
Martin Van Creveld: The Land of Blood and Honey: The Rise of Modern Israel (2010, Thomas Dunne): Preeminent Israeli military historian and theoretician. Previously wrote the more prescriptive Defending Israel: A Strategic Plan for Peace and Security (paperback, 2005, St Martin's Griffin). This looks to be a general history, but Israel is so mired in militarism that he should be at home. I make him out to be what we'd call a realist here, so I expect he has something of interest to say -- just not enough to keep Ehud Olmert from contributing a blurb.
Michael Wolraich: Blowing Smoke: Why the Right Keeps Serving Up Whack-Job Fantasies about the Plot to Euthanize Grandma, Outlaw Christmas, and Turn Junior into a Raging Homosexual (2010, Da Capo Press): Another catalog of right-wing lunatic propaganda.
Steven E Woodworth: Manifest Destinies: America's Westward Expansion and the Road to the Civil War (2010, Knopf): I wouldn't say that the westward expansion of the United States was a cause of the Civil War but it certainly was something to fight over until the big fight came along -- not least because it was the one thing all sides could agree on. [Nov. 2]
James Zogby: Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why It Matters (2010, Palgrave Macmillan): Pollster, one of the few (Americans, at least) actively engaged in Arab countries to try to figure out what the "Arab street" is thinking and wants. It might be interesting to see how well this polling holds up in light of the popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, etc.
Previously mentioned books (book pages noted where available), new in paperback:
John Cassidy: How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities (2009, Farrar Straus and Giroux; paperback, 2010, Picador): Responding to the financial collapse, looks more at the shortcomings of the dominant economic theories, what he calls "utopian economics"; excellent book on the subject. [link]
Josh Kosman: The Buyout of America: How Private Equity Is Destroying Jobs and Killing the American Economy (2009; paperback, 2010, Portfolio): Original subtitle: How Private Equity Will Cause the Next Great Credit Crisis. Private equity firms are largely fueled by America's trade deficit -- the money is soaked up by foreign oligarchs and repatriated to buy up and devour US companies, sucking value out and saddling them with debt. The new subtitle is more to the point, although the old one is right too.
Nomi Prins: It Takes a Pillage: An Epic Tale of Power, Deceit, and Untold Trillions (2009; paperback, 2010, Wiley): Former Goldman Sachs director turned muckraking journalist, gives a shocking account of how the big banks helped themselves to trillions of government dollars to weather their financial crisis. [link]
Friday, February 11. 2011
The editors at The Wichita Eagle got a little overexcited when they laid today's newspaper out. They picked up the lead article from Hannah Allam and Shashank Bengali at McClatchy. Had they read the article they might have opted for a less embarrassing title, like "Mubarak Stays Put" or "Mubarak Hangs On" or they might have just scanned down to the fourth paragraph for "Crowds Say: Leave! Leave!"
Mubarak has been stuck in a Groundhog Day screenplay for the last three weeks. Every day he gets up, faces nearly universal crowds demanding his departure, fiddles and fumes then ultimately decides, hey, what's the point of being a dictator if you can't make up your own mind whether to stay or leave? And, you know, he kind of likes being dictator -- he's got a lot of pride and ego wrapped up in the role, you know -- so he hangs on, does to bed, and wakes up the next morning to face the same crowds (often more), making the same demands, forcing him to go through the same thought processes. And this happens day after day because he just can't figure it out, and get to the only answer that brings the script to any form of resolution.
One reason this took so long is that all the people around Mubarak have been treating him with kid gloves. He is, after all, their dictator, and they wouldn't have gotten where they were without constantly sucking up to him. As Machiavelli reminded his Prince, candid advice isn't something you can count on when you select your cronies by how readily they flatter you. On the other hand, it's really been clear that Mubarak was finished at least two weeks ago. His regime has really only been effective working in the shadows, picking off his enemies one or two at a time. Once people massed in serious numbers, his tools to suppress them -- the media, the bureaucracy, the military -- were certain to be ineffective.
Over the last couple of weeks a lot of people wondered about the military. We did, after all, see China brutally crush pro-democracy demonstrators, and survive with a pretty stable regime. We've seen a few other dictatorships crack down and get away with it. Algeria prevailed after a very long and brutal civil war. Myanmar put down demonstrators a couple years ago, but they're likely to bounce back. Iran's post-stolen-election demonstrations may have been on Mubarak's mind when he tried their tactic of attacking demonstrators with hired goons, but he couldn't sustain that assault.
Now, I'm not a fan of the Egyptian military, any more than I am of any other military you'd care to name. But I never felt that Mubarak had the option of turning the military on demonstrating crowds. To do so he would have to maintain complete command order discipline, and I would expect that to break at least at two levels: the conscripts, who are certain to identify more with the people than the government, and the junior officers, whose prospects give them little reason to stick with a vastly unpopular dictator. One recalls, for instance, that the only time Egypt's military intervened politically was to overthrow King Farouk, and that revolt was led not by the generals but by a charismatic colonel, Gamal Abdel Nasser.
This points out at least two things that Americans -- especially the sort that think they know something about foreign policy: (1) We almost never recognize how fragile dictatorships are, in large part because we always buy the bluff that the guy on top is in complete charge and never look at the balance of forces and interests that actually make any given regime functional; and (2) We insist on thinking of the military as a monolithic power implement rather than seeing it as its own balance of interests and motivations. In the last 30 years we've actually seen a lot of dictatorships crack and fail, including ones that we totally misjudged, like the Soviet Union, and ones that we totally backed, like the Shah, Pinochet, Suharto, and now Mubarak. The persistence of such regimes turns out to be the anomaly, aided equally by US support and opposition.
One thing I can't help but wonder is what the demonstrations would be like in Baghdad and Basra and Mosul right now had Bush not invaded and wrecked Iraq. Actually, there have been demonstrations, just not on Egypt's scale, resulting thus far in al-Maliki's announcement that he won't run for another term (probably prudent given that he lost the last election and is still ruling through some technicality that no one really understands). Iraq would have been a tougher nut to crack, but it isn't inconceivable that Saddam Hussein couldn't have been sent into exile like Mubarak and Ben Ali. But the US insistence on making democracy "the foreigner's gift" (to use Fouad Ajami's condescending phrase) not only precluded a peaceful transfer of power, it tainted any future government.
Of course, Mubarak's departure is just one milestone in Egypt. There is much more to follow, and there will most likely be a lot of meddling by the US and its odd bag of allies in the region, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia. But the least we can expect is the end of the "emergency" laws that underpinned the police state, the opening up of a free press, and elections, all of which move the playing field from the sheltered corridors of power the US favors to the participation of the people.
 Watching Zbigniew Brzezinski and Stephen Hadley on PBS last night was painful, and you could throw in Henry Kissinger on Charlie Rose a few nights back. These guys, after all, are the architects of US foreign policy since the late 1960s, and they are, to use a technical term, blinkered idiots. The main thing they agreed on was that the military would be key -- mostly because they can't imagine a world where you can't manipulate outcomes from behind the scenes. This is a big part of the reason these guys were repeatedly blindsided by events they had no idea how to control: Brzezinski, of course, was NSA during Iran, and Hadley was at or near the top for Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon -- hard to choose between those two. Kissinger at least can claim some measure of success, if you consider Pinochet to be a success -- he was in due course thrown out as unceremoniously as Mubarak. Geniuses like these is why Justin Raimondo can argue that the US would be better off without any foreign policy.
Thursday, February 10. 2011
Last book list post was Nov. 17, two-and-a-half months ago. No wonder I have more than two posts worth of notes piled up. Late in the day, I figured I'd rush out a quickie post tonight where the main point is to drain the swamp, and I'll do another tomorrow with more recent/higher priority books. So below find a scattered set of things I thought interesting enough to write up in the first place, but that I've been picking around as other books caught my eye. Will do paperback reprints, etc., tomorrow.
M Shahid Alam: Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (paperback, 2010, Palgrave Macmillan): First I've heard of "exceptionalism" not applied to America, but the concept is probably universal, even if its significance is that it forms a part of the peculiar US-Israeli bond. Alam also wrote Challenging the New Orientalism: Dissenting Essays on the "War Against Islam" (paperback, 2007, Islamic Publications International).
Michelle Alexander: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010, Free Press): Not that the result is colorblind; de facto the opposite.
David Bacon: Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008; paperback, 2009, Beacon Press): Journalist, former labor organizer, on both carrot and stick: what draws (or forces) workers to emigrate into situations where they lack rights and are certain to be exploited.
Nick Bilton: I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works: Why Your World, Work, and Brain Are Being Creatively Disrupted (2010, Crown Business): Upbeat uptake on the world going to hell with technological change.
Alex Callinicos: Bonfire of Illusions: The Twin Crises of the Liberal World (paperback, 2010, Polity): The collapse of global capitalism, sure, but the Russian incursion into Georgia?
Rosanne Cash: Composed: A Memoir (2010, Viking): Singer-songwriter, noteworthy in her own right, even better known for being Johnny Cash's daughter.
David Coates: Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments (paperback, 2009, Continuum): Political scientist, wrote a similar book, A Liberal Tool Kit: Progressive Responses to Conservative Arguments (2007, Praeger), which this looks to be an update to. His laundry list includes: trickle-down economics, welfare, social security, health care, immigration control, religion, the war in Iraq, and economic prosperity.
Jeffrey L Cruikshank/Arthur W Schultz: The Man Who Sold America: The Amazing (but True!) Story of Albert D Lasker and the Creation of the Advertising Century (2010, Harvard Business Press): Lasker was head of Lord & Thomas from 1903 on, owner of the Chicago Cubs before Wrigley; he claims to have been the guy who wedded advertising and politics back during Warren Harding's 1920 campaign. The authors may be impressed by all that, but one has to wonder how much good it all amounted to.
Barbara Demick: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (2009; paperback, 2010, Spiegel & Grau): Based on interviews with six defectors, which doesn't seem to be an especially good sampling technique, but North Korea is a strange place, hard for outsiders to grasp.
Frans de Waal: The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society (2009, Crown; paperback, 2010, Three Rivers Press): Primatologist, argues that humans aren't selfish creatures, at least not biologically; also that traits we view as humane aren't exclusive to humans. Previously wrote Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are (2005).
David Farber: The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism: A Short History (2010, Princeton University Press): I'm a bit puzzled about the "fall" part, since Democrats like Obama seem to be thoroughly in conservatism's thrall, if anything more earnest in their dedication to making the unworkable work. Portraits from Robert Taft to George W Bush; offers "rare insight into how conservatives captured the American political imagination by claiming moral superiority, downplaying economic inequality, relishing bellicosity, and embracing nationalism."
Bruce Fein: American Empire Before the Fall (paperback, 2010, CreateSpace): Foreword by Rep. Walter Jones, which puts this in Ron Paul territory, in a long but lately very marginal tradition of seeing a permanent army as the greatest threat to freedom.
Niall Ferguson/Charles S Maier/Erez Manela/Daniel J Sargent, eds: The Shock of the Global: The 1970s in Perspective (2010, Harvard University Press): I don't trust Ferguson at all, but the 1970s were a decade of profound economic turmoil at least in the US, and some of this may shed some light somewhere. But Judith E Stein: Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies strikes me as closer to the mark.
Bruce Herschensohn: An American Amnesia: How the US Congress Forced the Surrenders of South Vietnam and Cambodia (2010, Beaufort Books): And wouldn't we be so much happier if they hadn't, and we were still tied down fighting an endless war there? Like the one we're fighting in Afghanistan, ever since presidents Carter and Reagan decided to give Russia their taste of Vietnam?
David Kahane: Rules for Radical Conservatives: Beating the Left at Its Own Game to Take Back America (2010, Ballantine): Saul Alinsky translated and paraphrased for young fascists.
Lierre Keith: The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability (paperback, 2009, PM Press): Ex-vegan, found her way back to meat through various lines of thought. Not sure how solid her research is, but I got so frustrated at a recent "peace" event that was overrun with vegetarianism that I'd like to see some counterarguments.
Kate Kenski/Bruce W Hardy/Kathleen Hall Jamieson: The Obama Victory: How Media, Money, and Message Shaped the 2008 Election (paperback, 2010, Oxford University Press): A technical book on campaigning, not sure that the authors even care about the issues involved except insofar as they can be packaged. Jamieson's done this before, in Packaging the Presidency: A History and Criticism of Presidential Campaign Adversiting (1992; paperback, 1996, Oxford University Press).
Michael A Lebowitz: The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development (paperback, 2010, Monthly Review Press): Still committed to the old verities, like worker control of the means of production, that few of us accused of socialism still put much stake in. Also wrote Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century (paperback, 2006, Monthly Review Press) and Following Marx: Method, Critique and Crisis (paperback, 2009, Haymarket Books).
Michael Mandelbaum: The Frugal Superpower: America's Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era (2010, Public Affairs): He must be thinking ahead, because as far as I know no one (other than cranks like the late Chalmers Johnson) can imagine the "Indispensable Nation" forced to live on a budget.
Andrew C McCarthy: The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America (2010, Encounter Books): "The real threat to the United States is not terrorism. The real threat is Islamism, whose sophisticated forces have collaborated with the American Left not only to undermine U.S. national security but also to shred the fabric of American constitutional democracy -- freedom and individual liberty. . . . a harrowing account of how the global Islamist movement's jihad involves far more than terrorist attacks, and how it has found the ideal partner in President Barack Obama, whose Islamist sympathies run deep." That's connecting three dots -- Islamism, the left, and Obama -- that are awfully distant from each other.
Nolan McCarty/Keith T Poole/Howard Rosenthal: Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches (2006; paperback, 2008, MIT Press): Three political scientists chart the polarization of the two-party system and tie it to increasing inequality.
Suzanne McGee: Chasing Goldman Sachs: How the Masters of the Universe Melted Wall Street Down . . . and Why They'll Take Us to the Brink Again (2010, Crown Business): I don't doubt it. The bank books keep rolling out.
Dmitry Orlov: Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects (paperback, 2008, New Society): Probably just another of the publisher's peak oil doom books, but this time the analogy is especially scary because the Russian collapse, with its rampant free-for-all capitalism, actually did happen.
Judy Pasternak: Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed (2010, Free Press): The sordid history of uranium mining on Navajo lands.
James Wesley Rawles: How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It: Tactics, Techniques, and Technologies for Uncertain Times (paperback, 2009, Plume): Survivalblog.com editor, military background, competes with many other survival books, like Cory Lundin's When All Hell Breaks Loose. Part practical skills, part paranoia, I can see the motivation and interest, but I doubt that anyone can plan for longterm survival in events that totally dismantle the state and economy.
Mary Roach: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void (2010, WW Norton): Science writer, tends to go for the humorous, as in her Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, explores what happens when gravity is suspended.
Maria Rodale: Organic Manifesto: How Organic Farming Can Heal Our Planet, Feed the World, and Keep Us Safe (2010, Rodale): Makes the argument -- probably a good thing to have someone knowledgeable doing that. Rodale's publishing company has other irons in this fire, like Rodale's Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening: The Indispensable Green Resource for Every Gardener.
Chris Rodda: Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American History, Volume I (paperback, 2010, BookSurge Publishing): I assume Rodda is a committed Christian, since anyone who was not would possess too much doubt about the whole religion thing to make such a stand. At 532 pp with the implication of future volumes, she must have a lot to say about the subject.
Ira Rosofsky: Nasty, Brutish, and Long: Adventures in Old Age and the World of Eldercare (2009, Avery): About nursing homes -- shouldn't be hard to fill a book about what's amiss and what's agog, even if many of them are tolerably tolerable.
Alex Ross: Listen to This (2010, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Scatteed essays by The New Yorker's classical music critic, although he might quibble since he doesn't approve of the term. Some pieces on Ellington and Chinese music peck at the mold. Seems like a critic I should take more interest in, especially since his The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century is so well regarded.
Theodore Roszak: The Making of an Elder Culture: Reflections on the Future of America's Most Audacious Generation (paperback, 2009, New Society): This one shows my age -- Roszak's 1969 book The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition was a key revelation of self-identification at the time, even if it wasn't really all that deep -- as I recall, better than Charles Reich, not quite up to Philip Slater. I gather this book doesn't look back so much as carry on, which leads to a new appreciation of elders. I can't say as my key political views have changed much since 1969, but I sure have gotten older.
Joel Schalit: Israel vs. Utopia (paperback, 2009, Akashic Books): Born in Israel, grew up in US, lives in Italy now, in theory a combination which gives "him the intimate knowledge and necessary distance to focus on the gap between perceptions of Israel and its reality." No doubt Israel is a complicated country, but that shouldn't distract us from the simple issue of equal rights at the heart of the self-protracted conflict.
Larry J Schweiger: Last Chance: Preserving Life on Earth (2009, Fulcrum): CEO of National Wildlife Federation, makes a plea for preserving at least some natural wildlife habitat. Foreword by Theodore Roosevelt, who certainly killed his share of the world's wildlife.
Peter Dale Scott: American War Machine: Deep Politics, the CIA Global Drug Connection, and the Road to Afghanistan (2010, Rowman & Littlefield): The CIA drugs connection is an old one which Scott's been chasing since his 1972 book, updated in 2008, The War Conspiracy: JFK, 9/11 and the Deep Politics of War. This type of analysis tends to get paranoid, but isn't that the point of the CIA? [November 16]
Victor J Stenger: The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (paperback, 2009, Prometheus): The socalled New Atheist bestsellers have been a disappointing lot, more often than not pulling prejudices out their ass than reasoning their way through the rather trivial problem. This one looks a shade better, not that I feel need of convincing.
Alex Taylor III: Sixty to Zero: An Inside Look at the Collapse of General Motors -- and the Detroit Auto Industry (2010, Yale University Press): An autopsy, going back 40 years, which provides plenty of opportunity to second guess everyone. Not least to bash the UAW.
Tim Wise: Color-Blind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat From Racial Equity (paperback, 2010, City Lights): The latest in a series of (mostly) short books on the strange, twisted persistence of white racism in a society that likes to pretend we're over all that: Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (paperback, 2005, Routledge); White Like Me: Reflections on Race From a Privileged Son (paperback, 2007, Soft Skull Press); Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflections From an Angry White Male (paperback, 2008, Soft Skull Press); Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama (paperback, 2009, City Lights).
Kate Zernike: Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America (2010, Times Books): New York Times reporter follows the Tea Party movement, paying scant attention to the money, partly because the show is too distracting, partly because, well, wouldn't it be uncouth and unconventional to wonder who's interests are served by all this nonsense?
Slavoj Zizek: Living in the End Times (2010, Verso): Four "riders of the apocalypse": global environmental crisis, imbalances within the economic system, the biogenetic revolution, ruptured social divisions. Is this the apocalypse? Or just interesting times?
Wednesday, February 9. 2011
Same day I posted my latest Rhapsody Streamnotes, with its long-winded methodological intro on why snap judgments aren't so awful, Robert Christgau posted a pair of capsule reviews of records I had previously streamnoted. Assuming his extra dilligence makes him more right than my fly-by-night assessments, I got one right and one wrong.
Drake's Thank Me Later was the easy one, a high B+ in our respective schemes. Christgau packs more info, of course. Indeed, I would have been happy to call it a day had I come up with his first line:
Jazmine Sullivan broke differently, making it a pretty good case example of a record that takes more work than I do with Streamnotes to get a payback. I played it once or twice, with no more prep than having seen it on some EOY lists mostly in the company of other records I rather liked. And I liked some of it, but got turned off by something. My initial Streamnote:
Tried replaying it this afternoon, but Rhapsody decided it didn't want to deal with me. Finally got it going tonight, and played it two more times. Noticed some things I hadn't noted before, and wrote up a revision:
Maybe a few more plays would tip the balance between the songs I get something out of and the ones that wear on me, but it doesn't take many of the latter to drag a good record down. And actually, my revised grade brings Sullivan back to what we might consider a standard gradient: I don't care to try to quantify this right now, but I pretty consistently rate post-1990 black singers (as opposed to rappers) a shade or two lower than Christgau does. Not sure what all the reasons are -- the gospel tics, of course; also I find the productions both too cluttered and subtle, or maybe I mean subdued, but it could be other things too, including wishful thinking on Christgau's part.
So we may be even now, but a two-slot post-Streamnotes jump is rare, and not just because I rarely bother checking myself. The biggest jump to date was Randy Newman's Harps and Angels, which I initially had at B+(**). Christgau gave it a full A, and after I picked up a copy I concurred. That was embarrassing; this was more minor, at worst a gaffe. Might have helped had I heard her first album, Fearless: it's no better than the new one, but simpler, clearer, no worse. So what this shows is that more plays, plus a broader sense of context -- I'd guess that Christgau has heard three times as many soul/r&b albums since 2000 as I have, maybe four but that's a pretty good sized number, not to mention a lot of Usher -- helps. Still, no one can give everyone their due. That's why it's important to keep making adjustments, why every mark is part of a learning process, and why none should be taken as definitive.
 Having stuck my neck out this far, I really wish I had the numbers, but it would take me several hours to work them up: a lot of what I'm generalizing from may just be Mary J. Blige, Babyface, R. Kelly, and maybe Jill Scott. But I also can't think of any counterexamples -- I liked this year's The-Dream more, but not the first one -- so that may be enough.
 Miraculously, the original streamnote still reads accurately enough:
 Even by someone as notoriously certain of himself as Christgau. I especially recall a couple of his weirder B+ records from the mid-1970s that wound up on my all-time list: John Hiatt's Overcoats and Hirth Martinez's Hirth From Earth. I'll always think those are ones he missed, but he may have had an inkling because he sent them to me for review.
 Probably should have posted at least an abbreviated version of this note as a comment to Christgau's blog entry, but (a) I haven't figured out MSN's Live ID yet, and (b) the last 150 or so comments (of 172 at the moment) have completely ignored any reference to the two reviewed albums, so it seems rude to change the subject back to the subject. The latter isn't unusual, although there are usually more "Mad props for the records Xgau just reviewed" posts (to use Cam Patterson's typology) which makes me think the fans aren't all that into these particular records.
Tuesday, February 8. 2011
As I was assembling this month's streamnotes, I ran across a blog post by Robert Christgau, Commenter's Lament. He starts by explaining how impressed he is at the quantity and quality of comments over at his Expert Witness blog, then singles out a series of three comments complaining about how little time many record reviewers put into hacking out short record reviews. One commenter recalled a time when he was rushed to write a review, turned in 150 words based on six plays, and his editor reprimanded him for wasting so much time. Another mentioned someone he knows who reviews a dozen records a month never playing one more than once. A third commenter agrees that it takes at least three plays to suss out an album. Christgau adds, "Do I have to point out how sad this is -- how infuriating, how true, how pervasive? I've heard several similar stories recently from people working at or at least for venues more prestigious than the local alt-weekly -- yes, there are still a few. Writers' laziness is one thing, though when reviews are paid at 10 bucks a pop I guess there's a kind of justice there. But editors' demands are at least as bad. Crushing out reviews for timeliness's sake is such a trap."
They're right, of course, but it's also true that more than half of the following reviews are based on one play under less than ideal circumstances: a dicey stream connection from a sloppy vendor played through a computer that has other work to do and cheap speakers while I'm sitting at another computer doing other things like writing this introduction. Some of the records I streamed a second time, mostly because I didn't hear it well enough to write something, or sometimes because I caught something interesting and wanted to see how it held up. I recall playing Gang of Four and Wire three times each, partly in hopes they'd get better (and they did, just not enough). Das Racist and Todd Snider got more plays, probably 5-6, but I had hard copies of them. But the rule of thumb is that these are snap judgments -- not real reviews, but progress notes to jog my own memory, that I'm sharing with you because some of you might find them interesting or useful even. And if you, too, have a Rhapsody account (or want to take advantage of their free intro period) you can always look up a title I say something good (or bad) about and hear it yourself.
Some of the records below I do have a fairly good sense of, but quite frankly I don't remember anything about Rakaa other than what I wrote below, and just looking through the list that's true for a lot of records here. Christgau is very insistent about never writing about anything until he knows what he thinks, religiously following his rules of playing A-list albums at least five times and HMs -- the marginalia he's cut loose in moving from Consumer Guide to Expert Witness -- three times. I actually average pretty close to those 3-5 plays when I write Jazz Consumer Guide, and usually play something more than ten times before I finish a full-length Village Voice review, so I don't have much to be embarrassed about there. (I did write a review of the Outlaws once based on two radio singles heard when I was delirious with mono, a rare moment of inspiration. My editor insisted that I buy and listen to the whole record, which I did, once, then didn't change a word.) I write Recycled Goods much faster, but it's usually about stuff I already know pretty well, so that works out nice.
But the stuff below is pretty dicey. I pigeonhole a lot of records, so if X reminds me of Y and Z that I know something about I feel like I know more about X than I really do. I factor my uncertainties into the grades, hedging good records down a bit, bad records up. I don't offer many real low grades because I never spend enough time with a bad record to figure out how bad it really is. Some records are by their nature real hard to pin down in one or two plays: Deerhoof and Destroyer, which have already emerged as two of the top three critic faves of January (Decembrists is the other one). I've played them enough to satisfy my curiosity, and I've hedged them a bit (down for Destroyer, which I'd say has about a 10% chance of winding up at A- if I played it much more, and up for Deerhoof, which I'd give a 12% chance of winding up at C, and 6% of winding up at D). Bike for Three! and Extra Lens might have a little better chance of moving up; Black Angels and Boris Yeltsin and Wire a bit less, but I'm only throwing wild-ass guesses. Some 2-star albums have a chance, but most don't. Deerhoof might even have a 2% chance of making A-, but other B- records like Fang Island and Lady Antebellum are infinitesimally close to 0%.
I do have some experience with reassessing grades from this column. Need to write them up and tack them onto a future column, but I've upgraded a number of albums that I first noted here -- in most cases I gave them more attention because I picked up real copies. Upgraded from A- to A: Big Boi: Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (Def Jam); VV Brown: Travelling Like the Light (Capitol); Dessa: A Badly Broken Code (Doomtree); Bruno Mars: Doo-Wops & Hooligans (Elektra); the Roots: How I Got Over (Def Jam); Vampire Weekend: Contra (XL); Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Roc-A-Fella) -- most of last year's top records. I revisited some records that other critics liked more than I did, and bumped a couple up a notch but not much -- the most significant was Calle 13: Entren Los Que Quieran from *** to A-. It's a good example of a record that's tough to get right off the bat.
Of course, your mileage will vary. It always does.
One footnote: I recycled the Todd Snider review from Recycled Goods. Arguably it makes more sense here -- I started sticking in some real discs a while back because I don't have any other good venue for them. I also copied the John Zorn Interzone review from an old Jazz Prospecting blog. I'm not going to make a habit of that, but thought another good record would be nice, and it's the sort of thing that might appeal more to far-out rock fans than to beboppers. (A decision I made before I found the Henry Clay People, which thus far is the best 2010 album I missed -- hat tip: Jason Gross.)
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 January 15. Past reviews and more information are available here.
Akala: Doublethink (2010, Illa State): British rapper, Kingsley Daley, also brother of Ms. Dynamite. Raps fast, the accent adding a little choppiness to the already choppy beats. Akala is a Buddhist term meaning immovable. Seems very centered, careful about respecting women, conscious of his aging and moderating his ambitions. Different world for rappers over there. B+(***)
Rahim AlHaj: Little Earth (2010, Ur Music, 2CD): Iraqi oudist, got some notice in the wake of Bush's Iraq misadventure with his modestly straightforward Iraqi Music in a Time of War. A half dozen albums later comes this double, each of 15 tracks pairing AlHaj with a name guest (and sometimes an unnamed extra, like Bill Frisell brings along violist Eyvind Kang). Still, the guests are relatively transparent, partly because the instrumentation is designed to mesh readily with the oud -- strings including guitar, kora, sitar, bass, pipa; flutes, ney, didjeridu, accordion, percussion. B+(*)
The Beets: Spit in the Face of People Who Don't Want to Be Cool (2009, Captured Tracks): Wikipedia redirects me to Doug, which makes no sense to me. Lo-fi band -- if they were recorded in a garage the mics were kept in an adjacent room. Debut, 12 cuts, 23:57, which in some quarters counts as an EP, but I'm beginning to think that anything with 10+ cuts should count as an album even if the band can't keep it going for half an hour. Didn't catch a word of this, but it shows some pop sense, mostly because the drumming is so dependable -- and when you can't hear anything else, that counts. B
The Beets: Stay Home (2011, Captured Tracks): Second album (skipping a "Do the Locomotion" single), sound is much sharper (mics in the same room this time), and they've managed to stretch 13 songs out a bit more, all the way to 28:12. Hard to say much more: Rhapsody's only queueing up 4 of the 13 songs, and while they're an improvement, it makes sense to hedge. B
Bike for Three!: More Heart Than Brains (2009, Anticon): I missed this one, but found it in Buck 65's Wikipedia discography; turns out that Christgau had it as a low HM. Buck 65 raps over beats by Joëlle Phuong Minh Lê, aka Greetings From Tuskan, from Belgium, who has one album of her own: Lullabies for the Warriors (2006). The raps are sharp and energetic, but tapes much more richly shaded and idiosyncratically tweaked than Buck 65's own rhythm tracks. Not sure whether this would grow on me or turn. B+(***)
The Black Angels: Phosphene Dream (2010, Light in the Attic): Austin band, considered psychedelic because their keyb-guitar sound is like something from the late 1960s, but they took their name from the Velvet Underground's "Black Angel's Death Song" -- suggesting they always craved harder stuff. They're denser and darker than Sam the Sham or ? and the Mysterions but not as much as VU. B+(***)
Buck 65: 20 Odd Years (2010 , WEA Canada): DJ/rapper from Halifax, Nova Scotia, b. 1972, celebrating his 20th year in the hip-hop racket -- if you don't know him, skip this one and seek out Talkin' Honky Blues or Man Overboard or Square (all on WEA Canada, which makes them imports here) or even his one-shot US intro, This Right Here Is Buck 65 (VP). His business strategy has become harder to fathom with the Dirtbike series of downloadables in 2008 and four 2010 EPs. Now this compilation collects 11 of 15 cuts from those EPs, then adds two more, probably on the time-honored theory that anyone fanatic enough to buy all the EPs will buy them again with a bit more bait. Feels a little chintzy given that all four EPs would have fit comfortably on a CD, the two extra cuts included. Half or so of the pieces feature various female vocalists, a couple in French -- something I find pretty irresistible. His own raps are typically sharp-witted, except for "Zombie Delight" which is downright catchy. [PS: Rhapsody also has the four EPs (but none of the top three albums I recommended above); I don't much care for EPs, and at this point don't see any value in evaluating them separately; the omitted songs aren't bad but aren't essential either -- "The Niceness" has a nice concept but doesn't quite pull it off.] A-
The Budos Band: The Budos Band III (2010, Daptone): Staten Island funk instrumental group, related somewhat to Antibalas which suggests African influences -- indeed, AMG talks a lot about their Afro-beat, but I can't hear much of it. Horns -- tenor saxist Cochemea Gastelum is the one name I recognize, but that's probably because he has a hard name to forget -- guitar, organ, bass, various percussion. A little on the heavy side; maybe sludge is the word. B-
Cloud Nothings: Cloud Nothings (2011, Carpark): Group front for Dylan Baldi, teenage singer-songwriter from Cleveland, with a previous self-released EP jacked up to 42 minutes when Carpark picked it up last year, and now this: arguably another EP as it only runs 28 minutes, but with 10 songs -- lo-fi, minimally catchy, no waste or fluff -- this is probably his idea of a real LP. B+(*)
Codeine Velvet Club: Codeine Velvet Club (2009 , Dangerbird): Scottish band, debut album, showed up number two on Jason Gross's EOY list (after Kanye West), got one moderately favorable review in my metafile (Spin 3.5 stars), one Pazz & Jop vote (Gross). Hyperbolically fancy pop hedonism, the kind of thing someone could get real hooked on but most people will shy away from, either because they don't recognize it or they do but realize it's not something they want to get involved with. Looks like a one-shot, with ex-Fratellis frontman Jon Lawler promising to go solo. B+(**)
Currensy: Pilot Talk (2009-10 , DD172): Louisiana rapper, Shante Anthony Franklin, usually decorates the "s" in his name with a dollar-sign stroke, tastefully absent on the cover here. Third album. I'm unclear on the label, variously reported as BluRoc, Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam, and/or Island alone or in some combination -- not that it isn't all Universal, at least that's where the $ come clear. Low key, nice propulsion, nothing very fancy. B+(**)
Currensy: Pilot Talk II (2010, DD172): Fourth album, out about three months after its namesake so suggests leftovers. Cover returns dollar sign -- Curren$y -- but record hasn't sold as well or gotten as much critical acclaim, so it strikes one as a cheap shot -- profits are calculated on the margin, and go up when costs go down. I don't hear much difference myself, other than that I caught more lyrics more clearly. There's one about the Porsche in the front and the ocean in the back, but most aren't so materialistic, and it's not just the kush. B+(**)
Daft Punk: Tron: Legacy [Original Soundtrack] (2010, Walt Disney): French electronica group, arrived to much fanfare with Homework in 1997, has had ups and downs since then. For all their electronics, this sounds like a very traditional soundtrack, which is to say it sounds totally pilfered from the Euroclassics, just like Hollywood's been doing it since all those Germans (Jews and Goyim alike) showed up in the late 1930s and forever put their mark on American popular culture. Didn't see the movie, but one can imagine every cliché, because they're all reinforced here -- so much so that I'm tempted to call it a formal masterpiece (but can't see cutting the grade even more slack). B
Das Racist: Shut Up, Dude (2010, mixtape): Himanshu Suri and Victor Vazquez spin 17 tall tales over junk beats that rarely flow even within a given song, filled with flashes of literary genius and repeated shots of "das racist," which is either a general purpose putdown or some kind of trademark. I don't get the "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell" joke, and probably not because I once typeset the Pizza Hut "Brand Management Handbook" or even because I live in a town where Taco Bell is joined at the hip to KFC. I understand why people wish they were better than they are, and don't see any reason why they can't be -- the line about reading Arundhati Roy almost does the trick by itself. The main problem here is that the mess misfires all over he place. That's, like, what a producer is for. B+(***) [download]
Das Racist: Sit Down, Man (2010, mixtape): More is more, but not by much. I'm often impressed by the rhymes, and generally approve of the samples -- clearly there's a lot of brains going in here, talent too, but am I wrong to think it needs to flow a bit to actually be enjoyable, let alone good? Maybe someday I'll figure out how to burn a copy I can play on something other than the computer. Most critics regard this as the better set. It's more accomplished, but still pretty offhand -- even the brilliant "Fashion Party." Still, having it handy helped me play it more than I would have from Rhapsody, and it keeps getting better -- even the initially annoying world cops toward the end, like "Return to Innocence." A- [download]
Deerhoof: Deerhoof vs. Evil (2011, Polyvinyl): San Francisco group, dropped their first album in 1997 and is up to 11 now. Regarded as a noise-rock group early on, graduated to noise-pop as they picked up some tricks. Vocals mostly by Satomi Matsuzaki, a light edge to tricky prog motifs -- lots of time switches and synth harmonies, stuff that works often enough to seem interesting, but not often enough to keep you listening. B-
Jason Derülo: Jason Derülo (2010, Warner Brothers): R&B singer-songwriter, b. 1989 in Florida of Haitian parents, original name Jason Joel Resrouleaux. First album, usual hyperslick production; seems to me that he doesn't really have the voice, but sometimes its roughness helps deliver his point. B
Destroyer: Kaputt (2011, Merge): Vancouver, BC group, basically a vehicle for singer-songwriter Dan Bejar. Ninth studio album since 1996; first I've heard, although this got enough attention that one month into my 2011 metafile this is the early leader. No idea why the name: nothing violent or heavy here; a fairly slick writer and arranger, reminds me of Sufjan Stevens as much as anyone. Or maybe not, but does seem like to sort of thing that could grow on you. B+(***)
Disappears: Guider (2011, Kranky): Chicago group, AMG places them "in the middle of garage-punk snarl, shoegaze haze, and Krautrock grooves," but I'd say they're post-Velvets minimalists, especially on the 15:57 closer, "Revisiting," which for my money doesn't run on nearly long enough. Nor do the other five songs, which leave this at 30:57, just a tad longer than last year's 10-song Lux. B+(***)
The Extra Lens: Undercard (2010, Merge): Side project by John Darnielle (Mountain Goats) and Franklin Bruno (Nothing Painted Blue) -- the second such after a 2002 release as the Extra Glenns. Don't know squat about Bruno's group (half-dozen albums in 1990s, not much since) and I hear Darnielle's wry voice over scant guitar. B+(***)
Fang Island: Fang Island (2010, Sargent House): Band, from Providence, RI, an art school spinoff (something common in the UK but not in US). AMG describes them thus: "The Brooklyn-based indie rock outfit Fang Island crafts impossibly heavy, hymn-like anthems that blend the uplifting and accessible hard rock melodiousness of Andrew W.K. and the D.I.Y. recording style of Surfer Blood with the offbeat tech-heavy progressive metal of bands like Protest the Hero and Sparta." That's sort of right, although I can only vouch for two of the four reference points and neither would have occurred to me. Moreover, the hymn suggestion reflects nothing more than the use of organ, and nobody actually does impossible anything -- check the dictionary there -- but wouldn't they love to? B-
The Fresh & Onlys: Play It Strange (2010, In the Red): San Francisco group, second or third album; tunewise they draw on punk, but the keyb thickens and stiffens the sound under the guitar sheen, and the singer is heavy-handed and ham-fisted -- make you wonder if they're after some kind of arena metal-punk synthesis, but they're probably too smart for that as anything more than a joke. "Fascinated" was the song that broke through for me. Can't imagine really liking them, but do sort of enjoy this. B+(*)
Fujiya & Miyagi: Ventriloquizing (2011, Yep Roc): UK group, trio -- David Best (vocals, guitar), Steve Lewis (synth), Matt Hainsby (bass) -- second album, or more if you count EPs and compilations thereof. Synth puts them in borderline electronica, but I wouldn't stick them there. At best sounds like they're slouching toward Pet Shop Boys, but that doesn't happen often. B+(*)
Gang of Four: Content (2011, Yep Roc): Post-punk group emerged in 1979 with one of the year's best records, got a extra twang into the rhythm that could be called new wave funk, plus a strong case of post-Frankfurt critical theory. Fell apart after their fourth album proved sadly misnamed (Hard?), worked more or less ordinary jobs, regrouped here with their first new album in 16 years. Like Wire's only slightly less surprising return, they had little trouble recouping their sound, and remaining unregeneratly political they have plenty to gripe about. Tatum like this so much I don't doubt that there is more to it, but I don't quite hear it -- just a familiar buzz that's distinctly on its own. B+(***)
Goldfrapp: Head First (2010, Mute): Either Alison Goldfrapp (vocals, synthesizer) or her duo with Will Gregory (more synthesizer). Fifth album since 2000; first I've heard. Danceable synthpop, takes off with the sharply hooked "Rocket" and stays locked in its orbit ever more. AMG makes a lot of silly allusions trying to situate this, but its main trait (and minor weakness) is how clean it all sounds, or as one title puts it, "Shiny and Warm." B+(***)
The Henry Clay People: Somewhere on the Golden Coast (2010, TBD): Los Angeles group. Not sure if they know why Henry Clay was, but they certainly recognize Neil Young, the Replacements, and Pavement, and I wouldn't be surprised if they knew what I was saying when I mention that the keyboard player reminds me of Joe Ely at his most honky-tonk. First time through cinched their grade with the fast ones; didn't notice them slowing down or stretching out much until the second play, another revelation. A-
Iron & Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean (2011, Warner Brothers): Well-regarded singer-songwriter, Samuel Beam, fourth album since 2002, not counting a couple EPs. Songs are catchy, friendly, go down easy. Other than that, can't remember a thing after two plays. B+(*)
R. Kelly: Love Letter (2010, Jive): The album cover, with its prominent "STEREO" sticker, looks like a throwback to the 1960s, as does the pic, the duds, the shades suggesting a mid-point between Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. I haven't followed him since he closed out his prime period with one of those career-killing best-ofs (has anyone who ever insisted on a Volume 1 or So Far qualification ever managed to add much?). But this is solid all the way through, even if "Number One Hit" is just a concept. B+(**)
Kings of Leon: Come Around Sundown (2010, RCA): Big-time mainstream rock band with a southern twang, fifth album since 2003. I've never paid much attention to them, and ignored this one having gotten the whiff that even their fans were down on it -- year-end lists occasionally extend to biggest disappointments, where only Weezer's Hurley got more citations than this. Other hints: AMG gave it 2.5 stars, and its Metacritic score was 64, pretty down in the dumps (others with same rating: Devo, Kesha, Buckcherry, Meat Loaf, Nelly, David Byrne's Imelda Marcos album). Turns out it's remarkably listenable, even-handed, moderately tuneful and grooveful, with a little personality. B+(**)
Klaxons: Surfing the Void (2010, Polydor): English band, second album, enough big beat that Rhapsody slots them as indie-dance, but they're dense and leaden enough for low-grade metal. Cat on the cover, space on their minds. B-
Lady Antebellum: Need You Now (2010, Capitol Nashville): Second best selling album of 2010, trailing only Eminem's Recovery. Trio: male and female singers (Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott) with longstanding showbiz ties, plus "multi-instrumentalist" Dave Haywood. Most song credits list all three, although they wrote fewer and had more help this time than on their debut. Big, slick sound, the two vocals mesh but don't especially communicate. All this is tolerable enough, but the group name has both structural problems -- it suggests more focus on Scott than there is -- and historical baggage: reminds one -- doesn't it? -- of the good old days of slavery, something I might cut them more slack on if I thought we (and that presumably includes lots of their fans) were over it. B-
Lightspeed Champion: Life Is Sweet! Nice to Meet You (2010, Domino): Alias for Devonté Hynes, singer-songwriter, b. 1985 in Houston, TX; grew up in England, now based in New York. Black, but doesn't sound like it. Second album. Cover looks like an old Arhoolie blues album; anyone buying it on that basis will be confused, if not necessarily sorry. Has written songs for Florence and the Machine, Diana Vickers, and Chemical Brothers. Has toured as opening act for Bright Eyes -- which is about as close an affinity as I can think up, but had he opened for Sufjan Stevens I could have gone just as easily with that. (He plays at least six instruments, and has eight official bootlegs since 2007 on top of his two albums, so the main thing he's lacking viz. Stevens and Conor Oberst is recognition.) All pretty interesting, vaguely promising, not really my taste but something that might merit further consideration. B+(**)
Nellie McKay: Home Sweet Mobile Home (2010, Verve): She returns to songwriting after a very good Doris Day covers album, but doesn't find the knack to make the songs felt. Some clever tricks, of course, mostly in the grooves. B
Lloyd Miller/The Heliocentrics: (OST) (2010, Strut): The Heliocentrics are a London-based jazz/electronica group which has made a point (or maybe an art) of seeking out obscure gurus and freshening them up -- notably Ethio-jazz inventor Mulatu Astatke. Miller, b. 1938, got a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology in Utah then flew off to Iran where he hosted a television show as Kurosh Ali Khan. In the 1960s he recorded Oriental Jazz, and some of his work has recently been recycled on Jazzman as A Lifetime in Oriental Jazz. Presumably Miller's responsible for the exotic reeds here, swaying gently over the lounge jazz groove. B+(*)
Mimicking Birds: Mimicking Birds (2009 , Glacial Pace): Portland, OR singer-songwriter Nate Lacy, expanded his group to a trio although he doesn't make any real use of the extra guitar and drums. Songs are quiet, solemn, charming; not quite as slow as glaciers, as the label name suggests, nor quite as chilled. B+(*)
OFF!: First Four EPs (2010, Vice, 4CD): Hardcore punk like it was done in the early 1980s -- loud, dense, rude -- but tighter than ever: longest song clocks in at 1:33, and four of sixteen can't keep it going a full sixty seconds ("Full of Shit" says what it wants in 0:33). My only complaint is the packaging, which may seem unfair given that I haven't actually seen it, but I can't help thinking that had I bought it I'd feel ripped off. Such brevity means the whole 16 song load barely tops 17 minutes, but to preserve the feel of old 4-song EPs they split it all up onto four separate discs, ranging from 4:04 to 4:42. I can't imagine all that shuffling, but I suppose you can download it and play it straight through. In that case its brevity doesn't keep it from feeling more satisfying than lots of punkish LPs. A-
Joe Pug: Messenger (2010, Lightning Rod): Folk singer, I guess, low tech with some social and political consciousness -- noted an antiwar song in passing, probably "Bury Me Far (From My Uniform)" -- and country-ish grit. B+(**)
Punch Brothers: Antifogmatic (2009-10 , Nonesuch): Bluegrass band, led by mandolinist-singer Chris Thile, formerly of the popular but already forgotten Nickel Creek. Second record, both on WEA's prestige label which makes me wonder what I'm missing -- turns out the record is very hard to hear, not that it's clear that I'm missing much. Usual sweet twang and stuff. Didn't catch a word. Could be worse than I think, but probably not much better. B
Rakaa: Crown of Thorns (2010, Decon): Debut solo spinoff from member of CA underground rap group Dilated Peoples, which released five albums 2000-07. After the overwrought title intro, this settled into a sharp underground groove and a smart political tack, and when he packs in a guest for some star clout, he gets KRS-One. One song mentions that plane that was flown into an IRS office, concluding "money makes the world go nutty." Or from "Ambassador Slang": "you'll never hear me say the three words, 'I'm too stoned' . . . no need for talk, I'll just go out and solve it." A-
Max Richter: Infra (2010, Fat Cat): Classified as classical, or post-classical, something like that -- in the modern European composer tradition although his instrumentation is mostly electronic. Fairly stately pieces, no swing, nothing to dance to, but the simplicity and elegance are appealing. B+(*)
Darrell Scott: A Crooked Road (2010, Full Light, 2CD): Country singer-songwriter, has penned some hits for others and tramped his way through a half-dozen albums on his own, an earnest, unspectacular performer who wound up calling his previous album The Invisible Man. This splits 20 songs 80:31 onto two discs so you don't have to endure them all at once, as I just did. Has a lot to say. Not sure that anyone wants to hear. B-
Serengeti & Polyphonic: Bells and a Floating World (2010, Anticon): Haven't been able to confirm that this is available as anything other than a download, but that seems to be true of most of David Cohn's catalog -- a rare exception was his previous Polyphonic album, Terradactyl, but it was also released by Anticon, so the release may be in some kind of purgatory. First few cuts are pretty disjointed before this finally comes together, ending with a flush of strong grooves; less sure about the raps. B+(**)
The Service Industry: Calm Down (2010, Saustex): Austin band, fourth album since 2006. Loud, mainstream, down to earth, eager to gripe about their jobs; can turn a phrase but I'm less sure I care to hear them sing it. One line: "these Jesus freaks give me the creeps"; a verse: "I'm a socialite/I'm with an Israelite/I'm smoking Camel Lights/we stay up all night." B
Shining: Blackjazz (2010, Indie): Several bands with this name working recently, including a Swedish death metal band. This band is from Norway, styled by AMG as heavy metal and/or black metal, but sometimes they think of themselves as a jazz group -- I guess that can happen when you add a saxophonist to a guitar-synth-bass-drums-screaming vocals base. But also some members came from acid jazz group Jaga Jazzist, and it can also be noted that the Thing and Atomic -- two groups with uncontroversial jazz affiliations (unless you're Stanley Crouch) -- can challenge damn near any metal band in decibels. Sounds a little like Ministry at first. The sax helps but is rarely in the clear -- the endemic sludginess of metal is a tough nut to crack. Ends with a cover of "21st Century Schizoid Man" -- compressed to the point of bursting and amusing when it does. B+(*)
Skyzoo & Illmind: Live From the Tape Deck (2010, Duck Down Music): Gregory Skyler Taylor, Brooklyn MC, has a previous album and some miscellany behind him, picks up a second voice -- Illmind, or !llmind, or Ramon Ibanga Jr. -- here for depth of contrast and levity of purpose. B+(***)
Smith Westerns: Dye It Blonde (2011, Fat Possum): Chicago band, second album, upbeat, catchy, ringing guitars, frothy vocals, and very little to show for any of it. B
Todd Snider: Live: The Storyteller (2010 , Thirty Tigers/Aimless, 2CD): Folk singer from Oregon, cut a live album in 2003, Live: Near Truths and Hotel Rooms that rolled up eight year's worth of smart songs but spread out with equally witty patter -- stories, really, some even more diverting than the songs. Eight years later he's repeating the same trick, and at double length without repeating any of his early songs -- his 2004-06 albums, East Nashville Skyline and The Devil You Know were his best, full of sharply observed, improbably sympathetic characters his storytelling can scarcely improve on. They form the backbone here, gain nothing from the live sonics, let alone his "Eighteen Minutes" disclaimer, but they're so original they feel fresher the second time around than most of the stuff you hear brand new. And the stories are indeed diverting -- the one where he didn't meet NASCAR driver Bill Elliott, the one where he didn't play football, the one where he ruled Portland, OR. And the Rusty Wier cover sounds real fine, its admission covered by another story on how luck happens to one in the right place at the right time. A- [cd]
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin: Let It Sway (2010, Polyvinyl): Springfield, MO band, and I suspect innocents from the suburbs even there. (Not that it's a town with distinct inner- and outer-belt cultures. I remember it as a sleepy small town; its post-1960 growth and sprawl was modelled on suburban ideals.) Safe to say they haven't had a lot of personal contact with the late Russian President. Slight, neatly layered, both in guitars and vocal harmonies. More than pleasant, more like refreshing. B+(***)
Ebo Taylor: Love and Death (2009 , Strut): Guitarist, from Ghana, b. 1936; Discogs shows a couple previous albums from 1977 on, but that's undoubtedly an understatement. More Afrobeat than not. I might be more impressed but Rhapsody's only providing four of eight tracks, and they're already a mixed bag. B+(*)
Ana Tijoux: 1977 (2009 , Nacional): Chilean rapper, original name Anamaria Merino, b. 1977 in France, French mother, Chilean father, on the lam from Pinochet. Has a light, thin, abstract underground feel, no swish or bling, a couple of sung samples but rarely even that. Can't follow the Spanish, which is probably make or break. B+(**)
Weekend: Sports (2010, Slumberland): Guitar noise band, like certain riffs lifted out of Velvet Underground or Jesus and Mary Chain only denser and more metallic. B+(***)
Wet Dog: Frauhaus! (2009 , Captured Tracks): Website describes them as "international super group," presumably because drummer Mr. Vom used to play in Die Toten Hosen, bassist Richard Searle used to play in Corduroy, and singer-guitarist Anna Donarski used to play in some group even I never heard of. Previous albums established that the group name is two words instead of one run-on like the cover suggests. Postpunk primitives, reminds some of Kleenex. Don't have song times, but 14 songs come close to 30 minutes, leading Rhapsody to file this as an EP. Still, they find something extra when they stretch a bit. B+(**)
Wire: Red Barked Tree (2011, Pink Flag): The transition group in the late-1970s punk invasion, with songs as compressed as punk but so refined and artsy they had to be designated differently, like as new wave. Three early albums, the first the sharpest, then a hiatus and regroup in the late 1980s, another longer break and a 2003 album, two since then in 2008 and now 2011. Cuts like "Moreover" and "Smash" hook straight back into their classic sound. ("Two Minutes" too.) Other cuts are less angular and more uncertain, closer to their late 1980s mode, not a bad place to be. B+(***)
Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3: Northern Aggression (2010, Yep Roc): Singer-songwriter, fronted the Dream Syndicate c. 1982, took a couple other flyers, started recording (mostly) under his own name in 1990, has been prolific while remaining obscure ever since. Most songs offer something catchy, smart, or both, while never quite seeming remarkable. Odd knack he has, and for that matter has always had. B+(**)
YU: Before Taxes (2010, Mello Music Group): Another underground rapper, usually lowercases the 'y' and uppercases the 'u'; although it you look at the cover art there may be more twists to that. Other than that and his association with the comparably obscure Diamond District collective (based in DC?) I know nothing about him. Nothing slick here: stock beats, nice flow, some awkward sounding production glitches, means to be taken seriously, and earns that much. B+(*)
John Zorn: Interzone (2010, Tzadik): Lost track of whether Zorn succeeded in his quest to release one record for each month of 2010, but this is Miss November. It's also the one that sounds most like a standard-issue John Zorn record: screechy sax, open spaces, lots of scattershot percussion. John Medeski's "keyboards" sound like they include a piano; Marc Ribot plays guitar-like instruments; Trevor Dunn basses; Cyro Baptista, Ikue Mori, and Kenny Wollesen are responsible for the bumps and blips. Theme has something to do with William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, which in Zorn's hands means comic book punk jazz with surreal or absurdist interludes -- the sort of thing he used to do c. Spillane and Spy vs. Spy before he got all Jewish on us and/or discovered he discovered he could throw a bunch of index cards at other musicians and get them to record 3-4 times as many records under his name as he could do himself. So this feels a bit like a con, but Ribot is terrific, there are some utterly sublime oases amidst the chaos and cartoon violence, and, well, unless Medeski somehow snuck a Cecil Taylor sample into his synth I for one have never heard him play piano like this. Very tentative grade: A-
The archival file is here.