Thursday, March 31. 2011
Another Wichita Eagle front page for the times. Not the big story, which celebrated Wichita State's advance in the NIT college basketball tournament, looking forward to tonight's showdown with Alabama (which, wow, WSU won, 66-57). Nor the story about Google picking Kansas City, KS as the test site for their gigabit ethernet project. But the other three stories are representative of the times (and the people in this state supposedly running them):
Laura complained on Facebook about our Democratic state rep Nile Dilmore crossing over to vote for the Republicans's Voter ID bill. She got a lot of comments from Democrats making excuses. I added my own comment:
The main reason for voting for Democrats these days is to throw up obstacles against the Republicans' campaign to destroy civilization, but even that doesn't work if they don't bother to resist. I've never expected much out of Dilmore, but never had any real complaints either. Still, this time he let us down.
Wednesday, March 30. 2011
The Wichita Eagle was full this morning of the wonders the Republicans in Topeka are turning out. They've passed two new anti-abortion bills -- they sure want to make sure the fetuses of Kansas realize they feel their pain. They also passed the bill requiring photo ID to vote and a birth certificate or passport to register. They want to make voting as intimidating as possible, you know, lest the wrong kind of people try to do it. Not sure why they're so worried about that in Kansas, but they no doubt have more tricks up their sleeves.
When I got up I figured I should post something on all this. Now that the day is shot, I still figure I should, but don't have time or energy to track down all the links. I'm not big on the notion that the world is full of evil, so I really don't understand the Republicans. I mean, part of it I can understand -- they're greedy, power hungry, short-sighted, fond of received ideas that are actually nonsense. But why are they so obsessed on taking rights away from people? Is there any limit to how much they'll strip away from the poor? Why are they so hellbent on wrecking government? preventing people from getting an education? How can they really want to live in a world run by people like themselves?
Life's tough enough without having to spend all your day fighting back against spoiled idiots who just want to spread ruin.
Tuesday, March 29. 2011
Juan Cole: An Open Letter to the Left. Another chapter in the long saga of when peace-loving people let themselves get seduced by war. Happens most to people who think a lot, enough to want to differentiate themselves from people who simply believe that all war is bad -- pacifists, you know. Also happens to people who feel so close to the immediately visible victims that they lose track of the big picture. Susan Sontag was the classic example, whining endlessly about how the US, NATO, anyone should step up and intervene in Bosnia and put a stop to the killing. The logic escaped me; they I found out she had actually moved to Sarajevo to put herself into the middle of the experience, something I found brave and touching and batshit insane. Cole isn't that far gone, but he clearly identifies with and cares a lot about the rebels in Libya, so he's trying to pitch his concerns as a matter of solidarity. That's a classic leftist pitch, but it's also a fool's trap.
I don't want to take the time to explain that last point either. What I really want to complain about is buried way down in the last paragraph:
Cole's a historian so he should know better than this. (And it's no excuse that Cole's specialty isn't England; Churchill was a worldwide plague, a name that should be very familiar to any historian who's ever done work on Iraq, Iran, and/or Egypt.) At best, Churchill was a stuck clock, right once in his long life, on Nazi Germany, although it should be recalled that the roots of his hatred for Germany date back to the intraimperialist Great War of 1914-1918 -- a war that leftists at the time blamed on all sides. Otherwise, Churchill spent his entire career denying freedom to British colonies, expanding the empire into places like Palestine and Mesopotamia, fomenting sectarian hatreds that would lead to further wars after Britain gave up; innovating the use of air war, weapons of mass destruction, systematic blockades aimed at starving the enemy (or most successfully, his own colony in India); then, out of power, he conceived and campaigned for the Cold War, a legacy continuing long after his death. If the 20th century was the Century of World War, that's to no small extent because it was the Century of Churchill. It was sheer dumb luck that he managed to hate Hitler, and even that only happened because Hitler was willing to give him one more jolly good war. The only thing that kept Churchill out of the pantheon of the century's greatest monsters -- Hitler, Stalin, maybe Mao, or Hirohito -- was that he was stuck in a democracy which had the good sense to periodically strip him from power. Had he been able to run England like he tried to run India, Ireland, and Palestine, well, one shudders at the thought.
Personally, I have some real reservations about all the principal allies in WWII, but even if you chalk that up as one good intervention, pray tell me about another? Sudan? The Boer War? The Boxer Rebellion? Ireland? Gallipoli? Iraq in 1920? Pallestine in 1937? He came along too late to crush the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857, but he carried on from there. Iran (he was back in power to overthrow Mossadegh in Iran in 1953)? Malaya (the so-called success of the ink spot counterinsurgency theory)? Kenya? You don't need to dig into his private papers to find a racist and a warmonger. His whole career was built on the blood of others.
And even in death, Churchill lives on as an inspiration to others -- not just Cole here, but as I recall one of the first things George W. Bush did when he moved into the White House was to install a bust of Churchill. Everyone likes to argue with historical analogies. Most are bogus, but appealing to Churchill as a positive example is one of the worst. Pretty bad even to use him as an example at all: lots of characters from the 19th century seem hopelessly antiquated now, but few more clearly show how much the world has changed. When Cole cites Churchill favorably, he should remind us of the whole package, the self-glorifying conceit of "white man's burden," the machinery of massacre that so thrilled Churchill in the Sudan, the gift for twisting fancy words around 19th century racism. With allies like that, you are the enemy.
Cole's later piece on Obama's Monday night speech is a more reasonable piece, and has an easy time of rebutting various stupid things stupid Republicans say. One quote is worth expanding upon:
That sounds to me like a pretty good reason to oppose Obama on Libya. If you would oppose it if someone like Bush was president, then it would be consistent and more persuasive to oppose it as a general principle than to try to carve out some special exception for an exceptional and unreproducible president. (If indeed that's what Obama is; one could certainly argue otherwise.) In particular, if you had the choice of supporting Obama's intervention and keeping the US war machine in place through the end of his term(s) or dismantling the war machine so that neither Obama nor any future president could intervene in Libya or elsewhere, the latter would be preferable by far.
Monday, March 28. 2011
Had a horrible week slogging through all this . . . stuff. Didn't get the column done. Have 77 albums and 2474 words, but no pick hits or duds -- just miles and piles of honorable mentions, some of which I'm going to throw away before I get it all sorted out. Actually wrote more into my surplus file than I wrote into the column: trying to operate on the rule that previously rated HMs get one play then either get written up in an HM line or get shunted off to the surplus file, where I can write longer, more descriptively, and more indirectly (like moaning about how little I actually have to say about this or that pretty good record). I figure I'm so far behind I should just try to clean house as much as possible. The one thing I can assure you is that the surplus file will be a monster this time.
The space crunch is insane. Boiled four Ivo Perelman records down to a single review. Same for three Gerry Hemingways (cutting one loose altogether). Currently have ten A- records push down into the HMs: some are old, some obscure, Anthony Braxton and Jerry Bergonzi are more of things I've written about in previous Jazz CGs. Although there is some new jazz prospecting below, almost all of it dates from the previous week. Woke up this morning expecting to write yet another "no jazz prospecting" post, then decided there was no good reason for keeping this much back -- some good records below, two from the Netherlands. Anyhow, the column will be done sometime this week. The delay hasn't had any practical damage since the Voice is still awaiting its new music editor. Unpacking below is incomplete. I'll stop whining now and get back to work.
By the way, I was invited to vote in Downbeat's critics poll this year. (Guess they appreciated me not making fun of them last year, breaking a 5-6 year annual tradition.) I took notes and will post them later this week. A weird and rather horrid experience.
Ben Holmes Trio (2009, self-released): Trumpet player, based in Brooklyn, first album, trio with Dan Loomis on bass and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums. Four originals, two trad. (one Romanian, the other Turkish, I think), plus a piece called "Lev Tov" by H. Schachal. B+(***)
ICP Orchestra: ICP 049 (2009 , ICP): Cover lists the musician names, alternating black and gray; under that ICP Orchestra in red; at bottom ICP 049 in black and gray. Spine reads: ICP (049) Orchestra. Pretty sure this is the ICP Orchestra record Francis Davis picked as last year's best. The group -- ICP stands for Instant Composers Pool -- dates back to 1967, founded by Misha Mengelberg, Han Bennink, and the late Willem Breuker. Current lineup is named on the cover: Mengelberg (piano), Bennink (drums), Tristan Honsiger (cello), Ab Baars (reeds), Ernst Glerum (bass), Michael Moore (reeds), Thomas Heberer (trumpet, Mary Oliver (violin, viola), Tobias Delius (tenor sax) -- at least four expats settled in Amsterdam (Moore, Oliver, and Honsiger from US; Delius from UK; not sure about Heberer, from Germany, does play with a lot of Dutch musicians). Have a lot of catching up to do, especially on Mengelberg, but this sums up the usual virtues of the Dutch avant-garde: continental culture, with a delirious twist. A-
Ernest Dawkins' New Horizons Ensemble: The Prairie Prophet (2010 , Delmark): Saxophonist, alto and tenor, b. 1953, based in Chicago. Group adds two trumpets, trombone, guitar (Jeff Parker), bass, and drums. The prophet is the late Fred Anderson, the patron saint of the Chicago avant-garde. Dawkins has long had a thing for South African music -- his previous albums include Jo'burg Jump and Cape Town Shuffle -- and he starts this off by reworking an Abdullah Ibrahim title, "Blues for a Hip King," into "Hymn for a Hip King." He also remembers Lester Bowie, and titles his last two pieces "Mesopotamia" and "Baghdad Boogie" with snatches of old war songs. The horns come hot and heavy; Parker's guitar is superb throughout. A-
David Binney: Graylen Epicenter (2010 , Mythology): Alto saxophonist, b. 1961, also plays soprano (especially well on this record); AMG lists 16 albums since 1989, many more side credits, a dozen or so as producer. This runs long (73:43), has a bit of kitchen sink feel -- a second sax (Chris Potter), trumpet (Ambrose Akinmusire), both piano (Craig Taborn) and guitar (Wayne Kravitz), bass (Eivind Opsvik), two drummers (Brian Blade, Dan Weiss) sometimes doubling up plus Kenny Wollesen (percussion, vibes), and occasional vocals (Gretchen Parlato) mostly in spare horn mode. Postbop largesse, plenty of dazzling passages. B+(***)
Roxy Coss: Roxy Coss (2009 , self-released): Tenor sax, soprano sax, flute. From Seattle, based in New York, first album. Money quote from someone at AAJ: "just like Coltrane, Coss achieves a perfect balance of lyricism and intensity in her improvisations through a superb sense of timing, rhythmic and harmonic structure." Not "just like Coltrane"; not remotely near. Much of the album is wiped out by a pop jazz rhythm section, and the flute adds no significant weight. When the drummer drops down to brushes she finally gets a chance, shows some poise and taste. Just not like Coltrane. B-
Majid Khaliq: The Basilisk (2010 , self-released): Recording date presumed -- got this so early it couldn't have been recorded this year, but it could have been recorded earlier. (Website says he "will release" this record in late 2010, but publicist gives 2/15/2011 as the release date.) Violinist. Grew up in New York, cites Ray Nance as an inspiration, but mostly cites Wynton Marsalis. First album, with trumpet (Charles Porter), piano, bass and drums. Wrote 5 of 8, with "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" plus one each by McCoy Tyner and Charlie Parker. Flows along nicely. B
Margaret Noble: Frakture (2010, Amnesty International): Sound artist, former DJ, some press suggests she started in Chicago, is now in San Diego, plays turntables and analog synths. Website lists three albums, but this is the first one cited by places like AMG. This is presented as George Orwell's 1984 "remixed into sound art album." The music is intriguingly electronic, with lots of spoken word samples. I'm not making a lot of sense out of the Orwell thing -- a book I've largely managed to avoid -- but the electronic collage is interesting. Proceeds go to Amnesty International. B+(**)
Brian Lynch: Unsung Heroes (2008-09 , Hollistic Music Works): Trumpet player, b. 1956, 15-plus albums since 1986, started out as a hard bopper, then made a big splash in Latin bands. Pays tribute here to trumpet players, mostly from 1950s and 1960s: Tommy Turrentine, Idrees Sulieman, Louis Smith, Claudio Roditi, Kamau Adilifu, Joe Gordon, Ira Sullivan, Donald Byrd, Howard McGhee, Charles Tolliver -- mostly adapting their songs, sometimes writing new ones. Lynch has done this before, in 2000's Tribute to the Trumpet Masters, where he picked off the more obvious names (Freddie Hubbard, Thad Jones, Lee Morgan, Booket Little, Woody Shaw, Kenny Dorham, Blue Mitchell, Tom Harrell, and Tolliver again). Crackling trumpet, helped out by Vincent Herring on alto sax; congas on two tracks. B+(***)
Delfeayo Marsalis: Sweet Thunder (2008 , Troubador Jass): Subtitled "Duke & Shak" -- Shakespeare, which Ellington flirted with a bit on his album Such Sweet Thunder. Long section in the fold-out booklet sheet "On the Music" -- have to admit I didn't read it (fit of bad eyesight) so I don't know how much of this is Ellington as opposed to Marsalis playing Ellington or what any of it has to do with the Bard. A lot of work went into the packaging -- unwraps to four panels, lots of details, plus the booklet, all lavishly produced. Musicians vary, but run between 5 and 8 per song, more often 8, with piano-bass-drums, Tiger Okoshi on trumpet, Marsalis on trombone, and three reeds -- Mark Gross, Mark Shim, Victor Goines, Jason Marshall, Branford Marsalis (just soprano on 4 cuts). Does a nice job of getting the Ellington look and feel. B+(*)
De Nazaten & James Carter: For Now (2009 , Strotbrock): The Offspring, formerly of libertine Prince Hendrik, a mixture of Dutch and Surinamese musicians, have been around since 1995 -- I had the Dutch muddled in my memory and started to refer to them as the Bastards, which they probably wouldn't find offensive. The apinti drum and skratyi are not just exotic; they make for fine party instruments, accenting the comic potential of a group that already had sousaphone and bass sax before teaming up with a world class baritone saxophonist. Back cover shows them all hopping, with no one getting a bigger kick than Carter. A-
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.
Agustí Fernández Quartet: Lonely Woman (2004 , Discmedi): Spanish pianist, b. 1954, hangs in avant-garde circles; AMG credits him with 7 albums since 2000, which is way short -- doesn't include this one, or two recent ones I was looking for, or, well, his website lists 32 solo, duo, trio, and leader albums since 1987, plus 9 collaborations. Rhapsody gave this one a 2010 date, fooling me into putting it on, and it was good enough I let it spin. Quartet with sax (Liba Villavecchia), bass and drums; don't have song credits but some (most? all?) come from Ornette Coleman -- "Lonely Woman" and "Virgin Beauty" I recognize, and "Latin Genetics" is irresistible. B+(**) [Rhapsody]
Charlie Haden Quartet West: Sophisticated Ladies (2011, Decca): Just a quick impression here -- I'm rather surprised not to have been serviced on this, something that no doubt can be remedied easily enough. New drummer in Quartet West, Rodney Green, doesn't have much to do. Ernie Watts' tenor sax is as delicious as ever, but 6 of 12 tracks are given over to pianist Alan Broadbent's string orch, and 6 of 12 (the same save one) have guest vocalists, spread out with instrumentals. The ladies: Melody Gardot, Norah Jones, Cassandra Wilson, Ruth Cameron, Renee Fleming, Diana Krall. The one I did a double take on and had to look up: Fleming. Which isn't to say that I didn't prefer Jones and Krall. Ends with the quartet alone playing "Wahoo" -- something I could have used a lot more of. Not sure how many Quartet West albums this makes -- at least a half-dozen, plus a best-of, since 1986. At best a terrific group, given to gimmicks, like patching vocals by Billie Holiday and Jo Stafford into Haunted Heart. Haden's a soft touch, and he's never been mushier than with this group. I could see loving this, as I do Haunted Heart, or not. B+(***) [Rhapsody]
Heikki Sarmanto: Moonflower (2007, Porter): Finnish pianist, b. 1939, discography at Wikipedia lista 38 albums since 1969 but misses this one (AMG has 7 including this); his website claims 30 and shows 21 (but not this). I ran across him on a fusion album by Eero Koivistoinen, but that seems to have just been a 1970s phase. Porter, which reissued Koivistoinen's 3rd Version, has several albums by Sarmanto, so I was expecting more of the same, but this appears to be a new recording. Quartet, with Juhani Aaltonen on tenor sax, brother Pekka Sarmanto on bass, and Craig Herndon on drums -- just plays acoustic piano here, nicely setting up Aaltonen, who makes his usual big impression. B+(***) [Rhapsody]
Heikki Sarmanto/The Serious Music Ensemble: A Boston Date (1970 , Porter): Parsing the cover: "The Serious" is in much smaller print than "Music Ensemble" so maybe I shouldn't take that so seriously; the title is also followed by "1970" which is useful but far enough off I omitted it from the title. Other references vary. Quintet, led by Juhani Aaltonen's tenor sax, really superb free bop. Cover appears to show Sarmanto on an electric, but his piano sounds more acoustic, with sharp accents and smart bridges. Guitarist Lance Gunderson also helps connect the dots. Not sure where in Boston this was recorded, but starts with a piece called "Top of the Prude" -- I'm guessing that means the Prudential Center. A- [Rhapsody]
Heikki Sarmanto Quintet: Counterbalance (1971 , Porter): Nearly the same group as on A Boston Date -- Pekka Sarmanto plays bass replacing George Mraz (who was probably a one-shot replacement in Boston; he was a student attending Berklee at the time) -- but the sound and gestalt is markedly different, with the leader playing tinkly Fender Rhodes and Juhani Aaltonen forsaking his saxophone for flute. I should have cited his flute on my Downbeat ballot -- by any fair measure he's one of the best jazz flute players ever -- but I'd rather he give the instrument up. B+(*) [Rhapsody]
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 two weeks (incomplete):
Sunday, March 27. 2011
Some scattered links I squirreled away during the previous week:
Aside from the "stupid things people say" critiques, I have yet to read anything on Libya I find in any way useful. I really can't get bent out of shape over anything Obama has done regarding Libya thus far. That should not be construed as an endorsement: I have very real worries that he (or "events") could turn out far worse. I also don't agree with the tactical steps along the way, but in the context of everything else that he has done (or not done) I don't feel compelled to nitpick on Libya. I've been very critical of Obama for his escalation in Afghanistan and for his recklessly imperial approach to Pakistan. I'm bothered by signs of US military involvement in Yemen. I really want to see the US pack up and get out of Iraq, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, all of CENTCOM. If we weren't in any of those places, I would be much more bothered about US entry into Libya than I am. But we are in all those places so I don't see how drawing the line at Libya makes any real difference.
To explain, it's worth starting with something the editors at The Nation wrote:
I'm not going to claim that the UN or the Arab League makes anything right. They are political organizations where wheeling and dealing occurs and they've made plenty of mistakes in the past. The UN resolution does place some significant restrictions on US intervention, but they seem to be there mostly because Obama wanted them -- his desire to minimize the US presence, to neutralize the threat of violence from both sides in what is now a Libyan civil war, and to lead to a negotiated solution appears to be genuine and uncommonly (at least by the standards of his predecessors) well reasoned. On the other hand, the UN and Arab League resolutions will prove to be toothless if (and some would argue it's only a matter of when) the US and its allies get impatient and more actively back anti-Gaddafi forces. It is pretty much unprecedented for a foreign power to intervene in any state's internal conflict without taking sides. (In Kosovo, for instance, pretense of neutrality was plainly a farce. The cards are even more stacked against Gaddafi in Libya.)
One thing we've already seen is that, like every other war in history, Libya has already turned into a cesspool of shameless propaganda. There is little reason to believe anything any side presents, and there is every reason to expect anyone with a stake in the conflict to mislead you in any way they can imagine. That is basically why so little that has been published is of any value at all. And, of course, I have my own peculiar take on it all, which may be suspect to, but please hear me out:
Two parts of this are hard to do, especially for the US foreign policy clique since they've made their careers out of ingoring them for the past sixty years. The hard one is to be neutral. As far as I know, the US has never intervened in a country without having a favored side. (Reportedly the reason the US didn't intervene in Rwanda was we "didn't have a dog in that fight.") But if the goal is a negotiated ceasefire leading to elections, the intervention should be willing to lean against either side if and when it looks like that side might win. The fact is that it is very easy for a propagandist to rile up the American people against Gaddafi, but allowing that to happen leads to a lot of bad outcomes, both for the Libyan people (whose sovereignty our taking sides sacrifices) and for the US (which once again will be seen as meddling in other countries for selfish reasons).
The other problem, of course, is how to intervene without causing additional harm. One can certainly argue that even relatively mild acts like blockades and sanctions harm innocent people more than they undermine regimes. As for bombing, there's no escaping the fact that bombs inevitably kill innocent people. That's why interventionists are so eager to invent hypothetical people "saved" by bombing to balance off against the real people killed by it. (That's also why those same interventionists are so keen on calling themselves and their acts "humanitarian"; one thing you must understand is that there is no such thing as a humanitarian military intervention -- that's a simple impossibility, and the very use of the word should clue you in to the deceit it's meant to shroud.)
So is there a calculation which can justify the US/UN going in and bombing Libya? It can't be humanitarian concern for the Libyan people -- for one thing the US/UN has no right to speak for the Libyan people, especially not for the unknown individuals killed by the bombing. The only calculation I can imagine is this: that Gaddafi's forces are already killing people, so if you pointedly attack their wherewithal to project violence, you might degrade and deter their ability and will to do further violence. Or you might not -- there are cases, and they are far from rare, where attacks, especially by foreign forces, increase one's resolve to fight on. There is some evidence over the last few days that this calculation is working, but there is no guarantee that it will hold out. The best evidence would be for a ceasefire to stabilize current positions, then lead to negotiations and resolution.
On the other hand, the intervention has meant a reversal of fortune: welcome in that it halted Gaddafi's forces, disturbing in that it let the insurgents regain the offensive. There will be a lot of propaganda coming on how the US/UN should deviate from neutrality and actively back the insurgents, both to shorten an expensive conflict and because deep down we just plain hate Gaddafi. The fact is we have no idea who the Libyan people might prefer in charge of the government, and because we are not Libyan we have no right to an opinion. The only thing we can maintain is that Libyans should be given the opportunity to express their preferences in free and fair democratic elections, and that the best way to do that is to get all parties to agree to participate. Letting the insurgents storm Gaddafi's strongholds won't achieve this goal. In fact, it will taint the insurgents by associating them with foreign invaders and outside interests. So while I'm not too worried right now seeing the insurgents move bit by bit closer to Tripoli -- Gaddafi's people should be more willing to negotiate if they feel more at risk -- it would be a dangerous policy change to bomb the way for them to close in.
There are several threads of antiwar opposition to Obama's Libya policy, and I'm not here to argue against them. I don't support or approve of Obama's policy for far more basic reasons: I don't believe that war is a proper or acceptable means of resolving disputes, and I don't believe that my country or any other should have a warmaking capability and especially that they should not position it abroad. Obviously, if the US had no such capability, Obama would not be able to implement this policy, and I would be opposed to him developing any such capability. Obviously, if the US was committed to pacifism, we wouldn't be having this discussion. (Indeed, we wouldn't have had the air force base in Libya, we wouldn't have broken relations, we wouldn't have bombed Libya in 1986, Gaddafi wouldn't have had the pretext to blow up that airliner, and so on.) I'm not "bent out of shape" here because Libya is a relatively minor and thus far relatively benign offense; I'd rather argue both the general principles and more egregious cases, like Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are legitimate worries that if Obama's Libya policy can be painted as successful -- and judging from past adventures like Bosnia and Kosovo, such interpretations can be pretty loosey-goosey -- it will lead to further and most likely more reckless interventions (as, e.g., Afghanistan led to Iraq; in computers we call this "second system complex"). If there's an answer to that objection it's not to be found in history. Nor is it terribly satisfactory to point out how unlikely any real form of success is. Gaddafi has already declared his intent to die a martyr, so the fairy tale solution of him panicking and suing for peace real soon now doesn't seem to be in the cards. As with all wars, the longer this drags on, the more people we kill, the more we blow up, the worse it all gets -- and the more likely the relatively cautious and balanced terms of the UN resolution are swept aside in favor of a full-blown invasion.
Obama has also been castigated for bypassing Congress -- Kucinich has gone so far as to argue that Obama should be impeached. Normally I'm in favor of anything that makes it harder to go to war, and I wouldn't mind Congress rising to the occasion to force that principle, but I shudder to think of this Congress getting wrapped up in that debate (let alone actually trying to figure out Libya). Besides, as I recall Kucinich blew his big chance back in 1998: when Clinton was impeached, I urged voting against him not because of the specific charges but because his recklessly insane pummelling of Iraq would eventually lead to war there, but Kucinich gave him a pass.
There are more isolationist antiwar positions that I can't fault, and more realist antiwar positions -- why do we care what happens in Libya? -- that I don't quite understand. (Isn't it in America's, as well as civilization's, interest for all nations to give up war and to refrain from attacking their own people?) One thing that I haven't seen any commentary on is the probability that Libya is primarily a European concern and that Obama got dragged into the conflict in order to keep his primary NATO relations from falling apart. (France and England are the bulldogs of Europe here, since they have the most firepower and they have all of that imperialist legacy and culture to draw on, but they are most likely assuming a generalized European concern.) The US doesn't need Libyan oil, but Europe does. Libya has a history of terrorist attacks against Europe, but only indirectly against the US. The US would be just as happy to shit can Libya for the next thirty years, as it did in 1981, but Europe can ill afford doing so, and certainly doesn't want to have to fend off a bitchy US when they're trying to work out basis business with Libya. On the other hand, the US still needs NATO in Afghanistan, and that deal only works if there is some two-way value exchanged.
I suppose that if all that's true (and I think it is, although I haven't read anything to corraborate it), opposing US intervention in Libya might be seen as a positive step toward breaking up NATO, but NATO's always struck me as the tail, not the dog. There are plenty of reasons to shut it down, so why not deal with them more directly?
There are also lots of theories about how the various Arab revolts will turn out: whether intervening in Libya will make other countries more or less likely to revolt, other governments more or less likely to try to forcibly repress revolts, whether the revolutionaries will be more or less pro-American, and whether that's a good or bad thing. I find it real hard to know, let alone to generalize.
The US has already taken a wide range of hypocritical positions, encouraging revolt in some countries, welcoming violent repression in others (chiefly Bahrain and Saudi Arabia). No matter how violent the Saudis get I don't expect the US will have anything to do with a no-fly zone there. And as for the one place that most desperately needs a no-fly zone, Gaza, about all you can do is work that into a stand-up routine. The country most analogous to Libya right now is Syria. It is an effective dictatorship controlled by a minority clique which can be presumed to be fairly unpopular -- again, it's hard to say, and harder to believe whoever's saying -- and they have at least one past incident where they suppressed a revolt with massive firepower (in Hama, in 1982, killing upwards of 10,000; Israeli military theorist Martin van Creveld was quite impressed). The US has large adjacent air bases in Iraq, as well as a fleet in the Mediterranean, and Israel would be more than happy to chip in, so a no-fly zone is pretty doable. So maybe Libya changes the odds in Syria, but it's hard to say how.
Whether these revolts turn violent is virtually always decided by the government. I've seen arguments that we shouldn't intervene in Libya because the protesters themselves turned violent so readily, but I find that hard to credit. Alternatively, I've heard is said that the revolution in Libya was premature -- that the protesters weren't ready to take over the government. It looks to me like in every case the protesters pushed, the government responded rather violently, the protesters consolidated and pushed back harder. In Tunisia and Egypt the military held together and shifted power, sending the existing regimes into exile. In Libya the military itself cracked, immediately militarizing the protests, but that's mostly a function (or dysfunction) of the government, nothing that the protesters could have prepared for.
No one can know how this will play out. At this point we don't even have the promised new governments in Tunisia and Egypt, which once they exist will become models for the region. So my advice, if anyone cares, is to slow down and chill out on Libya; get a ceasefire, figure out a process to unify the country democratically, and get it functioning again as a normal state interacting with the rest of the world. Obama's done a lot of things that seem no better than what Bush did, but thus far he hasn't screwed Libya up much worse that it already was. If he's lucky, he might get out of it without too much embarrassment, but for that to happen he's going to have to ignore a lot of stupid advice he's certain to get.
Monday, March 21. 2011
Still stuck in the middle of cleaning up my overdue column for print. Do have a reprieve of sorts, in the sense that Rob Harvilla has left the Village Voice and his replacement as music editor, Maura Johnston, doesn't start until April. Harvilla's been supportive over the years. He's done me some favors, especially at year-end time, but he's also been chronically short of space. I can't possibly put everything I want to cover in a timely fashion into the space I get. I've tried to cope by writing tight and cryptic, by sloughing off worthwhile records, and (mostly) by letting things slip out in time, so that it's not at all unusual to find records appearing in Jazz CG that are more than a year old. A big part of closing this column is figuring out what to do about old and obscure records. I really don't know what the answer should be, in part because I don't know what the future will hold. I've heard good things about Johnston -- was told that she was editor at Idolator "when it was good" -- but I don't know her at all.
Slow getting going last week, but I've finally split the file and started trying to mop up the previously rated but unrevieweds. I have enough new prospecting to publish, including a surprising knot of A- records, but it's all so up in the air I'll hold off until next week. Don't have any A records for pick hits, but there are plenty of good ones just below that level. Still haven't settled on any duds. As usual, have way too many honorable mentions, and given the space/time crunch I find myself pushing marginal A- records into the HM list. Pretty certain I will get this wrapped up this week. No idea when (or at this point even if) the Voice will publish, but it looks like between my foot-dragging and external factors this one has slipped a month, maybe more.
Sunday, March 20. 2011
Got to the end of the week and found that I hadn't saved off any links -- most weeks I come up with 5-8. Laura spent the week in Detroit, so I didn't get any encouragement from her. But mostly I'm extremely bummed at the state of the world. Electing all those Republicans back in November seemed like the dumbest, most self-destructive thing you could imagine. Now, well, it is; you can see that now, can't you? You don't need me to say, "I told you so!" Yet what else can I add?
I thought about linking an AP piece on the House vote to defund NPR. It turns out that is no mere spending cut deal. It's meant to block any local media from spending any money on NPR. It's like sanctions against trading with North Korea. Cal Thomas coughed up a column this week arguing that NPR is biased. That of course is the easy part: anyone can argue that anyone else is biased, and Cal Thomas is especially easy pickings there -- the main reason he gets his column published in papers like the Wichita Eagle is that he makes for a pretty far out right-wing basket case. The deeper point is that instead of letting all viewpoints battle it out in the "marketplace of ideas" Thomas and the GOP goons in the House want to stamp out any ideas but their own. There is a term for this: "thought control."
But it also shows how desperately cynical the GOP is to secure power by means of manipulating purse strings. One reason we keep hearing about why Republicans want to crush public worker unions is that they want to throw obstacles in the way of workers making political contributions. It isn't enough for them to get unlimited corporate contributions; they also insist on choking off each and every source of support their opponents might be able to tap. It isn't enough that they spend government money on their favored contractors; they want to make sure government can't spend money on their opponents -- since that includes most poor people, most single people, most workers, that means they want to keep the government from doing anything that benefits the public. Why, for instance, support the arts when most of the people who enjoy art are Democrats? Why regulate nuclear power plants when most of the people at risk of radiation poisoning are Democrats? Why not rush into every imaginable war when the beneficiaries are Republican contractors and most of the risks fall on ordinary citizens? The Republicans have embarked on what we should call the War Against Civilization.
If it were just the Republicans, it would be easier to see a way clear of these threats. Most people rather like Civilization. They like food to be regulated so it doesn't poison them, and airlines to be regulated so planes don't crash. They like knowing that when they're too old to work they'll have an income and medical bills paid. They'd like having an educational system that anyone who has the brains and discipline to succeed can attend. They'd like to be able to join a union that would stand up for their rights then the bosses get all huffy. Lots of them like museums and other public art forums, and the costs are so trivial the grouches can hardly claim to be harmed by their fellow citizens' happiness.
But rather than defend Civilization, the Democrats keep tossing bits aside to appease the ever ravenous Republicans. For instance, just this week Obama gave in to another war. This one is styled as a light Bosnia-style air cover mission, intended to tilt a civil war slightly against a guy we've loved to hate for decades, so figure a lot of expensive fireworks (good for those warmongers who favor Republicans even when its Democrats overpaying them, and very little risk, except of course to people who live on the targeted ground. I noted one article that pointed out how officials in France and the UK see this "splendid little war" as a means to avoid budget cuts to their otherwise bloated and useless war bureaux. Obama held out for some nominal UN cover, which presumably makes his decision seem more considered (at least as compared to his predecessor's). And he promises "no ground troops" which somewhat limits the amount of self-damage he can inflict, but no organization on earth is more capable of screwing this up than the USAF, especially if they believe anything the CIA says.
One could imagine Gaddafi's forces so intimidated by ex-imperialist firepower that they fold and end this quickly, but they could just as plausibly solidify their stance as the ones opposed to imperialism, and if they do so this could drag out horribly. The most tactful stance for Obama is to deny that the US wants anything in return, which begs the question of why such greedheads would wager so much with no hopes for a positive return. Of course, Republicans won't be tempted to question Obama here, because intuitively they understand that war always helps the Republicans -- increases their patronage for defense contractors, increases risks and fears of blowback terrorism, pinches parts of the budget that could be used to actually help people, and drives a wedge between Democratic politicians and their despised base. (David Frum has once again weighed in with his maxim that whereas the Republicans fear their base, the Democrats despise theirs.)
There are many other ways the Democrats give ground -- the most obvious is their failure to fight back against the death spiral of cutting taxes and starving public services, but they wind up nearly as doubtful of science and knowledge, as submissive to the rich and powerful, as blithely ignorant of the real risks and challenges we should be facing, as are the Republicans. Their failure to fight back, even to think through their options, dooms them to failure rather than giving us reason for hope.
The massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan should give us pause. It is just one of myriad possible events due to shock a system that is nowhere near up to the challenge. We can't even take refuge in the idea that it is a natural disaster -- human habitation has so overwhelmed the planet that there is no nature anymore. Earthquakes are beyond our control, but they reverberate through the artifacts of our construction, adding complexities we can scarcely imagine. The nuclear reactor failures are merely the most obvious example. How careless of Japan to build such vulnerable and hazardous plants! Yet how else does a nation with no fossil fuels stay abreast of an economy -- a lifestyle, a worldview -- that can only exist by mining energy? Clearly they are damned one way, damned the other. Arguably Japan is the most advanced nation in the world -- rich, skilled, disciplined, cohesive, dedicated, yet today they are already facing limits that lurk everywhere but which our political culture cannot speak of, cannot even contemplate.
So that's that I draw from this past week. Not much to go on.
Monday, March 14. 2011
Time to get serious about finishing this thing. All I managed to do last week was to play some strong prospects off the top of the queue, and mostly got honorable mentions for my trouble. Not what I needed -- not by any stretch of the imagination. Lost a day in the middle of the week when I drove to see my aunt in Independence, KS. Took along the new ICP Orchestra album, plus the new Lucinda Williams. Didn't get far with either of those, but did greatly enjoy Alexander McCabe and Benjamin Herman, two records I prospected but still need to write reviews of. A few years back a publicist wrote to ask me if I was feeling OK because I'd been writing lousy reviews of her records -- one of them actually wound up with a crown in Penguin Guide, so maybe she had a point. I wasn't, but I still thought I could hear straight. Not sure I am now either, but after listening to so many near misses, it did feel good to hear something I actually liked. Eventually the De Rosa record below clicked, too, so maybe this dry patch is letting up. In any case, I plan on spending the next two weeks listening to the things I've rated and put up for review, instead of rooting through the unplayed stuff (although I'll do some of that too). As of now, I have 192 records prospected this round, a bit less than my recent norm (207-226 over the last five rounds). I have 1772 words written where I need 1300. I have no pick hits and no duds written up, but chances are that something I've heard will move up, and I really don't care much about the duds -- they're supposed to establish my credibility but I mostly find them sad. This week doesn't look like it's going to be real productive, so I figure it will take two to finish this thing. Will see how it goes.
Mostly Other People Do the Killing: The Coimbra Concert (2010 , Clean Feed, 2CD): Already forget where -- think it was that Spanish poll I forgot to vote in -- but I recall MOPDTK named as best live jazz group, something I have no opinion on not least because I can't recall the last time I even saw a live jazz group. I suppose I could try to form an opinion on the basis of live records, but then you'd have to compete with something like the Vandermark 5's Live at Alchemia -- 12-CDs that just grow and grow on you. MOPDTK sail through the first one here in dazzling fashion, but stall a bit on the second. And where their studio exercises are full of surprises -- and nicely documented in the liner notes so you don't miss them -- recycling their past deconstructions leaves them a bit short in their strong suit: the unexpected. B+(***)
Tim Berne: Insomnia (1997 , Clean Feed): Note first that this has been kicking around for a long time. I was asked a while back to write something nice about Clean Feed for the label's 10th anniversary, and I utterly failed to find any way to structure that -- in large part because I've always been so defensive, and so rebellious, about getting boxed in to anyone else's notion of what I ought to write. But one thing I can say about Clean Feed -- one of the things that distinguishes them from virtually every other jazz label -- is that they won't hesitate to take a flier on something everyone else has passed over. And while one might suspect that a label with their demographic would leap at the opportunity to add Tim Berne to their catalogue, more likely it's that Pedro Costa has heard something he wants to give a chance. Berne has released a superb string of records starting around 2003 -- my pick hit is Pre-Emptive Denial, attributed to Paraphrase, from 2005 -- but I rarely cared for his earlier works: he emerged around 1980 as a Julius Hemphill protégé and often seemed to be biting off more than he could chew, making music too complicated to finally come together. That's sort of the problem here, except that the final quarter does come together, and the more you listen to the complex noodling up front the more its incoherent strands take on their own logic. Big, and actually very talented, group: Baikida Carroll (trumpet), Michael Formanek (bass), Marc Ducret (guitar), Dominique Pifarely (violin), Erik Friedlander (cello), Chris Speed (clarinet), Jim Black (drums), Tim Berne (alto and baritone saxes). The core of the group -- Berne, Speed, Formanek, Black, sometimes Ducret -- was working as Bloodcount at the time, and their excellent Seconds spent ten years on the shelf before Berne released it himself. Someday I should go back to Berne's early records and try to figure out whose fault it was that I didn't like them. B+(***)
Scott Fields/Matthias Schubert: Minaret Minuets (2010 , Clean Feed): Guitar/tenor sax duo. Guitarist Fields has a couple dozen albums back to 1993. Schubert has four albums since 1992, including the well-regarded Blue and Grey Suite from 1994. They previously played together on Fields' 2006 album Beckett. They're careful here to match up their tones, so you get close listening and interaction, even balance. Does run on rather long. B+(**)
Jane Ira Bloom: Wingwalker (2010 , Outline): Soprano saxophonist, one of the few specialists; b. 1955, thirteenth album since 1980. Quartet with Dawn Clement (piano, Rhodes), Mark Helias (bass), Bobby Previte (drums). Eleven originals, ends with "I Could Have Danced All Night." B+(***)
Vijay Iyer with Prasanna & Nitin Mitta: Tirtha (2008 , ACT): Piano-guitar-tabla. Prasanna's guitar propels the flow, the most distinguishing feature here, very attractive at times with the soft tap of the tabla. Iyer elaborates but rarely breaks loose. B+(***)
The Cookers: Cast the First Stone (2010 , Plus Loin Music): Supergroup -- Billy Harper (tenor sax), Craig Handy (alto sax), Eddie Henderson (trumpet), David Weiss (trumpet), George Cables (piano), Cecil McBee (bass), Billy Hart (drums), with Azar Lawrence joining on 4 of 7 cuts (3 on tenor sax, 1 on soprano). Second group album, after 2010's Warriors, which got a lot of favorable notices but didn't come my way. Weiss is probably the least well known, but he's the arranger, that's his specialty. I recall Harper and Henderson teaming up before, on Harper's Live on Tour in the Far East series (Volume 2 is exceptional), so no surprise that the horns are roaring. Good to hear Cables, not just comping but weaving it all together. B+(***)
Angelica Sanchez: A Little House (2010 , Clean Feed): Pianist, b. 1972, moved to New York 1994, third album since 2003; has a list of 13 groups she is "a regular member of" -- nearly everyone mention is someone I want to hear everything by, and while I've never heard of Kevin Tkacz, "Kevin Tkacz's Lethal Objection w/ Paul Motion & Ralph Alessi" has got to be a winner. This one is solo piano. Doesn't amount to much as background, except for the bit on toy piano, but when I sat down at the computer to dismiss it I started hearing things that intrigued me. Takes focus. B+(**)
Daniel Levin Quartet: Organic Modernism (2010 , Clean Feed): Cellist, b. 1974 in Burlington, VT; seventh album since 2002, plus such notable side credits as Soulstorm with Ivo Perelman. Quartet with Nate Wooley on trumpet, Matt Moran on vibes, and Peter Bitenc on bass. This feels very compressed, with Wooley in particular working inside the cello lines. B+(**)
The Warren Vaché/John Allred Quintet: Top Shelf (2009 , Arbors): Cornet and trombone for the leaders, piano (Tardo Hammer), bass (Nicki Parrott), drums (Leroy Williams). Vaché followed Ruby Braff in keeping the swing revival going, reverting from trumpet to cornet, with dozens of albums since 1976. Allred is a decade younger, the son of a similar-minded trombonist, Bill Allred. Vaché, of course, isn't the first cornet player to appreciate the value of keeping a trombonist on tap -- Louis Armstrong never went anywhere without one. Only thing unusual here is that while nearly half of the songs are Tin Pan Alley standards, the rest come from the bop-era -- Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Clifford Brown, Benny Golson, Cannonball Adderley, the title track from Blue Mitchell. But in these hands the once radical break from swing to bop has blurred to nothing. Booklet credits Vaché with the vocal on "East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)" but sounds like Parrott to me. B+(***)
Carlo De Rosa's Cross-Fade: Brain Dance (2009 , Cuneiform): Bassist, b. 1970, moved to New York 1993; first album, although I see scattered side credits -- Luis Perdomo, Amir ElSaffar, Samo Salamon, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Arturo O'Farrill. Quartet with Mark Shim on tenor sax, Vijay Iyer on piano, Justin Brown on drums. Shim is a guy I'd pretty much forgotten about: two quite good albums for Blue Note 1998-2000, only scattered side credits since then, 2-3 per year. Shim is, however, superb here, right on the edge. Brown's drums shift the beat all over the place, opening up vast spaces for Shim and Iyer to work in. A-
The Brian Landrus Quartet: Traverse (2010 , Blueland): Plays baritone sax and bass clarinet, b. 1978, grew up in Reno, NV; studied in Boston, based in Brooklyn. Has a couple previous albums on Cadence, but doesn't seem that far out -- at least he not with this group: Michael Cain (piano), Lonnie Plaxico (bass), Billy Hart (drums). B+(**)
No final grades/notes this week on records put back for further listening the first time around.
For this cycle's collected Jazz Prospecting notes to date, look here.
Unpacking: Found in the mail over the last week:
Sunday, March 13. 2011
Some scattered links I squirreled away during the previous week:
The above were actually collected early in the week -- note that the ever-prescient Krugman already thought the world was going to hell back on Monday before the rest of this week happened. Since then Walker has managed to sign his law banning public employee unions in Wisconsin, and similar efforts have made headway across the country. (Here in KS, Sam Brownback signed an executive order cutting over $60 million in state expense, over $50 million of that from public schools. He, of course, sends his children to private schools.) Gaddafi seems to have reversed the tide of revolution in Libya and is battling back to kill his enemies, otherwise known as the Libyan people. (Meanwhile the chorus calling for a US/NATO/UN-imposed "no fly zone" has managed to sweep up even Paul Woodward at the usually reliable WarInContext.) Then there was the earthquake and tsunami in north Japan, with enormous immediate destruction and the extra struggle to keep damaged nuclear power plants from adding to the toll. I've been expecting for some years now that we will repeatedly be stressed by disaster, both natural and man-made (or both if you want to get into anthropogenic weather change), and further examples keep piling up. I'm generally impressed with how well Japan has handled a disaster of this magnitude; I imagine that the US would fare far worse -- in part because I've read Marc Reisner's A Dangerous Place: California's Unsettling Fate, but since then we've witnessed events like Katrina and the BP Gulf blowout, not to mention the government's utterly inept handling of its self-created war disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq. But bad as the government is, when disaster strikes there is no one else to turn to. And bad as the US is, it's possible to point to worse examples (although at the moment only Haiti jumps to mind). And looking at Wisconsin, indeed at Republicans all across the nation, it's all too easy to imagine our government getting far worse, far more inept. In a world increasingly beset by epic disasters -- which really has more to do with the complexity of our technology and economic systems than with the stressed state of nature -- the last thing we need is a gang of politicians attempting to wreck government, but that's what we are faced with.
One thing no one (that I know of) has pointed out about Libya is that a big reason why Gaddafi is fighting back violently whereas Ben Ali and Mubarak exited more or less gracefully is that the US has spent most of the last forty years demonizing and isolating Gaddafi and Libya, so they never developed the economic and political ties that would reinforce civil behavior. Although the US has nominally been friendly to Libya since Bush forgave Lockerbie, one thing we've seen in the last few weeks has been how readily we slipped back into villifying Gaddafi. But another is that his regime is steeped in the paranoia exclusions breeds -- North Korea is the prime example, not least because North Korea is the most friendless country on the face of the earth. It costs the US very little to shun a Libya (or Cuba or North Korea or Myanmar or Iran) but it costs those nations a great deal to be so cut off.
For what it's worth, I think Gaddafi has crossed a line where he should be villified. Citizens of every nation should be able to speak, assemble, and protest, without fear of getting shot or gassed or thrown into prison. However, Libya is not the only nation with that problem. In the last week we've seen both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia shoot into protesting crowds, but I haven't heard anyone who wants the US to impose a No-Fly Zone over Libya argue we should do the same thing over Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, nor can I imagine the US doing so. You might argue that the Saudis aren't attacking crowds with aircraft, but that's a sentence that demands one more word: yet. One could imagine protests spreading in Saudi Arabia to the point that the predominantly Shiite Persian Gulf region broke off, much as eastern Libya has broken free of Gaddafi. But if the degree of air threat was your consideration, the one place on earth that really needs a No-Fly Zone is Gaza. Can you really imagine the US intervening there to protect the people from Israeli air strikes? And while we're at it, shouldn't someone impose a No-Fly Zone over Pakistan's Frontier Territories, where people are routinely slaughtered from the sky?
I could imagine an international military response to Libya that might work, although I'm also pretty sure that one cannot trust the Americans to make it work. The first thing you want to do is clearly establish a reasonable goal, which is for the Libyan government and protesters to declare a cease-fire and agree to democratic elections so the Libyan people can select whatever government they want. Then you threaten the use of air strikes against any side that violates the cease-fire and/or uses violence to suppress the rights of free speech and assembly, with the intent to degrade the powers behind such use of violence, such that no side can hope to win by force. In theory this could involve attacking anti-Gaddafi militias, but as a practical matter the threat would focus on Gaddafi and his loyalist forces. The extent of such air strikes would be determined according to how long the sides refuse to negotiate, how much force they apply, and how good intelligence is at identifying targets; it should mostly be proportional to the use of force. The international force would declare no specific standard, like a no-fly or no-drive zone. Humanitarian aid would be available to both sides, contingent on nonviolence. The outside world could freeze Libyan assets and/or block trade, but no effort would be made to starve either side into concession. No outside effort would be made to influence elections. Gaddafi could conceivably agree to elections, campaign, win, and stay in power, within the normal framework of democracy.
Such a strategy is only possible because the outside world can dominate Gaddafi militarily. Such a strategy could not be used to push some other non-democratic states around, like China, or for that matter pseudo-democracies like Iran and Israel, so it's not a generally useful approach: it's pretty discriminatory against Libya, which will undoubtedly produce a backlash, no matter how carefully managed. The best possible scenario is that the threat leads directly to negotiations and a fair democratic outcome with no violence on any side (unlike a No-Fly Zone, which is generally understood to involve pre-emptive strikes against airfields and radars). However, because of Libya's long-standing isolation (my point above), Gaddafi is likely to resist, so the violence will be compounded. One can argue that if it is fast and precise, it will save lives in the long run, but the longer it takes the more specious that argument becomes.
The nation with the best technology to implement this policy is the United States. However, the US has a poor track record of doing anything remotely like this -- for technological reasons, like inability to gather correct intelligence on targets, and for political reasons: the US has intervened in many countries but never without an ulterior reason, e.g., having a dog in the fight. The long-standing historical enmity between the US and Gaddafi makes him less likely to negotiate, and makes Americans more likely to demonize him in order to sell the program. The US political system is pretty well poisoned at the moment, so while Obama (unlike Bush) might understand the concept, he may also find it politically perilous. Moreover, anyone who has been critical of US foreign/military policy over the last decade (or for that matter 65 years) must be leery about adding another country to America's Free-Fire List; a much better solution to the problem would be to mothball the bombers and cruise missiles and drones and return all the troops to US soil, giving up the conceit that we should be the world's gendarmes (effectively what this policy would enroll us to be).
So having thrown this scheme out, I'm inclined to shoot it down. It would be a shame if the Libyan revolution failed. It would be worse if the "no fly" boys were given carte blanche to bomb anywhere they could think of a humanitarian reason to do so. As much as I wish peace and democracy could come to Libya, they are needed even more desperately here in the US of A.
Tuesday, March 8. 2011
This batch marks the transition from 2010 to 2011. Early in the month I was still scrounging through year-end lists, picking out things I hadn't paid much attention to before. With Pazz & Jop done, I lost my interest in the few mass-approved records I hadn't gotten to and started searching out the obscurities on individual year-end lists of critics I respected. (Jason Gross turned out to be the most productive source: he keeps an especially long and idiosyncratic list.) However, I also started hitting more 2001 albums as they dropped. The bottom line for what follows is 17 2010 releases vs. 32 2011 albums. (One record goes back to 2008, so we have 50 in all.)
For whatever it's worth, I've started a 2011 metafile, catching review ratings as catch can -- certainly not very systematically. I've changed the technology around this year -- one plain data file that I can edit and mechanically sort, and a separate program file which decides how to select and present the data. I've been working on the data file for several weeks now. The program I just hacked together in an hour last night, pretty much copying the old format, but that's far from set in stone. No promises as to how dilligent I'll be in keeping it up. Some sources that metacritic follows tend to run slow, and I can't spend full time tracking them. I have a few other sources I like to follow, and will be adding more as I get around to them. But currently the mass of green print near the top shows that I've been using the file to identify things I should listen to. Also that I can't say that the consensus picks have not been very impressive to date.
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 February 8. Past reviews and more information are available here.
Adele: 21 (2010 , XL): Chart-topping British pop singer, b. 1988, second album, each titled for her age at the time. Has some soul to her voice, which ages it, but mostly she just belts songs out, hitting them hard and low and popping out a lot. Reminded me of an unworn Janis Joplin, not that there ever was one, nor that there should be. B-
Gregg Allman: Low Country Blues (2011, Rounder): The surviving Allman brother, has mostly kept the franchise going, but on the side cut three albums in the mid-1970s, two in 1986-88, one in 1997, and now this one. Readymade blues album, mostly old stuff from Sleepy John Estes to Muddy Waters to Elmore James to Otis Rush. Probably something he can keep doing into his 80s, if anyone cares. B+(*)
Allo Darlin': Allo Darlin' (2010, Fortuna Pop): UK group, lead singer Elizabeth Morris, from Australia. No idea where all the "twee" hype comes from, or what it is meant to mean. Songs are simple, straightforward, observant; they make their little points and don't worry too much about form, although there's enough of that. Couldn't find on Rhapsody, so got a download from the publicist; not quite sure what to do about that. B+(***) [download]
. . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead: Tao of the Dead (2011, Superball Music): Austin, TX group, AYWKUBTTOD to their friends -- even abbreviated and shorn of leading ellipsis, one of the worst rock group names I've ever run across. Eighth album since 1998, first one I've bothered with. On the hard rock side but not so burdened with heavy metals; fairly uneventful background noise. B
Natacha Atlas: Mounqaliba (2010, World Village): From Belgium, with roots in Palestine, Morocco and Egypt, some Jewish -- calls herself a "human Gaza Strip." Ninth album since 1995 -- Gedida in 1999 was well regarded. Sings in Arabic, French, English, with mideast syncopations coming and going, adding some spice to what otherwise might slip into maudlin chansonnette. More intriguing are the spoken word snippets, talking (in English) about economics and sustainability. B
The Baseball Project: Vol. 2: High and Inside (2011, Yep Roc): The principals are Steve Wynn, Scott McCaughey, Peter Buck, and Linda Pitmon -- they have a long list of band associations but Buck's REM is the only one that validates the supergroup label. But they can whip out melodies any time they find the words, and there's lots of baseball lore to draw on. Vol. 1's references to frozen ropes and dying quails were pretty esoteric -- the former is better known as a line drive, and the latter is a shallow pop-up that drops in front of an outfielder -- as is my favorite line here, the one that insists that 1870s infielder Bob Ferguson had the "greatest nickname of all time: Death to Flying Things." Still, with its toasting of Sal "the barber" Maglie and its lament for poor, dead Ray Chapman, this is almost a major league ploy. Too much Red Sox, of course, but Craig Finn steps in and provides the perfect antidote. A-
James Blake: James Blake (2011, Atlas): Electronica producer from London, UK, dropped three EPs in 2010 that collectively got a lot of attention -- The Bells Sketch, CMYK, and Klavierwerke -- setting up big hype for this full length debut. It would be easy to just dump all over this: morosely slow, tearful, pathos unseemly for anyone who's just, uh, 21, maybe 22. His bleak backgrounds have some tortured beauty to them; his vocals, though, are probably culpable for the torture. B
Bright Eyes: The People's Key (2011, Saddle Creek): Conor Oberst, popped up behind this pseudonym in 1998, is certainly talented and earnest, but I'm still sitting on two ungraded 2002-05 albums; never seem to quite know what to do with him. This starts and ends spoken with semi-deep thoughts or sci-fi babble, as the case may be. The songs flow easily, the words beyond me, but only "One for You, One for Me" rises to the point where the rhythm sweeps all before it. B+(*)
Hayes Carll: KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories) (2011, Lost Highway): Was smart, literate, and down home back on his second album, Little Rock, not that anyone noticed. Only on his third, Trouble in Mind, did heads turn, mostly because he got much wilder and woolier, maybe even more so here. What's missing are the great cosmic jokes as the song where he loses a lover to Jesus, vowing to kick his ass if he ever gets hold of Him. Stories here are more pedestrian, including a couple wrapped up in Afghanistan -- the title is a military acronym, "kiss my ass guys, you're on your own." A-
Carolina Chocolate Drops: Carolina Chocolate Drops/Luminescent Orchestrii (2011, Nonesuch, EP): Four tracks, 18:24, available on 10-inch vinyl as well as CD. The Luminescents add extra strings -- two fiddles as well as guitar and banjo -- and backing vocals, enough to move the trio past their cultivated old-timey primitivism into a more worldly space. A breakthrough, for sure, but suffers the curse of the EP: too short to sink in, or to fully develop its flavors; to counter that less is more suggests that they can't do more of this, which on the surface seems absurd. Of course, it's business that will tell whether this is a one-shot fluke or a taste of something more satisfying. And really, what else is an EP but business? B+(***)
Circa Survive: Blue Sky Noise (2010, Atlantic): Hard to categorize, sort of a lighter, softer arena metal band, not something that appeals to me but they managed to ingratiate themselves somewhat anyway. B
Cut Copy: Zonoscope (2011, Modular): Australian synth pop group, third album since 2004. Best cut by far is tail end of the 15:07 closer, "Sun God"; best thing about it: no vocals. B
The Decemberists: The King Is Dead (2011, Capitol): Portland, OR rock group, fifth studio album since 2002, second on major label. The band is named for a Russian revolt, in turn the subject of an unfinished Tolstoy novel. They are, in short, historically literate and conscious, wedded to a middle-Americana much like Titus Andronicus. But their fascination with history is wrapped up in blood and gore. I could stand this well enough until they started moralizing about it in "This Is Why We Fight." B
The Dirtbombs: Party Store (2011, In the Red): Detroit group, was expecting something more garage/punk, but despite guitar base these are mostly post-disco groove pieces, stripped down to bare metal and worn not quite till they squeal. B+(**)
John Doe and the Sadies: Country Club (2008 , Yep Roc): Ex-X bassist backed by a countryish Canadian band that has made a habit of backing other singers because they don't really have one of their own. Some terrific old country songs here showing Doe's good taste and erudition, only one of which rises above mediocrity: a Merle Haggard rewrite called "Are the Good Times Really Over for Good"; plus three Sadies originals which show nothing. B-
Drive-By Truckers: Go-Go Boots (2009-10 , ATO/Red): No ravers, not much muscle tone, suggests they think their lyrics are so strong the music can write itself. I'm not here to tell you they aren't, but as usual I'm slow on the uptake when it comes to words. But I find the low-key music pretty mesmerizing, and I'm not so slow that I think they have nothing to say. A-
T-Model Ford and GravelRoad: Taledragger (2011, Alive): Mississippi bluesman, James Lewis Carter Ford, knowing blues is an old-man's game cleverly waited until he was 72 to cut his first album. Eighth album, now 85, he's finally got the hang of it, sounding a lot like John Lee Hooker, only the bass line keeps whispering "spoonful" to me, and the guitar's got some nasty feedback to it. B+(***)
Gay for Johnny Depp: What Doesn't Kill You, Eventually Kills You (2011, Shinebox): New York hardcore group, loud, crude, vocals pitched high, "Suckcess" a rare stab at humor; maybe "Cum On Feel the Boize" where they at least bothered to steal an anthemic hook. B-
Gigi: Maintenant (2008 , Tomlab): Vancouver group, or "music project" which seems to be the preferred nomenclature. Songwriter Nick Krgovich and producer Colin Stewart, various friends and hangers-on. Music is vintage girl group, except that the songs aren't obviously teen-centric or sexually stereotyped, the hooks are often clipped, and sometimes you wonder if they're trying to do girl group sans femmes. B+(**)
Gold Motel: Summer House (2010, Good as Gold): Chicago group, first album, lead singer Greta Morgan gives the record a bubbly, attractive pop sound on top of the jangle guitars. Better than a lot of last year's surf music. B+(*)
The Go! Team: Rolling Blackouts (2011, Memphis Industries): Brighton, UK group; third studio album since 2004. Strike me as teen pop, but loud, raucous; something teens might actually like, as opposed to our teen pop models, which actually are pre-teens prefer. Ends on an up note, very up. B+(**)
Patty Griffin: Downtown Church (2010, Credential): Folksinger, seventh album since 1996, goes to church and finds cheap songs -- 7 of 14 by trad; she wrote two more in the style, and plucked "I Smell a Rat" from Leiber and Stoller. Concept works well enough, probably because like many gospel fans she doesn't really believe in the stuff. Still, she doesn't take the liberties to make it sound as weird as it really is. B+(*)
Happy Birthday: Happy Birthday (2010, Sub Pop): Vermont group, debut record, with a songwriter who calls himself King Tuff and the sister of someone in the Tune-yards; guitar-bass-drums with garage acoustics barbed with quirky pop hooks -- I'm tempted to say too fancy for my taste ("Pink Strawberry Shake" sure is), but sometimes their fanciness is perfectly primitive ("Zit"). B+(**)
P.J. Harvey: Let England Shake (2011, Vagrant): I hated her first two albums (Dry and Rid of Me), but had no real problem with To Bring You My Love, liking it as much as anyone. Since then my grades have mostly fallen two slots below Christgau's, grudging respect for an artist I don't feel any particular fondness. This is a chilly album, lacking the personal tics I found annoying, hinting at political critiques that hole some promise. Still not sure what I think of the Eddie Cochran refrain or the Bob Marley sample -- the most obvious hooks, mostly because they're so obvious. Don't feel much love or concern for England, but enjoyed my time there, struck more than anything by its ordinariness despite the humongous conceits of its upper crust. In my metafile this currently ranks as the record of the year, but it seems pretty ordinary to me. B+(***)
Tim Hecker: Ravedeath 1972 (2011, Kranky): Canadian electronica producer, eighth album since 2001, produces ambient sounds, some too loud to slip into the background, most more modest and touched up here and there. B+(*)
Hot Club of Cowtown: What Makes Bob Holler (2010 , Proper): Cowboy jazz trio, formed in 1998 in San Diego with guitar (Whit Smith), violin (Elana James), and bass (lately Jake Erwin), Smith and James trading vocals. Seventh studio album, not counting a couple out in Japan only, their concept here Django and Grappelli meets Bob Wills. Nice concept, but could use a better singer (or two), and could stand to get a lot hotter. B+(*)
Wanda Jackson: The Party Ain't Over (2011, Nonesuch): Rockabilly singer from the 1950s, known as "the female Elvis" much like Spottswood Poles was known as "the black Ty Cobb" -- which is to say at least partly for lack of better competition. (Josh Gibson could kick up a more serious argument as "the black Babe Ruth.") Found Jesus as rockabilly went out of fashion, but has been game to revert whenever market interest emerged, like here reflecting the fame of Jack White -- and Loretta Lynn, the last venerable star to get White's attention. So think of this as White's rockabilly fling, if you like. Jackson's voice is pretty shot, and she doesn't have enough sense to resist White's cute songbook ideas, ranging from "Busted" to "Rum and Coca-Cola" to "Nervous Breakdown" to something by Amy Winehouse. Note that I'm stopping short of blaming White for "Dust on the Bible" -- I figure that's just Jackson's way of tithing. B-
Jaill: That's How We Burn (2010, Sub Pop): Indie rock group from Milwaukee; debut, at least on a real label. Tuneful, jangly, not too dumb to listen to, but not so smart I'll stick with them. B+(**)
Nicolas Jaar: Space Is Only Noise (2011, Circus): B. New York, moved to Santiago, Chile young, started dabbling with electronics, finally moving back to New York. Cites Mulatu Astatke and Erik Satie as influences. Spare, spacious, modest beats with some talk or other, things that don't seem like much but grow on you. Not sure this wouldn't go higher if I gave it the time. B+(***)
Kode9: DJ-Kicks (2010, !K7): Scottish dubstep producer Steve Goodman; has a couple of previous albums, but this is more of a remix project, part of a long-running series on the !K7 label going back to 1995 -- I count 33-35 discs at various sources. The various artists kick up the variation, with a few bits distinctly out of the norm -- which seems to revolve around clever electronic percussion. Better than listenable, but doesn't break out of its norm. B+(**)
Talib Kweli: Gutter Rainbows (2011, Duck Down Music): Underground-ish hip-hop, his best records have been collaborations with others, but all of them sound good, none spectacular. Some rumble jumble noise here I didn't parse, and lots of acceptable grooves and rhymes. B+(**)
The Low Anthem: Smart Flesh (2011, Nonesuch): Rhode Island group, fourth album, two self-released and two now on prestige major Nonesuch. Favors folk melodies, rustic themes. Rather liked their previous album with its "Charlie Darwin" theme, but Christgau insists that after multiple plays none of the songs held up. No idea about these, but they do have understated grandeur; helps them get by. B+(*)
Lykke Li: Wounded Rhymes (2011, Atlantic): Swedish singer-songwriter, b. Li Lykke Zachrisson in 1986, second album; plays a rich kid in one song, a prostitute in another, not sure she can tell the difference. Mostly keybs, nice drums, uninteresting voice. B-
Jessica Lea Mayfield: Tell Me (2011, Nonesuch): Young singer-songwriter, second or third album, has a country voice which gets more ingratiating over the course of the album, but the music has clever rockish touches, synth drums and the like -- Dan Auerbach (Black Keys) produced, but doesn't feel the need for his usual faux blues. Can't follow well enough to truly evaluate, but for now she sounds a good deal older than 21. B+(*)
Minks: By the Hedge (2011, Captured Tracks): New York lo-fi duo, fuzzy strumming guitars and low-keyed vocals, seems like a viable formula to me. B+(**)
Motörhead: The World Is Yours (2010 , UDR): Heavy metal group, dates back to 1977, which makes leader Lemmy Kilmister 65 now. Have only listened to a handful of 30+ albums, but they've always had the bass-guitar-drums crunch right, Lemmy is a deep-throated barker as opposed to the high-pitched whiners that front most metal bands, and the lyrics are if not smarter than the competition boxed up so the clichés are harmless -- now and then funny, even. Makes them uniquely listenable. I'd be more impressed if I hadn't heard it all before. B+(***)
Aaron Neville: I Know I've Been Changed (2010, Tell It): Recognition of Neville's saintly voice was instantaneous, but deciding I wanted to hear it took a few songs -- the fourth one in did it: "I Am a Pilgrim," which I knew from Merle Travis but he used to introduce it as an old favorite he had learned around a campfire so who knows how far it does back it goes. Gospel-themed, but misses the usual pitfalls, finding a human scale and tone. Joe Henry produced, and Allen Toussaint played piano. A-
Old 97's: Mimeograph (2010, New West, EP): Real EP here, four songs, live I think, all covers -- Rolling Stones, Fratellis, REM, David Bowie -- sounds pretty good as far as it goes, which isn't very far. Nice to hear Bowie's "5 Years." B+(*)
Parlovr: Parlovr (2009 , Dine Alone Music): Montreal group, the 'v' intended as a Latin 'u' not that they mean to pronounce it anyway. They call what they do sloppy pop; may be a bit too melodic for punk, but that's another way to look at it, and more appropriate when they get loud and into a drone which is what they do best. Songs are mostly 3-4 minutes, two under 3, one runs on to 10:40; a couple sounded off to me, but they fixed that. B+(***)
Saigon: The Greatest Story Never Told (2011, Suburban Noize): Rapper, Brian Daniel Carenard, first studio album after a pile of street albums and mixtapes, and evidently a pretty long gestation. Eighteen cuts, 79 minutes, mostly produced by Just Blaze, with Kanye West on one song. Big feel, some stuff I like, some I might get behind with a little more time and motivation. B+(**)
Ty Segall: Melted (2009 , Goner): Singer-songwriter, worked with various marginal groups -- Epsilons, Party Fowl, The Traditional Fools, The Perverts -- before going solo, working in a lo-fi aesthetic. His primitivist attack and crunch has some appeal, but I haven't pulled much out of it. B+(*)
Smile Smile: Truth on Tape (2010, Kirtland): Nominal folk-pop duo from Dallas, boy-girl, Ryan Hamilton and Jencey Hirunrusme; folk because they're low-tech, song-simple, harmony-oriented, but pop because they like cute hooks -- the falsetto "whoo-hoo-hoo" on the old folks opener "Tempo Bledsoe" sure hooked me. Nominal because Hirunrusme plays unfolkie piano, and they keep a drummer handy. Wish they had more hooks like that, or were funnier and more risque like Timbuk 3, but nearly every one of their sincere little songs impressed me. A-
Sonic Youth: Simon Werner A Disparu (2010 , SYR): Self-released soundtrack music, using the French title of Fabrice Gobert's film -- Wikipedia redirects me to Lights Out (film), which includes an English-language poster, so that must have been an option. Sort of their trademark guitar sounds, plus a bit of piano but no vocals -- works as discreet background noise, but not too discreet or too background. About what I'd expect if I ordered up some cut-and-paste music from them for an undisclosed film project, then underpaid them, as expected. B+(**)
Kelley Stoltz: To Dreamers (2010, Sub Pop): Singer-songwriter from Detroit, based in New York, cut his first albumin 1999 and has eight now. Fairly catchy little tunes; AMG roots them in the Kinks and Byrds and other 1960s fare, but I don't hear anything that specific. B+(**)
Jazmine Sullivan: Fearless (2008, J): After having underrated her sophomore effort, I noticed this debut, which would have helped clue me in. Big difference is that the new one is a much bigger budget collaboration. She's got less makeup, less vocal range, less frosting, all of which makes her more real. Starts and ends with singles that jump out of the grooves, showing that they can still (on rare occasions) make 'em like they used to. B+(**)
Mark Sultan: $ (2009 , Sultan): Montreal singer-songwriter, has drifted in and out of various garage rock bands -- best known is the King Khan & BBQ Show, but also the Spaceshits, Les Sexareenos, Almighty Defenders, and the Ding Dongs. Second album under what's evidently his own name, following 2007's The Sultanic Verses. Has a 1960s sound, quasi-punk, but sloppier and more chaotic. B
Teddy Thompson: Bella (2011, Verve Forecast): Second-generation singer-songwriter, son of Richard and Linda, has knocked out six albums now since 2000. Has many skills but I'm not sure songwriting is among them -- the one record by him that I liked was full of covers. This one isn't. B
Thompson Square: Thompson Square (2011, Stoney Creek): Country music duo, husband Kiefer Thompson from Oklahoma and wife Shawna Thompson from Tennessee. Loud, overproduced, trivially anthemic ("One of Those Days," "As Bad as It Gets"), occasionally stupid ("would you drive my getaway car?"). Give them a few hits and they might make Lady Antebellum look like hippies. C-
Toro y Moi: Underneath the Pine (2011, Carpark): Sophomore effort from Chaz Bundwick, electronics and vocals, a good deal lusher with more flowing melodies than the first time, like he's getting the hang of it. B+(**)
The Upsidedown: The Town With Bad Wiring (2010, Reverb): Portland, OR group; 2004 debut album was called Trust Electricity. They do, maintaining an even-tempered drone around the guitars, slower than Jesus and Mary Chain or Psychedelic Furs, almost sanctified. Makes for a very effective sound, something that can be tweaked slightly to get a surf guitar effect, or to play off the Velvet Underground, or to work in subtle pop hooks. B+(***)
Yuck: Yuck (2011, Fat Possum): UK group, debut album; guitar band, gets a lot of metallic drone which they tried to crank up for the leadoff single but is actually more attractive -- wouldn't go so far as to say mesmerizing -- when they tone it down a bit, as they do more often than not. Definitely not yucky. B+(**)
Monday, March 7. 2011
Last few weeks I've been posting an album cover as a sort of pick hit, although the real reason is that when I post a link on facebook it automatically grabs an image, and if I don't provide an album cover I'll get an unrelated book cover instead. On the other hand, nothing below strikes me as worth the effort. It's been a lousy week. Records I had hopes for flopped. The biggest surprise was a saxophonist from Spokane with a Mozart background, and I decided to hold that one for further play (that's what the bracketed grades mean).
The Rhapsody reviews are a matter of curiosity. I put together a list of things that got year-end list votes that I hadn't heard and that were available there, so I knocked a few of them off. Policy is to prospect them but not include them in Jazz CG unless I get real copies -- sometimes I seek them out, sometimes they find me, most never get noticed one way or another -- or I decide they're dud-worthy: Eigsti and Elling are candidates there, but thus far I haven't written them up. They are, after all, perennials; we've already been there, done that.
Goal now is to close this round out over next two weeks. Lot of records in the queue. Few looking promising, and most I won't get to this time, but I already have more than enough written up to fill the Voice's shrinking space allotment.
BTW: Should have a fairly lengthy helping of Rhapsody Streamnotes tomorrow.
Jamaaladeen Tacuma: For the Love of Ornette (2010 , Jazzwerkstatt): Bass guitarist, b. 1956 as Rudy MacDaniel in Hempstead, NY; played on a couple of essential Ornette Coleman records -- Dancing in Your Head (1976) and Of Human Feelings (1979) -- back when Coleman was incorporating electric guitar and bass and putting forth his harmolodic theories (Tacuma also appeared on James Blood Ulmer's Tales of Captain Black. Tacuma's own records start in 1983 as he attempted to build on his free funk patterns. AMG lists this as his 17th album, not counting things like his Vernon Reid collaboration as Free Form Funky Freqs. Here he returns to Coleman, or maybe one should say Coleman returns to him -- the great man plays alto sax here, as unmistakable as ever, but strangely subdued, with Toni Kofi's tenor sax more often up front, and bits of piano and flute floating in the ether. B+(***)
Dollshot: Dollshot (2010 , Underwolf): Group, or project, or something like that: Rosalie Kaplan (voice), Noah Kaplan (sax), Wes Matthews (piano, sometimes prepared), Giacomo Merega (bass, sometimes prepared). First album. Noah Kaplan has a previous album with Merega and guitarist David Tronzo. Rosalie Kaplan has one of those operatic soprano voices I can't stand, all the more so with so many songs by Arnold Schoenberg, Francis Poulenc, and Charles Ives. One original by Matthews, one by Noah Kaplan, an uncredited "Postlude." The instrumental passages are more intriguing, and I do like the dusky sax leads. [B]
The David Liebman Trio: Lieb Plays the Blues à la Trane (2008 , Challenge): With Marius Beets on bass, Eric Ineke on drums. Three Coltrane pieces, sandwiched between Miles Davis's "All Blues" and Duke Ellington's "Take the Coltrane" -- all ruggedly blues-based, with snakey soprano sax twists and more muscular tenor sax. Liebman has well over a hundred records since the early 1970s, when he came up in Miles Davis's group. It used to be that saxophonists would strive to establish their own unique sounds, but Liebman is still a fan, wearing his heroes on his sleeves -- he's done a Homage to John Coltrane, his own version of John Coltrane's Meditations. Recently took a shot at Ornette Coleman too, but this is closer to his heart, and really the whole reason for his soprano. I still much prefer to tenor, but he makes both work here. B+(***)
Joel Harrison String Choir: The Music of Paul Motian (2010 , Sunnyside): Guitarist, has a lot of half-baked ideas like Harrison on Harrison, where he plays George Harrison songs. This one is, well, different. Paul Motian's songs are much more difficult and much more intriguing. Arranging them for string quartet draws out the abstractness and sharpens the edges. No doubt it helps that his string section is made up of jazz musicians: Christian Howes and Sam Bardfield on violin, Mat Maneri or Peter Ugrin on viola, and Dana Leong on cello. He also plays guitar, as does Liberty Ellman. Two non-Motian compositions: "Misterioso" (Thelonious Monk) and "Jade Visions" (Scott LaFaro), both completely appropriate. B+(*)
Laura Harrison: Now . . . . Here (2010, 59 Steps): Vocalist, from Canada, studied at University of British Columbia, got a DMA from University of Southern California. First page of booklet mostly talks about crooked lawyers and how much pain and expense it took to get a Green Card. First album. Classically precise voice, although she starts out with credible scat on "Shulie A Bop" (misspelling Sarah Vaughan on the credit). Three originals, nine covers ranging from Bizet to Ellington to Sting. B+(**)
Noah Preminger: Before the Rain (2010 , Palmetto): Tenor saxophonist, b. 1986 (not in current "long bio" but in my previous notes), based in Brooklyn, second album (AMG only has one, but I have two, and recall that his first won the Voice Critics' Poll's debut section). Quartet, with Frank Kimbrough on piano, John Hébert on bass, Matt Wilson on drums. Wrote 4 of 9 songs, picking up 2 from Kimbrough, 1 from Coleman (pretty sure that's Ornette), two standards ("Where or When," "Until the Real Thing Comes Along"). Preminger has a lot of potential, but the more I play it the more I suspect he's awed by his band, who try to be supportive but tend to stand out. B+(**)
Chris Parrello: + Things I Wonder (2010 , Popopomo Music): Probably should attribute whole title to group name and consider album eponymous but I didn't want to write both twice (the style I've been leaning to lately) or italicize it all (a style I've long used). Parrello plays guitar, composed the songs; Karlie Bruce wrote and sings the lyrics. Other people I've never heard of play trumpet, sax, cello, bass, drums, and pedal steel. (Hype sheet just mentions five names: Parrello, Bruce, Ian Young [tenor/soprano sax], Rubin Kodheli [cello], and Kevin Thomas [bass]. Website shows one photo, a lineup of five.) They're probably easier to take as a rock band than as a jazz group: Bruce sings wordlessly on several occasions, but she's better when she has something to say; while the sax and cello avoid rock usages, the guitar and bass don't, and they seem to be happier playing a groove and riffs. B+(*)
Todd DelGiudice: Pencil Sketches (2010 , OA2): Saxophonist, alto then tenor, also clarinet and bass clarinet; grew up in Florida, studied University of Miami; moved to New York, then on to Eugene, OR for more classical study, playing clarinet in the Oregon Mozart Players and joining symphony orchestras wherever he landed -- currently teaching near Spokane, WA. First album, quartet with piano, bass, and drums, all originals except for "All the Things You Are." Mainstream, gorgeous alto tone, effortless swing. I haven't been holding many records back for future consideration because I'm so jammed I often just want to check things off, but I want to hear this again. [B+(***)]
Will Swindler's Elevenet: Universe B (2010, OA2): Saxophonist, alto then soprano, studied at UNT, teaches at Colorado State. First album. Eleven-piece ensemble, shuffling some of the 14 credited musicians in and out, but basically breaks down to 3 reeds, flute, 2 trumpets, trombone or euphonium, French horn, piano, bass, drums. Five originals, covers from Miles Davis (arr. Gil Evans -- a key influence), Billy Strayhorn, and George Harrison. Took me a while to get used to the harmonics, but the arrangements have a silky flow -- not much solo and not much mass. B+(*)
Andy Farber and His Orchestra: This Could Be the Start of Something Big (2009 , Black Warrior): Conventional big band, just the way Count Basie intended -- four trumpets, four trombones, five reeds (plus the leader, so make that six), piano, guitar, bass, drums; one-cut guest slots for Mark Sherman on vibes and Jerry Dodgion on alto sax, plus two vocal tracks with Jon Hendricks. B+(**)
Billy Bang/Bill Cole: Billy Bang/Bill Cole (2009 , Shadrack): The violinist you must know by now. He had my jazz record of the year last year, and that wasn't the first time he did that. Cole you should know: I credit him with two A- records, 2002's Seasoning the Greens and 2008's Proverbs for Sam, both group albums. His duo albums, like this one and previous work with Bang and William Parker and others, are a bit sketchier. He was b. 1937 in Pittsburgh; wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Coltrane; teaches at Syracuse; mostly plays non-Western wind instruments. He faces off Bang's violin here with digeridoo, nagaswarm, sona, flute, and shenai, ranging from deep throated background to even squeakier than Bang's violin. Takes off slow, wanders a lot; while Cole eventually comes up with some interesting flurries, Bang pays close attention but never really takes charge. B+(*)
Mike DiRubbo: Chronos (2010 , Posi-Tone): Alto saxophonist, b. 1970 New Haven, CT, studied under Jackie McLean, six albums since 1999, starting with mainstream mainstays Sharp Nine and Criss Cross. Sharp player, runs very fast postbop races, lovely tone and soulful touch on ballads. This one's a trio, with Brian Charette on organ and Rudy Royston. Six DiRubbo originals, three by Charette. I don't find the organ all that interesting, but DiRubbo's one to keep an eye on. B+(**)
Darius Jones/Matthew Shipp: Cosmic Lieder (2010 , AUM Fidelity): Avant alto sax/piano duo. Jones emerged with a most impressive album in 2009, Man'ish Boy (A Raw & Beautiful Thing), then followed it up last year with Throat, attributed to Little Women, which crossed my threshold for how much ugly bleating I can stand, but turns out to have been admired elsewhere -- the record got six votes in the Pazz & Jop poll, third best among jazz albums (behind Jason Moran and Mary Halvorson). I'm caught in between here, finding Jones a bit awkward, doing nothing naturally and getting by forcing it. Shipp too, although what he does fits in as comping, even if it's exceptionally brutal. B+(*)
Marhaug: All Music at Once (2007-08 , Smalltown Superjazz): Lasse Marhaug, b. 1974 in Norway, has ten or so albums since 2001, does electronics -- at least that's the credit on 3 of 6 cuts here; others are piano on 2, scrap-metal on 2, and noise on the title track, not that I notice much difference between electronics, scrap-metal, and noise, or recognize much in the way of piano. More evident are the guitars of Jon Wesseltoft (4 cuts) and Stian Westerhus (the other 2), although they're more electronics than strings, and can pass for noise as well. Interesting stuff, but I'm not very acclimated to it. B+(*)
Bob Wilber: Bob Wilber Is Here! (2010, Arbors): Trad jazz player, plays clarinet, soprano sax, and alto sax; b. 1928 in New York, played in a high school band with pianist Dick Wellstood, studied with Lennie Tristano, but broke in playing with Eddie Condon and Buddy Hackett, was a protégé of Sidney Bechet's who he has long honored in his Soprano Summit group with Kenny Davern. Clarinetists Antti Sarpila and Nik Payton are introduced here as Wilber's protégés, and I can't begin to sort out who's playing what when here. The rhythm section supplies the necessary swing: Jeff Barnhart on piano, Nicki Parrott on bass, and Ed Metz on drums. Mostly delightful, although it seems a bit diluted. B+(**)
Paolo Fresu: Mistico Mediterraneo (2010 , ECM): Italian trumpet player, b. 1961 in Sardinia, has 30-some albums since 1985, mostly on small Italian labels; second release on ECM, or third if you count Carla Bley's The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu. The idea here seems to be to come up with a sunnier version of Jan Garbarek's Officium collaborations with the Hilliard Ensemble. The vocal ensemble here is A Filetta Corsican Voices -- seven voices, lead by Jean-Claude Acquaviva, who wrote 5 of 13 pieces. Also playing is Daniele di Bonaventura on bandoneon. The other pieces, from Bruno Coulais, Di Bonaventura, and Jean-Michel Giannelli (using texts by Corsican poet Petru Santucci) appear to be contemporary. Lovely, of course. B+(**)
Markku Ounaskari/Samuli Mikkonen/Per Jørgensen: Kuára (2009 , ECM): Subtitle "Psalms and Folk Songs"; Jørgensen appears after the title on the front cover line, on the second line of the hype sheet preceded by "with" but the spine merely lists him last (although AMG parsed this backwards and credits the album to "Jorgenson"). Drums, piano, and trumpet/voice respectively. Ounaskari (b. 1967) and Mikkonen (b. 1973) are Finnish, and don't appear to have much prior discography; Jørgensen (b. 1952) is Norwegian, has a couple of albums, and appears on at least ten more (Pierre Dørge, Jon Balke, Anders Jormin, Marilyn Mazur, Michael Mantler, etc.). The psalms are Russian; the folk songs Finno-Ugric: Vespian, Karelian, Udmurtian. Ounaskari and Mikkonen wrote three originals. Much of this is very captivating, but once again I get thrown off by the occasional vocal. B+(**)
Andrea Centazzo/Perry Robinson/Nobu Stowe: The Soul in the Mist (2006 , Konnex/Ictus): Part of my Nobu Stowe backlog, but the pianist plays a relatively minor role here. Centazzo wrote the pieces, plays percussion, also credited for "Mallet Kat Keyb., Sampling"; record feels like the work of a percussionist, jumpy abstractions with everything else reduced to color, especially Robinson's clarinet. B+(*) [advance]
The Lynn Baker Quartet: Azure Intention (2010, OA2): Saxophonist, opens with soprano but also plays tenor, b. 1955, grew up in Oregon, teaches in Denver at Lamont School of Music. First album, sax-piano-bass-drums quartet, lively postbop, gets a lot of mileage out of pianist Reggie Berg and gives bassist Bijoux Barbosa some quality time. 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.
Artvark Saxophone Quartet: Truffles (2010, Challenge): Dutch sax quartet: Rolf Delfos (alto), Bart Wirtz (alto), Mete Erker (tenor), Peter Broekhuizen (baritone). Delfos appears to be the oldest, with about 20 years experience vs. 10 (9-12) for the others. Covers include one by Corea and two by Ibrahim, plus one trad; originals include one called "Ornat 'King' Coleman." The altos tend to lead, and the others keep the bounce clean and stress-free. B+(**) [Rhapsody]
Mike Clark: Carnival of Soul (2010, Owl Studios): Drummer, b. 1946, got a fusion rep playing in Herbie Hancock's Headhunters. Here he reaches back deeper, mostly to the organ-fueled soul jazz circa 1960, rotating three organ players, with honking sax from Rob Dixon, and a "Cry Me a River" vocal by Delbert McClinton. Seems like basic stuff, but "T's Boogaloo" is irresistible. And for his finale, he namechecks a drummer great from further back. Calls that piece "Catlett Outa the Bag." B+(***) [Rhapsody]
David Hazeltine: Inversions (2010, Criss Cross): Pianist, wrote a song here "For Cedar" (Walton) which helps establish his niche, although there have been days when I'd take him for a bit less florid Oscar Peterson. Runs a quintet here which provides too many distractions to focus on his piano, but Eric Alexander is back in typical form at tenor sax, and Steve Nelson has a particularly bright and sunny day on vibes. With John Webber on bass and Joe Farnsworth on drums, natch. B+(**) [Rhapsody]
Kenny Dorham: The Flamboyan, Queens, NY, 1963 (1963 , Uptown): Hardbop trumpeter, had a strong run 1955-64, sliding off to a premature death in 1972. Live set, picked up from a broadcast tape with three stretches of MC Alan Grant talking between six songs -- two Gershwins, two Dorham originals, "Autumn Leaves," and one from pianist Ronnie Mathews. Dorham is in fine form; tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson lays back a bit at first, but earns his "featuring" cover credit. B+(***) [Rhapsody]
Avishai Cohen: Introducing Triveni (2009 , Anzic): Anat Cohen's trumpet-playing, third-world loving brother -- not the bassist of the same name, although it's worth knowing that Rhapsody has this under the wrong guy -- leading a trio with Omer Avital on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums. Wrote four originals. Covers Don Cherry, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Cole Porter. Puts his chops on fine display. B+(***) [Rhapsody]
Soweto Kinch: The New Emancipation (2010, Kinch): Alto saxophonist, b. 1978 in London, parents from Barbados and Jamaica. Has an Ornette-ish twist to his alto, something he could build on, but he's got this idea of doubling up as a rapper and spinning complex story lines about life in his 'hood -- interesting idea, but hard to follow, tripping up both on accents and beats. B [Rhapsody]
Taylor Eigsti: Daylight at Midnight (2010, Concord): Pianist, b. 1984, got one of those prodigy hypes cutting his first album in 2001; Concord picked him up in 2006, releasing his third album, one annoying enough I singled it out as a dud. Haven't heard much from Concord since then, although Eigsti's only one of many possible explanations. It's not that he can't play, but he doesn't have very interesting ideas: here, some trio, occasional electric keybs, some Julian Lage guitar, five songs handed over to vocalist Becca Stevens -- a wet blanket on an otherwise ordinary set. B- [Rhapsody]
Howard Alden: I Remember Django (2010, Arbors): Of course, being b. 1958 Alden has no direct connection to Django Reinhardt -- the title comes from a song, mixed in with "Nuages" and "For Django" and other things less obvious. Swing-oriented guitarist, lots of records since 1986, coached Sean Penn for Woody Allen's Django-inspired Sweet and Lowdown. Seems a bit off the mark here, with Matt Munisteri's second guitar and Jon Burr's bass but no Grappelli. On the other hand, we are treated to five cuts with Anat Cohen on clarinet, plus four with Warren Vaché on cornet. B+(*) [Rhapsody]
Kurt Elling: The Gate (2010 , Concord): Male vocalist, automatic pick for Downbeat's polls. Between his hipsterism and penchant for slipping in unnecessary notes I've never cared for his records. This is less idiosyncratic than most, less defined, quieter. Not the worst "Norwegian Wood" I've heard. Not much else either. B- [Rhapsody]
Joe Morris/Luther Gray: Creatures (2010, Not Two): Guitar-drums duo, both based in Boston where they frequently play together, especially in an explosive trio with Jim Hobbs; Morris quite prolific since 1990. Starts out so slow that it takes Gray a while to come up with something to do, but this come together, intimate, interactive, interesting. B+(**) [Rhapsody]
Joe Morris: Camera (2010, ESP-Disk): Much like the guitar-drums duo with Luther Gray, except that here the group is expanded to four, with Katt Hernandez on violin and Junko Fujiwara Simons on cello. The strings blend well enough with guitar, but have a sharper sound, and Morris tends to slip into the background. Thoughtful avant noodling, interesting as long as you can focus on it. B+(*) [Rhapsody]
Vinicius Cantuária & Bill Frisell: Lágrimas Mexicanas (2011, E1): Brazilian singer-songwriter, b. 1951, has more than a dozen albums since 1983, a name I've often run across but never before managed to check out. Plays guitar and percussion, sings all the songs, light and lyrical, naturally. Frisell, of course, also plays guitar. He presumably adds something, but for once it's hard to pick out. B+(*) [Rhapsody]
Walt Weiskopf: See the Pyramid (2010, Criss Cross): Tenor saxophonist, b. 1959, grew up in Syracuse, has taught at Eastman School of Music and Temple University, co-wrote a book on Coltrane; 14th album since 1989, most on Criss Cross. Quartet with piano (Peter Zak), bass (Doug Weiss), drums (Quincy Davis). Wrote 5 of 10 tracks, including the first four, but the record only takes off with "Call Me," the first cover, which dispenses with postbop ideas and peels back the delicious theme like old-fashioned bebop. B+(*) [Rhapsody]
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, March 6. 2011
Some scattered links I squirreled away during the previous week:
Saturday, March 5. 2011
Wichita Eagle ran an AP article today titled "Ex-Joint Chiefs head discusses 9/11" (no link). Filed from Garden City, KS. The Chief was Gen. Richard Myers, who presided over the Iraq War under George W. Bush. Addressing a Chamber of Commerce banquet in Garden City, KS, he said:
The speaker, on the other hand, spent his whole career in the fantasy world of the US military, trying to invent problems that can supposedly be solved by blowing shit up, poisoning the world community and making America a symbol of blundering stupidity, ill will, and incredible waste.
As for Garden City, of course they are preoccupied with real problems. Surrounded by feed lots, their problems are so real you can't help but smell them. Of course, in the Chamber of Commerce conclave the only thing anyone can smell is money, which must seem even sweeter than the perfume routinely sprayed around the outskirts of town to confuse the stench.
Friday, March 4. 2011
I made a pitch a few weeks back to move this column to a more respectable venue -- at least more respectable than my own blog. There's always been two big trade-offs. One is the time the column takes, versus whatever else I may want to do with the time. Jazz Prospecting is the most obvious time-killer, and I'm always torn over that, but there are other things I want to write, and other things that are just plain life. The other is that it takes clout to get hold of the things one really wants to write about -- either that or a lot of money, which is perhaps a cleaner, less political form of clout. I figure that from 2003-07 I did a pretty good job of finding and covering interesting recycled music, and would have done even better if my home base at Static Multimedia had more, well, clout.
Since then I've only occasionally done interesting things, like when I tackled all of New West's Live in Austin TX series, or digested all of Verve's Originals, or finally caught up with Ravi Shankar. But mostly months come and go and I find myself with semi-random assortments like, well, this month's. On the other hand, for the first time in several years I have a fair sense of the lay of the land -- last year's reissues metafile gives me a lot of ideas on things to cover -- lot of black print in that file -- and I know for certain that it only scratches the surface. Seems like that could be fun again. We'll see how it pans out.
The Lou Grassi Po Band with Marshall Allen: Live at the Knitting Factory Volume 1 (2000 , Porter): Allen was Sun Ra's longtime alto saxophonist, who for the first fifty years of his career left virtually no discography under his own name, but now that he's 86 he seems to be popping up everywhere. With three more horns -- Paul Smoker, Steve Swell, and Perry Robinson -- and Wilber Morris on bass, Allen mostly adds muscle to the noise, which is what turns the drummer-leader on the most. B+(**)
George Jones: The Great Lost Hits (1965-72 , Time Life, 2CD): Not so great, and not so lost unless you're a Sony accountant, in which case you may wonder why songs like the opener, "Walk Through This World With Me," are a little off -- it's because some like that are non-hit versions. Everything here comes from Pappy Dailey's Musicor label, Jones' least consistent period although such hokum as "Love Bug" and "I'm a People" are classic, the Melba Montgomery duets are notable, and he never really disappoints. B+(**)
Tabu Ley Rochereau: The Voice of Lightness Vol. 2: Congo Classics 1977-1993 (1977-93 , Sterns, 2CD): The first 2-CD set covered 1961-1977, and this carries the Congo's greatest pop singer up to 1993, when he moved to exile in Los Angeles -- I'm not totally sure, but I don't think he's recorded much since, so I count this as a career summary; no doubt specialists can find more, as with Franco's comparable Francophonic 2-times-2-CD set, but even the most fleeting generalists will regret settling for less. A
The Sound of Siam: Leftfield Luk Thung, Jazz & Molam in Thailand 1964-1975 (1964-75 , Soundway): One of the few third world countries never to have been knuckled under by European imperialists, Thailand should by all rights have its own sound and traditions, and it does -- split between the classical of the elites and the folk of the countryside, but also note the timespan, a decade when Bangkok was the American soldier's favorite r↦r retreat from the wretched war in Vietnam, so factor some surf music and jazz in, and don't make it too strange to foreign ears. B+(**) [R]
Natalia Bernal/Mike Eckroth/Jason Ennis: La Voz de Tres (2010, Jota Sete): Striking Chilean vocalist singing Andean folk tunes and prim and proper bossa nova, tightly backed by pianist Eckroth and guitarist Ennis, filed as jazz not world because the one English language cover, "Tenderly," signifies so strongly. B+(*)
Alpha Blondy & the Solar System: Grand Bassam Zion Rock (1996 , VP): Rastaman from Côte d'Ivoire, b. Seydou Koné in 1953, released some spotty albums on Shanachie in the 1980s which reduced to a very fine The Best of Alpha Blondy (1984-89 , Shanachie); I noticed this later record among seven reissues picked up by VP; more français than I recall from his early albums, which in the end turns into a distinction. B+(*)
Dadi: Bem Aqui (2009 , Sunnyside): A studio pro who's penned tunes for major Brazilian stars, I imagine his up front turn is like Billy Joe Shaver's, a songwriter so deeply appealing that even he can sing his own songs; everything catchy, the quirks engaging, the flow irresistible. A-
Kenny Dorham: The Flamboyan, Queens, NY, 1963 (1963 , Uptown): Live radio shot of the trumpeter's hard bop quintet, with Joe Henderson on tenor sax and Ronnie Mathews on piano, not long before Dorham's health started to fail, leading to his death in 1972; two originals ("Straight Ahead" of course, and "Una Mas" showing his Latin flare), a couple of Gershwin standards, a lot of hot trumpet on the opener, three interruptions by MC Alan Grant. B+(***) [R]
D.O. Misiani and Shirati Jazz: The King of History (1973-79 , Sterns): A Luo from Tanzania romping through East Africa's "guitar paradise," previously known from Hannibal's Benga Beat (attributed to Shirati Jazz) and Earthworks' Benga Blast! (full name Daniel Owino Misiani), fine later records that we now know didn't dig deep enough. A
Palenque Palenque! Champeta Criolla & Afro Roots in Colombia 1975-91 (1975-91 , Soundway): In Spanish, presumably, as dance pop in Colombia must be, although Palenquero is a Spanish-Bantu creole language still spoken thereabouts, a link to African roots that separates this from the cumbia-salsa norms -- sounds more like ska or calypso, although denser rhythmically. A- [R]
Charanjit Singh: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat (1982 , Bombay Connection): Bollywood session musician hits the synths, may be working in raga form but doesn't slouch on the disco beats. B+(***) [R]
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+(***)
Sidi Touré & Friends: Sahel Folk (2009 , Thrill Jockey): Malian guitarist, cut an album in 1996 admired for its idiosyncratic drones, returns with a second where he and his friends keep a lid on their desert blues groove, offset by chant vocals, a narrow range that proves enchanting nonetheless. B+(***)
Vagrants: I Can't Make a Friend 1965-1968 (1965-68 , Light in the Attic): Long Island group, had a typical 1960s garage guitar sound, best known alumni Leslie West, cut a few singles which Arista in 1987 tried to pass off as The Great Lost Vagrants Album, recycled in 1996 and again now; I hear faint echoes of the Hollies and the Move, but nothing stands out. B [R]
Legend: B+ records are divided into three levels, where more * is better. [R] indicates record was reviewed using a stream from Rhapsody. The biggest caveat there is that the packaging and documentation hasn't been inspected or considered, and documentation is especially important for reissues. But also my exposure to streamed records is briefer and more limited, so I'm more prone to snap judgments.
For this column and the previous 82, see the archive.
Wednesday, March 2. 2011
This is the eighth installment of Michael Tatum's cutting edge column. The others, along with an index to the 207 albums he's covered in the last eight months, are archived here. He also manages a Facebook page with more info and further thoughts, including some audio/video links I can't be bothered with here.
by Michael Tatum
A few days ago I caught myself singing "Mrs Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter," a song I initially encountered on one of the first records my mother ever bought me, the Peter Pan Pop Band & Singers' Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron, which also contained revelatory covers of such kiddie chestnuts as "How Much is That Doggie in the Window" and "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It's Flavor (On the Bedpost Overnight)." While I'd like to think that my musical tastes have grown more sophisticated over the years, in truth my love for a catchy, well constructed song pretty much begins there in my childhood, where I first made lifelong friends out of "Jet," "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," and (the game-changer) "Rock Lobster." Many of the prize records in this month's "A list" reflect my profound weakness for a catchy tune, and my eternal loyalty to a beautiful one. And if you want to know why this month's "Trash" section is so lengthy, blame my lack of patience for anyone who thinks that kind of pleasure has no place in pop music. For those who want more elucidation, audio-visual content, the occasional bad pun, and for tips on how to improve your golf swing, you can hightail it to the Downloader's Diary page on Facebook. If anyone knows where I can download that Peter Pan Pop Band record, please advise. Songs as sharp as those are something rare.
The Baseball Project: Volume Two: High and Inside (Yep Roc) Having been consistently picked last in team sports as a skinny, uncoordinated, and athletically inept young man, as an adult I have as much interest in following America's Greatest Pastime as I have in following Grey's Anatomy, the Twilight saga, or the Republican Party. That's why my belated appreciation for this side project going pro bloomed only after I approached their songs as short stories -- Satchel Paige, Ted Williams, and Harvey Haddix are as fascinating characters in song as they must have been to the wide-eyed kids who fanatically traded for their cards. So though it still sounds to me like Steve Wynn and Scott McCaughey sing like they're trying to hit knuckle balls with fungo bats, here's where they up their game and prove they're no minor league washouts who got lucky. Granted, their appreciation for the tarnished, what-could-have-been heroes of "Buckner's Bolero" does imply an unhealthy self-identification with also-rans and underdogs: "Some kind of fame lies in being a scapegoat/And if not that, then you're just a historical footnote/And your twenty-two years playing ball might be forgotten/Maybe Bill Buckner was lucky his luck was so rotten." But from calling out flip-floppers on the irresistible "Fair Weather Fans" to their haunting elegy for guilt-ridden Yankees pitcher Carl Mays, nearly every track hits it out of the park. Most Valuable Player: Linda Pitmon, who steps out from behind the drum kit for a few sassy backing vocal turns. Batting cleanup: the Hold Steady's Craig Finn, who brings the runners on base back home with the hard-rocking "Don't Call Them Twinkies," which until last month I would have thought was a passionate defense of crème-filled sponge cakes. But I bet later this month its chorus will be a deafening roar from the fans in Target Field when the Twins take their positions at the top of the first. A
Hayes Carll: KMAG YOYO (And Other American Stories) (Lost Highway) These days, Conor Oberst notwithstanding, people aren't so anxious about finding the "new Dylan" anymore, perhaps because a little more than a decade ago, the old Dylan decided to re-fill the gaping hole he left round about Blood on the Tracks. But that's not the reason I myself am far more interested in finding the new John Prine. I want a songwriter who gives it to me straight, with a wry sense of humor and a penchant for honest sentiment, someone who documents the hard times of ordinary people who "aren't what they get for a living" and others who "steal what they need," and right now, Joshua Hayes Carrl is that songwriter. Somehow, I get the feeling that whatever his actual financial condition, this former history major would be perfectly content to tour America's underbelly with his acoustic guitar from the back seat of his car -- like buddy and featured guest Todd Snider, he's addicted to the road, as well as bad romance and dalliances with the occasional controlled substance. The first half rocks harder than his excellent Lost Highway debut Trouble in Mind and is nearly as funny, from haranguing that Dylan is "overrated" to impress the spray-tanned redneck woman of his dreams to dodging action in Afghanistan by going AWOL to grab a piece of the heroin trade. The second half leans a little too heavily on the ballads and could use a few more of his patented tall tales to even it out. But the song that tips the scales for me is the poignant "Grateful for Christmas," which mentions the "birth of our lord" only as a setup rhyme for "my folks and my brother in an '82 Ford," and doesn't waste a minute speculating if his dead family members are watching in approval from heaven -- he's just thankful to be sharing the imperfect present with those left behind, and I say amen. B+
The Go! Team: Rolling Blackouts (Memphis Industries) Ian Parton may not be your idea of a musical genius, but anyone who can meld together irritating musical elements ranging from high school marching bands, Japanese pop, Double Dutch chants, and football cheers into a rousing dance pop amalgam has achieved . . . well, something. To vary things up, he tosses in two heaven-sent girl group tributes, one guest starring Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino, who would start a youth revolution if only she could find change for the subway. Sadly, the dance floor clears out with some ill-conceived, beefed-up exotica toward the middle, but they end on a pair of high notes, including a title track that suggests Puffy Amiyumi going gaga over Yo La Tengo. "Where's the 'Be My Baby?'" you may complain. I say anyone can achieve this level of sonic grandeur without any hint of neurotic undertow knows things about joy undreamt of in Phil Spector's philosophy. B+
PJ Harvey: Let England Shake (Vagrant) Gordon Brown wasn't the British prime minister who got into bed with George II to the disgrace of his nation; nevertheless, it took some kind of courage for Polly Jean Harvey to tell him in song that England's dancing days were done when she performed this album's title track on BBC One. In a striking, radically original musical setting that encompasses autoharp, trombone, xylophone, and bass harmonica and suggests a Salvation Army band produced by Tricky, Harvey channels that same courage to give voice to unburied ghosts from wars forgotten, imagined, and still in progress. Sometimes she inhabits the role of a narrator, and sometimes phantoms float up to the surface of the music to bear witness: a disembodied bugler leads a spectral charge, Winston "Niney" Holness vows to burn down the oil fields, and Harvey henchmen Mick Harvey and John Parish sardonically pledge to join Eddie Cochran for that protest at the United Nations. So much blather has been written about this record and its putative connection to the "Great War" (as opposed to the less poetic "World War I") that I can only assume that a lot of rock critics are lazily using their press releases as Cliff's Notes, but although the two songs based on Gallipoli reminiscences are almost as powerful as "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda," what's most striking here is not the record's universality, but its eerie specificity. "The Words That Maketh Murder" for example, turns the failure of diplomacy into a cruel existential joke, and if you think that's not timely, remember that in 1917 the United Nations was thirty years away from being created. Leading me to suspect that if Harvey had an audience with Barack Obama, she'd tell him in song our dancing days were over, too. A
Todd Snider: Live: The Storyteller (Aimless) My late grandfather used to tell this multipartite joke that was about, naturally, joke telling. In it, a group of prisoners had gotten so used to each other's company that they had memorized each other's jokes, and had accordingly affixed a number to each one for quick reference and an easy laugh. So they tell a new inmate to shout out a random number, as a sort of test and initiation. "Number seventeen!" he yells, to silence. "What happened?" he asks the prisoner next to him, who shrugs and replies: "I dunno -- I guess it's in the way you tell it." That punch line explains how Snider's conversational twang encourages his audience to laugh at jokes you know they've already memorized from the records, like these two from "Greencastle Blues": "You know the number one symptom of heart disease is sudden death," and "Less than an ounce for possession? Shit -- I can do that kind of time standing up." It also explains why I don't mind solo reprises of my favorite tracks from the must-own East Nashville Skyline and The Devil You Know, even if in the end I prefer them with a full band, and faster -- this has to be the rare live album on which the artiste actually slows down the tempi of the original recordings. Fulfilling truth in advertising, the stories alluded to in the subtitle enliven the lesser songs they sometimes interrupt, and while Snider disdains organized religion, the occasional cadence of his monolgues and his tongue-in-cheek deploying of call-and-response techniques does suggest a secular church of comedy -- the best kind of church, actually. I'd like to think my grandfather, who also fell asleep in his fair share of pews, would have approved. A
Lucinda Williams: Blessed (Lost Highway) Most of Lucinda Williams' post-Car Wheels on a Gravel Road output has sprung from the idea that Steve Earle was on to something when he declared that Lucinda's botched dobro intro to "Can't Let Go" was worth keeping -- in fact, was more "perfect" than had she insisted on multiple retakes to the tedium of her session players. Dylan devotees claim this is the essence of great rock and roll, and while they may be right, the ethos hasn't always served Williams well, which is why Hal Willner's imposed artiness on West was a welcome departure. This however, is the first new Lucinda record which hasn't made me miss the precision and accomplishment of the old ones. Part of its success can be attributed to the band, which provides her most empathetic backup since Car Wheels, but mostly rests on the superiority of the songs, which are among her finest. Austere and bone-simple on the page, the lyrics are often built upon repeating parallel constructions that gain power the further she builds upon them, as in the stirring title track, a list of the commonplace miracles we take for granted that begins banally and ends up like an incantation. And the hypnotic "Awakening" comes to life in ways that poor Kate Chopin never dreamed: "I will pray for nothing/I will say what I want to/I will not make amends/I will not mourn my youth/I will give you a gift." At fifty-seven years old, she's still got gifts to give. A
Yuck: Yuck (Fat Possum) Between their insincere name and the presence of genuine female Mariko Doi on bass, some are heralding this as a early '90s revival, and if you think I'd be more interested in that prospect than the '80s revival spearheaded by Cut Copy and the Killers, you are entirely correct. But speaking as someone who will fully cop to begging his then-girlfriend to drive him to the now defunct Rhino Records (near the corner of Westwood and Santa Monica) in the pouring rain so he could purchase Slanted and Enchanted after having read about it in the Village Voice, this isn't exactly the Return of Pavement some would have you believe. Jonny Rogoff's beat is propulsive but never galvanic, and certainly doesn't sputter or trip over itself -- functional, but ultimately conventional. Similarly, Max Bloom and Daniel Blumberg's guitars are lyrical rather than noisy or jagged -- one of them strums straightforwardly while the other distorts tuneful leads that actually carry more melodic weight than the wispy vocals. But despite the sometimes offhand, lackadaisical lyrics -- those who question the literary merit of Britney Spears' latest should ponder doozies like "You can be my destiny/You can mean that much to me" -- their attractive, ear-catching tunes earn my admiration regardless. So pigeonhole them as Dinosaur Jr. with songs, or perhaps given their vaguely country moves, what the Lemonheads might have sounded like had that himbo Evan Dando had been down with the program. Maybe Malkmus could give them irony lessons? A
Marianne Faithfull: Horses and High Heels (Naive) Excellent white soul covers, decent originals, ghastly cover art ("Goin' Back," "No Reason," "That's How Every Empire Falls") ***
Drive-By Truckers: Go-Go Boots (New West) Makes me yearn for the days when dictatorial record companies would force bands to whittle two middling records into one pretty good one ("Ray's Automatic Weapon," "Used to be a Cop") ***
Cut Copy: Zonoscope (Modular/Interscope) Kajagoogoo were always my favorite indie rock band ("Sun God," "Need You Now," "Take Me Over") **
Fujiya and Miyagi: Ventriloquizzing (Yep Roc) The tightly wound have no right to pawn off puppetry metaphors ("Cat Got Your Tongue," "Taiwanese Roots") **
Cake: Showroom of Compassion (Upbeat) Brutal opener cocks an eyebrow at fiscal malfeasance, after which they shift the satirical focus to -- ho, hum -- themselves ("Federal Funding," "Long Time") *
Adele: 21 (XL/Columbia) Her "maturity" is what appeals to her claque and what bores those of us who smirk at the irony of her age-referential album titles ("Rolling in the Deep") *
Cloud Nothings: Cloud Nothings (Carpark) Nice, wiry lo-fi guitar propels these cartoony car tunes, but the vocals must have cost a fortune in helium ("Should Have") *
James Blake: James Blake (Atlas) Having once giddily overused the word postmodern to the annoyance of my college friends, I have nothing against a little aesthetic deconstruction -- in fact, I welcome it. But at some point, those components have to lock together so those sitting in the cheap seats can connect with it, and nothing like that happens here. The presciently titled, two minute "Give Me My Month" gives you this sad sack Londoner's approach sans special effects: mush-mouthed, faux-gospel white soul vocalizations, austere piano chords providing skeletal structure. Incredibly, the rest is minimal -- and I mean minimal -- variations on that schema. You say you were intrigued by the harmonizer treatments on Imogen Heap's a cappella "Hide and Seek?" For the first thirty seconds, maybe? Now imagine that facile parlor trick wearing out its welcome over the length of a seemingly endless forty minute record, lightly punctuated with a not especially beatwise overlay of metronomic ticky-tock. "Torch songs," sez Pitchfork. Oh yeah, torches and pitchforks are something like it -- don't stop storming the castle until we've tossed this con artist into the moat. C
Bright Eyes: The People's Key (Merge) I would like all of you to memorize this mantra and repeat it three times before you before you go to bed: Rock and roll and fantasy and science fiction do not mix. Sure I love Led Zep's "Ramble On," but all that preposterousness about Gollum and the "darkest depths of Mordor?" Totally embarrassing. This axiom is especially true if you take your metaphors seriously -- the George Clinton of "Bop Gun" and the David Bowie of "TVC15" kept it playful, but as with American Musical and Dramatic Academy graduate Janelle Monae on her asinine Metropolis homage, Oberst doesn't crack a smile on this overblown song suite. This begins with a two and a half minute monologue from Texas musician Denny Brewer, who prattles on incomprehensibly about Sumerian tablets, the Book of Genesis, "aliens inbreeding [sic] with humans," "800 universes spinning counterclockwise," and in the finest sensationalistic Fox News tradition, the ubiquitous (who else?) Hitler, who Brewer describes as a "chara-mystic yeller" -- an oblique Panhandle pun or cockeyed malapropism, who the fuck can tell? The tone is pure post-millennial claptrap, just in time for 2012, End of the World 2.0, and though Brewer's intrusions don't really have a connection to the rest of the record per se, they cast a pall regardless -- superfluous synthesizer overdubs, quasi-ponderous interludes, fussy arrangements that flirt dangerously with prog. There are some good melodies here -- namely, "Shell Games," which interestingly, seems to address a personality crisis in the age of celebrity. Leading one to believe that what distinguishes the records that Oberst releases under his own name from those under the Bright Eyes moniker he wants to leave behind is a stronger sense of self, free of the youthful insecurity that might inspire one to surround strong songwriting with fatuous guest stars, ornate and unnecessary instrumentation, and bullshit. Pray that Oberst gets back in touch with his better self before the Mayan calendar runs out. B
Destroyer: Kaputt (Merge) When Pitchfork's Mark Richardson descries Chuck Mangione, Sade, Steely Dan's Gaucho (as opposed to Katy Lied or even Aja), the gauche silkscreens of Playboy shill Patrick Nagel, and that incredibly influential cover (as opposed to actual music, we are assured) of Leonard Cohen's Death of a Ladies Man in these hollow grooves, I'm at least impressed by his candor -- "beautiful plasticity" is not what most musicians would deem a compliment. Theoretically, Dan Bejar redeems his bland late '70 pastiche by critiquing the time period it evokes, but all I hear is smug condescension -- when he recounts in that Carol Channing on Prozac drawl about "a savage night at the opera/a savage night at the club," "chasing some girls, alright/chasing cocaine through the backrooms of the world all night," he sounds like the kind of petulant creep that the bouncers at Studio 54 would have kept lingering forlornly at the door. I'm reminded of Roxy Music's Siren and Chic's Risqué -- two superior records from guys who might have been appalled by singles bars and coke parties, but understood the pleasure principle enough to give the world "Love is the Drug" and "Good Times." By contrast, all Bejar's got are tinkly seventh chords he swiped from Nicolette Larsen's cover of Neil Young's "Lotta Love." Someone hire that man a cheap hooker. C+
Ebo Taylor: Love and Death (Strut) The latest minor Afropop veteran to be rescued from obscurity by the nice folks at Strut is a Ghanaian highlife bandleader best known for the spellbinding, re-recorded hit that lends its name to his first internationally released album's title: "On our wedding day she gave me a kiss/It was the kiss of death/Love and death walk hand in hand." Except even there the power derives from the gravity of the words, not necessarily the music -- the backing musicians in Afrobeat Academy are so stiff they make the Budos Band sound like the Famous Flames. Which made me wonder: where did they pluck these players from? Accra? Kumasi? Neighbouring Lagos, Nigeria? Answer: Berlin. C+
Eisley: The Valley (Equal Vision)
Tim Hecker: Ravedeath, 1972 (Kranky)
Lone: Emerald Fantasy Tracks (Magic Wire)
Jessica Lea Mayfield: Tell Me (Nonesuch)
Anna Waronker: California Fade (Five Foot Two)
White Lies: Ritual (Fiction/Geffen)