Wednesday, September 28. 2011
Illustration from Paul Krugman:
His original context concerns the Euro, but it actually does a nice job of encapsulating the Obama administration's view of the economy: they've locked themselves in the bubble of "things that are considered politically feasible" -- a definition that they've generously allowed to the Republicans to make, and then to remake in order to keep it constantly out of reach, and not coincidentally ever further from those "things that might actually work."
It bears repeating that the main reason the left is so ticked off at Obama isn't because he's abandoned so much of his campaign rhetoric and turned out to be a closet conservative. It's because he keeps doing things that won't work, selected mostly because they fall into his limited understanding of what is "considered politically feasible." And this has become even more frustrating as the Republicans have consolidated ironclad power to disrupt anything Obama proposes: the main error in the diagram is the suggested size of the "things that are considered politically feasible" -- in the real world that bubble is vanishingly small as it turns out that nothing is actually feasible.
What distinguishes the left from Obama is not just a stubborn insistence on defending principles against the constant assault from the right; it's also the belief that it's possible to do something even when the right seems to hold all the cards.
By the way, I think that the set of "things that might actually work" is broader than the set of things that the left actually wants and supports. It is possible, for instance, to stimulate the economy without making it substantially more equitable -- the approach I'd prefer. It is possible to regulate banking without massively shrinking the finance sector. It is possible to fix some of the most dysfunctional aspects of our health care system without adopting a single-payer model. It is possible to extricate ourselves from Afghanistan without dismantling the entire system of imperial overreach. In each of these cases I'd prefer the more radical solution, and I think such a solution would ultimately work better. But Obama is not only not doing the right thing; he's rarely does anything that would work, and on occasion he actually makes things worse. And worse for himself and his prospects, by not proposing and not selling policies that might actually work, he's let the self-appointed guardians of the "politically feasible" move the debate ever further into the realm of the ridiculous, half-baked nonsense spouted by the far right.
Tuesday, September 27. 2011
Op-ed in the Wichita Eagle this morning, by Dr. Margaret Flowers: Medicare for all would save lives and money. Flowers is co-chair of the Maryland chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP), a minor celebrity for getting arrested protesting in Washington trying to get single-payer back on the Democrats' agenda. (See her interview by Bill Moyers). She's in Wichita today, to give a talk at the Murdoch Theater tonight.
I'm going to quote the whole piece below, but break it up so I can get some words in edgewise. What she has to say is fundamentally right but incomplete and inadequate, so I want to build on that.
I believe the "37th" figure is rank based on average longevity -- one of many measures where the US has mediocre performance. The rub there is "average" given how inequitably health care services are distributed among Americans. Of course, most Americans think they're well above average, and they're right that the stats are distorted by those who aren't. It's just that they have trouble understanding how easily, and how arbitrarily, one can slip and fall into the other. Reminds me of the DC sniper story: one moment you're out on a routine shopping trip, next you're cut down by an invisible assassin's bullet. Isolated individuals can get fired, lose their insurance, suffer a debilitating illness or accident, go bankrupt, almost as suddenly.
Last time I checked, the health care sector accounted for 18% of GDP, with 20% projected not too far off. Back when Clinton tried to pass his scheme in 1993-94 the number was 14%. It's a bit simplistic to translate these figure to the current budget quandry -- only part of the total health care bill goes to the government, and most of that goes to Medicare and Medicaid which are funded on a different set of books -- but the longterm prognosis is bleak: the industry is set on a path to devour the economy, and while it's not clear where the choke point is, it's clear that something has to give sooner or later. You can't sustain infinite growth indefinitely, yet the logic of the investors demands that they try.
It's worth noting that until 1990 Switzerland had virtually the same health care cost structure that the US had, with both pulling away from the rest of the world. But where the US continued on its profit-seeking path, Switzerland clamped down and forced its private insurance companies to be run as non-profits, and that simple act stabilized their cost structure. Switzerland still has the world's second most expensive health care system, but as a percentage of GDP is is virtually the same as it was in 1990. As T.R. Reid shows in The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care, there are lots of ways to manage health care costs without giving up progress and quality, but the essential element of all of them is to limit profit-seeking.
The ACA does provide some measure of cost controls -- enough to claim to be revenue-neutral while providing insurance for many more people than are currently covered. (I don't know where this "23 million uninsured through 2019" figure comes from -- that's way more than I had been led to believe, although it's always been clear that the ACA scheme wouldn't provide universal coverage.) The main problem is that by leaving most people without any sort of non-profit health insurance option the profit-seeking private insurance companies will have no competition and therefore very little restraint on their ability to increase costs.
There are various approaches to containing Medicare/Medicaid costs -- all unpopular with vendors who are conditioned to feel the pinch even before it arrives -- but the most serious attacks on Medicare have been schemes to increase costs, mostly by pushing Medicare recipients into private insurance plans. The so-called Medicare Advantage plans were a prime example. Obama's offer to raise the eligibility age for Medicare is even more ominous. The rationale there is to move costs off the federal budget and onto people who will wind up paying much more -- in their lives even more than money.
Medicare does bear some responsibility for rising health care costs, especially early in its history from 1965 into the 1980s: by agreeing to pay "customary" fees to hospitals and doctors they basically handed out blank checks, which vendors took advantage of to constantly roll up prices much faster than the inflation rate. By the 1980s, prices had risen so much that the government started to impose restraints. At the same time, the industry was becoming more profit-seeking, with vendors working persistently to game their way around the rules.
On the other hand, Medicare is vastly more efficient than private insurance companies, imposing much less overhead -- close to 3% vs. 30% for private insurance companies.
There's no doubt that a single-payer insurance system would be the single most effective way to improve our current health care industry, and that it would be the single most important step to solving the longterm problems endemic to the current system. As we generally understand the term, it also represents an important commitment to universal health care, and all that implies -- the sense that as a people we share responsibility for each other's welfare, and that as a democracy we believe that the government exists to serve the people and take purposeful collective action for our behalf.
That last sentence, of course, is anathema to the faction of the American people known as Republicans. They've lately been obsessed with disempowering people -- with scaring poor people away from the polls (where they might vote their self-interest), with busting unions, with preventing people from appealing to the regulators and/or the courts for protection from corporate abuses. They're upset that banks should be limited from scamming customers, or each other. And they'd rather die than cramp the freedom of the health care industry to price gouge, overtreat, undertreat, or commit the occasional malpractice. They won't even allow Medicare to negotiate the price of drugs -- just send more blank checks.
The biggest advantage of single-payer is simplification: everyone gets the same insurance, so nobody has to market a bunch of differences; every vendor gets paid filing out one standard set of forms, instead of having to work up different coding schemes one for each separate insurance company each with its own schedules and formularies and pencil pushers dedicated to the easiest way to improve the company's bottom line: by denying benefits. You also get rid of the collection agencies pursuing bills the insurance companies denied, and the bankruptcy lawyers. This also eliminates the need for vendors to overcharge paying customers for those who don't pay, which starts to bring prices back in line with costs.
Universal coverage also solves a lot of problems. It means, for instance, when when you're wheeled into the emergency room, the first person you see is someone trying to help you, rather than trying to pick your pocket. (A big problem now is emergency rooms dodging patients so they don't get stuck with the bill.) It means that your car insurance costs will drop since one can safely assume that future medical costs will be covered. It means that malpractice damages will be reduced (for the same reason, although not having to cover the lawyer's premium is a bonus). It means that people can move more freely from job to job, can retire early, or can afford to start new businesses without worrying about losing their coverage.
So single-payer insurance with universal coverage would produce an enormous cost savings right from the start. It would also eliminate one of the main forces behind the persistent inflation of costs -- the private profit-seeking insurance companies -- and it would provide the basis for negotiating fair and manageable compensation for the vendors. But to get there, we have to get past the political obstacles, which is mostly the desire of a certain political party (and a few of its admirers in the "loyal opposition") to preserve a system of larcenous capitalism exploiting our deepest health fears, and their key ploys: that everyone should pay their own way, that no one (other than the companies) should organize, that progress is magically linked to free enterprise, that trampling on the prerogatives of billionaires will destroy "our way of life," that your democratically elected government is set on killing you first chance they get. It shouldn't take much thought to realize that all this is nonsense -- which is a good part of the reason they work so hard to keep you from thinking.
I meant to get the above done and posted before the lecture, but ran out of time. Big crowd. Bottom floor was about 80% full when we got there, so we went up to the balcony, which wound up about 30% full. Flowers dispelled most of my reservations. She advocated something more than current Medicare for all, calling for an Expanded & Improved Medicare which among other things would dispense with the co-payments and limits of the current program. (Those seem to be carved out mostly to support private secondary insurance programs. People who buy such insurance often feel like they're paying for their own insurance when they're actually just tipping a company that assumes virtually no risk.) Especially when reformers talk about cost control, people get nervous that their benefits will be cut -- ignoring that the cost controls of private insurance companies are far more restrictive, and much harder to appeal, than anything Medicare might do. Still, my recommendation is to pitch single-payer less as a way to manage costs and provide universal coverage than as the essential way to improve health care quality.
Flowers actually did a pretty good job of explaining why this is so. She pointed out that under the current system many people are overtreated, many are undertreated, and many are mistreated. A single-payer system would provide more consistent coverage, more consistently in line with evidence-based best practices, with greater transparency. She called for efforts to realign doctors' incentives with better outcomes -- no simple task, but the focus should be less on paying doctors more for the desired results than on disinteresting doctors from the financial impact of their treatment options. She called for better resource planning, noting that it is more effective to have centers in a given area specialize than to have them compete across the board, adding excess capacity which they then have a stake in filling up. She fielded a question on malpractice, correctly noting (as I did above) that bad outcomes wouldn't have to be budgeted ahead of time, and that there were other ways to limit the expense. She suggested paying centers to maintain a given level of capacity regardless of utilization instead of having them risk overbuilding then have to figure out how to make it pay off.
Someone asked about high technology driving costs up, and she covered various aspects of this, especially how patentability distorts pharmaceutical research. She pointed out that most of the real research is public-funded, especially by NIH. She didn't go as far as I would in eliminating patents and promoting more competitive sourcing, and she didn't point out how proprietary research has been used to hide drug defects, and how this in turn has led to massive class action suits that have cost companies billions of dollars (as well as patients thousands of lives -- another area where reform promises to improve quality).
She also pointed out that the health care industry, huge as it is, only affects a limited aspect of public health: much more important is a clean environment, safe workplaces, education, good food, security from crime and violence, the sense of shared responsibility that comes with an equitable society -- not her phrasing but that's the gist of it. So a political system that has been captured by corporate profiteers has not only turned health care into a system for reaping enormous profits but has done so by corrupting the very nature of democracy. Change the latter and fixing the health care system becomes easy; fail to do so and the system will lurch on until it falls apart, to our great horror.
Monday, September 26. 2011
Not really enough Jazz Prospecting this week to report, but I'll dump out what I have anyway. This has been a weird week, with a huge ratings spike -- 65 records -- but mostly from unconventional sources. Spent a big chunk of time on reissues -- more CTI, plus 15 Impulse twofers -- but I figured I'd hold them for Recycled Goods. For the Impulses I broke the grades down to individual albums, so that turned 15 into 45 (actually, a bit less). Also spent some time reviewing 1978, and that led to some more stuff.
Amina Alaoui: Arco Iris (2010 , ECM): Singer, from Fez, Morocco; has studied classical music traditions in Morocco and France, philosophy and linguistics, with interests straying as far as Persian classical music. Has a handful of albums. Focus here is on Andalusian music, including fado and flamenco, which was driven back to North Africa by the Spanish Reconquista. With violin, oud, guitar, mandolin, percussion. B+(**)
Billy Bang's Survival Ensemble: Black Man's Blues/New York Collage (1977-78 , NoBusiness, 2CD): The late, great violinist's first two albums -- the first so obscure I missed it when I assembled a discography for my 2005 Voice piece on Bang. A quartet for the first record, with Bilal Abdur Rahman on tenor and soprano sax, William Parker on bass, and Rashid Bakr on drums. Rahman, an old friend of Bang's, picked up Islam in prison and recorded reluctantly but more often than not his cutting and slashing is terrific here. Both albums are hit and miss, with bits of spoken word spouting political critique -- "when the poor steal, it's called looting; when the rich steal, it's called profit" is one turn of phrase. Second album adds Henry Warner on alto sax and Khuwana Fuller on congas -- Warner's another player who shows up on rare occasions but always makes a big impression. Way back when I would probably have hedged my grade, seeing each album as promising but half-baked, but now they're indisputable pieces of history -- and not just because Bang and Parker went on to have brilliant careers. Also note that the label in Lithuania that rescued them cared enough to provide a 36-page booklet on the era and this remarkable music. A-
Randy Brecker With DR Big Band: The Jazz Ballad Song Book (2010 , Red Dot Music): Also with the Danish National Chamber Orchestra, who get smaller type on the cover and mostly lurk in the background, like an ugly set of drapes. The DR Big Band is a polished unit with some players -- especially in the reed section -- who can dish out an impressive solo. But Brecker takes most of the solos, and everythign else amounts to little more than a fancy frame around his trumpet. B+(*)
Echoes of Swing: Message From Mars (2010 , Echoes of Swing): Retro-swing group, based in Germany, recorded this (their fifth) album in Austria. Quartet: Colin T. Dawson (trumpet, b. England), Chris Hopkins (alto sax, b. US but moved to Germany when he was young), Bernd Lhotzky (piano), and Oliver Mewes (drums). Dawson sings two songs -- the Chet Baker style on a Billie Holiday song ("Don't Explain") is a striking effect. Lhotzky rearranges some Chopin, and there's a piece from Dmitri "Schostakowitsch," but Teddy Wilson and Ellington are the more favored sources. B+(***)
Larry Vuckovich: Somethin' Special (2011, Tetrachord): Pianist, b. 1936 in what was then Yugoslavia, moved to San Francisco in 1951 and developed a taste for bebop. A dozen albums since 1980. Plays two solos here, a couple of trio cuts, the rest adding Scott Hamilton and/or Noel Jewkes on tenor sax -- Jewkes takes one cut on his soprano. A fine pianist, and of course Hamilton is special. Don't know Jewkes, but aside from the soprano cut it isn't automatically clear where Hamilton leaves off and he picks up. B+(***)
Westchester Jazz Orchestra: Maiden Voyage Suite (2011, WJO): Conventional big band, directed and conducted by Mike Holober, founded in 2003 with Holober joining in 2007. Second album. I don't doubt the musicianship -- they're close enough to NYC they can draw some jazz names -- but Herbie Hancock's compositions don't grab me. 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.
Uri Caine Trio: Siren (2010 , Winter & Winter): Piano trio, with John Hébert on bass and Ben Perowsky on drums. I'm not much good at describing piano trios -- wish I had a booklet to crib from, or at least get some orientation -- but Caine is a superb jazz pianist (except when he's playing classical music, and sometimes even that's pretty good), very fast here. B+(***) [Rhapsody]
Warren Vaché: Ballads and Other Cautionary Tales (2011, Arbors): Trad-leaning cornet player, reaches for the ballad songbook not so much because at 60 he's slowing down as he wants to enjoy the scenery. A few with just bass and drums, joining in pianist Tardo Hammer on 6 (of 12), trombonist John Allred on one of those, and tenor saxophonist Houston Person on three others. Person damn near steals the show. 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, September 25. 2011
Some scattered links I squirreled away during the previous week:
Saturday, September 24. 2011
This from an AP piece by Matthew Brown which appeared (somewhat shorter) in the Wichita Eagle this morning, titled Victim in Mont. grizzly attack was shot by friend:
One could use this to question the sanity of encouraging every fool in the country to carry guns, but more than anything else this reminds me of George W. Bush's foreign policy, albeit on a much more intimate scale. There, too, doing things one shouldn't do in the first place led to reckless endangerment and death, often by "friendly fire." There, too, "no charges are expected."
Thursday, September 22. 2011
Sometimes one gets an idea and just doesn't know what to do with it. I'm not normally in the business of dispensing tactical political advice. And I'm certainly in no position to do anything about this, but here's my idea:
As I said, if this is the level of politics you are into, this is an idea worth pursuing. At this point it seems much more important to elect a Democratic Congress than it is to reëlect Obama. Moreover, it's something you can campaign for. Obama has backpedalled, compromised, and/or flat out surrendered on nearly every issue he was thought to stand for, the result being that the best he can promise is to be a bit less awful than his opponent. One can (and no doubt will) vote for such a person, but little or nothing more. A Congress focus would help to clarify these issues, to get people interested, to bring out the vote.
While I'm at it, I want to gripe about an op-ed in the Wichita Eagle today: Davis Merritt: Give Our Leaders Permission to Compromise. In particular, Merritt spends a lot of time whining about both parties as if they are equally stunted:
Actually, there is nothing fallacious about this choice. There is a general requirement that revenues and expenses be balanced -- not that it's not possible to run some degree of deficit year after year; indeed, we've often done just that -- so given our current and projected deficits it does make sense to raise revenues, cut expenditures, or both. In excluding revenue gains, Boehner insists on balancing the budget by cutting expenses, especially on social spending. The net effect of this is to reduce the living standards of the poor, the elderly, the disabled -- the sort of people more likely to vote Democratic than Republican. Pelosi's position is to defend that social spending -- indeed, she most likely would like to see more of it, as would most of the people who vote for Democrats. But neither side is saying we can have both lower taxes and higher social spending: Pelosi, like most Democrats, is on record as favoring higher taxes to pay for more spending. So this is a real issue. The only way Merritt can imagine it as a false one is to disconnect the rhetoric from reality and to generously assume that both parties are equally entitled to their views. (Unfortunately, Obama, whose grasp on reality seems to include nothing more than polls and the views of the punditocracy, shares Merritt's sense of fairness -- a worrisome point for anyone in the real world likely to pay for his compromises.)
One curious thing here is that while Merritt imagines that both sides are taking extreme positions, only one side is. The Democrats are asking for little more than preserving the historic levels of support for Social Security and Medicare, paid for by restoring tax rates on the rich to levels that are still below historic norms (at least over the last 70 years). While the Republicans are insisting on draconian cuts in spending to allow them to cut taxes on the rich even more. This range of options is so skewed that any compromise between the two positions would be a major surrender to the right, for no reason other than the right is so much more aggressive in its goals.
But let's go back to reality. The fact is that we're in the midst of a profound economic downturn with very high long-term unemployment and very little productive investment, with the rich sitting on hordes of cash that is not being put to good use. And this is on top of a long-term trend that has suppressed the labor market while engorging the already rich. There is a historically proven way of dealing with such crises -- one embraced by every Republican president since Hoover -- which is to crank up public spending to make up for the private sector's shortfall. But aside from a minor stimulus bill Obama squeaked through when the Democrats had control of Congress, we haven't been doing that. Indeed, the main point of the Republicans' budgetary stranglehold has been to keep public policy from improving, or even ameliorating, the economy -- presumably the theory is that Obama will be blamed for the prolonged economic slump and be defeated, allowing them to capture all three branches of federal government and restore the crony capitalism regime that the Bush administration had perfected.
Monday, September 19. 2011
Still no idea when Jazz CG will run: it seems to be stuck in a space crunch as the Village Voice continues to shrink. Been playing phone tag, and will pursue that further this week. Load is a bit light this week, but was nice to take a break and get some work done on the house. (And actually the grade average is up -- used that time to play some things I wanted to hear but didn't feel like writing about yet.) Hope to do more of that this coming week, especially since the weather has turned decent.
Antonio Adolfo/Carol Sabaya: Lá e Cá/Here and There (2010, AAM): Brazilian pianist, composer of a couple pieces here; AMG lists 17 records since 1992; Discogs has fewer records but they're almost all earlier, the first from 1969. Sabaya, his daughter, sings, a cool treat although Adolfo's piano excursions are every bit as delicious. Aside from Adolfo's originals, everything else has stood the test of time: "All the Things You Are," "A Night in Tunisia," "Time After Time," "Lullaby of Birdland," "'Round Midnight," a lot of Jobim and Cole Porter, sometimes segued together. B+(***)
AsGuests: Universal Mind (2010 , Origin): Basically a duo -- Michal Vanoucek (piano) and Miro Herak (vibes) -- although they also perform as a quartet with bass and drums, and here they add strings (violin, viola, cello). Vanoucek is from Slovakia, b. 1977; I've run into him before. Herak is from the Czech side but is based in Slovakia. Has a fancy chamber jazz feel, speeding up with the vibes chime in. B+(*)
Deep Blue Organ Trio: Wonderful! (2010 , Origin): Booklet says "Recorded December 18, 19 and 20, 2011" -- I'm pretty sure that's just wrong, not prophetic. Chris Foreman plays organ, Bobby Broom guitar, Greg Rockingham drums. Group has four albums since 2004. This one is all Stevie Wonder songs, although scarcely any register with me as such. Presumably that's because jazz guys like to change things around. On the other hand, I find the faint overtones vaguely annoying. B-
Joey DeFrancesco: 40 (2011, High Note): Hammond organ player, b. 1971, probably the most celebrated, no doubt also most prolific (AMG lists 28 albums) of his generation. Albums is named for his age -- something I missed when unpacking. Trio with Rick Zunigar on guitar and Ramon Banda on drums. Zunigar has three albums on his own -- one titled Organ Trio -- and side work with Stevie Wonder, but isn't much of a factor here. The leader, however, has a knack for conjuring up gritty tones, serving them up fat. B+(*)
Jack Donahue: Parade: Live in New York City (2010 , Two Maples): Singer, based in New York, fourth album -- all covers here but I don't know about previous albums and his website suggests he writes some. Draws twice each on Jimmy Webb and Harold Arlen (one with Mercer, the other with E.Y. Harburg -- spelled Yarburg on the back cover). Backed with piano-bass-drums plus trumpet (Marcus Parsley) on one cut. Voice sticks with you, and he seems like a likable crooner. B
Ken Fowser/Behn Gillece: Duotone (2010 , Posi-Tone): Sax/vibes respectively, Fowser pictured on the cover with a tenor, Gillece with mallets. Gillece wrote 8 of 10, Fowser the other two. Gillece has nothing under his own name, but he appeared on Fowser's two previous records. Quintet with Donald Vega (piano), David Wong (bass), Willie Jones III (drums). Straight mainstream postbop, faster than usual (a good idea). B+(**)
Darren Johnston's Gone to Chicago: The Big Lift (2010 , Porto Franco): Trumpet player from San Francisco, plays in the Nice Guy Trio, also pops up in various avant-garde groups. This trip to Chicago is a fruitful example, hooking Johnston up with: Jeb Bishop (trombone), Jason Adasiewicz (vibes), Nate McBride (bass), and Frank Rosaly (drums). The brass attack is neatly balanced, the vibes bright, the rhythm roiling. Mostly Johnston originals, plus one from Ornette Coleman and the closer from Duke Ellington, a "Black and Fan Fantasy" from an even deeper and darker jungle. B+(***)
Travis Laplante: Heart Protector (2011, Skirl): Tenor saxophonist, one of two saxes in the free noise band Little Women -- the other is Darius Jones, who makes better albums on his own. First album under his own name, solo; starts with long obscene drones, eventually working up some patterns. B+(*) [Oct. 18]
Lisa Lindsley: Everytime We Say Godbye (2010 , self-released): Standards singer, b. in Ogden, UT; shares birthday with Sarah Vaughan but doesn't disclose the year -- far enough back to have raised and home schooled three daughters. Based in Bay Area. First album. Also has an acting resume, but nothing I recognize. Backed here by piano (George Mesterhazy) and bass (Fred Randolf). The lack of drums signals a desire to take these songs slow and easy, which may (or may not) be your idea of sultry. Didn't make much of an impression on me until she changed the pace with a bright and chipper "It's Only a Paper Moon." After that the slow treatment on "Why Don't You Do Right" did take on a smoky air, but "The Girl From Ipanema" felt belabored. B
Allen Lowe: Blues and the Empirical Truth (2009-11 , Music & Arts, 3CD): Probably better known for his books and compilations -- the 9-CD American Pop: An Audio History From Minstrel to Mojo and the 36-CD That Devilin' Tune: A Jazz History plus their separately published books, with a new 36-CD blues series in the works -- than for his original music. I first discovered him when Francis Davis tabbed his first two self-released 1990-92 albums as Pick Hits in an earlier edition of Jazz Consumer Guide -- critical admiration that continues as Davis wrote liner notes for this release. Based in Maine, mostly cut with a local group occasionally spiced with outside star power -- Marc Ribot, Matthew Shipp, Roswell Rudd, Lewis Porter -- this digs deeper than I could have imagined into blues form, blues notes, and blues psyche, turning every aspect over and inside out. Lowe plays alto, C melody, and tenor sax, and guitar. While most of the guitar is played by Ray Suhy or Marc Ribot, Lowe especially stands out on "Williamsburg Blues" -- his guitar with Shipp's piano. Three discs means some sprawl, comparable I'd say to 69 Love Songs in that neither the theme nor the invention ever wears thin. (Well, maybe a bit in the middle disc.) A-
Richard Nelson Large Ensemble: Pursuit (2011, Heliotrope): Guitarist, teaches at University of Maine at Augusta, has a couple previous albums. The Large Ensemble is a 13-piece group -- 4 reeds (including flute), 4 brass, viola, cello, guitar, bass, drums -- that does the five-part title piece. The album finishes with two 9+ minute quintet pieces. I didn't get much out of either, possibly as much due to recording dynamics (i.e., lack of) as of the music itself, which at least makes room for the guitar. B-
The Nice Guy Trio: Sidewalks and Alleys/Walking Music (2010 , Porto Franco): Darren Johnston (trumpet), Rob Reich (accordion), Daniel Fabricant (bass). Second group album, with Reich composing the first five-part title suite and Johnston the latter, also in five parts. The accordion gives them an old world feel, part chamber music but earthier. I liked their first record quite a bit, but have trouble here with the added weight of string trio -- tends to overwhelm the former piece, fitting more discreetly into the latter. B+(*)
Greg Reitan: Daybreak (2011, Sunnyside): Pianist, originally from Seattle, based in Los Angeles. Third album, all trios with Jack Daro on bass and Dean Koba on drums. Wrote most of twelve songs, but covers Shorter, Zeitlin, Jarrett, and Evans. B+(*)
Tyshawn Sorey: Oblique - I (2011, Pi): Drummer, b. 1980, first caught my attention in bands with Vijay Iyer and/or Steve Lehman, especially Fieldwork. Released a composer's album in 2007, That/Not, which got a lot of attention (number two on Francis Davis's year-end list) -- I had to go to Rhapsody for a listen, was duly impressed, but couldn't spend much time with it. Between 2002-06 he composed a set of 41 compositions, ten of which appear here, in a quintet setting with Loren Stillman (alto sax), Todd Neufeld (guitar), John Escreet (keyboards), and Chris Tordini (bass). The pieces slip and slide around the free rhythm, not easy and never settling into any sort of norm. A-
Marcus Strickland: Triumph of the Heavy: Volume 1 & 2 (2011, Strick Muzik, 2CD): Tenor saxophonist, b. 1979, has consistently impressed at least since 2006 -- I haven't the two 2001-03 FSNTs, which AMG doesn't think much of -- always seeming on the edge of breaking something big wide open. I guess this is it: it's certainly big, with one trio disc -- the second, the Ben Williams on bass and twin brother E.J. Strickland on drums -- the other adding pianist David Bryant. The quartet is spread out a bit more, and thinner as Strickland switches to alto for 5 of 10 tracks, and soprano on three -- plays tenor on four, the main reason the totals don't add up is that he plays everything (including clarinet and bass clarinet) on "Virgo." Probably safe to rank him the best soprano among his generation of tenor players -- it seems like an organic extension of his tenor rather than something he copped from Coltrane or Shorter (or Marsalis or Potter). Still, the first disc won me over; the second just kicked my ass. A-
No final grades/notes this week on records put back for further listening the first time around.
Unpacking: Found in the mail over the last week:
Sunday, September 18. 2011
Haven't had much time or inclination to post this past week. The good news is that I took the time to lay down a floor of rubber tiles that now covers the south third of the basement. When we bought the house the space was covered with some rather grungy carpet, but we cut most of that away leaving the concrete floor. We use the space for some exercise equipment. I've long been intrigued by rubber flooring, and its most common use seems to be for gyms, so it seemed like the logical choice. I went with tiles on the theory that they'd be easier to work with -- had to make a lot of cuts around the edges -- and the hope that the seams wouldn't be conspicuous. I have little difficulty discerning them, but I've mostly been looking at them on my knees. Other problem I've noticed is that the black really shows up dusty footprints. Still, looks like quite an improvement. I'm tempted now to try to fix up the rest of the floor.
Meanwhile, a few scattered links squirreled away during the previous week:
Monday, September 12. 2011
Power has been flakey last couple of minutes, so I'll make this short and try to get it up before the world ends. No new news. Just another week of belatedly digging through the new jazz queue.
Christian Artmann: Uneasy Dreams (2010-11 , self-released): Flute player, based in New York, for biographical background about all he says is that he was "raised on a heavy dose of Bach in Germany and Austria," and that he's studied at Berklee, Frankfurter Musikwertstatt, Princeton, and Harvard Law. Second album, with bass and drums, piano on most cuts, voice (Elena McEntire) on three, percussion on three. No label, but his artwork and packaging are very nice. Mostly original pieces, some short free improvs. I'm no flute fan, but he has an approach that I can't pigeonhole into any of the obvious styles, including the one for folks who grew up on too much Bach. B+(**)
Stephane Belmondo: The Same as It Never Was Before (2011, Sunnyside): Trumpet/flugelhorn player (also credited with bass trumpet and shells), b. 1967 in France. Second album, quartet with Kirk Lightsey (piano), Sylvain Romano (bass), and Billy Hart (drums). Wrote about half of the pieces, drawing one from Lightsey, others from Wayne Shorter, Stevie Wonder, also "Everything Happens to Me." B+(**)
Sarah Bernstein: Unearthish (2010 , Page Frame Music): Violinist, based in Brooklyn, seems to be her first album although she has a big role in Iron Dog's Field Recordings 1. Duo, with percussionist Satoshi Takeishi. More vocals here, things with sensible lyrics, more spoken than not, reminds one of Laurie Anderson -- of course, the violin tips that direction. B+(***)
Freddy Cole: Talk to Me (2011, High Note): Crooner, b. 1931 but didn't get going until 1990 with an album that pleaded I'm Not My Brother, I'm Me. Twenty-some albums later, 50+ years after brother Nat died, coming off his best two albums ever, he hardly needs an introduction. Still, he takes a batch of obscure songs -- two Bill Withers tunes and "Mam'selle" are the only ones I recognize -- at a very leisurely pace, dressing them up with Harry Allen's tenor sax and Terell Stafford's flugelhorn; could hardly be smoother, or grab you more gently. B+(**)
Mark Dagley: Mystery of the Guitar (2011, Abaton Book Company): Guitarist, first album although he also played on something called El Gato with Frick-the-Cat, and he seems to have a much more substantial reputation as a visual artist -- mostly abstracts. Studied classical guitar, including a class with André Segovia. Played in a short-lived Boston punk band called the Girls (cf. Live at the Rathskeller 5.17.79, which I sought out for Recycled Goods but ultimately graded B). This is solo, folkloric in a rather oblique way, like no one else so much as John Fahey. B+(**)
Norman David and the Eleventet: At This Time (2011, CoolCraft): Soprano saxophonist, composer, wrote a textbook called Jazz Arranging; b. in Montreal, moved to US in 1970s, since 1979 in Philadelphia, where he's Artist-in-Residence at Temple U. Second album, after a 2001 quartet. The Eleventet comes in just shy of big band weight, with four reeds instead of five, two trumpets and two trombones instead of four each -- as flexible but puts less emphasis on section muscle. A few names: George Garzone, Dick Oatts, Tim Hagans, John Hébert. Strong solo spots, neatly arranged. B+(*)
Chris Donnelly: Metamorphosis (2011, Alma): Pianist, based in Toronto; second album, solo like the first, this time the 50:43 title piece broken into ten movements. Better when he was covering other people. Better when he played his own stuff but didn't have to hack it into an überconcept. Better when he wore clothes. B-
Agustí Fernández: El Laberint de la Memória (2010 , Mbari Musica): Pianist, b. 1954 in Spain; AMG credits him with 12 albums, Discogs with 24, his own website claims 50 but doesn't list that many -- earliest one listed is 1987. This would be his eighth solo album, with a large percentage of the rest duos. Nothing fancy here, but every step seems meticulously thought out, precise and evocative. B+(***)
5 After 4: Rome in a Day (2011, Alma): Toronto, Canada group, looks like this is their seventh album -- website says five but I count six there (not including this one); don't have date info, and AMG (sharp as ever) only lists this one. Drummer Vito Rezza wrote 7 of 11 pieces; keyboardist Matt Horner 3, with one group improv. Johnny Johnson plays "woodwinds"; Peter Cardinali bass and organ, and gets credit for horn arrangements. Postbop, gets a little soft and slick as Johnson moves up-register from tenor and Horner switches to Rhodes or organ. B
The Four Bags: Forth (2010 , NCM East): Chamber jazz group, combining trombone (Brian Drye), accordion (Jacob Garchik), guitar (Sean Moran), and clarinet/bass clarinet (Michael McGinnis). Fourth album since 2000. I reckon the lack of bass and/or drums seals them into the chamber realm -- no chance of getting swept away in the rhythm -- but they have an impressive sonic density, especially when Moran's guitar turns on the juice. B+(*)
Glows in the Dark: Beach of the War Gods (2010 , self-released): Richmond, VA quintet: Scott Burton (guitar), Scott Clark (drums), John Lilley (alto & tenor sax), Reginald Pace (trombone), Cameron Ralston (bass). Burton writes, aside from the four group-credited "Violent Rome" pieces. Draws inspiration from soundtracks, which this on occasion slouches into. Otherwise they can mount an interesting presence. B+(*)
Donald Harrison: This Is Jazz: Live at the Blue Note (2011, Half Note): Alto saxophonist, b. 1960 in New Orleans, father was big chief of four different New Orleans Indian tribes, a family trade Harrison followed it, although he also picked up some bebop, worked his way through Art Blakey's boot camp, and most recently has been playing both sides in HBO's Treme. This is the postbop side, a trio with Ron Carter and Billy Cobham. Starts with two Carter pieces, then a 5:39 bass solo on "You Are My Sunshine" -- the sort of thing that doesn't come through well on record no matter how mesmerizing it may have been live. Picks back up again with "Seven Steps to Heaven," and closes strong on Harrison's "Treme Swagger." B+(**)
Nick Hempton: The Business (2010 , Posi-Tone): Alto saxophonist, b. 1976, from Australia, based in New York; second album, a quintet with Art Hirahara (piano), Yotam Silberstein (guitar), Marco Panascia (bass), and Dan Aran (drums). Mainstream, high energy, rarely flags. Wrote 8 of 10, covering "Gee Baby Ain't I Good to You" and "From Bechet, Byas, and Fats" (Rahsaan Roland Kirk). Gets strong support, especially from Silberstein. B+(**)
Iron Dog: Field Recordings 1 (2005-06 , Iron Dog Music): Sarah Bernstein on violin and voice, Stuart Popejoy on bass guitar; website lists Andrew Drury on drums, but here drummer is Tommaso Cappellato on 3 of 6 tracks. "Sonic landscapes," "minimalist structures erupt[ing] into frenetic, metallic onslaughts" -- something like that, maybe not so frenetic, but striking. B+(**)
Benji Kaplan: Meditações No Violão (2011, Circo Mistico): Guitarist, from New York, visited Brazil in 2003 and got into the music. Second album, following a CDR in 2007. Solo guitar, 4 of 14 songs having "choro" in the title. Sounds very deeply Brazilian to me, soothing and enchanting. B+(*)
Harold Lopez Nussa Trio: El País de las Maravillas (2010 , World Village): Full name: Harold López-Nussa Torres. Born and based in Havana, Cuba, although this, his fourth album since 2007, was recorded in France. Mostly piano trio, plus sax (David Sanchez) on 4 of 11 tracks. Definitely has that Cuban kick to the piano. B+(**) [advance]
Duda Lucena Quartet: Live (2011, Borboleta): Guitarist-singer-songwriter from Recife, Brazil; based in Charleston, SC, of all places. Wrote most of his previous album, but only one song here ("Sol" -- title song of said album), opting instead for the standards: Jobim, Djavan, Donato, Veloso, Gil. Quartet includes piano, bass, drums -- no one I recognize, but for all I know they could be big names in Charleston. Loose, informal, leader certainly knows his stuff. B+(*)
Mark Moultrup: Relaxin' . . . on the Edge (2003-10 , Mark Moultrup Music): Keyboardist, vocalist, composer, arranger, originally from Detroit, now Chicago-based. Fifth album since 2001, all but one 2010 cut recorded in 2003. Cover photos from Yosemite. First cut is instrumental, dominated by Chris Collins' edgy postbop sax, not what I was expecting. Second cut took off with post-disco fusion keybs and choral vocals. Third shifted to melodramatic piano measured against the bass. Fifth song offers an ordinary hipster vocal complaining about the overcomplication of ordering coffee. Then back to more overorchestrated schmaltz. I suppose it says something that he manages most of the mess with his own keyboards. It's rare that one person finds so many distinct ways to make an awful record. D+
New York Standards Quartet: Unstandard (2010 , Challenge): David Berkman (piano), Tim Armacost (tenor sax, etc., alto flute), Gene Jackson (drums), Yosuke Inoue (bass), listed in that order. Berkman has five albums since 1998 -- the first two an impressive debut, the others dribbling out slowly. Armacost has a similar pattern, five albums since his 1996 debut on Concord -- I haven't heard those. I hadn't noticed Inoue, from Japan, but he's been in New York for 13 years, with six albums. Jackson pops up all the time. Group has a previous Live in Tokyo (2008). I saw Benny Carter once and he introduced "How High the Moon" as "the jazz musician's national anthem," so it's especially poignant as the lead standard here. Other standards come from Benny Golson, Jimmy Van Heusen ("But Beautiful"), Bill Evans, and Warren-Dubin ("Summer Night"), but about half of the pieces are originals by the band -- I guess, the only thing jazz musicians like more than standards is rolling their own. B+(***)
Nadav Remez: So Far (2010 , Bju'ecords): Guitarist, from Israel, studied at Berklee and New England Conservatory. First album, with alto sax/clarine (James Wylie), tenor sax (Steve Brickman), trumpet on two tracks (Itamar Borochov), piano (Shai Maestro), bass (Avri Borochov), and drums (Ziv Ravitz). Wrote 8 of 9 pieces, the other by trad. The large group tends to crowd him out, but "The Miracle" is an exception where he builds up solid, solemn force. B+(*)
Sonny Rollins: Road Shows Vol. 2 (2010 , Doxy/Emarcy): First volume seemed archival, spanning 28 years with scattered groups, not that the tenor sax changed much over time. This one sticks with three recent concerts, pulling one cut from each of two October, 2010 shows to sandwich four cuts from Rollins' 80th birthday bash on Sept. 10, 2010. The party cuts shuttled guest stars in and out: Christian McBride, Roy Haynes, Jim Hall (one cut with Rollins introducing but laying out), Ornette Coleman (also one cut, introduced enigmatically), and Roy Hargrove (two cuts). I'm tempted to complain about the talk, but he's always gracious, presumably even more so in his Japanese during the closer ("St. Thomas" -- only thing wrong there is that at 2:50 it's way too short). Also about dilution, but Hargrove makes a fine foil for "Rain Check," and I've yet to fully puzzle out Coleman's solo. But why complain? As Rollins himself said of Coleman Hawkins, it's impossible to think of him without feeling joy. A-
Samo Salamon Trio: Almost Almond (2006 , Sanje): Guitarist, b. 1978 in Yugoslavia, now Slovenia. Twelve albums since 2002, counting one as Ansasa Trio. Trio with Drew Gress on bass and Tom Rainey on drums. I've mostly heard him with saxophone in the past -- cf. Two Hours, with Tony Malaby -- where he fights his way to the front, but starting out there he's less aggressive here, steely at best, slipping into a crafted eloquence near the end. B+(**)
Scenes: Silent Photographer (2010 , Origin): Trio: guitarist John Stowell, bassist Jeff Johnson, drummer John Bishop. Stowell has long struck me as an interesting, understated stylist, and his records -- both under his own name and as Scenes -- have generally been close to my HM line. This time Johnson outwrote him 4 to 3 -- the other three pieces are by Shorter, Hancock, and Coltrane. B+(*)
Karl Seglem: Ossicles (2005-10 , Ozella): Tenor saxophonist, from Norway, 27th album since 1988 (AMG lists 15; also misspells his name two different ways in their brief bio). Draws on folk sources, playing against hardanger fiddle, incorporating various goat horns (one credit for antilope horn [sic?]), with a bit of African mbira. B+(***)
SFE: Positions & Descriptions: Simon H. Fell Composition No. 75 (2011, Clean Feed): Not sure what SFE stands for -- Simon Fell Ensemble? (Having a bad eye day, and the microprint on the foldout is all blurred.) Fell is a bassist, b. 1959 in England, has a couple dozen albums since 1985, some dedicated to numbered compositions. He's someone anyone who's spent much time perusing The Penguin Guide will know about, but this is the first of his records I've actually come across. Group has 15 members plus conductor Clark Rundell, offering a bit of everything: flute, two clarinets, alto and bari sax, trumpet, tuned percussion, harps, piano, guitar, violin, theremin, bass, drums, electronics. Wish I had a better sense of how this fits in. Doesn't strike me as cluttered or chaotic, but sure is complex. B+(***)
Freddie Washington: In the Moment (2009, RFW): Electric bassist; AMG lists him as Freddie "Ready Freddie" Washington, and if you don't know that good luck. First and only album, although his side credits listing runs to three pages, starting in 1977 with Patrice Rushen and 1979 with Herbie Hancock. Mild-mannered bass-led groove pieces, emphasis on mild. Some background vocals but nothing hysterical. B
No final grades/notes this week on records put back for further listening the first time around.
Unpacking: Found in the mail over the last week:
Sunday, September 11. 2011
For some reason it never dawned on me that today might hold any form of special significance. I'm not always the most cognizant person when it comes to what the date is: I've delegated that task to the computer and the cell phone. Still, I must have known that this September would have an 11th day, and I still possess the arithmetic skills to calculate that 2011 is ten years past 2001. But why does that matter? Indeed, why should it? I didn't particularly notice the tenth year of my mother's death, even though she dominated, defined, and gave meaning to my life for fifty years. Since then I've mostly been adrift, thrashing on this and that but unable to pull my life together with any sense of purpose. Ten years of that doesn't strike me as something to mourn or memorialize. It just seems pathetic.
Still, not as pathetic as the labors I've seen in both the Wichita Eagle and New York Times this morning, trying to recapture that primal sense of innocent victimhood the nation basked in, to mark "the day that changed everything," as if what happened next was nothing more than an involuntary response -- the US would rush off to war for no more reason than Pavlov's dogs salivate. The day turned fateful, but not on its own accord. It turned fateful because the powers that be -- the Bush administration, its "loyal opposition" including nearly all of the Democratic Party, the media and their designated punditocracy -- felt they had to respond with a kneejerk rush to war. As horrific as the attacks were, they were soon trivialized in comparison to the violence and hubris of the US response. The New York Times has some charts in their One 9/11 Tally: $3.3 Trillion that give you one way of seeing this: they calculate the "toll and physical damage" -- the sum of all the damage Al Qaeda did in attacking us -- at $55 billion ($24 billion of that was "value of life," or about $8 million per person -- a figure I won't quarrel with, but dare them to use in Afghanistan and Iraq). The rest of the $3.3 trillion (i.e., $3.245 trillion, or 98.3% of the total) is expense "we" incurred because of decisions "we" made, primarily to go to war in the Middle East to exact our revenge by punishing millions of people for the acts of 21 already dead terrorists (plus a few of their "handlers").
By the way, that $3.3 trillion includes $56 billion for "value of life" lost to US military forces -- a number more than double the loss to the Al Qaeda attacks -- but doesn't include any "value of life" lost to the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, or any of the other targets of Bush's Global War on Terrorism. It also doesn't include infrastructure and economic losses to those nations, nor costs incurred by our "allies." The global bill for Al Qaeda's attacks is no doubt higher than the $55 billion we incurred -- there were a few dozen related attacks from Bali to Madrid to London so maybe we're up to $100 billion, but those attacks happened after the US went to war (dragging Spain and the UK along with it) so might not have happened had the US remained calm. But the global bill for the US response is far higher, almost unimaginably so.
These dollar figures are a crass way of looking at the costs of war. They offer a false sense of precision: one can easily plug in other costs and come up with other totals -- most of which exceed what the New York Times is reporting. Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes wrote a now-dated book estimating war costs of $3 trillion, or about double the Times' war figure. Stiglitz includes interest costs and at least recognizes opportunity costs, although it is impossible to know the real value of the latter. For instance, thanks to the wars George Bush was able to turn the 2004 election into a referendum on America's self-image as a nation at war -- an issue that trumped an economy that was mostly hot air in favor of the superrich. By winning in 2004, his deregulation mania kept the housing bubble expanding until it burst, unleashing the worst global recession since 1929, an enormous cost. He also drove the US ever deeper into debt, which set up the political atmosphere behind the current austerity craze, deepening and extending the recession at even greater cost. He also derailed any efforts to counteract global warming, an effect that is unimaginable. Aside from their huge direct and indirect costs, the relentless focus on war and terrorism, and the crony capitalism that it succors, has pushed US politics even further to the right. The Republican push to criminalize the right to unionize is one example; their push to restrict the franchise is another; their efforts to keep government from interfering in predatory pricing in banking and health care (to pick the two most egregious examples) is another. Tens of thousands of Americans die each year for lack of access to proper health care, a problem that could be fixed at a total cost savings by universal health insurance, but those figures don't show up in the Times' tally because they don't realize that the poisoned political atmosphere is fueled by our eager participation in foreign wars. (I read today that California spends more on prisons than on education. Isn't that a classic colonial occupier mindset? Absent 9/11, would that be so?)
Commemorating 9/11 is increasingly taking on aspects of the politicization of the Holocaust. Before World War II Nazi Germany instituted a horrific program of discrimination and abuse against its Jewish citizens -- one which the rest of the world (notably except for pacifists and communists) blithely ignored. As Hitler expanded Germany through war, his obsession with the Jews turned into a program of mass extermination, with his regime rounding up nearly all of the Jews under German control and shipping them to places like Auschwitz and Treblinka where they would be executed or worked to death. In all, Nazi Germany killed six million Jews -- the majority of the Jewish population in Europe. What they did was an unprecedented horror, so far beyond human experience that it was given a name from the Bible: the Holocaust.
In the 1950s the Holocaust was one of those dirty secrets no one much liked talking about. Germans who lived through the war, who admired Hitler and fought for him, didn't want responsibility; same for other Europeans who collaborated with Germany, or who acquiesced to Nazi rule. The US and Britain had little to take comfort in either: they hadn't objected to Hitler's demonization of the Jews (both countries were littered with anti-semites -- Henry Ford most famously in the US -- and both ran regimes of racial discrimination), they hadn't offered asylum for Jews, they hadn't shown any concern for the fates of Jews during the war, and after the war they were pre-occupied with countering communism, and after all Nazis were staunchly anti-communist. And in Israel there was a more complicated dynamic which worked against public discussion of the Holocaust (this would take a few long paragraphs to explain, but see Tom Segev: The Seventh Million: Israelis and the Holocaust, and Idith Zertal: Israel's Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood).
This all changed in the 1960s, as the postwar generation matured, Europe gave up its remaining possessions in the third world (which devalued the utility of racism). I first learned about the Holocaust through plays by Peter Weiss and Rolf Hochhuth and a book by "Nazi hunter" Simon Wiesenthal. In the mid-1950s Israel started to lay claim to the legacy of the Holocaust by approaching West Germany for "reparations" -- the point was as much to secure recognition for the legitimacy of Israel as the representative of the Jewish people. Then in 1961 came the highly politicized trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem (again, see Segev and, especially Zertal). After that, and after the triumphant 1967 war when Israel finally felt secure in her military prowess, and especially after the hysterical Menachem Begin came to power, Israel became more and more bound up in its cult of the Holocaust -- talk of "Auschwitz borders," books claiming that Palestinian terrorism constitutes A New Shoah -- the ultimate expression is Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum that exits onto a panoramic view of Jerusalem, suggesting that Israel is the "happy ending" of the Holocaust.
If you go to Auschwitz you'll find a museum of the ordinary historical sort which notes that these things happened here. Yad Vashem isn't that sort of museum: it's a politicized theme park meant to inculcate a particular myth about the founding of Israel. After Israel put its brand on it, the "Holocaust Industry" (the title of a Normal Finkelstein book, but he only covers a few aspects of the story) hit the road. One place it was welcomed turned out to be Washington, DC, where president Jimmy Carter oversaw the founding of our own United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I suppose Carter had his reasons, but the main one stuck in my mind is how nice it is for the US to remember genocides that other countries were responsible for. But when I look at the museum's home page, it looks more than a little like a propaganda organ for "humanitarian" intervention all over the world -- just don't expect to find anything about injustices in America, let alone Israel.
My bias has always been that it's best to know about atrocities in the past. I'd even go so far as to argue that recognition of the past helps one to oppose repetition in the future. But you have to wonder when you look at how Holocaust museums are used to support military intervention and occupation, and you start to wonder if we might be better off dispensing with all that. For one thing, it's already resulted in the distortion of history: when I was growing up, it was common knowledge that Hitler had killed 10 million people in his concentration camps. Now all you ever hear about is the 6 million Jews -- 4 million victims have disappeared from consciousness because no one seems to have an organized interest in perpetuating their memory. (Sometimes we hear about Gypsies, and homosexuals, and the retarded; hardly ever mentioned are the pacifists and communists who were the first to oppose Nazism -- groups that during WWII our OSS used to refer to as "premature anti-fascists.")
And so I have to wonder what's really behind all this 9/11 commemoration hoohah. Early on, politicians and pundits rushed to embrace the destruction and claim the victims as martyrs to bolster their holy crusades, but aren't we getting tired, and a bit cynical, of all that? When I look at the 9/11 memorial plaza plans they look more sad than anything else. Still, I wonder if we wouldn't be happier just to cover it up with a parking lot, or maybe just build some modest shops and offices over the train station.
On the other hand, the Onion has their own theory why 9/11 matters now: see Nation Would Rather Think About 9/11 Than Anything From Subsequent 10 Years:
More to the point, see Tom Engelhardt: Let's Cancel 9/11:
There follows a brief remembrance of how quickly politicians like Bush and McCain worked up the drumbeat of war, and how anyone who suggested otherwise were swiftly silenced; of how language like "Ground Zero" and "hallowed ground" was crafted and manipulated. Then another plea. Best comment (which is why I linked this one rather than the home copy), from Bruce Morgan:
And now for the usual week links:
Update: Changed the segue from 9/11 to Holocaust commemorations.
Saturday, September 10. 2011
I highly recommend that you read Mike Lofgren: Goodbye to All That, subtitled "Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult." Lofgren has evidently been working as some sort of staff person on the GOP side of Congress for the last 30 years -- his details on that are sketchy at best. I don't give him much credit either for his background or perspective, other than that he doesn't feel like defending the Democrats except as a side-effect of defending sanity. He starts off:
After that, he treads rather lightly on the psychosis -- although come to think of it that's a subject that someone should investigate a bit further. Rather, he focuses in on how Republican tactics have evolved into "war minus the shooting" -- a single-minded determination to gain political advantages regardless of the cost to the nation as a whole. He quotes John Judis:
I've been reading a lot of early American history recently, including Sean Wilentz's massive The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, so Calhoun and company are quite vivid on my mind -- so much so that I'm now wary that a South Carolina congressman might take a cane to a Massachusetts senator.
Lofgren then continues:
Shortly after the 2010 elections I realized that virtually all of the widely touted Republican "gains" were the result of Obama voters not showing up to vote, but I've never seen those numbers reported in quite that way. Obama's described the loss as a "shellacking": the implication was that his party and policies got rejected by the middle of the political spectrum, not that he had lost the faith of the people who had voted for him by repeatedly selling them out to the moneyed interests of Washington. Of course, that's me talking; Lofgren puts it like this:
Lofgren sums up the Republican platform in three points, where militarism and religion bring up the rear, but most important by a big margin:
Anyhow, read the piece. Pass it along. It may not convince your Fox-washed gun nut cousin -- not mine, anyhow -- but it's clearly written and thought out, and it shows that the author is not just reacting to the sour taste his Republican colleagues have left in his mouth, he's done some research on his own.
Wednesday, September 7. 2011
Last ran this on June 21, although actually nearly everything here was left over then. I haven't been going to bookstores except to pick over Borders' bones. That has left me with more stuff than I can expect to read anytime soon, but it's also dulled my interest in whatever else is out there. So these are a bit old, and tend to be of minor interest. (Still, I managed to nab three of them at Borders: Jeff Madrick, Louisa Thomas, and Gordon Wood -- all on my shelf waiting for some time to open up -- plus one more I got at the library and actually did read: Matthew Moten's collection.) This leaves 26 in the scratch file, so let the research begin.
Peter Baldwin: The Narcissism of Minor Differences: How America and Europe Are Alike (2009, Oxford University Press): A contrarian view, arguing that the differences between Europe and the US are much ado about not very much. In particular, he finds health care outcomes pretty much equivalent, which suggests he's not factoring in cost or inequality, or losing something like that. Of course, there are similarities, such as the general level of technology, science, and culture -- which makes the differences all the more interesting.
Omar Barghouti: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights (paperback, 2011, Haymarket Books): Advocating for a global BDS campaign to put pressure on Israel to come to terms with the fact that Palestinians deserve human and civil rights like everyone else, something that Israel's occupation and settlements have denied. Modelled on the BDS efforts that helped to isolate and reform South Africa's Apartheid regime.
Charles Bowden: Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields (2010; paperback, 2011, Nation Books): A portrait of dystopia just across the border from El Paso. Not sure what the point or take is, but most likely the War on Drugs is implicated. Publisher seems to be fascinated by violence in the wake of globalization: other recent titles are Ian Thomson: The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica and Molly Molloy/Charles Bowden, eds: El Sicario: The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin.
Andrew Breitbart: Righteous Indignation: Excuse Me While I Save the World! (2011, Grand Central): Title all caps on cover, with "RIGHT" and "NATION" in blood red while everything else but "BREITBART" is white-on-black, including the scumbag's photo.
Susan A Brewer: Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq (2009; paperback, 2011, Oxford University Press): From McKinley to Bush (and Bush), how wars have been sold to the American people. I suspect that one thing you'll find is that the propaganda lines are all much the same -- more racist early on, but there's still plenty of that. Another is that the reasons change once you're in, and do so in predictable ways (with minor variations on whether you're winning or getting quagmired). See also: Alan Axelrod: Selling the Great War: The Making of American Propaganda (2009, Palgrave Macmillan); also Stewart Halsey Ross: Propaganda for War: How the United States Was Conditioned to Fight the Great War of 1914-1918 (paperback, 2009, Progressive Press).
Douglas Brinkley: The Quiet World: Saving Alaska's Wilderness Kingdom 1879-1960 (2011, Harper): The dates start with John Muir's first visit to Alaska, a little more than a decade after Seward's Folly, and end with statehood. Brinkley is a journalist with a long and scattered bibliography, most recently The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, so he's on something of a wilderness roll.
Stephen L Carter: The Violence of Peace: America's Wars in the Age of Obama (2011, Beast Books): Parses what is new (and what is same old same old) in Obama's pontificating over war and direction thereof. Evidently aludes much to Michael Walzer, our most notorious justifier of just war theorizing, a theorist that gives Obama plenty of rope to hang himself. I don't trust Carter on this, but Obama hasn't earned any trust either.
Paul Clemens: Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant (2011, Doubleday): The Budd Stamping Plant, to be specific, although it's much like lots of other mothballed factories dotting a land where people used to make things. I'm reminded that the last book I read about working in a car plant was Ben Hamper: Rivethead: Tales From the Assembly Line, which came out in 1991. Clemens previously wrote Made in Detroit (2005, Doubleday; paperback, 2006, Anchor).
Ann Coulter: Demonic: How the Liberal Mob Is Endangering America (2011, Crown Forum): She's slowed down, but it's hard to make this stuff up: "Citing the father of mob psychology, Gustave Le Bon, Coulter catalogs the Left's mob behaviors: the creation of messiahs, the fear of scientific innovation, the mythmaking, the preference for images over words, the lack of morals, and the casual embrace of contradictory ideas." "Similarly, as Coulter demonstrates, liberal mobs, from student radicals to white-trash racists to anti-war and pro-ObamaCare fanatics today, have consistently used violence to implement their idea of the 'general will.'"
JR Dunn: Death by Liberalism: The Fatal Outcome of Well-Meaning Liberal Policies (2011, Broadside): A "novelist and military encyclopedist," concocts something he calls "democide" or "mass negligent homicide" and tallies up some 260 million dead bodies, the victims of liberal schemes, including the banning of DDT.
Francis Fukuyama: The Origins of Political Order: From Prehistoric Times to the French Revolution (2011, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Big picture history of everything, from a neocon whose brain is so large he transcends history he understands virtually nothing of. His subject, "political order," is one dear to his heart: how people with power screw others without. While it's easy to make fun of him, his 1995 book might have been onto something important: Trust: The Social Virtues and the Culture of Prosperity.
Andre Gerolymatos: Castles Made of Sand: A Century of Anglo-American Espionage and Intervention in the Middle East (2010, St Martin's Press): Britain literally handed their assets over the the US around 1970, so the Anglo-American continuity is even better established here than elsewhere. The motives of the two empires were slightly different, except as regards greed for oil. Hard to say who made the greater cock-up, but the arrogance and folly never ends.
Paul Gilding: The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World (2011, Bloomsbury Press): Former Greenpeace director, tryies to lay out a schemes for a sustainable economy that can survive not just global warming but all the other resource constraint issues facing us.
Lawrence Goldstone: Inherently Unequal: The Betrayal of Equal Rights by the Supreme Court, 1865-1903 (2011, Walker): The Supreme Court rulings that struck down the civil rights laws of the reconstruction and paved the way for Jim Crow segregation.
Leah McGrath Goodman: The Asylum: The Renegades Who Hijacked the World's Oil Market (2011, William Morrow): On the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX), where speculators set the price of oil. No surprise that the author finds dirt and grime there.
Istvan Hargittai: Judging Edward Teller (2011, Prometheus Books): Author previously wrote a collective biography on five eminent Jewish-Hungarians, Martians of Science: Five Physicists Who Changed the Twentieth Century (2006; paperback, 2008, Oxford University Press) -- Theodore von Kármán, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, John Von Neumann, and Teller; here he goes into much more depth on Teller, the implication that he would not only explore Teller's science but also his mania for Defense politics; not clear that he does. An alternative is Peter Goodchild: Edward Teller: The Real Dr Strangelove (2004, Harvard University Press); another is PD Smith: Doomsday Men: The Real Dr Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon (2007, St Martin's Press).
Robert Henson: The Rough Guide to Climate Change: The Symptoms, the Science, the Solutions (3rd ed, paperback, 2011): A broad, general purpose primer on the issues and the controversies; recommended by Duncan Clark as the first book to read on the subject. Has some picture but nothing as slick as Al Gore has done.
Mike Hulme: Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity (paperback, 2009, Cambridge University Press): The argument here seems to be that when we argue about climate change, we're actually arguing about something else: about what "the human project" is all about.
Mark Kurlansky: Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn't Want to Be One (2011, Yale University Press): Kurlansky seems like a history factory, with far-ranging books like Salt: A World History, Cod: A Biography of the Fish, A Basque History of the World, The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, a half-dozen more, but for a hack he's remarkably good -- I've read 4 of those 6 -- and his new books are as likely as not to fill in gaps in his established web of interests: for instance, his new book on the famous Jewish slugger follows his book on Jewish history (A Chosen Few: The Ressurrection of European Jewry) and a previous baseball book (The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro Macoris, itself following up his A Continent of Islands: Searching for the Caribbean Destiny).
Jeff Madrick: Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present (2011, Knopf): Former New York Times columnist, has a pile of books at least some expressing doubts about where the US economy was headed before it fell into that chasm, tries his hand at a deeper and broader history, at least one deep and broad enough not to have forgotten Ivan Boesky.
Paul Midler: Poorly Made in China: An Insider's Account of the China Production Game (2009; paperback, 2011, Wiley): Comes out at a time when we've seen a rash of scandals about Chinese manufacturing quality lapses. Seems to me likely to be a phase, but I don't doubt that there are real reasons that will take considerable effort to overcome.
Gretchen Morgenson/Joshua Rosner: Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon (2011, Times books): Pulitzer-winning New York Times business columnist rehashes the same old story, "character-rich and definitive in its analysis," traits you need when you're this late to the party.
Evgeny Morozov: The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (2011, Public Affairs): Bravely battling "cyberutopians" -- those who foolishly think something good might come out of the Internet: nothing like beating up strawmen to show off your intellectual brawn.
Matthew Moten, ed: Between War and Peace: How America Ends Its Wars (2011, Free Press): Various writers on various wars, starting with Yorktown and winding up with Iraq (by Andrew Bacevich) -- nothing in Afghanistan. It's always been easier to get into a war than to get out, partly because the imagination of what you wanted at the start rarely squares with the reality you're left with at the end. One chapter is called "The Cold War: Ending by Inadvertence" but like many of these wars (Korea is the most obvious example) it didn't really end even when the other side stopped fighting (and in the Cold War case dissolved). Maybe the title admits that for the US peace isn't even imaginable: there's only war and states "between." [link]
Dambisa Moyo: How the West Was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly -- and the Stark Choices Ahead (2011, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Cover shows a $100 bill with a portrait of Mao in the middle. Moyo, originally from Zambia, previously wrote Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa (2009; paperback, 2010, Farrar Straus and Giroux), which can't be immediately dismissed as a conservative excuse, but does look like she likes to be provocative. This strikes me as little else.
Joseph S Nye Jr: The Future of Power (2011, Public Affairs): Foreign policy mandarin from the Carter and Clinton eras, pontificating on the wonderfulness of American Power since WWII, fretting about the rising spectre of China, concocting a new approach he calls "smart power" -- no doubt a book all smart powermongers in Washington will be debating earnestly for weeks to come.
Walid Phares: The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East (2011, Threshold): First book out presumably related to the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, by a Fox News talking head who sees democracy in the Middle East as the fulfillment of Bush's vision and a rebuke to Obama's coziness with dictators. Too early for anyone to really understand what's happening, nothing to stop someone well stocked with prefab answers.
Ted Rall: The Anti-American Manifesto (paperback, 2010, Seven Stories Press): A desperate screed against the Zombie Empire, with occasional drawings that aren't funny enough to be cartoons, like the guy who dumped his peace sign in the trash and is throwing a molotov cocktail. Guess there is a "loony left" after all.
Paul Reyes: Exiles in Eden: Life Among the Ruins of Florida's Great Recession (2010, Henry Holt): The Florida housing bust, from the viewpoint of a guy who picked up small change "trashing out" foreclosed houses -- cleaning them out to remove all evidence of their previous owners. That's a different view of the same old story.
Michael Riordon: Our Way to Fight: Israeli and Palestinian Activists for Peace (paperback, 2011, Lawrence Hill): Author makes documentary films. Here he talks to Israelis and Palestinians who have joined in nonviolent resistance against Israel's occupation and political destruction of Palestine.
Ben Shephard: The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War (2011, Knopf): Focuses on the millions of Europeans driven from their homes during WWII -- refugees, or "displaced persons" -- and the postwar efforts to settle them. Big subject, little told except for Jews and Israel which turns out to be a small part of the story. A similar book could be written for Asia.
Harry Stein: I Can't Believe I'm Sitting Next to a Republican: A Surival Guide for Conservatives Marooned Among the Angry, Smug, and Terminally Righteous (paperback, 2010, Encounter): Previously wrote How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (and Found Inner Peace), but maybe didn't find as much "inner peace" as he originally thought, or maybe he's just real confused, still trying to blame liberals for being "angry, smug, and terminally righteous" when the right has all those traits on steroids.
Jonathan Steinberg: Bismarck: A Life (2011, Oxford University Press): The big cheese of 19th century European politics, united Germany, advanced if not invented the bureaucracy and the welfare state. Did so in the service of a monarchy that was due to self-destruct. The sort of guy every generation needs to go back and review or revile.
John Szwed: Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World (2010, Penguin): One of the best jazz historians working, has previously done biographies of Sun Ra and Miles Davis. Lomax wasn't a folkie so much as the guy who invented the mold: he came early enough he could imagine recording a world unspoiled by modern technology like his own recordings. Thought doing so was politically significant too.
Helen Thomas/Craig Crawford: Listen Up, Mr President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do (paperback, 2010, Simon & Schuster): Well, I doubt that, not just because this is squeezed into 208 pp, but glad to see Thomas keeping active after she got unceremoniously retired following a minor misstatement on Israel.
Louisa Thomas: Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family -- a Test of Will and Faith in World War I (2011, Penguin): A Thomas family history, evidently the author's a few generations removed, where two brothers rushed to join Wilson's War -- you know, the one that made the world safe for democracy -- and two dissented, one jailed for his conscience. The eldest, Norman, was a Presbyterian minister who later ran on the Socialist Party ticket for president. Evan I know less about, but he appears to be the namesake of the author's father, which could well be the same Evan Thomas who wrote The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898, a book which ends with TR bullying his own sons into fighting (and dying) in Wilson's War.
Sherry Turkle: Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other (2011, Basic Books): Author has written a number of books on how people relate to technology, including Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, and Simulation and Its Discontents. Easy to say that computers debase human relationships; harder to work out whether they're worth it.
Martin Van Creveld: The Age of Airpower (2011, Public Affairs): Israeli military historian, traces the history of air warfare from Italy's bombing of Libya in 1911 to NATO's bombing of Libya in 2011 (probably not quite, but the 100-year circle did get tied up awfully neatly). One could also neatly point to Israel's 1967 blitzkrieg as a highpoint of effectiveness -- WWII was more grossly destructive but also far messier, and the many US air war missions have more often than not proved fruitless.
Daniel Williams: God's Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (2010, Oxford University Press): Seems like a bunch of books on this subject out lately, one that can quickly grow tiresome.
Gordon S. Wood: The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States (2011, Penguin Press): I learned more about US history from John Garraty's book of interviews with old historians -- guys like Edmund Morris and C. Vann Woodward -- than I got from anywhere else, because after a career of work they finally got a chance to say what they thought. At the time, Wood was a young lion, having debuted with the best book ever written about the founding of the constitution -- something our Tea Partiers should bone up on; little do they know but they're really just a bunch of anti-federalists. Now Wood's an old-time master, so I'd say he's earned his right to reflect and interpret.
Previously mentioned books (book pages noted where available), new in paperback:
Joyce Appleby: The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (2010; paperback, 2011, WW Norton): Big general history of capitalism, going back to early industrialization and up to the 2007-08 financial crisis, attributed to deregulation.
Peter Beinart: The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris (2010; paperback, 2011, Harper Perennial): One of the more apologetic of the Iraq War liberal hawks, has plenty of ground to critique the lofty arrogance of America's foreign policy establishment; still, it seems to me that the faults are far more intrinsic, that even modest warmongers are bound to fail.
Justin Fox: The Myth of the Rational Market: A History of Risk, Reward, and Delusion on Wall Street (2009, Harper Business; paperback, 2011, Harper): Organized thematically, jumping around in time from one crash to another -- plenty to choose from there.
David Hirst: Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East (2010; paperback, 2011, Nation Books): Major history of Lebanon, a complex state again and again meddled with by dangerous and conniving forces -- Syria, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran, far from least the United States.
Chalmers Johnson: Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hope (2010; paperback, 2011, Henry Holt): A rather slight collection of essays following the late author's brilliant Blowback trilogy.
Tuesday, September 6. 2011
Back in 2002 when rumors surface that the Bush administration was gearing up a propaganda offensive aimed at invading Iraq, Andrew Card explained, "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August." That's a principle the music industry appears to have taken to heart: August has been the lamest month to date for new record releases. Actually, some did slip out. My metacritic file shows the top-rated August releases as: Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks: Mirror Traffic; The Horrors: Skying; Kanye West/Jay-Z: Watch the Throne; Beirut: The Rip Tide; The War on Drugs: Slave Ambient; Tinariwen: Tassili; and far off the pace, Fountains of Wayne: Sky Full of Holes. The raw numbers there range from 25 (which puts Malkmus in 27th place for the year) to 10 (Fountains of Wayne is tied for 125th). I have all but the Horrors below -- got the jump on them last month.
Looking further down the list, the total number of August records is 80, out of 1324 records on the list that I have release dates for. So the average per month is 165, meaning August is about 50% short of being an average month. I can think of a couple reasons why August is being underreported here, but they're not going to make a huge difference.
Still I came up with seven A- records this month -- mostly by catching up with older stuff. Several of these are records I got on [cd] -- for some reason I've taken a more leisurely approach to those. Only one hasn't been previously vetted by Robert Christgau in his Expert Witness blog. It's hard to get the jump on him when he's posting twice a week while I'm waiting for the month to roll along -- impossible when he works off an advance that doesn't even show up on Rhapsody until he's reviewed it. (Three more Christgau picks are downgraded below: Fountains of Wayne, Nine 11 Thesaurus, Vieux Farka Touré -- none by much, unlike last month's SebastiAn.) But then I'm not trying to scoop Christgau, Tatum, or anyone else. I'm always, inevitably, struggling to catch up -- even Viceversah I got from Okayplayer (which also led me to Da Cruz, Jazz Spastiks, J. Rawls, and Willie Evans Jr. -- most of the obscure hip-hop here).
The number of new records this month is down a bit (46 vs. 59 in July): partly the slow season, partly slow me, partly a tradeoff with the jazz queues. The total number of records reviewed in this series has topped 2000, which must mean something although I'm not sure I want to figure it out.
One more thing: I've said all along that reviewing records based on one or two stream plays is inevitably error prone. So at long last I've gone back through my files and identified all the places to date where I've subsequently changed my grade on a record. Many of these times my initial grade was A- then I bought (or begged) a copy and it wound up high enough on my year-end list I bumped it up. Sometimes the same dynamic worked at a lower level -- I don't see any cases where buying a record wound up lowering the grade. Other times I went back and re-streamed something, mostly spurred on by other hype, and sometimes as a result I adjusted my grade -- but not often. And the absence of a change doesn't mean anything than that I haven't bothered. Tatum insists that I vastly overrated Destroyer's Kaputt, and that's one case where I probably should reconsider -- it is, after all, tied for fifth in my metacritic poll -- but I keep dragging my feet there: less interesting, I reckon, than investigating something unknown. I mean, you don't really believe in these grades, do you?
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 August 9. Past reviews and more information are available here.
Active Child: You Are All I See (2011, Vagrant): Not sure whether "harp-playing, choir-singing" Pat Grossi is the leader of the group or the group, but with all the vocals done in a churchy falsetto and the synths reinforcing the harps and angels, this is prog rock at its ripest. B-
AraabMUZIK: Electronic Dream (2011, Duke Productions): Abraham Orellana, from Rhode Island, "of Dominican and Guatemalan descent"; most sources consider this hip-hop, but it's chopped up from fat slabs of synth, the vocals pasted in rather than growing out. B+(**)
Beirut: The Rip Tide (2011, Pompeii): Evidently Zach Condon started out picking up bits of Balkan music -- his 2006 album was called Gulag Orkestar -- moved on to other ports of call, and wound up nowhere, which is roughly equivalent to his native Santa Fe, NM. He does still work with horns and synths, and some pieces offer a lift, but he's stuck between the exotic and the mundane, unable to give us a reason to care. B
Big Sugar: Revolution Per Minute (2011, Bread & Water): Boogie band from Toronto, formed in the early 1990s but broke up in 2004 so this (their sixth) album is a reunion effort. Pluses: saxophone, one song with easy pop power ("True Believers"), title cut is an amusing dubstyle reggae change of pace; on the other hand, they don't have the vocal or guitar muscle for rote boogie, and they can slip up. B
Luke Bryan: Tailgates & Tanlines (2011, Capitol Nashville): Nashville slinger, from Georgia, third album, cowrites most of his songs; average voice, average production, likable enough, not the dumbest guy in town but doesn't try too hard either. Wonder what it feels like to know you'll have to sing "Country Girl (Shake It for Me)" every show for the next 30-40 years. My guess is that it'll be fun for a while, then start to feel weird. B
Richard Buckner: Our Blood (2011, Merge): AMG files this singer-songwriter under folk; Wikipedia says alt-country. Based solely on this his 11th album since 1994, I don't hear either. Simple songs, some with pumping keyboard but most just guitar; plaintive and precious, as far as I can tell given that nothing much seems worth the effort. B-
Glen Campbell: Ghost on the Canvas (2011, Surfdog): A pop-country star in the 1960s with a reputation as a dependable studio guitarist and more TV exposure than I care to remember, he cranked out massive amounts of product -- close to 70 albums -- up to 1999, then took it easy until his atrocious 2008 Meet Glen Campbell. Diagnosed with Alzheimer's, he figured he's good for one more. He might have bid a respectable adieu had he picked more songs like Jakob Dylan's "Nothing but the Whole Wide World," but producer Julian Raymond buried the Paul Westerberg title song in strings so blustery they'd make Chet Atkins swoon. Looks like he wanted to pick songs that affirm his desire to stand up to his fate. Too bad nearly all were slaughtered by the producer. C+
Gary Clark Jr.: The Bright Lights EP (2011, Warner Brothers, EP): Blues guy from Austin, at 27 gets by more on his power guitar riffs than on his voice, not that he doesn't have anything to complain about but he's still feeling his oats. AMG lists this has his fourth album since 2005, one self-released and two more obscure, but it's just a four-song EP, 21:43, two high octane burners with a band, two live solo acoustic pickers, the second also mostly guitar. B+(**)
Guy Clark: Songs and Stories (2011, Dualtone): Singer-songwriter from Texas, had a strong batch of songs for his first album back in 1975 (Old No. 1) and never again put so many in one place. Live sets usually rehash prime songs, and this one like his debut starts off with "L.A. Freeway" and recovers a few more gems (like "Homegrown Tomatoes" and "The Randall Knife"), but not many. No problem that he fills in some stories -- he's a prime storyteller. More curious is that he turns the stage over midway to Verlon Thompson who does much the same shtick -- he ain't half bad, but still leaves you wondering what's up with the star. Bad health? Voice doesn't seem to be in good shape. B+(*)
Ry Cooder: Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down (2011, Nonesuch): When he started out some forty years ago Cooder would pick sly and (mostly) obscure chestnuts and warm them over, making good use of his slide technique and fair use of his whitebread voice for records that tended to greatly impress folks who didn't see through his technique and rather annoy those who did. (I was initially one of the former and eventually among the latter, so I've always been kind of schizo on him.) Then he developed his songwriting skills (mostly hacking on soundtracks) and cultivated his idiosyncrasies, which occasionally resulted in interesting records and sometimes not, leading up to this one which combines his most interesting and annoying traits. All originals, almost all in other people's styles, sometimes going Tex-Mex, trying a Woody Guthrie protest, copping a John Lee Hooker blues, touting "Simple Tools" that turn out simpler than they should be. Does have a graphic suggestion to where to stuff the Iraq War, and does have better than average politics. Just isn't a very good record. B
The Cool Kids: When Fish Ride Bicycles (2011, Green Label Sounds): Midwest rap group drawing on Chicago and Detroit. Given their name, I figured they'd sound younger or at least cooler, but they're serious guys with a tight underground sound and low budget samples, thoughtful rhymes and a bit of song toward the end. B+(**)
Steve Cropper: Dedicated: A Salute to the 5 Royales (2011, 429): Stax Records house guitarist, a foundation for many of the greatest soul records of all time (start with Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, or if you want to focus on instruments, Booker T. and the MGs). Doesn't have much under his own name -- one from 1971, two more from the early 1980s, now this star-fueled collection of mostly Lowman Pauling songs from the early 1950s vocal group The 5 Royales. For the 1952-62 originals, the ideal reference is the long-out-of-print Rhino 2-CD collection, Monkey Hips and Rice, although The Very Best of the 5 Royales (, Collectables) will get you in the ballpark. The band is cracking, and the guest vocalists dive right in -- mostly time-tested blues shouters like B.B. King, Sharon Jones, Bettye Lavette, Shemekia Copeland, Willie Jones, and Delbert McClinton, but also Steve Winwood is credible, and Lucinda Williams is a little weird. Reminds me of the originals, but every song draws something new out. A-
Da Cruz: Sistema Subversiva (2011, Six Degrees): Swiss group, produced by Ane Hebeisen (aka Ane H), with guitarist Oliver Husmann and percussionist Pit Lee, formerly Swamp Terrorists before latching onto singer Maraina Da Cruz from São Paulo, Brazil. The beats tend toward the mechanical, while the Afro-Brazilian influence is hard to pin down -- but Cruz co-wrote (or wrote) all but one cover, so figure it there. The cover? "Warm Leatherette." B+(**)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.: It's a Corporate World (2011, Warner Brothers): Detroit group, Joshua Epstein and Daniel Zott. First album after an EP called Horsepower. I wouldn't go so far as some in comparing their vocal harmonies to the Beach Boys, but there is some of that, also the big hollow percussion and echo. Title cut is ambivalent, and that's where they start to feel tortured. "We Almost Lost Detroit" has too much chorus and not enough verse -- the devil, as usual, is in the details. B+(*)
Willie Evans Jr.: Introducin' (2011, High Water Music): Not a lot to go on here: first album, common name, not even his label has much to say -- some link him to Nashville, a crew called Asamov (appears on a sign on the front cover), or more lately Alias Brothers; several reviews liken him to MF Doom, one even suggesting this is a Doom project. It's got the concept: a little kid who wants to play drums but doesn't have the discipline until visited in a dream, or something like that. I like the grown up stuff better, but didn't make much sense out of it either. B+(*)
Fountains of Wayne: Sky Full of Holes (2011, Yep Roc): Fifth album since 1996, plus a pretty good odds and sods collection (Out-of-State Plates). Many critics who love literate rock and roll with pop hooks love them. I saw them once and was never so bored in my life but even I credit them with a couple of good albums. Add a half here: starts with three, maybe four remarkably sharp songs, and returns later with a rousing "Radio Bar" and a nice closer. Still, a band I find it very difficult to care for. B+(***)
John Hiatt: Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns (2011, New West): Good old boy from Indianapolis. Back in the mid-1970s I caught him live at a bar in the Indy burbs, no band, working his way through the songs on his first two albums -- I spent a lot of time with those albums, think they're his best (although Slug Line and Riding With the King are up there). Took him four years to get that third album out, but has never spent more than three years between records since, often less. Can't exactly say he's been coasting, nor that his fluke hit album ruined him, but I doubt he'll ever surprise us. Nice songs here, but looking back at the title list I'm surprised that I didn't notice the one called "Detroit Made" when it came on, nor for that matter "Train to Birmingham." B+(*)
Jazz Spastiks and Junclassic: Mode 7 (2011, Hipnott): The former are a Scottish production crew (Coco D, Mr Manyana) with clean, old style beats, nothing spasticky to them -- early De La Soul may be the model. Junclassic is an MC from Queens, has a couple albums buried deep underground. Lopes along easily, smart and clever -- except when it comes to blunts. B+(***)
J-Rocc: Some Cold Rock Stuf (2011, Stones Throw): Jason Jackson, turntablist, co-founded the Beat Junkies in 1992, has a couple albums under his own alias. The raps seem incidental here; the focus is on sound effects which eventually develop into something more. B+(**)
Natalia Kills: Perfectionist (2011, Interscope): B. in West Yorkshire, UK, 1986 as Natalia Keery-Fisher; father Jamaican, mother from Uruguay. Has a piece in writing all of her songs, but only one solo credit. Voice a little deeper and sterner than teenpop norms, but she likes it dark and twisted. Makes a more plausible villain than victim but can't quite avoid the latter in her line of work. Would like "Love Is a Suicide" more if the US headlines weren't so full of it -- maybe in the UK it's more metaphorical? B+(**)
Kendrick Lamar: Section.80 (2011, Top Dawg Entertainment): Rapper, b. 1987, one of the few lately to use his own name. From Compton, came up through the mixtape ranks, signed with Dr. Dre, landing an EP in 2009 and now his first studio album. Runs a song about "niggas and ho's" so far into the ground he can raise a flagpole in top of it, but also recalls the evils of the Reagan era, which is pretty good for a guy who was just born as Iran-Contra piled up. B+(**)
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks: Mirror Traffic (2011, Matador): I used to think he can't sing, but he's got his style down pat, only occasionally tripping up over his fancy idiosyncratic tunes. More of the latter than I really care to deal with, in part because none of them strike me as miraculous -- the high stakes Malkmus used to play for. That the Senator and the blow job is the most memorable one isn't necessarily a plus. B+(*)
Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman: World Wide Rebel Songs (2011, New West): Veteran of political metal band Rage Against the Machine; took mother's name, but father was from Kenya, active in the Mau Mau movement, nephew of Jomo Kenyatta, first Kenyan ambassador to the UN -- making him, basically, what Dinesh D'Souza hallucinates Obama to be. Nightwatchman showcases Morello's folkie side, although several songs aim to be anthemic -- including the title cut and the rambunctious finale, "Union Town." Wish one of the most upbeat wasn't about Iraq War soldiers plotting their return home by frakking their officers -- I don't think that qualifies for socialist realism much less poetic justice. But it certainly is true that if you can't deal with the rational people, you'll be stuck with the crazies. B+(**)
Nine 11 Thesaurus: Ground Zero Generals (2011, The Social Registry): Rap collective from New York (Bushwick maybe), seem to mostly be teens which would make them much less than that on the fateful day, given beats by producers associated with the Skeletons and Gang Gang Dance -- the latter strikes me as pretty suspect, but not much to complain about here. They go political, which is something I admire, and they don't go for US jingoism -- they got their own problems, as evidenced by a Malcolm X sample that is dated but not totally obsolete. But then I'm a sucker for black power rants to hip-hop beats, and that's what this comes down to. B+(***) [cd]
Pistol Annies: Hell on Heels (2011, Columbia Nashville): Country music "supergroup" although Miranda Lambert is the only one of the trio I've heard of before; Ashley Moore has a download-only LP and an self-released eponymous EP and is somehow kin to Carl Smith, and Angaleena Presley has a surname I recognize but so little track record I can't explain it -- somewhere says her dad is an East Kentucky coal miner, which puts her a long ways from Yazoo. Rootsier than anything I recall rolling off the Nashville assembly line this year; smoother too, which makes me wonder where the kerosene went. B+(**)
Portugal. The Man: In the Mountain in the Cloud (2011, Atlantic): Rock group with an annoying period in a name that isn't very suggestive anyhow. Originally from Wasilia, Alaska but relocated to Portland, OR. John Gourley sings, plays guitar, and wrote all of the songs on this, their sixth album since 2006. Many references classify them as psychedelic, something which has no intuitive meaning these days. But they do sound pop, sweet tones layered up into ugly heaps of sound, almost anthemic. B
Preservation Hall Jazz Band & the Del McCoury Band: American Legacies (2010 , McCoury Music): AMG files this under McCoury's veteran bluegrass outfit, but the front cover lists the guys with the horns first. They do what you expect them to do, while McCoury adds a string band and a sly voice that makes the fusion work. Glad to hear "You Don't Have to Be a Baby to Cry"; also note that the hottest thing here is "Jambalaya." B+(***)
J. Rawls: The Hip-Hop Effect (2011, Green Streets): Jason Rawls, b. 1974 in Columbus, OH, best known as Mos Def's producer (at least from Black Star days). Has a stack of records under his own name since 2001. Lots of guests, if anything more obscure than the producer, who keeps an engaging jingle-jangle beat going while they each peddle their wares. B+(**)
Dex Romweber Duo: Is That You in the Blue? (2011, Bloodshot): Guitarist-singer Dexter Romweber, formerly of Flat Duo Jets, and his sister, drummer Sara Romweber, formerly of Let's Active and Snatches of Pink, all Chapel Hill, NC groups. Second Duo album, although they're not just a duo: the band is fleshed out with bass and lap steel and sax at least. He's got a deep voice, echoing back to rockabilly but slower and sicker with echoes I recall from the Animals -- maybe this is what they mean by psychobilly? B
Ximena Sariñana: Ximena Sariñana (2011, Warner Brothers): Mexican pop singer, second album after the gift-named Mediocre, effectively a career relaunch, with jacked up beats emulating Shaikra and English words aimed at young gringos. Doesn't quite hit the target either way, but doesn't miss by much either. B+(**)
Jill Scott: The Light of the Sun (2011, Blues Babe/Warner Bros.): The leadoff track, detailing the many ways she feels "Blessed," kicks this off on a high she never convincingly adds much to, but then what more is there to say? Duet partners come and go, each good enough for the time but none likely to stick. Drags a bit midway, but that may just be a matter of adjusting your own expectations. No doubt she knows that she's doing what she wants. A- [cd]
Soft Metals: Soft Metals (2011, Captured Tracks): Synth-pop duo, singer Patricia Hall and keyboardist/programmer Ian Hicks, from Portland, OR. First album. Can run some pieces that are basically just groove with percussion effects, like "In Throes," and are better for it. B+(**)
Sole and the Skyrider Band: Hello Cruel World (2011, Fake Four): Underground rapper, Tim Holland, from Portland, ME; one of the founders of Anticon, has more than a dozen albums since 2000. Not exceptional in any way, seems to have decent politics although only a few songs bend that way. B+(*)
Poly Styrene: Generation Indigo (2011, Future Noise Music): The former singer for punk's greatest one-album wonder, cut a solo album in 1980 which has been out of print ever since, and now a second released on her death day: not much product for someone so attuned to the reified world, but her willingness to adopt a plastic persona never betrayed her humanity. This is a mixed bag of beats, but no point nitpicking: as much as I'd like to hear a lot more in the dub vein of "No Rockefeller" every other track will do. A- [cd]
The Summer Set: Everything's Fine (2011, Razor & Tie): Alleged pop-punk band from Scottsdale, AZ; second or third album. First couple cuts are awful, then "Someone Like You" almost clicks. They lay the vocal harmonies on pretty thick, something that accounts for the pop part of their rep, although they're more charming when the lead goes it alone, as in the intro to "Love to You." The punk part, well, that beats me. B-
Sunny Sweeney: Concrete (2011, Republic Nashville): Country singer, from Texas, second album five years after her debut, Heartbreaker's Hall of Fame. Age unknown, but she's wearing a lot more makeup this time. Co-credited with most of her songs but not the best, which I figure as "Mean as You" -- even if Taylor Swift got the concept better -- or "Fall for Me." B+(*)
Tech N9ne: All 6's and 7's (2011, Strange Music): Aaron Yates, b. 1971 in Kansas City, has a dozen albums since 1999. I first noticed him at Best Buy, where the stocked a ton of this album, but I now see that they have their own exclusive edition (as does iTunes, FYE, and Wal-Mart). Muscled up on the cover, more machine than man in the grooves, this repeatedly bangs its head against irrelevance and annoyance until it arrives at "Promiseland" -- as usual, the last place one wants to be. B-
Terakaft: Aratan N Azawad (2011, World Village): Tamashek (aka Tuareg) group from the desert of Mali, a trio with previous connections to internationally acclaimed Tinariwen. Second album on this label, maybe more elsewhere. They have that dry desert guitar sound, a mix of vocals that rarely escape from a groove that just moves along easily at first but soon enough works its way into your subconscious. A-
Tinariwen: Tassili (2011, Anti-): Saharan group with an international following, last couple albums impressed me much, earlier ones are subjects for further research. Still, this one caught me by surprise, inasmuch as they took a sparse concept and made it simpler, the vocals deep and plaintive, not much more than an easy-going rhythm, but the authority of that voice makes it work. Also notable: when they switch to English, you don't wish they hadn't. A-
Vieux Farka Touré: The Secret (2011, Six Degrees): Son of the late Ali Farka Touré, who for many years was mismarketed as the John Lee Hooker of the Sahara. Fourth album since 2006, not counting a remix or two. Similar guitar-hooked music, plumped up a bit, pop compared to the father's rustic druthers. B+(***)
Viceversah: Shine Not Burn (2011, AR Classic): Interesting to play this after Watch the Throne: seems like this unknown underground rapper has managed to average out the vocal attacks and producer styles of Jay-Z and Kanye West, on a shoestring budget, of course. Played under other conditions I might have glommed onto something else. Can't find much on him: second album, with an EP or two; most likely the dude's white, and once you consider that possibility other things open up (less racial politics, but compatible politics nonetheless). A-
The War on Drugs: Slave Ambient (2011, Secretly Canadian): Philadelphia group, former home of Kurt Vile, now down to a guitar-bass-drums trio with Adam Granduciel singing (traces of Dylan), playing harmonica, sometimes switching from guitar to keybs. They have that trademark alt-rock guitar vibe -- the words fly by, so the choice cut is the smudged instrumental "Original Slave." B+(**)
Abigail Washburn: City of Refuge (2011, Rounder): Banjo player-singer, from Illinois, third album. AMG files it under folk, but I hear her drawing from Anglo (or Scotch or Irish, distinctions others value more than me) as much as US, and in all cases burying them under a muddled din that would classify a guitar-player as a sad sack singer-songwriter. B
Kanye West/Jay-Z: Watch the Throne (2011, Roc-A-Fella): Spine lists West first, although most sources score this for Z -- for some reason freed from his traditional hyphen -- some more on points than on packaging. Speaking of packaging, I went with the 12-cut cheapo vs. the 16-cut "deluxe" with its three minutes of dead air separating the extras (which, by the way, I sampled on Rhapsody and have already forgotten). Reactions are up and down and all over the place, but few will regret going overboard like with West's 2010 tour de force, and few who have gone off the deep end fighting the power will bother to play this enough to moderate their views. The fact is when you add two stars (not to mention egos) on this order you're bound to learn that the studio isn't big enough for the sum: someone is bound to slip, and while the consensus seems to be West I'm not so sure. The two things I take away here are the weirdly convoluted race politics (e.g., the line about becoming a Republican to prove how much he loves white people) and weirdly ironic pop gliss (I get Loretta and Betty but would never take them for queens, let alone elide them into "sweet baby Jesus" which appears only because it makes for a time-tested pop hook) -- so I don't buy the argument that West is holding out here. It's just that Z is all business, and when all is said and done, this is product with his brand name, so he wants it sharp and punchy, and he manages that. Not a great album by either artist's standards, but not a goof or waste either. A- [cd]
Chris Young: Neon (2011, RCA Nashville): Country singer, third album, has a co-credit in most of his songs, but not his best one. Young enough he tries to pass off drinking beer as water conservation, not to mention a way to "support your local wildlife." B+(*)
Zebrahead: Get Nice (2011, Rude): Punk/rapcore band from Orange County, CA; cut their first in 1998 for Columbia; lost their major label status and one of their leaders after 2004 but kept grinding it out. Real fast, pretty loud, often sounds like something I might like but I'm not grabbing many words in an album firing them at high speed, then you hit something like "Kiss Your Ass Goodbye" which is stupid and clowned up with harmony vocals, a fanciness I thought their concept ruled out. B-
Sometimes further listening leads me to change an initial grade, usually either because I move on to a real copy, or because someone else's review or list makes me want to check it again:
Arctic Monkeys: Humbug (2009, Domino): This was more likely a typo in the original post than a later grade change. [was: B] B-
Big Boi: Sir Lucious Left Food: The Son of Chico Dusty (2010, Def Jam): [was: A-] A [cd]
V.V. Brown: Travelling Like the Light (2009 , Capitol): Nine or ten of twelve songs are pure hits, reminding me first of Motown but with British Invasion bits, then there's a girl group throwback that touches both the originals and the New York dolls just right. [was: A-] A [cd]
Hayes Carll: Trouble in Mind (2008, Lost Highway): [was: A-] A [cd]
Dessa: A Badly Broken Code (2010, Doomtree): [was: A-] A [cd]
Eminem: Recovery (2010, Interscope): [was: B+(*)] B+(***) [cd]
Jimmie Dale Gilmore/The Wronglers: Heirloom Music (2011, Neanderthal Noise): [was: A-] A [cd]
LCD Soundsystem: This Is Happening (2010, DFA/Virgin): [was: B+(*)] B+(**)
Les Amazones de Guinée: Wamato (2008, Sterns Africa): [was: A-] A [cd]
Lil Wayne: Tha Carter III (2008, Cash Money/Universal): [was: B+(***)] A- [cd]
Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar: Devla: Blown Away to Dancefloor Heaven (2009, Piranha): [was: B+(***)] A- [cd]
Bruno Mars: Doo-Wops & Hooligans (2010, Elektra): [was: A-] A [cd]
Willie Nelson: American Classic (2009, Blue Note): [was: B+(*)] B+(**) [cd]
Randy Newman: Harps and Angels (2008, Nonesuch): [was: B+(**)] A [cd]
Tabu Ley Rochereau: The Voice of Lightness: Congo Classics 1961-1977 (1961-77 , Sterns Africa, 2CD): [was: A-] A [cd]
The Roots: How I Got Over (2010, Def Jam): [was: A-] A [cd]
Raphael Saadiq: The Way I See It (2008, Columbia): [was: A-] A [cd]
David Sánchez: Cultural Survival (2007 , Concord Picante): [was: B+(***)] B+(**)
Jazmine Sullivan: Love Me Back (2010, J): [was: B] B+(**)
Rachid Taha: Bonjour (2009 , Knitting Factory): [was: B+(**)] B+(***)
Vampire Weekend: Contra (2010, XL): [was: A-] A [cd]
Loudon Wainwright III: High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project (2008-09 , 2nd Story Sound, 2CD): [was: A-] A [cd]
Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010, Roc-A-Fella): [was: A-] A [cd]
Matt Wilson: That's Gonna Leave a Mark (2008 , Palmetto): [was: B+(***)] A- [cd]
The XX: XX (2008-09 , XL): [was: B+(***)] A- [cd]
Monday, September 5. 2011
Got up this morning -- sure, it was closer to noon but still on the AM side -- and it was 72F outside, a temperature we pay good money to establish inside. Bright and sunny, too. Four days ago we broke the 1936 record for most 100F days in a year, and two days ago it still hit 100F to pile onto the record. Five day forecast shows a slight warming trend up to a high of 82F -- fourteen day forecast gets as high as 86F. Probably premature to declare summer over: the average high temperature for all of September is 82F, and we've hit 107F as late as September 26. The highest October day ever was 97F, on an October 2.
Still, I'm looking forward to being less cooped up over the next couple weeks. Need to clean out the basement and the garage. Bought some rubber flooring for part of the basement, so that's a project. Maybe do a little carpentry, too. None of this is particularly good for Jazz Prospecting, but I don't know where I'm going with that anyway. Healthy count this week, especially considering I've been bouncing back and forth getting Recycled Goods up last week and preparing Rhapsody Streamnotes for later this week -- most likely tomorrow, although I also have a really remarkable political piece to write about, and I've also been wanting to comment on Paul Starr's Freedom's Power, the last book I read on my recent freedom kick.
No news on Jazz Consumer Guide's fate (if there is one). I gather no news is the new norm at the Village Voice these days, for whatever that's worth. I'm as tired of and frustrated with it as ever, so I'm developing what Steve Landsburg calls a "principle of indifference" over it. Lack of confidence in the future gives me little reason to make the extra effort to seek out better records (which are often hard to come by but are certainly out there), so I'm wallowing in the ones that are hard up enough to seek me out. (Back in my business deal days, wasn't that always the problem: the people you want to talk to don't need you, and you don't need the people who wants to talk to you?) Still, occasionally you get a surprise, as with the Deborah Pearl album I hedged a bit below, or for that matter the Marty Williams. (Friedlander, on the other hand, wasn't a surprise: it's pretty much his average album.)
Down in the unpacking, you'll notice the new Sonny Rollins. Played it a couple times while I was cooking, then again for the guests. May be a full grade A, or may get a minus -- too much talk, for one thing, and while ending with "St. Thomas" is as surefire a bet as one can make, is it really that good? Album doesn't drop until next week, so I held back. It's one record I'm not anxious to move from my active queue to the archives.
Katie Bull: Freak Miracle (2009 , Innova): Singer, from and based in New York, has at least three previous albums since 2000. Has plaudits on her website from Jay Clayton and Sheila Jordan. She takes similar liberties with her material -- mostly self-written, but the covers show her attack more clearly. Joe Fonda (bass) and Harvey Sorgen (drums) are longstanding band members; Jeff Lederer plays tenor and soprano sax and clarinet; piano is divided between Landon Knoblock and Frank Kimbrough. B+(*)
Brent Canter: Urgency of Now (2010 , Posi-Tone): Guitarist, from Los Angeles, studied under Kenny Burrell, moved to New York. Second album, previous self-released. Organ quartet, with Adam Klipple or Pat Bianchi on organ, Seamus Blake on tenor sax, and Jordan Perlson on drums. Guitar stands out, but the framework is pretty conventional, and the only surprise with Blake is how little he brings to the party. B
Cloning Americana: For Which It Stands (2010 , Sunnyside): Postbop quartet, principally saxophonist Billy Drewes and bassist Scott Lee who split the writing chores (score 8-to-4 for Drewes, with one joint piece, plus one by pianist Gary Versace, none from drummer Jeff Hirshfield). Slippery modern postbop, with a message at the end sung tentatively by Drewes, concluding "We are all one." Back cover explains: "The above narrative is in response to the apparent decline in the basic social values of respect, compassion, and tolerance. Too many of those entrusted with the honorable task of promoting and sustaining these values are failing us, causing unnecessary inequality and suffering." Amen. B+(**)
Coyote Poets of the Universe: Pandora's Box (2011, Square Shaped): Denver group, fifth album since 2003; I figure them as a rock group with some jazz and world instruments -- Patty Shaw's saxes, Mark Busi's djembe and bongos, some fiddles, banjo, an oboe or flute -- and some spoken poetry although mostly Melissa Ingalls' vocals. I recall last time writing Christgau to recommend a choice cut. This time that would be "Quittin' Time" with its Lester Young namecheck and cover note: "adult language on this track," or as my friend Arthur translates, redeeming social content. B+(*)
Armen Donelian: Leapfrog (2010 , Sunnyside): Pianist, b. 1950 in New York, parents Armenian, his father barely escaping from the massacres in Ottoman Turkey. Has a dozen albums since 1980, a few more side credits, notably with Billy Harper and Mongo Santamaria. Postbop quintet with Marc Mommaas (tenor sax), Mike Moreno (guitar), Dean Johnson (bass), and Tyshawn Sorey (drums). Mommaas is a strong figure here, able both to slip in behind the piano and bull his way to the front. Still, the cut I like best is "Mexico" where he lays out, letting the guitar sway gently around the piano, a lush tropical breeze. B+(***)
Erik Friedlander: Bonebridge (2011, Skipstone): Cellist, more than a dozen albums since 1995; not sure that you can find anyone else in jazz history who's done more notable music with the instrument. Inevitably, cello suggests chamber music, with a focus on composition feathered out with multiple strings, which is what you get here with: Doug Wamble (guitar), Trevor Dunn (bass), and Mike Sarin (drums). B+(***)
High Fiddelity: Tell Me! (2004-10 , High Fiddelity): German group, led by violinist Natalia Brunke, b. 1971 in Munich; first or second album -- she also has a string trio called Casablanca which as I understand it has a demo album but I can't tell how it is distributed. Group includes piano, bass, and drums, plus vocalist Marina Trost. The violin leads are quite charming. The vocals -- all in English, by the way -- could use more sass, especially on a title like "My Life Is So Damn Beautiful (Once You Left It)." B+(*)
The Human Element (2011, Abstract Logix): World fusion quartet: Scott Kinsey (synths, piano, vocoder), Arto Tunçboyaciyan (percussion, vocals), Matthew Garrison (bass), Gary Novak (drums). AT is by far the most accomplished member, b. 1957 in Turkey, has at least eight records since 1989, wrote 8 of 14 cuts here, plus carries a lot of weight with his vocals. MG may be the best known: the son of Coltrane Quartet bassist Jimmy Garrison, mostly (always?) plays electric bass, has 3 albums and a few dozen side credits. B+(*)
Itai Kriss: The Shark (2010 , Avenue K): Flute player, b. in Israel, seems to be based in New York. First album, although he's also done something with a Latin group called Cachimba Inolvidable. Mostly quartet with Aaron Goldberg on piano, Omer Avital on bass, and Eric McPherson on drums; adds John Ellis's tenor sax for one cut, Avishai Cohen's trumpet for two, the latter carrying the day. The flute is bright and lively in a '50s boppish way, but it's still just a flute. B
Silvano Monasterios: Unconditional (2010 , Savant): Pianist, from Caracas, Venezuela; moved to Miami in 1990, where he cut this. Has at least two previous albums. Upbeat, lush -- especially with Troy Roberts' sax running wild -- with more than a little Latin tinge. B+(*)
The New Universe Music Festival 2010 (2010 , Abstract Logix, 2CD): John McLaughlin's label puts on a show. In recent years he's dropped the Mahavishnu title, returned to hard fusion, and grayed up so elegantly that his picture on the cover, well except for the guitar, looks like he just stepped out of a painting of the Founding Father. He gets the last set here, along with Zakir Hussain on tabla, stealing some of his thunder. The other groups are nearly all guitar-keyb-bass-drum outfits, with one violin, and percussionist Arto Tunçboyaciyan slipped in. The guitarist all take their cues from McLaughlin, the others rarely straying from early 1970s fusion icons. The "new universe" sounds much like an old and mostly disparaged one, but they're so set on making it work you have to give them some credit. I haven't seen this much purism since the Dixieland revival of the 1950s. B+(**)
Nils Økland/Sigbjørn Apeland: Lysøen: Hommage à Ole Bull (2009-10 , ECM): Violinist, b. 1961 in Norway; 4th album since 2004. Apeland plays piano and harmonium in duets, or quite often you only hear one or the other. Ole Bull was a Norwegian violinist and composer from 1810-1880. The music draws on Bull, trad., Edvard Grieg (one piece), and adds four new pieces (one each, two together). Not much momentum, but immediate and arresting. B+(**)
Deborah Pearl: Souvenir of You: New Lyrics to Benny Carter Classics (2011, Evening Star): Singer, writes plays, studied at Barnard then moved to Los Angeles, where Benny and Hilma Carter "became like surrogate parents." Carter wrote "Souvenir of You" as a tribute to Johnny Hodges on his passing, so Pearl added a lyric as a tribute to Carter. Two cuts here sample Carter's 1992 big band record Harlem Renaissance so she gets to sing along with her late mentor -- Carter died in 2003 at 95; Hilma, who dated Carter in the '30s but didn't marry him until sometime in the '70s, is still alive (as far as I can tell, probably in her 80s). Pearl's first album. Aside from the two big band cuts, everything else is done with piano, bass and drums. No problem with the music, of course, but after sixty years of vocalese hackwork, I'm surprised how well the lyrics fit -- she describes them as figuring out a puzzle -- and "Doozy Blues" should go straight into the songbook of anyone who's ever been satisfied with a Jon Hendricks lyric. [A-]
Red Hot + Rio 2 (2011, E1 Music, 2CD): Twenty-some years after the first Red Hot + Blue record turned AIDS-fighting pop stars onto Cole Porter in one of the better songwriter-tribute records ever, I lost track of the series fifteen years ago when the first Red Hot + Rio came out. This one doubles down, swelling to two discs to give extra heft to its second volume status. No lack of authentic Brazilian stars here -- Caetano Veloso, Tom Zé, Joyce Moreno, Os Mutantes, also Seu Jorge, Carlhinos Brown, Bebel Gilberto -- often paired with well-meaning Americans ranging from David Byrne to Aloe Blacc, Of Montreal, and Beirut. I don't have full credits, but the rhythm section more often than not saves the show. Give it some time and you'll find some gems, like the one attributed to Toshiyuki Yasuda ("Aguas de Março"). B+(*) [advance]
Jonathan Scales: Character Farm & Other Short Stories (2011, Le Rue): Plays steel pan, an instrument common in Trinidad, functions here like vibes in a rhythmic flow of guitar, bass, and percussion. Third album. Attractively packaged in comic book/graphic novel art by Gregory Keyzer. Some guests appearances, adding soprano sax or flute or violin. No words, which is OK by me. B
Jane Stuart: Don't Look Back (2010 , JSM): Standards singer (wrote 1 of 12 songs here; 1 of 13 on her previous album). Based in New York. Second album. Band includes Dave Stryker (guitar) and Dick Oatts (alto sax, flute) although I didn't notice them much. Two Lennon-McCartneys (a decent arrangement of the unjazzable "Eleanor Rigby"), two Dave Frishbergs, one Gershwin (a nice shot at "Summertime" which has been done and done and never wears out), one Porter, others more obscure. B+(*)
Tunnel Six: Lake Superior (2010 , OA2): Sextet: two horns, piano plus guitar, bass and drums: Ben Dietschi (saxes), Chad McCullough (trumpet/flugelhorn), Andrew Oliver (piano), Brian Seligman (guitar), Ron Hynes (bass), Tyson Stubelek (drums). Only McCullough and Oliver are in my database. Only the drummer missed out on a writing credit (Dietschi, McCullough, and Seligman have two each). Group met at a Banff Centre jazz workshop, and recorded this in Portland. Pretty ingratiating as postbop goes, everyone well behaved and supportive. Couple dull spots but most bright and cheery. B+(**)
André Vasconcellos: 2 (2009 , Adventure Music): Bassist, from Brazil; second album, following one in 2004 called Observatorio. Wrote 7 of 8 songs, the odd one out by guitarist Ricardo Vasconcellos (relationship undetermined). Mostly quintet, with tenor saxophonist Josue Lopez making a big impression, Allen Pontes on drums, David Feldman or Renato Fonseca on piano, Ricardo Vasconcellos or Torcuato Mariano on guitar. Strong pulse from the bass driving the flow, prime solo spots on piano and guitar. No samba, no choro, more like postbop but organic. B+(***)
Marty Williams: Long Time Comin' (2010 , In Moon Bay): Standards singer, plays piano, based in Bay Area, website claims 10 albums but can't find him on AMG. Also says he's a "Apple Certified Logic Pro" -- don't know what that is but it could well pay better than music. Gritty, distinctive voice; doesn't sound like much at first but I found it gaining on me. Eclectic bunch of songs, including some that almost never work out well, like the Beatles' "Come Together," Jon Hendricks' vocalese to "Monk's Dream," Bobby Hebb's cheezy "Sunny," but he gets traction on most of them; the can't fail "Love for Sale," of course, but also "Falling in Love Again" and "The Look of Love" and even "Compared to What." 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.
The Return: The Gerry Beaudoin Trio With Harry Allen (2011, Francesca): Guitarist, AMG lists seven previous albums going back to 1992 but doesn't have this one, which may be digital only. Has a very light touch in a trio with bass and drums, doing eight tracks, none of which I recognize as standards. Tenor saxophonist Allen tries his best to fit in, which mostly means toning himself down to near invisiblity. B [Rhapsody]
Rob Brown/Daniel Levin: Natural Disorder (2008 , Not Two): Brown plays brashly free alto sax, b. 1962, best known as a key to William Parker's pianoless quartet; has more than a dozen albums under his own name since 1989, mostly on obscure labels. Levin plays cello, b. 1974, has been prolific since 2003 with nine albums (on Clean Feed and Hat). Duo. Often engaging, especially when the cello pitches in, but a long stretch of solo alto wears thin. B+(*) [Rhapsody]
Terri Lyne Carrington: The Mosaic Project (2011, Concord): Drummer, b. 1965, two 2002-04 postbop records seemed promising -- especially the second with Greg Osby -- but her 2009 More to Say was such soggy R&B that I dumped her into my pop jazz file. However, this one has gotten so many raves that I thought I should check it out. She makes use of 20 musicians, all female, most well known (e.g., horns: Ingrid Jensen, Anat Cohen, Tineke Postma; keybs: Geri Allen, Patrice Rushen, Helen Sung; the eight vocalists include Dee Dee Bridgewater, Nona Hendryx, Carmen Lundy, Gretchen Parlato, Diane Reeves, and Cassandra Wilson; also credited with "commentary": Angela Davis). Several brought their own songs; Carrington wrote 5 of 14, with Irving Berlin, Al Green, and Lennon-McCartney the outsiders. The horn solos always come up with something interesting, the keybs lean to fusion but aren't swallowed by it, the vocals are, well, credible. B+(**) [Rhapsody]
Unpacking: Found in the mail over the last week:
Sunday, September 4. 2011
by Michael Tatum
Last month I was optimistic about Stephen Malkmus, Kanye West, and Lil Wayne ending the summer drought of worthwhile new releases. With the jury still deliberating on Tha Carter IV (and the Weeknd's new mixtape throwing me for somewhat of a loop), little did I know I'd have more of an adventure marching through the Sahara Desert than I would through climes closer to home.
Action Bronson: Dr. Lecter (Fine Fabric Delegates) Just when you thought Ghostface Killah's well of dramatis personae had run dry, straight outta Flushing comes a three-hundred pound chef of Jewish-Albanian extraction who's stolen the Wu-Tang mainstay's flow and timbre for a startlingly fresh debut. Forget the voiceprint similarities -- every rapper cops to vices, but if Bronson referenced "fish" on this record, he wouldn't be musing about those powdery white lines, but halibut, or maybe turbot, perhaps sautéed in olive oil and served in a lemon caper sauce with a dollop of creamed spinach. Identifying with hulks like Miami Dolphins fullback Larry Csonka and pro-wrestler Barry Horowitz even if his ideal body type is former Mr. Universe Ronnie Coleman, Bronson says no to the blanco, yes to cheeba, and is disappointingly unimaginative about pussy on the perfunctory sex jam "Forbidden Fruit." But his breathless zeal for food is palpable -- not too many hip hop songs out there blaming compulsive binge eating for holding you back from continuing advanced culinary training in Rome (atop a rollicking sample from Donny Hathaway no less, who certainly shares both Bronson's girth and taste in hats). It helps that Bronson's main man Tommy Mas, between his love of old school R&B, tough beats, and classic movie snippets (he prefers The Big Lebowski to Carlito's Way, and good for him) slips naturally into the RZA's musical vernacular circa Ironman, although lackluster foils Meyhem Lauren and Maffew Ragazino aren't exactly Cappadonna in the second banana department. So here's hoping Bronson graduates from playing footsie with a hooker under a banquet table to hooking up with some nice Jewish girl who shares his antipathy toward shrimp and fervor for steak, chocolate, and cheese plates. Alt-rap comes and goes, but this is an up-and-comer with room for, er, growth. A
Bombino: Agadez (Cumbancha) I fantasize about the day when Nick Gold will pluck Group Inerane from one of their wedding engagements and whisk them away to a plush studio in Manhattan -- then maybe I'll be able to determine whether or not those Velvet Underground comparisons are based on something stylistically analogous in their music or are a hastily conceived reaction to the rudimentary way in which their prior output has been recorded. I mention this because recording techniques do actually make a difference in this particular item -- filmmaker Ron Wyman, who tracked down Omara "Bombino" Moctar after falling in love with one of his cassettes while filming a documentary about the Kel Tamasheq people and their oppression by Niger's former government, may not have experience making records, but he knows something about sound. For example, in "Ahoulaguine Akaline" ("I Greet My Country"), the haunting traditional song that begins this record with what a lesser man once described as "cautious optimism," you can hear the insistent hitting of one open guitar string -- i.e. the drone -- while Moctar's other fingers dance silvery pirouettes on top of it, a perfect aural metaphor for the guitarists who remained steadfast and determined while spreading the Tuareg's musical message of freedom. Moctar's contemplative, fortitudinous tenor and his ability to still sing about unity despite the fact the Nigerien army murdered two of his compatriots, reminds me American liberals' indignance over Ladysmith Black Mambazo dancing and grinning throughout the video for Paul Simon's "Homeless" -- as another South African once succinctly put it, "This is our tradition in Africa." So while this isn't nearly as compelling as the two Tuareg albums discussed below, it's worth noting that Moctar and the men who stood beside him foreswore guns for guitars because they believed in non-violent resolve -- and the Nigerian army still branded them a threat regardless. It's heartwrenching when you realize that for so many countries in Africa, that's a tradition, too. A
Shabazz Palaces: Black Up (Sub Pop) "We be to rap what key be to lock," Ishmael Butler lightheartedly boasted on his only hit, and for a few months the world seemed his to claim. But soon enough, armed with funk and R&B samples far more immediately gratifying than anything in Digable Planets' jazzy arsenal, master blacksmith Sean Combs (and later, Wyclef Jean), changed those locks, and by the time Butler returned to the scene with the denser, weirder Blowout Comb, the fickle hip hop audience had moved on. Internal squabbles -- namely Mary Ann "Ladybug Mecca" Vieira's frustration at not being equally compensated for her creative contribution to the Digable's two albums -- killed the group for good, and Butler wasted years trying to right his foreshortened career. So really, this unnervingly abstract turn as leader of an amorphous collective shouldn't really surprise anyone. Replete with oblique references to cocaine ("cake," "diamond dust") and organized crime (in the opener, detectives infiltirate a gang funeral), Butler first dares you to extract his metaphors from the murk, then dares you to take those metaphors at face value, ruminating several times on the difference between perception and facts, all of which he bitterly connects to his lost fame: "At a tender age/We learn to turn the page/To mind the screen and stage/To see who got the glaze/To hustle up or fade/Either get made or played/Find your spot in the shade/And nigga, get paid." Darting in and out of beats and samples as foreboding as shadows splaying ominously from a darkened alley, Butler recalls Tricky a lot less than he does Sly Stone, who would have understood Butler's disenchanted offhand remark about wanting to go "back to Africa," as well as his recastings of old Digable Planets lyrics that in this context are less mischievous than Butler's cynical way of thanking his audience falletin him be himself agin. And when Butler purloins the chant from the Digable's "Escapism (Gettin' Free)," altering the plays on "funk" back to the Last Poets' original "black" -- "Black is you, black is me, black is us, black is free" -- he makes it sound like wishful thinking indeed. "Who do you think you are?" he demands. Wonder if he knows that answer when he looks himself in the mirror. A
Terakaft: Aratan n Azawad (World Village) This Tuareg trio's rhythmic signature is so terse and compelling they could be Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two at Sun, or maybe Wailers-era Catch a Fire, and their gratifyingly precise, intertwining guitar attack could be the Sahara's humble answer to Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. But despite the wealth of top-drawer tunes and riffs, I was initially discouraged by the bare-bones arrangements, which comprise the core band of three electric guitarists, Liya Ag Ablil ("Diara") and brothers Sanou and Abdallah Ag Ahmed, rounded out by session percussionist Mathias Vaguenez, who seems superfluous only because he subtly underscores a kinetic forward motion already implied by the trio's crisply taut playing. But I was astonished to realize that not only are these the kinds of songs that stick with you -- you'll consult the included translations to double check if the words correspond to the emotions their respective melodies evoke -- but by how much the band accomplishes with so little: even on the second half they pull off such tricks as a joyous soukous tribute, the incisive six-string stabs that provide the climax of "Wer Essinen," and the breakneck "Kek Amidi Nin," which I'm pegging as their "Rock Island Line." And if you're wondering how all of this strange yet familar music could possibly stand the test of time, it in fact already has -- many of these songs were co-written twenty years ago, during one of many Kel Tamasheq uprisings, by Diara with his brother Inteyeden Ag Abil, who died of a mysterious illness in 1994. Perhaps that's the reason these songs sound so trenchant -- maybe more so now than they would have then. And I bet Johnny Cash would have loved them. A
Tinariwen: Tassili (Anti-) Regardless of your preference for acoustic guitars over electric, the most attractive quality about this record, especially when played against the Tuareg competition noted above, is not just the fuller sound -- as one might expect from an attempted "world music" crossover issued on a SoCal-based punk imprint -- but that even the uninitiated can effortlessly identify individual songs without putting in hours of listening time: the critic's dream, no? The evocative opening track defines the pleasures of the first half: the band drops out for the final chorus -- a trick they picked up from American records rather than East African ones, I bet -- before handing the spotlight to Nels Cline, who executes a trick I swear he swiped from Sterling Morrison on "Venus in Furs." Then follows a crawling ballad wrenching unbearable tension from its deliberately dragged-out tempo, a paean to the "jealous desert" co-starring TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone, and a number featuring the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's sweet and sour horns. That makes three out of four tracks aided and abetted by guest spots, with Adebimpe and Malone dropping in backing vocals throughout. But remove the window dressing and you're left with a record with far too much space and overly dependent on mood and atmosphere -- the Terakaft record, despite its austerity, is far more expansive, and doesn't fall back on the desert blues tried-and-true (doleful tempos, minor key drones, gratuitously flashy guitar interludes). So why are these guys getting all the media attention? Perhaps it might have something to do with the vaunted charisma of frontman Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, whose name critics consistenly conjoin to adjectives like "mysterious" and "enigmatic," and whose bushy cool probably comes off as "deep" to ex-hippies between bong hits. I'm not implying that Ag Alhabib, who at age four witnessed the execution of his father, doesn't have anything meaningful to say, though at least as far as the translations reveal, what he comes up with here is frustratingly vague and non-specific. Which fuels my suspicion that when David Maines complained in his otherwise astue review of Terakaft's Aratan n Azawad that the songs "could easily expand to six or eight minutes," this was the sort of smoke-filled hotbox he had in mind. A
Kanye West/Jay-Z: Watch the Throne (Roc-A-Fella) The dynamic Frank Ocean feature "No Church in the Wild" is impressive not only in the audacity of the samples (Phil Manzanara and Spooky Tooth and James Brown?) but also in the snaky way Jigga lets his esses slither across his tongue before they putter out: the sound of a man being freed, if not from average music per se -- he's far too canny a businessman to countenance that -- but from perhaps more conventional music. Even his wife sounds less uptight on the ebullient, skyrocketing "Lift Off" than she does on her own recent flop. But if West's mind is a Pandora's box, this time he's compartmentalized it, donating to the project what on the one hand sounds like his most outré musical experiments, while on the other somewhat holding back lyrically, which suggests he's saving his choicest goodies for his next proper album. Even the oft-quoted stanza in which he wants to program his son to be a Republican so everyone will know he "love white people" seems as two-dimensionally naïve as his Katrina outburst -- I doubt Michael Steele likes cuddling up to white people as much as he does cuddling up to rich people, preferably ones in positions of power, a category that decidedly includes the artistes. Which not only illustrates this record's limitations, but also illuminates that "No Church in the Wild" isn't, as is often misread, a renunciation of organized religion, a commentary on patriarchy, or even a metaphor for cutting through the strictures of average and/or conservative music. It's an existential question about whether or not man (yes, man) can survive the modern world without Providence's guiding hand, whether he's on the street, in the boardroom, or doing lines in the club. Which convinces me why this project could have used a little more of Yeezy, whose approach to examining his relationship to power, money, fame, etc. is more self-consciously ironic than his partner's. A
Withered Hand: Good News (Absolutely Kosher) Dan Willson may mock "Religious Songs," but between his durable tunes, humble chord structures, and ironically seraphic arrangements, that tradition informs his songwriting, and throughout this album, several Sunday service oldies but goodies are quoted or subverted outright, starting with the good news of the album title, which I can guarantee you isn't the report that Willson has got a crown up in that kingdom. So while I've yet to decipher whether his moniker is a reference to the man Christ healed in the desert or simply another euphemism for the pen he measures against John Updike's, I'm fairly certain his observation that water is the missing link between gas and ice is his cleverly banal way of pointing out it could never be turned into wine, and that he chastises death metal bands because unlike so many backsliders he's into balance rather than extremes. So complain about his wobbly tenor all you want -- I'd choose him warbling "I want to put my dick inside her" in the voice of a castrated altar boy any day over Robert Plant groaning about giving some groupie every inch of his love. And although he substitutes breakfast cereal magnate John Harvey Kellogg for the son of God in his riff on "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam," it's worth noting how that song connects fellow-countrymen the Vaselines (an obvious influence) with Nirvana (the alt-rock band, not the state of mind), who Willson mopily regrets never toured Edinburgh. The best Dave Grohl and Kris Novoselic could do to correct this oversight would be to hook him up with a real rhythm section. A
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks: Mirror Traffic (Matador) "Sit-ups are so bourgeoisie," complains Malkmus on this marriage-in-trouble album, but so are quirky time signature shifts ("Tigers," "Senator ," "Brain Gallop") ***
The Chain Gang of 1974: Wayward Fire (Modern Art) Kamtin Mohager's 80's-styled electropop is less irritating than Passion Pit's, but I'd still rather hear Lindsay Buckingham's voice speeded-up than Mohager's voice slowed-down ("Stop," "Heartbreakin' Scream") **
The Kills: Blood Pressures (Domino) Only occasionally do I feel like upping the Lisinopril ("Future Starts Here," "Nail in my Coffin") **
Desolate: The Invisible Insurrection (Fauxpas) Black and white cover art does not a Burial comparison make, but unlike ambient maestros from Nicolas Jaar to Tim Hecker, he knows a little something about beats, not to mention kitsch ("Imagination") *
Blondie: Panic of Girls (Eleven Seven/EMI) I'd love to be able to say that the little girls know but the middle-aged women understand, but the middle-aged woman in question only has a hand in six of these eleven songs, not including the best, the slick "What I Heard," written by new keyboardist Matthew Katz-Bohen with wife and songwriting partner Katy. Chris Stein contributes solely to the three tucked at the end, which include appallingly dreadful misfires in Spanish and French. Crucial ingredient Jimmy Destri, fresh out of rehab, was not invited to participate. The American release has been in limbo for months, and looks like mid-September it will be available stateside "exclusively" through Amazon. Uh, who's panicking? C+
Pusha T: Fear of God (mixtape) Although two of my favorite records of the year happen to be free mixtapes, I'm not entirely convinced that the format is a creative watershed. Frank Ocean posted Nostalgia, Ultra on his tumblr as a (now continuing) reaction to Def Jam's reticence to release it commercially, Nicki Minaj networked dilligently until the majors took notice, and the Weeknd thrives behind the internet's curtain of anonymity, but how could Pusha T possibly benefit from one of these? Not only is he already an established critical and commercial presence with his brother in the Clipse, but he's also currently signed to Kanye West's vanity imprint, which was reportedly supposed to have released a truncated version of this last month, which at this late date I'd doubt: even by mixtape standards this is dismayingly shoddy. Admittedly, this is hardly of documentary value -- I mean really, Rick Ross (who naturally guests) belches out a mixtape of this caliber every month -- but it's worth mentioning that this goes the extra mile by managing to be patently offensive on several levels. The only reason Terrence Thornton might conceivably "still want to sell kilos," as he dubiously declares early on in the only remotely listenable track, has nothing to do with his cash flow and more to do with his addiction to instant gratification, a hard truth reinforced by "Touch It," a pathetic ditty in which he and Kanye spend an odious three and a half minutes begging for fellatio (though who knows, maybe they're making overtures to each other, which from these two colossal narcissists would actually be sort of endearing). I'm not here to proselytize that it's better to give that to receive. Nevertheless, I say it's prudent to look a gift horse in its gold-capped mouth: I guarantee you, rappers on record bragging they "got it for cheap" will never have any motivation to give away their good shit for free. C
Atari Teenage Riot: Is This Hyperreal? (Dim Mak)
Black Lips: Arabia Mountain (Vice)
Bill Callahan: Apocalypse (Drag City)
Ford & Lopatin: Channel Pressure (Software)
Jesu: Ascension (Caldo Verde)
Cass McCombs: Wit's End (Domino)
Viva Voce: The Future Will Destroy You (Vanguard)
WU LYF: Go Tell Fire to the Mountain (LYF)