Tuesday, February 28. 2012
I voted today. The forecasted thunderstorms were late arriving, and I figured I could use a short walk. I strolled over to the local polling place, successfully navigated Kurt Kobach's photo ID gauntlet, and apparently cast a vote on the single question on the ballot. The question was whether to rebate 75% of the local hotel taxes over the next fifteen years to a new downtown "boutique" hotel. Publicists claim this helps develop downtown, adding 124 service jobs ongoing plus close to a thousand construction jobs short-term. The primary opposition force was the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity -- they saw it as a corporate giveaway, which of course it was. The more ideologically thoughtful saw it as unbalancing the free market: as an exclusive break for one business, it gives that business an unfair advantage against every other hotel in town. That, too, is true, as will become apparent when all those other hotels petition the city council for the same break.
I voted no, against the rebate. I'm sick and tired of all such special tax deals. They've become so common -- especially in Red State America, where Republicans see business favors as essential patronage, and Democrats are equally unscrupulous in their efforts to paint themselves as pro-business -- that nobody makes a business investment these days without auctioning it off to state and local governments. The best way to stop this would be strong national laws to put a stop to the practice -- minimally by taxing local tax preferences, possibly by prohibiting them outright (at the very least they go against the notion of equal treatment under the law). But short of that, the least we can do is to vote them down when we get the chance (or shout them down when we don't).
Update: The rain showed up a bit after 8PM, pretty heavy in fact, with a couple tornado warnings north of Wichita, in McPherson and Marion counties. The hotel tax rebate was voted down, with 61% (16,198) no, 38% (10,107) yes. The group that backed the yes vote spent $300,000; the no group spent $30,000. (Report here.)
Second Update: Kris Kobach announced he was pleased with Wichita test of voter ID law. Turnout was about 13.5% of registered voters, a level that Republicans can win with. By the way, that line of thunderstorms dropped a tornado on Harveyville, KS last night. Gov. Brownback declared Harveyville a disaster area, but since Brownback's been governor you could say that about the whole state.
Monday, February 27. 2012
Music: Current count 19444  rated (+34), 874  unrated (+23). It's been three weeks since I last counted, so this isn't a very productive report, but the 11-12 days took up by the Detroit trip explains most of the ratings decline. Still, I doubt if I'll be up to normal for a while: another trip is looming, and premature spring seems to already be here.
One more note, which fits as well here as anywhere else. David Schweitzer died a couple days ago, a heart attack at age 44 -- more proof of Todd Snider's line, "the number one sign of heart disease is sudden death." Schweitzer was a protégé of Robert Christgau's. He got in touch with me shortly after I built Christgau's website and helped out in many ways, especially by relentlessly chasing down errors I had introduced. I've corresponded with him for ten years, and will miss his interests and insights. Thankfully, Jason Gubbels has collected some of the latter here.
I still have vague plans of unveiling a new blog format for Jazz Consumer Guide, but find myself with a sufficient accumulation of Jazz Prospecting notes that I might as well post here. There is at present such an enormous time gap between the last Jazz CG and some future blog that it will take months to catch up. Don't know how I'll handle archiving, or much of anything else, but this still makes sense to me as a methodology for taking notes, and at present there is no reason not to share. Don't know whether this will happen weekly or less frequently.
AIMToronto Orchestra: Year of the Boar (2010 , Barnyard): AIM stands for Association of Improvising Musicians, a 17-piece free jazz big band under the artistic direction of soprano saxophonist Kyle Brenders. The group was formed to play Anthony Braxton's Creative Orchestra (Guelph) 2007. Here they do some of their own work: three pieces by Brenders, two by Justin Haynes, and one each by Joe Sorbara and Germaine Liu. I find the squeaky strings and scattered vocals detract some, but the odd angles and experimental flair are striking. B+(*)
Ehud Asherie: Upper West Side (2009 , Posi-Tone): Pianist, b. 1979, Israeli (as I recall; his Flash website crashed when I tried to look at it), based in New York; sixth album since 2007. This is a duo "with" tenor saxophonist Harry Allen, who gets smaller, skinny type on the front cover, but carries the standards set, especially from "Our Love Is Here to Stay" (fourth song) on. At times Asherie reminds me of one of those pianists who used to accompany silent films, but he keeps Allen moving, rarely finding a solo spot, as on "My Blue Heaven" where he raises Fats Domino to a higher energy orbit. A-
Axel's Axiom: Uncommon Sense (2009 , Armored): Axel is Schwintzer, b. in Köln, Germany, plays piano/keyb; studied at Berklee, wound up in New York. Group has two saxophones, guitar, bass, drums. Postbop, I guess; not fusion in any recognizable sense, although a certain rock-friendliness seems to be part of the idea. B+(*)
Matt Baker: Underground (2011, self-released): Pianist, from Australia, based in New York; first album, wrote 5 (of 8) pieces. Augments his trio with Jeremy Pelt on trumpet and Dayna Stephens on tenor sax -- Pelt especially adds a lot of sass, and gets the rhythm jumping behind him. B+(*)
David Budway: A New Kiss (2011, MaxJazz): Pianist, from Pittsburgh, classical background, four albums since 1995. This is about half trio (with Eric Revis on bass and Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums), with 4 (of 11) cuts adding soprano sax (Branford Marsalis or Marcus Strickland), two of those guitar (Ron Affif), one of those accordion (Joe "Sonny" Barbato). The piano has a crisp rhythmic crunch, and the mix gets richer with the extra instruments, all the way up to the finale ("Sama'i Shat Arabud"). B+(**)
Tito Carrillo: Opening Statement (2011, Origin): Trumpet player, originally from Austin, TX; now based in Chicago (more or less: teaches at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign). First album, mostly a quartet with piano-bass-drums, but 4 (of 10) cuts add a saxophonist (Geof Bradfield or Phillip Doyle). Postbop, the trumpet especially striking. B+(*)
Erik Charlston JazzBrasil: Essentially Hermeto (2010 , Sunnyside): Plays vibraphone and marimba, leading a group with Ted Nash (saxes, flute, clarinet), Mark Soskin (piano), Jay Anderson (bass), Rogério Boccato (drums, percussion), and Café (more percussion). I don't have a sense of Charlston's discography, in part because AMG seems to have filed some of it elsewhere, but this is the only album mentioned on Charlston's website. Six (of eight) songs by Hermeto Pascoal. Nash is a constant delight here, a much better choice than the usual guitar would have been, but most of all the leader adds some extra bounce to a perfectly fine rhythm section. B+(***)
Kevin Crabb: Waltz for Dylan (2010 , Crabbclaw): Drummer, first album, wrote all of the pieces, played by Kelly Jefferson (sax), John Beasley (piano), and Don Thompson (bass). I can't really parse Crabb's biography: looks like he grew up in Canada (Toronto), moved to Florida, studied at Pepperdine, and stayed in Los Angeles. Postbop, doesn't break any new ground but has a nice tone and feel, the sax downright lush. B+(*)
Hans Glawischnig: Jahira (2011 , Sunyside): Bassist -- cover pic shows him with a 4-string bass guitar, has a thick body like an acoustic but no hole in the middle. From Austria, b. 1970, third album since 2004, plus three dozen or more side credits, enough with Latin artists to peg him as a specialist (Miguel Zenón, David Sanchez, Ray Barretto, Dafnis Prieto, Luis Perdomo). This is a trio with saxophonist Samir Zafir (tenor, soprano) and drummer Eric Doob. You listen to the spare and elegant sax, but the bass is even more so. B+(***)
Aaron Goldberg/Ali Jackson/Omer Avital: Yes! (2009 , Sunnyside): Artist order on spine, which puts the pianist first. Front cover has Jackson first (left-to-right, like the picture), so AMG credits this to Avital -- a tic they've picked up in the last year, which makes it hard to find multi-artist albums and makes their counts all the more unreliable. Four (of nine) originals, two each by Avital and Jackson, mixed in with covers from Ellington (two), Monk, and Ibrahim. B+(**)
Taylor Haskins: Recombination (2009 , 19/8): Trumpet player, b. 1971, fourth album since 2004. Postbop, group includes Ben Monder (guitar), Henry Rey (piano), Todd Sickafoose (bass), Nate Smith (drums), and Samuel Torres (percussion). Rey and Haskins alternating on laptop and various synths, with dollops of cheesy post-fusion expertly sliced up by the trumpet. B+(**)
Edgar Knecht: Good Morning Lilofee (2009 , Ozella): German pianist, first album as far as I can tell, a trio plus a couple of guests. Fast rhythm-based pieces, I gather 3/4 German dance tunes and 6/8 Afro-Cuban are the main ingredients. This kind of snappy piano work seems to be a European exclusive. Here everyone wants to be Bill Evans, but over there Esbjörn Svensson rools. B+(***)
The George Lernis Jazz Quartet: Shapes of Nature (2011, self-released): Picked this out almost randomly after the Kevin Crabb album (alphabetized above) and turns out this is almost exactly the same deal: a drummer-led alto sax-piano-bass quartet, first album, smart and tasteful postbop. Lernis was b. 1980 in Cyprus, studied at Berklee, based on Boston. This is the (slightly) better album, largely thanks to saxophonist Scott Boni, who offers a sharper edge as well as some extra sweetness. B+(**)
Nick Moran Trio: No Time Like Now (2011 , Manor Sound): New York guitarist (note that there's also a Chicago saxophonist with same name). Second album, a trio with Brad Whiteley on organ and Chris Benham on drums. I don't quite get the point of organ trios other than that they make you lick your chops thinking of Jimmy Smith's chicken shack. B+(*)
Jovino Santos Neto Quinteto: Current (2010 , Adventure Music): Pianist, b. 1954 in Rio de Janeiro, based in Seattle, eighth album since 1997, mostly with this Quintet, which dates back to 1993. With Harvey Wainapel on clarinets and saxes, bass, drums, and percussion, plus vibes on four cuts, voices on one. The Brazilian influence runs deep and permeates the soft surface. B+(*)
Youn Sun Nah: Same Girl (2010 , ACT): Singer, from Korea, left Seoul for Paris in 1995, studied at CIM Jazz School. Website shows seven albums since 2001. This one was recorded in Sweden with guitarist Ulf Wakenius, Lars Danielsson on bass and cello, and Xavier Desandre-Navarre on percussion. Starts with a spare "My Favorite Things," winds authoritatively through Sergio Mendes and Randy Newman and Metallica and Philippe Sarde, with two originals, one piece by Wakenius, and one Korean trad. B+(**)
The New World Jazz Composers Octet: Breaking News (2011, Big and Phat): Organized by saxophonist Daniel Ian Smith 11 years ago, but first album didn't come out until 2007, then one each in 2010 and 2011. Octet has two saxes, two trumpets, piano, bass, drums, and percussion -- effectively a lean big band with fast soloists but no section depth. Seven pieces by six composers, only two (Felipe Salles and Walter Platt) in the band. B+(**)
The Sam Pannunzio Trio: Goin' Home (2010 , Eastside Jazz): Pianist, with Lionel Kramer on drums and the late Mark Bullis on bass, both named and pictured on the front cover. B. 1949 in Colorado. AMG lists one previous album, Java Jazz, and bio says he started out in NORAD and spent some time supporting Kenny G, neither relevant here. Wrote everything here but one tune by Dvorak. B+(*)
Alan Pasqua: Twin Bill: Two Piano Music of Bill Evans (2011, BFM): Solo piano with an overdubbed accompaniment, something Evans did (not sure how many times). Songs are mostly by Evans, with one from Scott LaFaro, "Nardis" from Miles Davis, a trad Scandinavian folk song, one by Pasqua, and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," which Pasqua associates in his mind as a primal influence, like Evans. Doesn't have the usual piano duo feel, so the interaction of the two parts is more subtle than I can fathom. B+(*)
Oscar Peterson: Unmistakable [Zenph Re-Performance] (2010 , Sony Masterworks): Newly recorded solo piano, using a Bösenderfer piano and some extra hardware (a "SE2 System") I don't really understand, and some software that somehow captured Peterson at the piano. Give it a blindfold test and anyone moderately familiar with jazz piano will at least think of Peterson. Eight songs (counting the Ellington medley as one) in two versions: stereo and "binaural stereo" (the latter billed as "the ultimate headphone experience"). B+(*)
Lola Regenthal: With You (2011, Origin): Swedish singer, first album, recorded in Switzerland, done simply with guitar and bass/cello. Mostly originals, plus covers from Jobim, Arlen, the Gershwins, and Leon Russell. Voice takes a while to settle in, but the 1:56 "Summertime" fragment is striking. B+(*)
Matt Slocum: After the Storm (2011, Chandra): Drummer, second album, leading a piano trio here with Gerald Clayton and Massimo Biolcati. Wrote 6 (of 9) pieces, the covers from Porter, Ravel, and Rodgers-Hart. Clayton is a dilligent pianist, and keeps this moving at a high level. B+(**)
Gary Smulyan: Smul's Paradise (2011 , Capri): Baritone saxophonist, b. 1956, mainstream guy, has ten albums since 1990. Wish I could say more, but his back catalog (on Criss Cross and Reservoir) has eluded me. Looks toward soul jazz this time, with two songs from and one for Don Patterson, and picked out a very fine group to do it with: Mike LeDonne (organ), Peter Bernstein (guitar), and Kenny Washington (drums). B+(**)
Sultans of String: Move (2011, self-released): Toronto, Canada group: Chris KcKhool (violin, viola), Kevin Laliberté (guitar), Eddie Paton (guitar), Drew Briston (bass), Rosendo "Chendy" Leon (percussion), with various friends and guests. Third album, sort of a world mix with the guitarists especially fond of flamenco, with gypsy jazz and Cuban rhythms and a bit of Brazil in the mix, but McKhool's violin usually gets the final say. B+(*)
Talking Cows: Almost Human (2011 , Morvin/Jazz Sick): Dutch group: Frans Vermeerssen (tenor sax), Robert Vermeulen (piano), Don Nijland (double bass), Yonga Sun (drums). Third album, following 2006's Bovinity and 2008's Dairy Tales. More mainstream than avant-garde, but their bright good humor links them to the pop side of perennial jokesters like Breuker and Mengelberg. B+(***)
Dan Tepfer: Goldberg Variations/Variations (2011, Sunnyside): Pianist, b. 1982 in Paris, France; had an early record in 2004, and now three on Sunnyside, starting with the impressive Duos With Lee. This is inevitably less to my taste, but I imagine it's hard to get very far on piano without running into a lot of Bach, and those with a taste for such things do hold him in highest regard. Opening and closing with a joint-credited "Aria," the meat here are Bach's 30 Goldberg Variations, ranging from 0:28 to 3:40 (but only 3 longer than 1:37), each followed by a short improvisation (again, only 3 topping 1:37) in the same vein. B+(*)
Steve Turre: Woody's Delight (2011 , High Note): The trombonist played in Woody Shaw's quintet in the early 1980s, so there's a connection behind this tribute. Various quintet lineups -- Turre is determined to spread the pleasures, so he rotates five trumpet players (Wallace Roney, Claudio Rodito, Chocolate Armenteros, Freddie Hendrix, and a show-stealing Jon Faddis), five percussionists, four bassists, three keyboard players. Most of the cast are Latino, and the latter half of a rather scattered album is dominated by bongos and congas. B+(*)
Doug Webb: Swing Shift (2009 , Posi-Tone): Saxophonist, has done a lot of studio work but not much under his own name until he hooked up with this label. Quartet with piano, bass, and drums; three covers, three originals -- two co-credited to bassist Stanley Clarke, including one that stretches out to 22:22. Previously thought of him as a mainstream player, but this seems to be his Saxophone Colossus move. B+(***)
The Wee Trio: Ashes to Ashes: A David Bowie Intraspective 2011 , Bionic): Bass-vibes-drums trio: Dan Loomis, James Westfall, and Jared Schonig, respectively. Third album, works off six David Bowie songs. The vibes give the group a light and fanciful touch, but Bowie's melodies don't offer the group much to work with, even recognition. B
Unpacking: Found in the mail over the last three weeks:
Sunday, February 26. 2012
I figured the eve of the Academy Awards would be as good a time as any to catch up on the movies I mostly didn't see in 2011. We wound up seeing less than twenty, even counting a couple picked up on TV well after the fact. (Laura may have seen more of the latter, since she controls the TV and I rarely notice what she's watching.) In past years we've seen upwards of 80% of the Oscar-nominated films, falling short mostly in the crash-and-burn categories, but lots of things held us back in 2011, including short runs. (I caught The Skin I Live In on the last day of a one-week run, but more often than not things just slipped by -- I can't recall movies like Beginners and A Better Life ever appearing here, while Albert Nobbs waited until the week we had to go to Detroit.)
Seems like an exceptionally shallow year, even taking account of my light sampling. One indication of how far the industry has dumbed down is that nine of the ten highest-grossing films were sequels: Harry Potter, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Twilight Saga, Mission Impossible, Kung Fu Panda, Fast Five (as in Fast and Furious), The Hangover, and Cars -- the sole exception, at number nine, was another well-known franchise, The Smurfs. Three are animated. Most of the rest are non-stop action trysts. This may not prove we're sinking into the new Dark Age -- although the Republican primaries are hard to dismiss in that regard -- but if not we're sure suffering from a nasty case of ADHD. (Curiously, television, which has long seemed culpable as the prime destroyer of our attention spans, has rarely produced so many smart series and specials -- not that the dreck hasn't increased apace.)
The trend I hate the most is 3D, which pretty much spoiled Hugo for me until I was later able to reconstruct it without the diversions. Curious that the two most Oscar-nominated pictures are nostalgic tributes to the silent film era, as if the Academy is desperate to escape from the world the industry has created. I was underwhelmed by The Artist, occasionally flashing back to films like Modern Times showing that history itself offered better resolutions.
My own favorite movie limited its nostalgia to the 1950s, which is all I can remember anyway. Nothing wrong with my top five movies, but I doubt I could find a year in the last fifty that yielded less. No time to research that. Let the lists follow.
Movies I saw but that didn't get nominated for anything:
Movies that looked like they might be worth seeing: The Adventures of Tintin, Anonymous, A Better Life, Contagion, A Dangerous Method, Drive, J. Edgar, Jane Eyre, Margin Call, The Muppets, The Tree of Life, The Way.
Less sure about: Carnage, Cedar Rapids, The Conspirator, The Debt, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, In the Land of Blood and Honey, The Iron Lady, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Melancholia, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Shame, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Super 8, Thor, War Horse, Warrior, Water for Elephants.
Also seems like some day I should see the Harry Potter movies.
Above lists come from perusing Wikipedia's 2011 in Film list. The list doesn't include some things, like any of the Foreign Language Film nominees (Bullhead, Footnote, In Darkness, Monsieur Lazhar, and A Separation).
Academy Awards by category:
Thursday, February 23. 2012
Thought I should note that we made it back home to Wichita -- a couple days ago, in fact. Did what we needed to do in Detroit, and hopefully won't have to do anything more. Probably means I'll never go back there, which in some ways is a shame: lot of things about the area I wound up enjoying, although I can't say as I enjoyed any of them this time. (Didn't even manage to get to Book Beat or Streetside Records, now conveniently next door in the same strip mall as my late father-in-law's favorite deli -- The Bread Basket, which we did get to.)
Unwinding here has been very slow, but I figured I should at least post something. Listened to nothing but oldies on the trip. (I packed a case of new jazz then left it at home.) I've been playing the new Floratone since we got back, but can't make up my mind on it. Finally popped it up and wrote two jazz notes this afternoon -- records I needn't bother with ever again. Then turned to Rhapsody and became indecisive again, this time over Imperial Teen and Sleigh Bells. On the other hand, we did get out to see two Oscar-nominated movies we hadn't managed to find time for previously: The Artist and The Descendants. Missed the "last chance" for The Iron Lady tonight, a subject as distasteful as the also-missed J. Edgar (although I was more intrigued by what Eastwood might have done there).
Friday, February 10. 2012
Most likely I won't be able to post on Sunday, so thought I should kick these out prematurely:
Thursday, February 9. 2012
Another excerpt from the Wichita Eagle Blog today, titled Pompeo takes on Kochs' critics:
There's been a groundswell of "pity the billionaire" articles about the Kochs recently, which like all of their groundswells suggests central planning. And who better than Pompeo to praise them, especially since he was their guy in the 2008 Republican primary. Coincidentally, I have another quote from Thomas Frank's book, Pity the Billionaire (pp. 76-77):
I actually have a lot of respect for entrepeneurs who founded companies that build things, although I can also think of plenty of examples of such who went on to use their wealth and power for ill purposes -- Henry Ford's notorious antisemitism is a classic example -- and they tend to be the rule rather than the exception, probably because there's something fundamentally rotten about living off a profit margin. But whereas Ford built his company from scratch, the Kochs inherited theirs, and while I do have respect for Charles Koch as a smart and principled businessman -- David is another story altogether -- he grew his company mostly through shrewd acquisitions and stern management, not to mention tax breaks and political payola. (The Bush Administration, for instance, settled hundreds of EPA charges against Koch for pennies on the dollar, with no concession of wrongdoing. In some ways, a "get out of jail card" is even better than a bailout.) To say that Koch created 50,000 jobs is nonsense.
Still, the Kochs aren't being attacked for their business work -- although they are in a notoriously dirty business, and they have an utterly scandalous environmental track record, and the oil industry has long been the poster boy for government corruption (although finance and pharmaceuticals have more than caught up). The problem with the Kochs is that they pump so much money into subverting our democracy. The more we have become aware of their activities, the more conscious we become of where that money comes from and what kind of world they want to create.
Another installment of recent book notes. Seemed like it had been a while, and indeed it has: last set ran on November 26, so this is probably the longest gap I've had in years. The problem is probably that I don't get out to bookstores as often as I used to, but then it's harder when the four big chain bookstores in Wichita we had last year have now been reduced to one -- and not a very good one at that. In fact, when I looked at my scratch file, I didn't even have the requisite 40 titles saved up, so I had to spend a few days scrambling through Amazon's recommendations. And while I'm in a complaining mood, I'm suspicious that their algorithms have gone south too -- especially when they make Charles Murray my number four (reportedly because I purchased Corey Robin's critique of The Reactionary Mind).
I need to do further research, but here's a start for the new year.
Bruce Bartlett: The Benefit and the Burden: Tax Reform, Why We Need it and What It Will Take (2012, Simon & Schuster): Conservative ideologue, has somehow nudged himself into a position of relative sanity through a series of books that tried to argue that conservatives were actually nice guys, not racists, and concerned with everyone's economic well-being -- despite much evidence that real conservatives are anything but. This book is probably useful in sorting out who pays what taxes and how the US systems compares to others, and isn't knee-jerk anti-tax, but he has long had a supply-side bias.
Morris Berman: Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline (2011, Wiley): Not sure that's a bad thing, just as I'm not sure the Roman Empire was a good thing. I did read Berman's previous Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire (but not his The Twilight of American Culture) so I get the idea of cultural rot, and there is certainly a lot of that around.
Rodric Braithwaite: Afghantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89 (2011, Oxford University Press): Not the first book on the Russian war in Afghanistan, but the more the US occupation resembles the Soviet one, the more relevant they become. The early accounts assumed the US would do so much better, but here we are with "the most nuanced, sympathetic, and comprehensive account yet of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan" (says Rory Stewart).
Paula Broadwell/Vernon Loeb: All In: The Education of General David Petraeus (2012, Penguin): Like Michael Hastings, Broadwell was an embedded journalist attached to the general running Afghanistan, although she has been much better behaved, or maybe Petraeus is just better at snookering the press. Petraeus is about the only person who came up through the Bush wars and managed to look like a winner -- an iconic image I'm sure he's at pains to burnish here.
Jeffrey D Clements: Corporations Are Not People: Why They Have More Rights Than You Do and What You Can Do About It (paperback, 2012, Bennett-Koehler): An issue on the front burner thanks to the Supreme Court decision to allow corporations to buy elections with unlimited money, based on yet another dubious idea that constitutional protection of free speech gives individuals the right to buy elections. Related: Thom Hartmann: Unequal Protection: How Corporations Became "People" -- and How You Can Fight Back (paperback, 2nd ed, 2010, Bennett-Koehler).
Sherar Cowper-Coles: Cables From Kabul: The Inside Story of the West's Afghanistan Campaign (2011, Harper Collins): By the former British ambassador to Afghanistan, which makes him complicit in a war he had no real control over, which puts him in a fine position to blame everyone else -- assuming, of course, he realizes there was anything to blame anyone for.
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita/Alastair Smith: The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics (2011, PublicAffairs): A really modern Prince, the dictators in question evidently not just the usual suspects but including a few Americans who have made a good living acting badly -- Amazon has a long comment on Robert Rizzo, a city manager in CA. Also makes clear that even the most flamboyant dictator depends on a fragile network of support, something useful to keep in mind as regimes like Egypt, Libya, and Syria break up.
Anthony DiMaggio: The Rise of the Tea Party: Political Discontent and Corporate Media in the Age of Obama (paperback, 2011, Monthly Review Press): Seems right here to focus on the media. Previously wrote Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the "War on Terror", and co-wrote, with Paul Street, Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (paperback, 2011, Paradigm).
Thomas Byrne Edsall: The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics (2012, Doubleday): Author has written several useful books on the rise of the right, but he does have a tendency to be taken in by arguments he should be more skeptical of. There is a real scarcity problem creeping up in the future, and there's also a manufactured one, and we can use someone smarter than Edsall to sort them out. (Actually, I haven't yet read his suggestive early books, 1989's The New Politics of Inequality, and 1992's Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics, but probably should.)
Barry Estabrook: Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit (2011, Andrews McMeel): Lots of people -- my mother was one -- complain about industrialized tomatoes. Never bothered me that much, but I was never much of a tomato fan. Still, I am always intrigued by the industrial manipulation of agriculture, and this is certainly a case example.
Robin Fleming: Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise 400 to 1070 (2011, Penguin): Volume 2 of a Penguin History of Britain series, filling the gap between David Mattingly: An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire, 54BC-AD 409 and David Carpenter: The Struggle for Mastery 1066-1284, both already out in paperback.
Robert H Frank: The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good (2011, Princeton University Press): Promotes Darwin as an economic thinker, contrasting him to Adam Smith. Hopefully this doesn't fall into the trap of 19th century Social Darwinism -- much depends on what he does with reference go "the common good" in the title.
William H Gass: Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts (2012, Knopf): Scattered literary essays by the philosopher-aesthete. I took a course from him once and came to regard him as an intellectual fraud, but he can turn a delicious phrase when he has a mind to.
Ronald J Glasser: Broken Bodies Shattered Minds: A Medical Odyssey From Vietnam to Afghanistan (paperback, 2011, History Publishing): Forty years of war, written by a doctor whose 365 Days is considered a classic on Vietnam, updated for Iraq and Afghanistan, which mostly means IEDs.
Michael Grabell: Money Well Spent? The Truth Behind the Trillion-Dollar Stimulus, the Biggest Economic Recovery Plan in History (2012, PublicAffairs): I don't know about you, but I always have trouble believing any book that offers "Truth" in its title. This one's about the Obama stimulus program, which he inflates from $700 billion to $1 trillion, then attempts to dissect. As I understand it, his conclusion is that it didn't work as well as it should have less because it was too small -- which it was -- than because it was poorly designed -- which is also, uh, true.
Jonathan Gruber: Health Care Reform: What It Is, Why It's Necessary, How It Works (paperback, 2011, Hill & Wang): Short book, illustrated, tries to walk through and explain the ins and outs of the Affordable Care Act. Someone complained that this is Obama's propaganda disguised as information. Hmm, information -- don't have much of that to go on.
Max Hastings: Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945 (2011, Knopf): The author is knocking out huge WWII books at a furious clip, with this 729 pp. one following Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945 and Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45, plus Winston's War: Churchill 1940-1945, almost as if this is the Reader's Digest edition. Meanwhile, one of his chief competitors, Ian Kershaw, has rewritten the Germany book as The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1944-1945 (2011, Penguin Press).
Michael Hastings: The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan (2012, Blue Rider Press): Author interviewed Gen. Stanley McChrystal, supreme commander of US forces in Afghanistan, who made such an ass of himself he was sacked when the interview came out. Here, Hastings soldiers on, mopping up the rest of the US brass, their arguments over swank concepts that go nowhere on the ground.
Tony Judt/Timothy Snyder: Thinking the Twentieth Century (2012, Oxford University Press): Conversations between two historians, the senior Judt struck with ALS and filled with memories as well as expertise -- his Postwar itself covers a big part of the 20th century (Europe from 1945 to 2000). Looks like this rehashes a lot of subjects that came up in Judt's post-illness books. Billed as his last, this may be one to savor.
Geoffrey Kabaservice: Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party From Eisenhower to the Tea Party (2012, Oxford University Press): Seems to be a history of the extinct moderate (and in some cases flat-out liberal) wing of the Republican Party, especially since the rise of Goldwater and Reagan threw them into disarray.
Michael Kranish/Scott Helman: The Real Romney (2012, Harper): I guess there is a real one, but that strikes me as a scary concept. Surprisingly few books about Romney at this point, given his prominence, but thus far there's this and a 2011 paperback by RB Scott: Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics -- well, also a few paranoid books on his Mormonism. Isn't the free market supposed to fix this dearth? Or is interest so low we have to say the market has cleared?
Frank Ledwidge: Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan (2011, Yale University Press): Unlike the truly token efforts of so many "coalition partners," the British chewed off a large enough chunk of these wars to fail on their own terms. That hasn't been widely reported, nor deeply analyzed, but I gather from this the failure was utter.
Rachel Maddow: Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power (2012, Crown): Some sort of critique of the American military: overfunded, underregulated, possessing its own lobbying force allowing it to set direction relatively free of political concerns. Picturing this as simple "drift" seems too passive, as is the idea that correcting the "unmooring" solves the problem.
Suzanne Mettler: The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy (paperback, 2011, University of Chicago Press): Argues that one reason so many people are so confused about how government works is that policies and programs are often designed to be opaque, either to favor special interests or to undermine more general ones. She also wrote Dividing Citizens: Gender and Federalism in New Deal Public Policy, and Soldiers to Citizens: The G.I. Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation.
Michael Moore: Here Comes Trouble: Stories From My Life (2011, Grand Central Publishing): Memoir, focusing on vignettes rather than trying to connect the dots.
Charles Murray: Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2012, Crown Forum): The last major racist in US social science, evidently starting to worry that white people are divided into rich and poor, and that this might threaten their racial solidarity against you know who. There is, of course, a problem at the root of this, but the only solution you get from racial solidarity is a state like Mississippi, which is no solution at all.
James Palmer: Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Death of Mao's China (2012, Basic Books): As Mao lay dying, the 1976 earthquake destroyed Tangshan, killing upwards of 500,000 people. Interesting to juxtapose those events, but we've seen from Katrina that nothing exposes the decrepitude of an inept, ideologically-bound regime like a natural disaster.
Trita Parsi: A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran (2012, Yale University Press): Author of the essential history of Israel and Iran, Teacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States, brings the story up to date. Same story, too, with Israel fabricating complaints about Iran's nuclear program and trying to goad the US into launching an utterly stupid war. What's new was how easily Obama was suckered into such a course.
William Patry: How to Fix Copyright (2012, Oxford University Press): Senior copyright counsel at Google, which gives him a unique view, which may or may not be a good thing. Copyright as we know it both fails to provide adequate remuneration for those who produce unique works of art, fails to provide for fair use of those works, and fails to allow for economical distribution, so one should be able to do much better. But companies like Google could also do even worse, and practical change seems to be under the thumb of companies one way or another. Also see: Patricia Aufderheide: Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put the Balance Back in Copyright (paperback, 2011, University of Chicago Press); Marcus Boon: In Praise of Copying (2010, Harvard University Press); Lewis Hyde: Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership (2010; paperback, 2011, Farrar Straus & Giroux).
Dana Priest/William Arkin: Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State (2011, Little Brown): And I thought the Old American Security State was scandalous. This one has "over 1,300 government facilities in every state in America; nearly 2,000 outside companies used as contractors; and more than 850,000 people granted 'Top Secret' security clearance."
Andrew Ross: Bird on Fire: Lessons From the World's Least Sustainable City (2011, Oxford University Press): Phoenix, Arizona; talk about sprawl. I have three cousins there: two live 40 miles apart, the third lives 70 miles from either of them. The city is in a desert, and its main water source isn't called the Salt River for nothing. And there's much more, much of it thanks to the right-wing political system. Also see: William Debuys: A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest (2011, Oxford University Press).
Douglas Rushkoff: Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age (paperback, 2011, Soft Skull Press): Interesting thinker who's managed to win awards named for Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman -- I first ran across his Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism which argues that the proper end point of Judaism is to wean people from belief in God -- tries to sort out the pluses and minuses of living through the internet.
Theda Skocpol/Vanessa Williamson: The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (2012, Oxford University Press): Probably one of the better surveys of the Tea Party outburst that gave right-wing media hacks so much to talk about during Obama's early presidency. I've read several books about it, but have yet to read a good account of who put up the money and greased the media. On the other hand, I've read plenty of interviews with nitwits.
Jonathan Steele: Ghosts of Afghanistan: The Haunted Battleground (2011, Counterpoint): Billed as "the first account of Afghanistan's turbulent recent history by an independent eyewitness"; not sure about that, but Steele's book on Iraq was called Defeat: Why American and Britain Lost Iraq, so he's not one to readily swallow the latest spin. He's covered Afghanistan since 1981, so he easily sees the echoes between Russian and American tactics, and expects the same futility. There's also Edward Girardet: Killing the Cranes: A Reporter's Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan (2011, Chelsea Green), by another longtime journalist, also familiar with the Russian experience -- in fact, he wrote a book called Afghanistan: The Soviet War.
Rory Stewart/Gerald Knaus: Can Intervention Work? (2011, WW Norton): They mean, can global reaching imperial powers, specifically the US and UK, invade third world countries, install crony leaders, back them with military clout, interface with them using smarter-than-average diplomats like the authors, and claim any sort of success? Well, if you're willing to count Yugoslavia as a success, maybe, but that's harder to say for someplace like Afghanistan. Stewart has been an eloquent critic of US/UK policy in Afghanistan, but while he ultimately pulls his punches with the suggestion that smarter people, like himself, would have done better. Still, those smarter people, sensitive to the history and mores of regions, aren't the ones who invade and occupy, and their arguments that intervention can work quickly lose their conditions and provisos when adopted by the people who do, which implicitly makes them complicit in the disasters they rationalize.
Philip Taubman: The Partnership: Five Cold Warriors and Their Quest to Ban the Bomb (2012, Harper): In case you're wondering: Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Sam Nunn, William Perry, and Sidney Drell. I don't quite get it, but then they haven't been all that effective, even if that was their intent.
John Tirman: The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America's Wars (2011, Oxford University Press): How many civilians have American troops killed, or less directly caused to die, in America's foreign wars? Between 5 and 6 million in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq alone -- the ambiguity in the answer, vs. the precision with which we could US deaths, starts to suggest our nonchalance about the subject.
Bryan Glyn Williams: Afghanistan Declassified: A Guide to American's Longest War (2011, University of Pennsylvania Press): Originally published by US Army "to provide an overview of the country's terrain, ethnic groups, and history for American troops," and "updated and expanded for the general public." Don't know whether that makes this propaganda -- probably some of that, but sounds to me like a tombstone.
Robin Wright, ed: The Iran Primer: Power, Politics, and US Policy (paperback, 2010, United States Institute of Peace Press): Fifty papers ("top-level briefings") on all aspects of Iran and its foreign relations, including pieces by such US insiders as Gary Sick, Richard Haas, Bruce Riedel, and Stephen Hadley. Looks like a lot of information, dry and succinct, on a topic where discussion is dominated by a lot of very ignorant people.
Daniel Yergin: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World (2011, Penguin Press): Wrote the standard history of the pre-OPEC oil era, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power. Since then he's mostly worked for the industry, shilling as a consultant, railing against the peak oil theory. Big book (804 pp.), probably a lot of useful history, just don't trust the guy any more.
I'll do a section on paperbacks next time. Don't really have it together right now.
Wednesday, February 8. 2012
Since you asked, the Wichita Eagle headline was: Santorum's victories shake up GOP race. But note that the headline was buried on Page 8A, just above "Greece, Bulgaria battle flooding" and "Russian envoy calls visit to Syria useful." Curious that the Eagle decided to give the story so little play, given that Kansas is a midwestern caucus state -- so the Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado races are more predictive here than any of the primaries so far -- and that Kansas is almost certain to favor Santorum. (In 2008 Huckabee carried the Kansas GOP caucuses by a huge margin even though McCain had already almost secured the nomination.) On the other hand, the Eagle is not a red meat paper, even if it trends somewhat to the right.
Santorum is actually the scariest of the Republican candidates, less because he's stupid and priggish than because he's an apocalyptic warmonger who wouldn't hesitate to think before starting a war with Iran. Still, nobody (but Ron Paul) has noticed that point, in part because Gingrich is almost exclusively backed by an Israel hawk, and Romney wishes he were. Alex Pareene wrote this (evidently before the caucuses):
Emphasis added for what strikes me as the key point: all of the Republican candidates are vulnerable to attack ads, so they bobble up and down depending on how much attention they get. Santorum won Iowa because everyone was focusing on Romney and Gingrich, and most wanted neither. He got beat down in New Hampshire, then ignored until now he finally seems less tawdry than Romney or Gingrich. But it won't take much to beat him back down to obscurity -- just money, which remains Romney's sole claim to fame.
Also in the Eagle today, one of their "Excerpts From Our Blog" titled "Chrysler ad about pulling together is controversial?":
No doubt Obama lucked out with Chrysler, which contributed nearly all of the growth in the latest industry figures: not that the plan itself was so daring or improbable, but because he finally resisted the advice of advisers like Austan Goolsbee to let the company die. (For me, the most shocking revelation in Ron Suskind's Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President was Goolsbee's argument that Chrysler should be sacrificed to help GM recover, and that Obama was initially swayed by Goolsbee.)
The unnamed operative quoted above is evidently Karl Rove. As Paul Krugman writes:
Much like only the Republicans are patriots, and only Republicans believe in traditional family values, only Republicans worship God, and only Republicans care about fiscal responsibility. I'm not very happy that Obama has decided to stake his reelection on being the one candidate who actually does follow those nostrums. I wouldn't be surprised if he finally gets some credit for it come November -- not just because the Republicans are so hypocritical on these counts but also because their self-righteousness has become so tiresome. And because they seem to take such perverse pleasure in doing what they can to tank the economy.
Coincidentally, I just read this in Thomas Frank's Pity the Billionaire: The Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right (p. 20):
But in 2009-12 the Republicans have done just that, and while the thinking is slightly less harsh than Mellon's, that's only because it's more muddled. (Frank's many quotes from Glenn Beck make plain the right's lust for punishing the economy's losers, but he still falls short of liquidating agribusiness.) What's unclear is whether Republican sabotage is driven by bad ideology or craven politics, since both are so obvious.
Also see Andrew Leonard on the Eastwood commercial, rubbing it in Rove's face.
Update: When I wrote the above, I hadn't yet noticed this piece by Ed Kilgore, You Have Not Suffered Enough, America:
Of course, it's remarkable how easy it is for people to think that policies that benefit themselves personally (even if only relative to other people) are "good for the country" -- especially given how little of the country people see beyond their immediate circles.
Monday, February 6. 2012
Music: Current count 19410  rated (+33), 851  unrated (+4). For many years now I've been doing a weekly count like the above, filing it in my online notebook but not bothering to post it on the blog. The numbers come from the database intro file: the big ones are how many records I've rated and the change from last week. The unrated are albums I have but haven't gotten to. That number shot way up to about 800 a few years ago when I bought a lot of closeout CDs. Since then I've mostly held even, so the backlog has remained fairly constant.
I think the average number of records rated per week is about 25. Any time I top 30 I figure I've put in a solid week's effort. The number might even approach 40 if all I do is Rhapsody. When the number drops below 20 something else is encroaching on my time. When it tops 40, something freaky has happened. I thought I'd start reporting this much in the blog, as well as unpacking and maybe some stray comments. I don't know what to say about Jazz Prospecting at this point, other than that once last week's music posts were done I did start delving into the jazz queue, and not knowing what else to do wrote some jazz prospecting notes in my scratch file. I imagine I'll share them somehow sooner or later, but don't know how or when yet. I will say that I'm mostly finding ordinary postbop -- often expertly done and enjoyable enough, but there's so much of it I barely notice it any more.
Unpacking: Found in the mail over the last week:
Sunday, February 5. 2012
Some scattered links I squirreled away during the previous week:
Well, link: I have some more tabs open that I've been meaning to get to, but nothing that this perfectly sums up the culture of the Republican Party these days. Will try to be more constructive next, week, if not necessarily more upbeat.
Saturday, February 4. 2012
The news has been overrun with stories about the grave threat of Iran's nuclear program, or at least the grave threat of Israel's well publicized desire to pre-emptively bomb sites in Iran on the theory that doing so would slow Iran's development program down. Israel's treat has some credibility give that Israel launched similar bombing runs on nuclear power sites in Iraq and Syria, but those sites were smaller and closer, and Israel's plans weren't anywhere near as broadly advertised. Iran's sites are numerous, widely scattered, many in deep underground bunkers, presumably defended with anti-aircraft weapons.
It's not clear that Israel has the capability of launching an effective attack. Israel's case for attacking is uncritically examined in a long article by Ronen Bergman in The New York Times, Will Israel Attack Iran? Indeed, one thing that is clear from the article is that Israel is already attacking Iran. Israel has long backed anti-Iranian terror groups like the MEK. Israel has reportedly launched cyberattacks against Iran. And Israel has already managed to assassinate a number of Iranian scientists. Israel has been successful at goading the US and Europe into adopting crippling economic sanctions against Iran, and many of these have been adopted explicitly in hopes that by appeasing Israel they will forestall even larger and more deadly acts of war.
Tony Karon explains how this works:
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Israel's strategy is nuts. For starters, they assume that a nuclear-armed Iran would behave differently from every other state that has nuclear arms: namely, that it would use those weapons, perhaps even clandestinely, to preëmptively destroy another state. All other states keep their weapons in reserve to deter an attack through the threat of retaliation and mutual destruction. The US is a partial exception to this: during its monopoly period the US became the first and last nation to ever drop atomic bombs on an enemy. Since then, some US officials have threatened to use nuclear weapons on enemies with no nuclear weapons, as in Korea and Vietnam, but there were never any concrete operations to do so. The US did perpetrate the only instance of "nuclear blackmail" when Kennedy threatened the Soviet Union over Cuba, and Nixon later bluffed an attack on Russia -- something he dubbed his "madman theory." Even now, when US presidents like Bush and Obama boast of keeping "all options on the table," the world is well aware that one of those options is nuclear.
Israel's fear of annihilation has deep psychological roots, most specifically in the Holocaust, but that paranoia also depends on the assumed identity between the Jewish people and the Israeli state -- an assumption that many who are troubled by the latter do not share. For Israel to see a potentially nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat requires a whole chain of assumptions that are more or less dubious: that Iran would develop nuclear weapons expressly to attack Israel, and that Iran would be indifferent to nuclear retalliation by Israel. It would be far simpler, and far more logical, to think that Iran's sole interest in nuclear weapons would be to deter attack from hostile neighbors -- as, for instance, the examples of India and Pakistan show, or for that matter as was the case with Israel's own program. (I cautiously use the past tense here, as Israel too brags about keeping "all options on the table"; Israel's options include nuclear weapons, and indeed it's hard to see how Israel could manage to destroy Iran's bunkers without using nuclear weapons -- so to a large extent, Israel's perception of an Iranian nuclear threat is a reflection of Israel's own willingness to use nuclear weapons against Iran.)
One of the big points in the Bergman article is this idea that Ehud Barak has that there is only a limited time window in which Israel can act to stop Iran (presumably with acceptable consequences for Israel, if not necessarily for its allies), and beyond that window Iran will be immune from Israeli threats. That sounds like a very big incentive for Iran to push ahead: in essence, Israel is saying that as long as Iran doesn't have nuclear weapons Israel will feel free to attack it, but once Iran has nuclear weapons, Israel will have to treat Iran with more respect.
But stop for a moment and think what this means. Israel likes to be able to bully its neighbors. If Israel's security honchos think that Syria is doing something it doesn't like, Israel just swoops over and bombs it -- no questions asked, no risk. Syria doesn't dare strike back against Israel. And when Syria complains to the UN, the US is there to veto any resolution. Same with Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, you name it: Israel can act with impunity, because no one else can stand up to it. But a nuclear-armed Iran would cramp their style, forcing them to think twice before blowing something up or killing a scientist or political figure or whatever.
Another thing that's nuts about Israel's ploy: why should the world be willing to support, or humor, or appease, Israel's desire to do something insane? When Sarkozy, for instance, came out in support of sanctions, he sounded like Chamberlain in Munich, reluctantly doing so only to buy "peace for our time" -- the clear implication there was that the threat to peace he was appeasing was Israel, not Iran. The fact is that Israel has behaved criminally ever since its founding, when its first move was to overrun the UN partition boundaries to seize Jerusalem, and when the UN sent a mediator in Israelis promptly killed him. Israel then drove over 700,000 Palestinians into exile, stripped them of their citizenship and confiscated their property, in violation of UN resolutions. From 1949-67 Israel repeatedly violated the armistice borders, and in 1967 they more than doubled their territory, again ignoring UN resolutions to return the land in exchange for peace treaties. Instead, they set up hundreds of illegal settlements and outposts while stripping the occupied population of all rights. They promoted a civil war in Lebanon, and occupied the country for 18 years, then six years later came back and bombed it again, just out of spite. They've sent agents out into dozens of countries to commit murder. They've committed "false flag" acts of terrorism like the Lavon bombings of British offices in Egypt. They've developed nuclear weapons. And as Gershom Gorenberg shows in his recent book, The Unmaking of Israel, Israel's contempt for law has lapped over into their daily life.
The nations of the world should be working to rein in Israel's insanity -- not flattering it, or catering to it. One might, for instance, couple sanctions against Iran with a promise that the same (or stiffer) sanctions will be applied against Israel if the latter attacks Iran, or if Israel doesn't desist from activities to sabotage and destabilize Iran. (As the Bergman article explains, Israel's endgame viz. Iran is "regime change" -- how they would do this, let alone why the Iranian people would acquiesce in yet another foreign country picking its leaders, isn't explained at all plausibly.) One might, after all, reasonably suspect that Iran's desire to obtain nuclear weapons is conditioned by fear of attack by a nuclear-armed adversary like Israel (or, for that matter, the US). Since sanctions are seen as a route toward some sort of negotiated agreement with Iran, wouldn't they be even more effective if combined with an effort to make Iran more secure, as opposed to threats which only make nuclear weapons seem more desirable?
All this assumes that the charge that Iran desires to build a nuclear arsenal is correct, and not just a hallucination conjured from the paranoid psyches of Israel's security establishment. There is in fact much reason to doubt this. Iran is a member of the NPT, and as such has officially forsworn nuclear weapons development, and everything verified about Iran's nuclear power program conforms to NPT strictures. Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei has declared nuclear weapons to be inimical to Islam -- an unequivocal statement which will be awkward, to say the least, to amend in the future. Iran's desire to build nuclear power plants isn't unreasonable (although, given the inherent risks of nuclear power may not be wise -- the US continues to promote nuclear power plants around the world but there haven't been any concrete efforts to build new ones here in a couple decades). And Iran's long isolation from world trade -- part its own fault and part not -- has made it all the more critical to Iran to be self-sufficient. (Iran has already gone through the experience of inheriting an Air Force full of American F-15s that it is unable to buy parts for. The Bushehr reactor, started under the Shah, has long been at the mercy of foreign suppliers. On the other hand, one suspects that much of the opposition from France, Germany, and Russia is fear that Iran will succeed and wind up competing for sales of nuclear technology.) Moreover, history has shown that nuclear weapons are expensive and useless; however, having the materials, technology, and expertise may be enough to deter foreign attack. As Karon points out, a number of nations have "threshold capacity" -- everything they need to build a bomb but no finished bombs (he cites "Japan, Brazil, Argentina and others"). There is also a fair amount of ego at stake for Iran: they want to be seen as an advanced nation, one credential for which is mastery of nuclear technology.
Unless you think that Iran's leaders enjoy some death wish where the path to heaven passes through Jerusalem -- a strange perversion of Mohammed's "midnight flight" -- it's hard to think of any reason Iran would want nuclear weapons other than to put an end to Israel's persistent goading. Israel has been predicting that Iran will develop nuclear weapons in 3-5 years ever since 1995. The only thing different now is that they've finally shortened the time frame -- which oddly makes one think they must know something even though they have a two decade track record of knowing nothing.
I've made vague reference to "the world" above, which may or may not include the US, but I'm thinking more of Europe, Russia, China, Japan, and a few others -- India and Brazil especially hate to be excluded. The World doesn't have a lot of commitment one way or the other, but generally dislikes nuclear proliferation -- even if the risk is small, who wants more? -- and worries about an oil price spike, which is likely to happen if Iran's oil is taken off the world market, and certain if oil stops flowing through the Straits of Hormuz -- the main place where Iran's military could fight back (where, in effect, Iran could apply economic sanctions on the rest of the world, not that it would be so neat). (You'd also like to think that the World would put a high value on peace and justice, but their focus on Iran and not Israel here isn't encouraging.) World interests need to find a way to mediate the crisis, but for the most part they've assumed their risks are so minimal that they've just let Israel and the US steer their options.
The US is part of the World, but is also very peculiar -- at least where Israel is concerned. The US should share the World's concerns, and even more acutely. The US economy is exceptionally sensitive to oil price spikes, partly because oil is such a large part of the US trade deficit, partly because the US has kept gas taxes low so price spikes are relatively large. And the US has extensive business interests, not to mention troops, all around Iran, so if war broke out the US would feel the destruction as much as any country other than Iran. But even as Obama has backed out of the war in Iraq and is starting to back away from Afghanistan, his administration has turned aggressively against Iran. The reason is plainly that for domestic political reasons Obama has lost his command of US foreign policy toward Iran: he has subcontracted it out to Israel. (Of course, we should have recognized this the moment Obama appointed long-time Israel flack Dennis Ross as his "Iran advisor.")
There are lots of ways to understand why this worked out this way, but one as good as any is explained by David Bromwich in a review of Newt Gingrich's campaign tome (To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine), a piece called The Republican Nightmare.
You can see how this works: Obama's basic sense of strategy is to take whatever the Republicans say as his normative guideline, then dial it back 10-15% toward sanity, confident that that's all the difference he needs to promise to keep his base and enough of the middle. This approach is bad enough on issues where the parties differ only in degree, but 85% of totally fucking nuts is way too far gone. Presidents normally have a lot of leeway in foreign policy, but here the AIPAC-whipped Congress insists on tying Obama's hands, preventing his administration from even talking to anyone in Iran, lest they figure out how to derail imminent war.
The funny thing is this is a situation that could be resolved if only both sides took some responsibility. All sanctions against Iran should be dropped as long as Iran's program is open to and approved by NPT inspectors. This means that Iran can have its nuclear power industry, including its own enrichment facilities, but cannot divert fuel for weapons development. On the other hand, Israel, the US, and any other party will be prohibited from any efforts to sabotage or destabilize Iran or to influence Iranian politics, under threat of severe sanctions. In effect, the World would guarantee that Iran cannot be be attacked or threatened, as has been the case almost constantly since the Shah was deposed in 1979. In turn, Iran would ensure that the Straits of Hormuz will remain open to shipping, and Iran would agree not to interfere in other nations except as agreed by those nations. This would also be a good time to solve the issue of Hezbollah in Lebanon: if Israel would return its last sliver of Lebanese soil and the several thousand Lebanese it has kept jailed since 2000, and agree not to ever attack Lebanon again or interfere in Lebanon's politics, Iran would agree to stop shipping arms to Hezbollah, and Hezbollah would in time disband its militia. (I don't see a need for them to do so until they can trust that Israel would keep up its end of the bargain. Iranian support of Hamas is another issue, but doesn't really amount to much. It would, of course, be good to resolve that too, that that is a much thornier problem from the Israeli side.) As these agreement go into place, the US would open diplomatic and commercial relations with Iran. In particular, Iran could (if it wishes) draw on US expertise to improve the safety and reliability of its nuclear power plants, since it's in everyone's interest that the damn things not blow up or melt down.
This is hardly utopian: pretty much everything I just described was offered for negotiation by Iran a decade ago, when Iran had a relatively reformist prime minister and proved helpful in getting international agreement on how to run Afghanistan. Bush not only rebuffed such efforts, he assigned Iran to his "axis of evil" -- a phrase that came out of the efforts of Israel-worshipping neocons who saw invading Iraq as a stepping stone to toppling Iran (they liked to say, "anyone can go to Baghdad; real men go to Tehran"). Obama was in large part elected because the American people was sick and tired of Bush's warmongering and the quagmires it led to, but since taking office he has never been able to muster the guts to face down the forces of militarism (of which the Israel lobby looms large). The Republican hawks are giving him another chance to campaign against senseless, fruitless wars. Maybe at last he can find himself, if only he doesn't embarrass himself too badly in the meantime.
Friday, February 3. 2012
Mostly 2011 releases below, fishing for obscure releases that might turn into surprises, mostly coming up empty. Last year I did two columns in this time period, one mid-January and another in early February, and found a long list of relatively obscure finds: 7L & Esoteric, Calle 13, Chromeo, Das Racist, Girl Talk, Henry Clay People, Lower Dens, OFF!, Rakaa, Lars Vaular, John Zorn's Interzone. OK, Das Racist and Girl Talk weren't that obscure, but they involved the extra work of tracking down downloads. And Tatum tipped me off to Calle 13, Chromeo, and OFF! But my point remains: post-EOY-list finds this year have been hard to come by. In fact, the album cover column would have been empty this time, but for: two 2012 releases, one 2011 regrade, one compilation of 1990s material I hoisted from Recycled Goods, and one previously unreleased item from 1993 that I would normally have held for Recycled Goods.
One theory I entertained was that I'm afraid I'm a bit more shy this year when it comes to elevating a record over the A- cusp. But below I only have five B+(***) from last year (Jack Ruby, Klezmatics, Nacho Picasso, Sandwell District, and Skull Defekts), wheras in last year's two columns I had 18 (Akala, Black Angels, Care Bears on Fire , Das Racist, Deadbeat, Disappears, Extra Lens, Far East Movement, Goldfrapp, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Kno, Parralox, Skyzoo & Illmind, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, Standard Fare, Marty Stuart, and Weekend). The ratio is, if not similar, at least not improbable.
Obviously, number have something to do with the difference: my two columns last year netted 110 records, compared to 51 below. (Although I did 87 in early January this year, vs. 46 in early January last year, so maybe the numbers should be 156 last year to 138 this. Factoring in early January changes the A- score from 11-0 to 18-5, and high B+ from 18-5 to 22-23, so maybe I am grading more cautiously and there is something to that A- cusp.)
I don't feel like I've been lazier or slacker this year. In fact, over the year 2011 the rated count is way up, so I'd like to think I've been more dilligent and pro-active and, as such, have less catching up to do. To some extent that is true, but it's also a crock. No matter how much you do, the mass of unsampled music out there is huge beyond comprehension. While it should eventually be subject to diminishing returns, I don't know of any way to objectively measure it. I will say, subjectively, that for me much of the marginal music is hip-hop and electronica: the mixtape movement has both made the music cheaper and sloppier, which led me to hedge a bit on a lot of well-regarded items (e.g., ASAP Rocky, Danny Brown, G-Side, Kembe X, Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire); and electronica remains a genre of marginal distinctions, especially to someone who has no clue as to the difference between house and drum 'n' bass.
The other subjective point is that the more things I play, the less I care about them. I don't think that's gotten to the point of being poisonous, but that's the trendline. In 2010 my A-list ran to 122 (plus 10 picked up after freeze date). In 2011 it registered 121 on freeze date (now 123). That looks the same, but I listened to an extra 200 records in 2011, so I'm clamping down one way or another.
Oh well, on to 2012. The February columns have been running about 20% new year (10 of 51 below, 12 of 56 last year), whereas last year's March column jumped to 64% new year (34 of 53).
These are short notes/reviews based on streaming records from Rhapsody. They are snap judgments based on one or two plays, accumulated since my last post along these lines, back on January 14. Past reviews and more information are available here.
Alabama Shakes: Alabama Shakes (2011, Rough Trade, EP): From Athens, AL, originally called themselves the Shakes. Debut, a short 4-song EP, straddling southern rock and retro soul, the latter winning out on the closer, a ballad called "You Ain't Alone," where they pull out the whole James Brown. B+(*)
Marsha Ambrosius: Late Nights & Early Mornings (2011, J): Neo-soul diva, formerly half of Floetry with her first solo album. Likes the high register for its light and fluff, and spend most of the album moaning and warbling up there, trying to be seductive but often disappointing. B-
Bhi Bhiman: Bhiman (2012, Boocoo Music): Second album, second-generation American, parents from Sri Lanka, but aside from name and looks he's about as assimilated as one can get -- if he had a drawl he could pass for country, but it would be a shame to tinker with his rich, creamy baritone. Plays guitar and sings. Songs have substance and detail. B+(***)
Black Milk/Danny Brown: Black and Brown (2011, Fat Beats, EP): Beats by Milk (Curtis Cross), with Brown rapping. Ten cuts, but only three cross the 3-minute mark, so it's short, but sharp and tart on both ends. B+(**) [bc]
Blow Your Head, Vol. 2: Dave Nada Presents Moombahton (2011, Mad Decent): Moombahton (aka Moom Moon), the derivation of which is at least highly suggested by the wet T-shirt on the cover, draws on reggaeton, knocks it around, bangs it up, keeps it fun. B+(**)
Bomb the Music Industry!: Vacation (2011, Really): Punk group from Long Island, sixth album since 2005. First half or more is mostly plainspoken and catchy, rising to a singalong crescendo, but tails off toward the end as the songs lose focus and break up. Rhapsody stops after 13 tracks, dropping two slabs of silence and some hidden something. B+(*)
Buraka Som Sistema: Komba (2011, Enchufada): Angolan group, founded in Lisbon, where they've mostly gone native, packing electrobeats and raps -- well, many in English, so maybe they've gone world instead, at least giving it a beat. B+(**)
Cauldron: Burning Fortune (2011, Earache): Metal band from Toronto, formed in 2006 (although AMG credits them with an unrelated 1999 album). I bothered with this because Chuck Eddy picked it as his top album of 2011 -- he seems to have relapsed into his metal ways, but roughly one of each ten down to 100 is jazz, and one or two are country(-ish). Can't say this is very good, but it is exceptionally tolerable: vocals are clear, guitar is clean, bass provides the essential drive. B+(*)
Jimmy Cliff: Sacred Fire EP (2011, Collective Sounds, EP): The long-lost reggae star gets a new lease, his tendency to go soft shaped up by producer Tim Armstrong (Rancid), starting off with the obvious (at least to Armstrong) cover of "Guns of Brixton." Three more songs, including the too obvious Dylan cover, before returning with a remix. B+(**)
Dennis Coffey: Dennis Coffey (2011, Strut): Detroit guitarist, had his heyday 1969-78 straddling psychedelia and funk with a series of what I gather were instrumental albums. First record since 1990, an opportunity to reiterate his career at age 70. Couple vocals accentuate the R&B, including one by Mayer Hawthorne, but mostly the guitar rools. B+(*)
Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas (2012, Columbia): Hardly sung, the lyrics plainly stated surrounded by an aura of female voices on melodies effortlessly recycled from everything he's ever done. Seems so easy, and probably is, which doesn't mean anyone can do it. A- [cd]
Mikal Cronin: Mikal Cronin (2011, Trouble in Mind): Singer-songwriter, has bounced around several indie bands since 2005, goes eponymous for his debut, layering on vocal harmonies with a skin of slickness I haven't managed to penetrate. Listenable, and maybe then some, if you're into that sort of thing. B
Dawes: Nothing Is Wrong (2011, ATO): Second album by this LA band, often said to possess a "Laurel Canyon sound," by which they mean various late-1960s stars they don't actually sound anything like -- hell, they're not even a decent Eagles imitation, nor Poco, nor even J.D. Souther (well, maybe J.D. Souther). C+
Lana Del Rey: Born to Die (2012, Interscope): Got some notice last year with a single called "Video Games" -- I played it after noticing it on year-end lists, but it's more appealing here, in what would be her debut album if she didn't already have a 2010 digital download called Lane Del Ray AKA Lizzy Grant -- her original name is Elizabeth Grant. I guess you'd call this electropop, but she has a torch song voice -- old way beyond her years -- and the synths would rather drape her in strings than in beats. Several songs make a strong impression, but others confuse as she adopts a form that thrives in perpetual youth yet she's so done with anything reminiscent of sweet sixteen. B+(**)
Brett Dennen: Loverboy (2011, Dualtone): California singer-songwriter, fourth studio album since 2004 plus some other stuff. High voice with an ingratiating twist, helps when he gets an upbeat tune like "Can't Stop Thinking" or his underdog single "Comeback Kid (That's My Dog)" -- although "Song for Leaving" may prove the exception. B+(*)
Ani DiFranco: Which Side Are You On? (2010-11 , Righteous Babe): Hers, no doubt about it. In refocusing on politics she doesn't revert to folkie form, doesn't get angry, doesn't preach (much). If anything, she seems happier, like she's learning life's lessons as one properly should. A-
DJ Rashad: Just a Taste, Vol. 1 (2010 , Ghettophiles): Detroit techno guy; Discogs treats this as his first album, but there are lots of Singles, EPs, DJ Mixes, and, of course, Miscellaneous. Title is too prophetic, for that's all you get even as he loosens up and gets danceable, and the promise of more isn't reassuring. No doubt he can do more of this, but does he doubt he'll be able to think up another title? B
The Dø: Both Ways Open Jaws (2011, Six Degrees): French-Finnish duo, formed in Paris, with singer Olivia Merliahti and Dan Levy -- both described as multi-instrumentalists -- and some drummer. Name pronounced "dough," like the note. Wikipedia shows them playing guitar and bass respectively, but they also go in for keybs, and that's where they can get shlocky. She sings in English, but I'm not much good at following. Like most things one doesn't understand, it's best when they pick up the beat. B+(**)
Drexciya: Journey of the Deep Sea Dweller, Vol. 1 (1992-96 , Clone Classic Cuts): Detroit techno group, Gerald Donald and James Stinson, worked until Stinson died in 2002. This is the first of four planed compilations, picking through early EPs and singles, mostly with water themes. The electronics go blip, not much sustain or ambience, just picking out short and sweet themes, bouncing along. A-
Fred Eaglesmith: 6 Volts (2012, Bluewater Music): Canadian singer-songwriter, so straightforward and low tech we file him under folk. Here he's as low-key as ever. B+(*)
Kathleen Edwards: Voyageur (2010-11 , Zoë): Canadian singer-songwriter: when she first appeared in 2003 she was touted as the next Lucinda Williams, but I don't hear any of that in her fourth album here. Perhaps the transformation can be attributed to co-producer Justin Vernon (you know, Bon Iver), who managed to craft a sound that is slick, sensuous, and utterly disposable. B
Charlotte Gainsbourg: Stage Whisper (2010 , Elektra): Daughter of a legendary French singer, born in London, has a spotty recording career with something of a breakthrough with 2009's IRM. This follows up quickly with outtakes and live tracks, your basic odds and sods that she's not distinctive enough to pull off. Does have a nice take on Dylan's "Just Like a Woman." B
Girls' Generation: Oh! (2010, SM Entertainment): Korean girl teen pop group, nine deep, big stars in South Korea, where they are nicknamed SNSD, short for their Korean name So Nyuh Shi Dae. Discography is messy with both Korean and Japanese series and various repackagings within each, but this looks like their second Korean studio album. More English than not, lots of fun until they do one called "Forever" where the beat surrenders to the strings and they go all Glee on you. They bounce right back, but it's hard to trust them after that. B+(**)
Girls' Generation: The Boys (2011 , Universal): Third studio album, possibly with different versions in Korea and Japan (where it was repackaged from a rerecording of their first album, the key unifying component the new single); reportedly the start of their world campaign, but still only available as an import here. I liked the choppy beat of their early work better than the slicker and smoother vibe here. The single is fine, but the passel of remixes at the end add little (other than a quote from the Waitresses -- you know, "I know what boys like . . ."). Probably some sort of disposable "bonus disk" but hard to know from here. B+(*)
Guided by Voices: Let's Go Eat the Factory (2012, GBV): Alt-rock band/vehicle for Robert Pollard, who likes short, not especially tuneful pieces and cranks them out by the dozen -- 21 songs on this 41:44 album, their 16th studio album (or 15th) since 1987 (not counting all sorts of things, like 16 EPs). I was surprised to find this topping all January albums in my 2012 metacritic file, so gave it a spin and I'm still surprised: odd little song fragments, quaint lyrics, some guitar froth and/or grunge, just disjointed enough to remind me of the Move without hooks, or the Bonzo Dog Band without wit. I'd be surprised if their fans have heard either. B
Van Hunt: What Were You Hoping For? (2011, Godless Hotspot): Black (ergo soul) singer-songwriter, cut two albums for Capitol 2004-06 which marked him as a comer and a has-been. Tries to regroup here with jerky rhythms, odd time signatures, and odder lyrics, which do add something. B+(*)
Jack Ruby: Jack Ruby (1974-77 , UgExplode, EP): Proto-no wave group with Contortions bassist George Scott, a singer named Robin Hall, and some others I don't recognize; four studio tracks from 1974 when their grind and random crash noises were ahead of their time, and four rehearsal tracks from 1977 after they had learned to twiddle the amplifier knobs -- a quantum leap forward, at least until the amp started to bite back. B+(***)
The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble: I Forsee the Dark Ahead, If I Stay (2006-11 , Parallel Corners): Dutch group -- the scattered vocals are unpleasant in various ways -- strikes me as more like electronica than jazz although they may be thinking that the occasional horn makes a difference. Handful of albums since 2006, collected these tracks at various live venues, so presumably this works as a sampler, sometimes cancelling itself out. B [bc]
The Klezmatics: Live at Town Hall (2006 , Soundbrush, 2CD): New York's klezmer supergroup throw out all the stops in this 20th anniversary concert, released five years later for the silver. A bit of everything, works as a retrospective, a best-of (although I could do without their gospel phase), but at warp speed, more than once sliding off the rails. B+(***)
Le Butcherettes: Sin Sin Sin (2010 , Rodriguez Lopez Productions): Mexican group, although singer-songwriter-guitarist Teri Suarez (aka Teri Gender Bender) was born in Denver. First album, more new wave than punk, especially if you factor in the Russian-like shtick at the end which reminds me of Lene Lovich. Group name doesn't quite parse, but may be appropriate for a group that doesn't either. B+(*)
The Little Willies: For the Good Times (2010-11 , Milking Bull): Second album from Norah Jones' country music project, six years after the first -- Richard Julian also sings, but most of the value comes from Jones. Highlight: "Fist City." Been there, done that: "Jolene." B+(*)
Maria Muldaur: Steady Love (2011, Stony Plain): Old voices make for truer blues voices, and pushing seventy the former jug band sweetheart is making the most of her mileage. She doesn't write -- not that her ad lib on the state of the world in "Please Send Me Someone to Love" isn't priceless -- so her records rise or fall on her song-picking inspiration, as with her Depression-era Garden of Joy. "Why Are People Like That?" hits that vein, but too many God songs don't. B+(**)
The Men: Leave Home (2011, Sacred Bones): Rhapsody labels them as Dance Pop which must be some confusion, as this debut album sounds like harshly metallic punk, which I suppose is what AMG means by post-hardcore. Not much at first, but eventually cohered and closed with a catchy metallic grind. B+(*)
Randy Montana: Randy Montana (2011, Mercury Nashville): Country singer, first album but got some notice as a songwriter before. Birth name is Randy Schlappi, but his father performed as Billy Montana, so I guess he has a right (as well as a reason). Has a voice, works the cowboy shtick, hit the guitar hard at the end of each bar; otherwise seems like a reasonable guy. Line from "It's Gone": "I'm just trying to make the most of what I have/it ain't that pretty but it ain't half bad." About like his record. B+(*)
My Morning Jacket: Circuital (2011, ATO): Soft rock band from Kentucky (although they could just as well be from anywhere), a steady producer since 1999. Too pleasant to get worked up over, but also too uninteresting. B-
Nacho Picasso: For the Glory (2011, self-released): Seattle rapper, has an easy underground flow over ordinary synthbeats. Talks a bit much about himself, and throws up plenty of red flags, no doubt some for camouflage. B+(***) [bc]
David Nail: The Sound of A Million Dreams (2011, MCA Nashville): Nashville country singer, second album, only see one and a couple fractions of writing credits. Seems like a nice enough guy, but the music keeps crashing down and his voice winds up sounding a little mousey. B
Willie Nelson: Remember Me, Vol. 1 (2011, R&J): No idea what the back story is to this 14-cut covers album, but Nelson can tackle pretty much anything, including signature songs from George Jones and Merle Haggard. The one I hadn't heard in the longest time is "This Old House," which he thankfully took a bit of the shine off -- as he did "Sixteen Tons." Still, the only song he's totally comfortable with is "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" -- he must have that one on twenty albums by now, most live so no telling how many times he's played it. The others feel quickly fried up, with a full band that hemns him in too tightly. B+(*)
James Pants: James Pants (2011, Stones Throw): Born James Singleton, plays everything (mostly synth) in his DIY dub chamber. Most clearly hits a '50s rock 'n' roll vibe on "Darlin'" but other pieces have similar effects, or slouch toward lounge exotica, but far estranged in time and space. B+(*)
Schoolboy Q: Setbacks (2011, Top Dawg): Matthew Hanley, cut an early single called "Black Hippy" which seems to be his home base even when he gets high and lets his mind fantasize gangsta. B+(**)
Random Axe: Random Axe (2011, Duck Down Music): A Detroit-Brooklyn group effort, with Black Milk the best known of three MCs (Guilty Simpson and Sean Price are the others). Underground beats, ghetto rhymes, dense and tough, rather grim. B+(**)
Sandwell District: Feed-Forward (2010 , Sandwell District): Not much info. RA treats Sandwell District as a label, not an artist. Discogs lists members David Summer and Karl O'Connor, and credits both with percussion, but that's about it. This came out first as a double-LP set, then there was an eponymous CD with basically the same material on it, so I could just as well be reviewing Sandwell District. The beats are calming, seductive, marking time with an aura of synth ambience. Seems easy. B+(***)
The Skull Defekts: Peer Amid (2009 , Thrill Jockey): Swedish group, post-rock or whatever, which means long instrumental vamps with occasional words -- "In Majestic Drag" is a good example of the former, and "Fragrant Nimbus" the latter. The one I'm not so sure of is called "The Gospel of the Skull," where they get a bit too Pentecostal for my druthers. B+(***)
Patrick Stump: Soul Punk (2011, Island): Solo project of singer from Chicago emo group Fall Out Boy -- supposedly some sort of big thing but I've never bothered with them. Ideal here is to sing soul music with a punk kick. Better as an idea than as realized: not devoid of fun, but beats are clunky and Stump has trouble emoting with his squeal. B-
John Talabot: Fin (2012, Permanent Vacation): DJ from Barcelona, Spain; first album after a series of 12-inch singles. Evidently there's a whole school to describe this sort of thing, but what I know is that the beats are just tense enough to pull you along, and the more than occasional vocals add something. B+(***)
Tove Styrke: Tove Styrke (2010 , Epic): Swedish electro-pop sensation, a few days shy of 19 when this appeared, which puts her on track to become the next Robyn if she improves as much as Robyn did over her own teen sensation years. Problem is no undeniable songs in a genre (dance pop) that trade on them. None unlistenable, or undanceable, either. B+(*)
Tha Grimm Teachaz: There's a Sitaution on the Homefront (1993 , Breakfast): PMDF (Prince Midnight Dark Force), KDz (Kenny Dennis aka Tha Killa Deacon), and "seldom seen producer" DJ Koufie cut and shelved this in 1993 -- some or all may have something to do with Serengeti. Runs short (38:56), but the rough and tumble beats and rolling rhymes get conscious midway through, turning into lines like "headphones ain't nothing but handcuffs for the ears." A-
Amon Tobin: ISAM (2011, Ninja Tune): Drum 'n' bass producer from Brazil, at least ten albums since 1997, uses harsh and jumpy synth sounds which eventually he manages to pull together into interesting patterns. B+(*)
The Twilight Singers: Dynamite Steps (2011, Sub Pop): Greg Dulli's Afghan Whigs spinoff -- talk about a group I haven't given the slightest thought to in years. Record has a grand sweep to it -- majestic with a seemingly effortless flow -- looking back to an older age of arena rock I've never cared for. I'm duly impressed, but not all that intrigued. B
Tycho: Dive (2011, Ghostly International): Scott Hansen, from San Francisco, several releases since 2002. He offers an easy-going but quite lush guitar-laced electronica, brighter than ambient but with a similar intent to fill the background. B+(*)
Hype Williams: One Nation (2011, Hippos in Tanks): UK DJ, I presume, with three albums, four singles/EPs, and various other things listed at Discogs, but the only bio I can find under the name is that of an American hip-hop video producer. Quaintly ambient electronics with occasional spoken word, all nice and neat. 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:
Destroyer: Kaputt (2011, Merge): Like Magnetic Fields or Mountain Goats, a singer-songwriter hiding behind a group name, a tactic that kept Dan Bejar obscure for eight records until this fancy piece of quasi-pop art; such a fawning vocalist, and so tarted up he reminded me of Sufjan Stevens at first. More exposure ends speculation that this could grow on me, but it hasn't turned annoying either -- a mere curiosity. [Was: B+(***)] B+(*)
Pistol Annies: Hell on Heels (2011, Columbia Nashville): More than half of the songs hit their targets square and solid, at at least one of them isn't by Miranda Lambert -- Angaleena Presley's "The Hunter's Wife." Lambert's got the finest voice too, so you wonder how long she'll keep this group going. But the girls are probably more fun than her dull hunk of a husband, so I'm hoping for them. [Was: B+(**)] A- [cd]
Note: I got a little confused and didn't get all of the usual indexing done before posting this. I'll patch that up in the near future.
Thursday, February 2. 2012
by Michael Tatum
For the last few months, I've been toying with the idea of devoting entire Downloader's Diary columns to individual artists. My objective would be to cover all "relevant" discography (with the word in quotes a hint to prejudicial discretion), rounded out with compilations that would augment the artist's story to my satisfaction. My first entry in this regard may strike many as downright perverse, but there really is a rationale. Artists like the Beatles or the Clash I might (might) be able to pull off exerting very little brain power -- I wanted my first few overviews to be of artists with whom I had some familiarity but a few gray areas, a little understanding but enough question marks that it would present itself as a kind of challenge. As KISS happens to be a childhood pleasure of mine -- 1976's supposedly seminal Destroyer, along with Elton John's Greatest Hits and Paul McCartney's Band on the Run, was one of the first records my doting parents bought for me -- they seemed like a natural for my initial wide-scale foray. For those who like to construct shopping lists -- you know, those who read this stuff because they actually want to get some use out of it -- there will be more of these to come very soon (along with the first column dedicated solely to 2012 releases on March 1st). Until then, enjoy this post mortem for a moldering corpse most people would rather keep buried. As Gene Simmons would probably agree, sometimes grave robbers have more fun.
KISS: KISS (1974, Casablanca) As brilliant as they were asinine, this Brooklyn-based hard rock phenomenon could only have happened in the '70s. And not just because they apotheosized that decade's gluttonous excesses either -- their "aesthetic" (for lack of a more appropriate word) both mastered and fused two very '70s concepts: the Grand Funk approach (in which catchy riffs supplanted actual songwriting) and the Three Dog Night approach (in which cheery singing put over jingly tunes). That's why complaints they later de-evolved into a "kiddie band" don't wash -- clearly, masterminds Chaim Weitz (bassist Gene Simmons) and Stanley Eisen (rhythm guitarist Paul Stanley) coveted that lucrative market from the outset. One could even argue that their respective singing styles identified with two very adolescent archetypes: Simmons' porcine bellow evokes a swinish teen whose trough requires constant servicing, while Stanley's histrionic shriek suggests a young boy in a permanent state of premature ejaculation. And then, the gimmick that became their trademark, that ridiculous makeup -- one can see how a lonely teenager might have found them the perfect band to preen in front of a mirror, tennis racket in hand. Yes, the playing is sloppy, the mix sludgy, and every single one of Peter Criss' beats directly pilfered from Charlie Watts ("Deuce" for example, bastardizes the break in "Satisfaction"). But their mind-boggling chutzpah is rewarded with three stone classics: the elemental bad girl anthem "Strutter," the not-so-inscrutable blowjob rationalization "Deuce," and the slow grinding "Firehouse" (though wouldn't the correct colloquialism be "Get the fire department," or "Call 911?"). But my reservations don't rise merely from the embarrassing Bobby Rydell cover, the space-filling instrumental "Love Theme from KISS" (ah, the 70s), or even the innate childishness of the whole enterprise, but rather two prescient harbingers. "Black Diamond," a laughable paean to a prostitute, needed the Replacements' brutality to illuminate its offensiveness. And while it was one thing when the Beatles yoked the falsetto-hooked "Please Please Me" to a polite demand for oral sex -- some reciprocity was at least assumed, right? -- when Simmons yokes the falsetto-hooked "Nothing to Lose" to a rumination about putting his wang in "the back door," there's no sense he's in it for anything else other than dominating some doe-eyed groupie. Unless of course, he's into pegging, of which we have no corroborative evidence. B
KISS: Hotter Than Hell (1974, Casablanca) Released a scant nine months after their debut failed to take the world by storm, this is more of the same -- or more accurately, less. Having blown their precious wad first time around, they scramble, salvaging rejects and writing on the fly, and boy does it show: the muddy, compressed mix notwithstanding, between the plodding rhythms, indifferent lyrics, shameless posturing, and aggressive use of cowbell, this inadvertently supplied the blueprint for '80s pop metal orthodoxy. Aside from awkward gaffes arising from some peculiarly forced rhymes (i.e. Paul Stanley describing his old lady's need to hump the next door neighbor as a "change of pace") and a few stray left-field musical devices (the girlish woo-hoos that hook "Got to Choose," the surprising key change in "All the Way") there are no ideas here, musical or otherwise, that aren't telegraphed way in advance. The sole exception is the bizarre "Goin'Blind," the tragic tale of a doomed romance between a ninety-three year old geezer and a sixteen year old girl that Gene Simmons (surprise, surprise) does not play for laughs. Guess emoting under that clown makeup makes a man take his statutory rape paeans seriously. C+
KISS: Dressed to Kill (1975, Casablanca) Turn your coke-smudged nose up at former Casablanca label head Neil Bogert all you want -- I say he saw the future. He correctly intuited that the sludge rock that the band slogged through on Hotter Than Hell was a dead end, that the key to the remainder of the decade lay in instant gratification, in the short, sharp, fast: basically, punk and disco. The latter of course, became Bogert's bread and butter, even if he wouldn't have touched the former with a ten-foot toot straw. Although Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder would later execute this sort of pleasure more exuberantly (not to mention more humanely), this is where Bogert made his first move toward reclaiming the bubblegum pop he churned out for Budda -- in fact, because the spiffier tempos ensured the album clocked in at roughly half an hour (about five minutes shorter than the debut), the label was forced to fib about the running time of the songs on the back cover. True, the band still has delusions of their arena rock betters -- they zing Zeppelin on the pointless "Battle of Evermore"-inspired introduction to "Rock Bottom" and the lumbering "Moby Dick"-inspired "She." But slicked down and tricked up, this showcases these callous hedonists at their most eminently listenable, and it helps that their sexual escapades are so outlandish that it's pointless taking them seriously, from the under aged groupie soliciting "Room Service" ("Baby, I could use a meal"), the girlie smorgasbord of "Ladies in Waiting" ("The ladies are so inviting/And the meat looks hot tonight"), and the existentially sleazy, endlessly quotable "C'mon and Love Me" ("She's a dancer, a romancer/I'm a Capricorn and she's a Cancer"). Now if only those were all on the same side as the well-deserved three-time loser of"Two Timer" and the undeniable (note the fudged spelling, like that on hotel signs and theatre marquees) "Rock and Roll All Nite." Nevertheless, their most appealing platter. I mean, really -- how many bands of this, er, quality finally get it half-right on their third album in twelve months? B+
KISS: Alive! (1975, Casablanca) An absolutely astonishing document, beginning with arena rock patter startling in its puerility ("I was talking to someone backstage before, and they were telling me there's a lot of you people there that like to drink vodka and orange juice!") and its mind-numbing predictability (if the band has a song in its repertoire called "Hotter Than Hell," and the lead singer howls excitedly how it "look like one of those hot nights," what song do you think is coming up next?). Of course, connoisseurs swear such hokum actually constitutes part of the "experience," just as surely as the dry ice and fire-breathing -- in a typically glowing review, Greg Prato testifies to their "youthful energy" on this record's AMG entry. Which doesn't make a lick of sense -- that phrase implies to me upstarts like the Pistols or the young New York Dolls. KISS, older and more calculated, strike me as professional to their very core, in the vein of the Coasters or Steely Dan -- which isn't a criticism really, merely an observation (because let's face it -- if those smoke bombs don't detonate at precisely the exact moment at the beginning of "Deuce," someone could really get hurt!). This leads to my other point, the re-recording controversy, which makes sense for guys who took great pains to hide their ugly mugs underneath face paint and is something I'm not even going to begin hashing out. But it's telling how safe they play it -- suspiciously avoiding the comparatively knottier material on Dressed to Kill, they instead spend ninety minutes head-banging familiar warhorses until all that's left is a moist paste, ultimately sounding pretty much exactly as they do on the studio versions, right down to Stanley's "spontaneous," Beatle-esque exhortations on Simmons' numbers. The crucial exception would be Peter Criss' dunderheaded drum solo on "100,000 Years" -- when Stanley returns to the lyric after rote now-everybody-over-here clichés, his "I'm sorry to have taken so long/It must have been a bitch when I was gone" is as close as these staunch anti-intellectuals have ever come to an art joke. So why aren't the screaming teeny-weenies in the audience laughing? Oh, that's right. B
KISS: Destroyer (1976, Casablanca) I'll concede this is their most "tuneful" record. I'll even acknowledge "King of the Night Time World" is an unsung shit rock classic -- delightfully dumb teen-centric lyric, indelibly memorable guitar solo, galloping drum line, and most importantly,fast tempo, all suggesting the handiwork (or at least intervention) of a smart producer, in this case Alice Cooper/Lou Reed knob-twiddler Bob Ezrin. But on everything else, he proves that the band has no stupid idea that he isn't capable of dumbing down further. He botches the other first-rate song here, the electric "Detroit Rock City," with a moronic wrap around story that asks the musical question: "Could 'A Day in the Life' have been improved by a gunshot in the first verse?" He plasters the torpid "God of Thunder" with not only crunchy synthesizers, but the screams of -- I kid you not -- under aged boys (perhaps primed to be thrown into a hell-pit where Jerry Sandusky lies in wait). Then he hires full choir for Simmons' umpteenth groupie song, which swipes its title from Dickens (alas, not Bleak House) and its opening theme from Beethoven. The halfway decent teen anthem "Flaming Youth" (just how flaming?) gets a calliope, while Gene Simmons' S&M plaint "Sweet Pain" is scored for a chorus of background singers who sound way too cheery to be there (though I love the way Simmons qualifies the line "You'll get to love me" with "anyway I say"). Then comes the first of many "Rock and Roll All Nite" rewrites, then the Peter Criss schmaltz fest "Beth," which a lot of young girls lost their virginity to -- and most of them probably desperately want to get it back from. Though you're free to question sincerity of any song in which the wife waiting at home has to compete with a band specializing in songs about fucking on the road, they counteract that with a closer in which Paul Stanley asks that star-struck fan with the black sunglasses if she loves him as much as his limousine and seven-inch leather heels. I suppose her answer is probably similar to my own qualified affection for this overblown record: of course I love you. But only when I'm shit-faced plastered. C+
KISS: Rock and Roll Over (1976, Casablanca) After years of lobbying, lead guitarist Ace Frehley finally convinced the KISS camp for Eddie Kramer to produce them, and objectively you can appreciate the difference -- aside from the cynical "Hard Luck Woman," which is to "Maggie May" what "A Horse With No Name" is to "Heart of Gold," this streamlines their sound, beefing up the basic guitar rock of the early records. Although I miss earlier idiosyncrasies -- the quirkiness of Dressed to Kill, and to some extent even the griminess of Hotter Than Hell -- they certainly hit upon the turbo-charged formula that briefly made them the greatest selling band in the universe. But although "finesse" isn't an attribute normally associated with this band, I find the tracks that work best here are the ones where Gene Simmons shows off his comparatively lighter touch -- the cheeky "Ladies Room" and the future Dr. Pepper advert "Calling Dr. Love" ("You're not the only one I've ever had?" What will Mr. Pibb think?). Much of the rest however -- particularly Paul Stanley's contributions -- pummels rather than rocks, which doesn't bode well for their increasingly vile sexual politics. Even without the sinister threat "You can run, you can hide/But you can't get away," one could alter the verbs on "I Want You" as an incitement to rape with the song's sentiment basically unchanged. B
KISS: Love Gun (1977, Casablanca) Although it falls apart completely after the somewhat iconic, single-entendre title track gets its unsavory business out of the way, fans consider this to be the original lineup's last "classic" album. But even without Peter Criss puppy-dogging earnestly after Bob Seger or Paul Stanley's Crystals desecration, you can still hear the band beginning to fracture, resulting in a record far less of a piece than Rock and Roll Over. Compare Stanley's side-openers (both Neanderthal chest-beaters in the classic KISS fashion) to Ace Frehley's passé Foghat tribute, or to Simmons' anachronistic, endearingly sleazy "Christine Sixteen," which purveys the kind of tightly-wound retro-pop Cheap Trick themselves would abandon by decade's end. For all of Simmons' vaunted business savvy, Stanley -- who would controversially commandeer a disco single on their next studio album -- had a better grasp of the changing marketplace, which explains why he dominated them creatively (for lack of a better word) in the forthcoming decade: both "Love Gun" and "I Stole Your Love" point directly toward Bon Jovi and Poison, the future he and Simmons helped create but would struggle finding a place in. So given that legacy, you can appreciate why this last gasp might make some true believers get dewy-eyed. On the other hand, who needs nostalgia? As my friend Ali likes to rib every time I bring the title of this album up -- "Get it? He's talking about his cock." C+
KISS: Alive II (1977, Casablanca) The standard quibbles still apply, with a few bonus developments. Their second live double in two years, their eighth release overall in almost four, you can hear the exhaustion in their husky singing, perhaps why Paul Stanley's double magically appears whenever Eddie Kramer can craftily sneak him in. Poor Peter Criss croaking on top of the pre-recorded track for "Beth" is only marginally more listenable than the horrid "bait" tracks on side four, although sloppy thirds like "All American Man" and "Rockin' in the U.S.A." sound like Toys in the Attic next to Paul Stanley's grotesque Dave Clarke Five cover. And emphasizing the pronominal switch in "Makin' Love" -- from "doin' things that we wanna do" to "doin' things that I wanna do" -- leaves no ambiguity as to who's shoving what where during the after party. C
KISS: Double Platinum (1978, Casablanca) Appearing at the exact moment these live-action cartoons became parodies of a parody, this solves the KISS problem I bet you didn't even know you had: how can I immerse myself in unadulterated (i.e. completely un-adult) prepubescent rawk classics like "Deuce" and "Strutter" and "Rock and Roll All Nite" without having to suffer through all of their B level dreck? Unfortunately -- and I know this shocks you coming from a band renowned for its integrity -- they cheat big time. Setting aside the two unavoidable Peter Criss-sung hits, the revved-up arena rock that made them famous would have overwhelmed their quirkier and/or swampier earlier material had they adhered to strict chronology. So instead they focus on the heavy rockers, hire Sean Delaney to remix almost everything, toss the results in a blender, and pretend their clunkier early albums never happened. Admittedly, it sounds pretty hot coming out of your speakers -- "Detroit Rock City" in particular benefits from deep-sixing Bob Ezrin's bullshit. But perversely, I actually miss that clunkiness, which at least helped distinguish them from their commercial competition. And I also miss their gooier confections -- not crap like "Beth" or "Hard Luck Woman," but all that hard candy on Dressed to Kill (represented only by three tracks) and actual singles like "Christine Sixteen." Maybe if they had widened the scope a bit, this record might have lived up to its failed titular self-prophecy, which admittedly is much ballsier than Single Platinum, or We're Pretty Sure This Is Going to Sell More Than Gold. B
Peter Criss: Peter Criss (1978, Casablanca) One can only assume Vini Poncia was awarded the honor of producing KISS' next proper studio album as a thank you for being saddled with the embarrassing task of assigning his name to this legendary turkey. Then again, it was Poncia who lobbied Stanley and Simmons to relieve Criss of his drumming duties and replace him with studio musician Anton Fig, so this experience must have been quite an onerous experience indeed. One can almost imagine Criss sitting Poncia down pre-production to explain his vision: "I really liked that Ringo Starr solo album you worked on -- but could we, you know, not make the words so complicated?" The titles tell the story best: "Hooked on Rock and Roll," "That's the Kind of Sugar Papa Likes," "Kiss the Girl Goodbye," "You Matter to Me," all but the latter dating back to Criss' pre-KISS project Lips. Graded leniently only because at least the innocently mangled idiom "rain or come shine" popped up on this album rather than Gene Simmons'. D
Ace Frehley: Ace Frehley (1978, Casablanca) Neil Bogert's half-ingenious, half-batshit insane brainstorm to release four KISS solo records on one day would have been unthinkable without each member on board. Unfortunately, by this point the four of them didn't have enough material for one album as a unit, let alone as individuals. Assuming the assertion that this was the "most critically acclaimed" is trustworthy -- I have no interest in combing back issues of Creem to find out -- I suppose one can intellectually wrap his head around this record's theoretical appeal: without straying too far from the usual guitar-bass-drums, Frehley's record is also the least calculated of the four. Of course, "least calculated" is also my polite way of saying "completely empty-headed," and Frehley's four-note range, complacent backing band, and the chintzy, clap-with-one-hand un-funkiness of his undeserving hit single don't help. And the lyrics! They're almost like random word-associations he temporarily laid over as scratch vocals until something more "interesting" popped into his legendarily spaced-out mind: "I'm the kind of guy/Who likes feeling high/Feeling high and dry/And I like to fly/I'm your kind of guy/And girl, I'm not too shy/And I want you to fly/So I think you ought to try." Of course, you could counter that Clapton wasn't exactly Percy Shelley in the lyricism department either -- he let that expressive slow hand do the talking. But what can you say about a guitarist when the only thing you derive from his solos is that he practices his scales -- a lot? And sometimes when the tapes are rolling? D+
Gene Simmons: Gene Simmons (1978, Casablanca) Gene Simmons has an arsenal of moderately witty comebacks to those daring to challenge his principles. "Sure we've sold out," he would say to detractors accusing KISS of de-evolving into a "kiddie" band. "We sell out every night!" Still, I can't help but wonder if deep down, the guy craves acknowledgment -- his annual tirade against the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination committee seems awfully defensive. But if you want incontrovertible aural proof of his need to be recognized as some sort of musical genius, look no further than this record, often described as the most "eclectic" of the four KISS solo records, although a more appropriate descriptor might be "ungodly pretentious." Granted, Simmons is a more reliable song factory than Ace Frehley -- he didn't need to enlist Russ Ballard for his hit single, probably dashing off the formula-pop "Radioactive" in a matter of minutes. And given that his idea of a clever pussy metaphor is "Tunnel of Love," his pretensions don't exactly extend to lyrics almost entirely cribbed from the letters section in Penthouse. But the inappropriately ornate arrangements, the backup soul-ettes, macabre orchestra swells, and precursory cries of "hosanna" define an ambition completely unbeholden to taste or good judgment. Otherwise, why cut a new version of "See You in Your Dreams" without realizing that its failure on Rock and Roll Over wasn't that of his band mates, but rather that the song was limp to begin with? And how to react to that stomach-turning cover of the Disney chestnut "When You Wish Upon A Star" -- the arrangement of which makes George Martin's orchestration on "Good Night" seem restrained -- when Simmons has already admitted a few songs prior his idea of wish fulfillment are the low rent bitches that drop in on him at the Holiday Inn? (Was Ramada all booked up?) Be careful, ladies -- I hear he sneaks out at 4 A.M. and sticks you with the hotel bill. C
Paul Stanley: Paul Stanley (1978, Casablanca) Neither a boneheaded retreat to the basics nor a feeble stab at eclecticism, Stanley's entry into Neil Bogert's tetralogical gambit doesn't exactly stubbornly adhere to formula so much as slather it with drama -- lots of long intros underscored with acoustic guitars. Yet this is where Stanley cements his status as the Godfather of Hair Metal -- note how many of the songs here, including failed single "Wouldn't You Like to Know Me," get across on his multi-tiered vocal tracks, much as Def Leppard and Bon Jovi would on their smashes in the coming decade. Not an accomplishment to be proud of, I suppose -- but definitely of socio-cultural significance. Other points of interest: "Hold Me, Touch Me (Think of Me When We're Apart)," which makes Christopher Cross sound like Black Sabbath, and "Move On," a mother's advice number in which "shop around" becomes "fuck around." Caveat venditor, either way. C
KISS: Dynasty (1979, Casablanca) By 1979, every hard rock band in existence was piggybacking onto disco, conventional wisdom being if the Stones could do it with "Miss You," they could too. Certainly, after that four solo album debacle, these guys needed a little promotional rescue. So would it surprise you if I told you that the much-derided "I Was Made For Loving You" should be fondly remembered as a cornball classic? Unlike "Beth," essentially directed toward all those wimmin waiting for their man to come home (quite possibly in the kitchen making dinner -- just like "Summer Breeze!"), Paul Stanley strategizes on this song to "lower" himself to the level of the band's theoretical female audience: emoting a lyric that promises sexual equality, delivering it in a "feminine" register, and prancing around to the music that gets them, er, hot. Granted, solely to get into their pants and pocketbook, but the effort alone counts for something. Elsewhere, the changing tenor of the times has the band confused -- the other halfway decent song here, "Sure Know Something," could be Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers gussied up with "edgy" power chords. The overall effect is a little like that of the Beatles on the White Album, albeit at a different level of talent -- less two Georges and two Ringos than, oh I don't know, Pete Best, Billy Preston, and any two members of Badfinger of your choice. Questions to Ponder, by Gene Simmons, tellingly down to a meager two tracks: "Is it my fortune or my fame/Is it my money or my name/Is it my personality or just my sexuality/What is my charisma?" Answers: no, no, no, what the hell are you talking about? C
KISS: Unmasked (1980, Casablanca) The cover comic, which chronicles a fictitious journalist's quest to photograph the band without their trademark makeup, not-so-subtly suggests a fear already stirring in the back of Stanley and Simmons' minds: the only way the band's publicity machine would ever again approach the level of their late '70s zenith would be to wipe off that makeup for good. As for the glossy music inside the sleeve itself, I have considerably less to say, although this being 1980 they've given up sounding like the Bee Gees in favor of the Cars. The ghastly exception would be the (extremely) minor hit "Shandi," which is to your local roller rink what "I Was Made For Loving You" was to Studio 54. C
KISS: Music From "The Elder" (1981, Casablanca) After two years of allowing outside influences to sway their artistic direction -- to the consequence of critical jeers and declining record sales -- the band re-united with Destroyer producer Bob Ezrin, recently on a high from major commercial success (is there any other kind?) with Pink Floyd's The Wall. Secluding themselves for several months, they refused to allow Casablanca executives to listen to their work in progress, which evolved from straightforward rock and roll songs into an incomprehensible fantasy/sci-fi "concept" record, the vapid "libretto" of which reads like Joseph Campbell's third-grade doodling. Don't ask me about the cockamamie plot -- something about a young man readying himself to undertake a quest that doesn't actually occur until the record ends, and they lard with epigrammatic howlers swiped from Tolkien, George Lucas, and, let's be honest, Greg Lake (a sample: "Only you are the manchild/You are the light and you are the way"). Ace Frehley soldiered along begrudgingly, outvoted by Stanley and Simmons, with new drummer Eric Carr a null vote as per his contract (I tell you, you gotta love these guys). Ezrin later demurred that his titanic cocaine habit massively compromised his musical judgment at the time, but unfortunately, Stanley and Simmons, both straight edge types, can't exonerate themselves so easily -- one gets the feeling that had their fortunes been reversed, had this pompous, badly-played and grandiosely-arranged prog-rock found an audience, they would have ecstatically subjected us to a movie, comic book, TV series, and laser light show over the Parthenon. Instead, it's remembered as the worst album with Lou Reed's name on it. Yeah, that's right, Lou Reed, one year away from the triumphant The Blue Mask, who took time out to barf up this bon mot for the abysmal flop single "A World Without Heroes": "A world without heroes/Is like a world without sun." Cher covered it in 1991. E
KISS: The Best of Kiss, Volume 2 [20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection] (2004, Mercury) Even from his head-banging constituency, Gene Simmons isn't exactly the kind of guy who arouses much sympathy, but this compilation from KISS' Mark II period makes me ponder the identity crisis he must have been suffering through during the eighties. KISS was his baby, and divorced from his genre, wiped clean of his makeup, and mocked for the pretensions of both of his solo album and Music From "The Elder," his involvement with the band decreased, at least in terms of studio hours clocked. Without question, he became less central musically from 1982's Creatures of the Night on, contributing less material, and responsible for only one of the singles here, 1982's totally lame "I Like It Loud" (which I swear Steven Tyler ripped off and snazzed up for "Love in an Elevator"). So while the band would never again sink to the nadir of "Elder," they also would never risk anything remotely as ambitious, settling complacently into pop metal hegemony by adapting to the current fashion: flashy guitar solos, booming drums, cavernous reverb, football-stadium choruses, and the occasional spate of heavy breathing. Note that while the first entry in the band's Millennium Series contains six top 40 singles from their "classic" period (seven if you count the double-sided "Beth/Detroit Rock City" as two), this sequel contains only one: the worst, the vapid power ballad "Forever," co-written by Paul Stanley with none other than Michael Fucking Bolton, who owes Stanley for his mullet -- and so much more. C
Wednesday, February 1. 2012
Two compilations I treated myself to around Christmas, both tied to treasured books. Yet another stroll through the Impulse catalog -- I took a pretty extensive look at them back in August, 2006. Some more odds and ends. Haven't really figured out how to make this column work, but it's still an interesting grabbag.
Drexciya: Journey of the Deep Sea Dweller, Vol. 1 (1992-96 , Clone Classic Cuts): Detroit techno group, Gerald Donald and James Stinson, worked until Stinson died in 2002. This is the first of four planed compilations, picking through early EPs and singles, mostly with water themes. The electronics go blip, not much sustain or ambience, just picking out short and sweet themes, bouncing along. A- [R]
The First Rock and Roll Record (1916-56 ,
Famous Flames, 3CD): In 1992 Jim Dawson and Steve Propes wrote a
short book which asked the question, What Was the First Rock
'n' Roll Record. They nominated 50 records from 1944 through
Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" in 1956 -- can't imagine any
doubt there, but working back what about "Maybelene" and "Tutti
Frutti" and "Bo Diddley" in 1955, "Rock Around the Clock" and
"Shake Rattle and Roll" in 1954, Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog"
in 1953, "Rocket 88" in 1951, "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" in
1949, "Good Rockin' Tonight" in 1948, Big Boy Crudup's "That's
All Right" in 1946, Helen Humes' "Be Baba Leba" in 1945? Dawson
and Propes start their list with "Blues, Part 2" from the first
Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in 1944, a rousing jump blues
with Illinois Jacquet and Jack McVea dueling on tenor sax, but
they could have gone back further. I would have been happy with
that playlist on two discs, which is approximately what discs
two and three do here: 36 songs from the book appear here, the
other 14 replaced with 21 similar songs (not that there's anything
quite comparable to John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillen" or Professor
Longhair's "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" or Johnnie Ray's "Cry" or
Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On," but Lionel Hampton's "Blues, Pt. 2"
shares Jacquet with the JATP version, and Muddy Waters and Hank
Williams can be swapped with no loss). The first disc provides
some archeology in "The Camp Meeting Jubilee" then gets down to
business with Trixie Smith's "My Man Rocks Me." After that you
get a bit of everything, especially if it has "rock" and/or "roll"
in the title (as in Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Rock Me" and Big Joe
Turner's "Roll 'Em Pete), or at least some "boogie" (as in the
Andrews Sister's "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy"). My main caveat is that
anyone who knows this material would sort through it variously,
but all three discs are full of delights.
Larkin's Jazz (1925-59 , Proper, 4CD): Philip Larkin was an English poet, 1922-85, enough of a celebrity that his adopted hometown, Kingston upon Hull, threw a festival in honor of the 25th anniversary of his passing. I can't speak to his poetry, but I read his very informal All What Jazz: A Record Diary as I was first starting to write about jazz myself, and found it most gratifying: at a time when virtually nothing I read about bebop (and Charlie Parker in particular) aligned with what I was hearing, Larkin's diffidence was a revelation. In the end, he turned out to be a better guide to the pre-bop jazz he favors than a critic of bop and post-bop, but he's not too shabby as long as the music doesn't get too ugly. Still, this compilation of favored tunes will cement his reputation as an old fogey. I probably shouldn't have snapped it up so quickly -- I doubt that there's anything here other than an Earl Bostic piece on the 4th disc that I didn't already own -- but score one for stirring up the pot. And while I would have preferred more swing -- he leans trad up through Bechet, Condon, and Pee Wee Russell but does acknowledge Goodman and Shaw (if not Jimmie Lunceford) -- everything here hits the spot: perhaps fittingly, none more than a trio of Billy Banks songs on the 2nd disc. A-
T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo: The Kings of Benin Urban Groove 1972-80 (1972-80 , Soundway): Early material by a still extant -- despite various name changes -- group from the thin sliver of land between Nigeria and Ghana, offering bits of highlife and afrobeat without defining either. The early cuts are sonically dull, but even there they start to win you over, and when the sound brightens up they're even more effective, but never quite what you'd call Tout Puissant. B+(***) [R]
Back in October, 2011, I reviewed a batch of Impulse 2-for-1 reissues. Impulse was a big budget jazz label founded under ABC Records -- soon merged into MCA, ultimately landing in Universal's Verve Music Group -- in 1960. Nowadays it's mostly remembered for John Coltrane's often astonishing work, but they recorded many jazz notables, especially in the early 1960s, with quantity and quality falling off especially into the 1970s (the Keith Jarrett groups a notable exception). The second batch -- like the first, 15 sets covering 30 albums -- came out in Europe in November and in the US in January.
Marion Brown: Saxophonist, alto first but played a lot of soprano, cut his remarkable early albums for ESP-Disk in the mid-1960s, but rarely had a steady label -- one Impulse in 1966, one ECM in 1970, two more Impulses here, everything else on minor foreign labels up to his death in 2010, with some of his best records duos with Mal Waldron.
Mel Brown: Blues guitarist, best known for working with Bobby "Blue" Bland. Teamed with Herb Ellis for a soul jazz album in 1967 called Chicken Fat, and that got him a couple more shots.
Alice Coltrane: Née Alice McLeod, a pianist from Detroit, married John Coltrane in 1965, joined his group, and recorded her own albums after his death in 1967.
Sonny Criss: An alto saxophonist, picked up bebop in Charlie Parker's immediate wake, recorded in erratic but impressive spurts -- 1956 for Imperial, 1966-69 for Prestige, 1975-76 for Muse -- but his last two albums for Impulse served him poorly before his tragic death at age 50.
Chico Hamilton: Drummer from Los Angeles, led his own bands from 1955 on, often featuring flute and/or guitar for a light, airy sound, often with Latin percussion.
John Handy: An alto saxophonist, originally from Dallas but long based in San Francisco; perhaps best known for his stint with Mingus, although his 1965 Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival has its fans. He has a couple dozen widely scattered albums, some bop, crossover, world fusion, unified only by his sweet tone and disposition.
Freddie Hubbard: Trumpeter, emerged fully formed in 1960 as a top-notch hard bop player who could play anywhere, even avant-garde slots. He mostly headlined on Blue Note, but for a five-year stretch he showed up everywhere, and was rarely less than stellar.
Keith Jarrett: A tour de force in the early 1970s, bouncing between stellar quartets on both sides of the Atlantic, cranking out the best-selling solo piano album of all time. By late 1975 his American Quartet -- Dewey Redman on tenor sax, Charlie Haden on bass, Paul Motian on drums -- had picked up a fifth, percussionist Guilherme Franco.
Charles Mingus: A brief stopover in the great bassist's career: the other album he did for Impulse was his solo Mingus on Piano -- his most minimal of recordings, whereas these two Bob Thiele productions are his most maximal.
Blue Mitchell: One of the great hard bop trumpeters who peaked in the early 1960s, less flashy than Lee Morgan, more reliable than Booker Little, but like them died young -- at 49, just not as young. He did manage to keep working steady in the 1970s, recording more than a dozen albums nobody seems to think much of, most with "blue" or "funk" in the title.
Oliver Nelson and Friends: A saxophonist from St. Louis, Nelson started recording in 1959 and was prolific until his death in 1975, mostly arranging big band sessions, some under his own name -- Blues and the Abstract Truth is his masterpiece -- and many not. The "Friends" here reflect co-credits but his hand is unmistakable.
Howard Roberts: Guitarist, born in Phoenix, played in West Coast groups eventually winding up in Seattle. Has a light discography, including one 1966 album on Verve (The Velvet Groove) and one 1978 album on Concord (The Real Howard Roberts), as well as these two.
Sonny Stitt: A contemporary of Charlie Parker, with ideas so similar he was often accused of copying, but he lasted much longer and recorded extensively, often playing tenor instead of alto sax, often engaging in blistering cutting contests.
Clark Terry: Trumpet player, came up in the bop era and made his first great album with Thelonious Monk, but got a good grounding in swing working both for Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
Michael White: Violinist, had an angle on world fusion when it first emerged in the early 1970s, recording five 1971-74 Impulse albums plus side shots with Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane, but hasn't recorded much since.
Dee Bell: Sagacious Grace (1990 , Laser): Standards singer, writes occasional lyrics, cut a couple albums for Concord in the 1980s then this shelved session with Al Plank on piano, John Stowell on guitar, and the always delectable Houston Person on tenor sax; poise and soul. B+(*)
Tim Berne's Bloodcount: Poisoned Minds: The Paris Concert (1994 , JMT): The second of three installments, running through two long pieces with many smaller sections, Berne's alto and baritone saxes entwined with Chris Speed's tenor or clarinet, while the guitar-bass-drums rhythm section hops all over the place. B+(*)
Tim Berne's Bloodcount: Memory Select: The Paris Concert (1994 , JMT): Part trois, same group, with two more long pieces; the main problem is that the often interesting music struggles to be heard through quiet patches that would have been clearer in person. B
Luke Haines: Das Capital: The Songwriting Genius of Luke Haines and the Auteurs (2003, Hut): Solo remakes, mostly of songs from Haines' 1993-96 art-disco group Auteurs, mostly a bit slower with a gasp and a leer; tempting, but every time I am I soon recall that the version I'd rather hear is the original. B
Jack Ruby: Jack Ruby (1974-77 , UgExplode EP): Proto-no wave group with Contortions bassist George Scott, a singer named Robin Hall, and some others I don't recognize; four studio tracks from 1974 when their grind and random crash noises were ahead of their time, and four rehearsal tracks from 1977 after they had learned to twiddle the amplifier knobs -- a quantum leap forward, at least until the amp started to bite back. B+(***) [R]
The J.B.'s & Fred Wesley: The Lost Album (1972 , Hip-O Select): James Brown's band taking it easy under the direction of Fred Wesley, whose trombone leads get their fair share of time; the instrumentals don't go the extra mile they need to, but a couple of vocal slots grease the skids, even if it's just jive. B+(*) [R]
The Lijadu Sisters: Danger (1976 , Knitting Factory): Identical twins from Nigeria, considered Afrobeat which as much as anything means they sound like 1960s garage rockers, at least from the keyb down, although they try to synch their voices into something more haunting. B+(*) [R]
Legend: B+ records are divided into three levels, where more * is better. [R] indicates record was reviewed using a stream from Rhapsody ([X] is some other identified stream source; otherwise assume a CD). The biggest caveat there is that the packaging and documentation hasn't been inspected or considered, and documentation is especially important for reissues. But also my exposure to streamed records is briefer and more limited, so I'm more prone to snap judgments -- although that's always a risk.
For this column and the previous 93, see the archive.