Friday, March 30. 2012
I went to a presentation Rannfrid Thelle gave last night to the Wichita Peace Center about Syria. It was offered mostly as historical background ("From Aram to Assad"), PowerPoint bullets with archeological pictures from Rannfrid's 2006 visit to Syria. A couple dozen people were present, mostly the usual crowd, plus two ringers with Syrian connections pushing an anti-Assad, pro-revolution line (but, thankfully, well short of calling for armed intervention). They didn't quite hijack the presentation, but they reminded me how defenseless well-meaning people are when confronted with evidence of brutal repression. The urge to help is overwhelming, swamping the critical recognition that help is something we are unable to offer.
I know I find myself moved by reports of the Assad regime's violent suppression of demonstrations, but when I hear pleas for outsiders to step in and "protect the people," all I know for sure is that if the US were to intervene in any way, all we would do is kill more. It seems clear that the Assad regime has killed more people and done more damage than any of the other targets of Arab Spring -- with the possible, but not certain, exception of Libya, where the US did add to the body count. (And for that matter, Assad has killed more than Iran and Myanmar did in forcibly suppressing major demonstration movements over the last few years.)
No doubt the Assad regime has disgraced itself. However, it is far from the only government that has done such, so why focus on it? (One could, after all, cite the elephant-in-the-room, Israel, which has killed a comparable number of people under its sovereignty, albeit stretched out over a longer timeframe.) Syria moved to the forefront of the news partly because it flowed out of the "Arab Spring" revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, and partly because we in the US have long held a grudge against it. In particular, Bush's generals loudly threatened to invade Syria in 2003-04 if Syria in any way aided the resistance in Iraq: the goal then wouldn't have been to liberate the Syrian people from an oppressive regime, but to get rid of an inconvenient one and replace it with something more to our liking. Indeed, the US did just that in occupying Afghanistan and Iraq. The idea that we might selflessly liberate a country so that its people could run a free democracy was at best a propaganda afterthought.
Rannfrid did a generally good job in outlining Syria's history, but she missed one essential item: in 1948, Syria woke up on the wrong side of the bed and found itself locked into conflict with Israel. What happened was that the British quit their mandate in Palestine without having established any sort of agreement on the shape of its future independent government. In this void, the Zionist organization declared Israeli independence, and marshalled its army to secure as much territory as it could within Palestine, with no concern for the two-thirds of the mandate's population who were not Jewish, and who had agreed to no such division. As the Israeli militias advanced, the Palestinians appealed to the newly independent Arab states for help (like the Free Syrian Army currently begs for outside help). The Israelis like to describe this as all the Arab armies invading on Independence Day, another example of their accustomed blindness to the Palestinian presence.
Those Arab states had various agendas. Egypt, Transjordan, and Iraq were ruled by crony kings installed by Britain, and Transjordan was practically invited to invade by the Israelis in the hope that they would pick up the Arab West Bank and prevent an independent Palestinian state from being established. Israel's success, both in expanding its territory way beyond what the UN had offered -- without consent of the people actually living there -- and in driving over 700,000 Palestinians into exile proved to be deeply embarrassing to the junior officers caught up in the 1948-49 war. This, in turn, led to military coups in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria -- to a long series of such in Syria until Hafez Assad was finally able to stabilize control of the government.
Israel signed temporary armistice arrangements to end the war, but refused to sign peace treaties -- mostly because Israel was unwilling to readmit any refugees, but also because Israel was still unsatisfied with its borders. Up to 1967, Israel repeatedly provoked border incidents with Syria, then in June 1967 Israel used the closing of shipping to Eilat as a pretext to invading and snatching large chunks of territory from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Later that year, Israel formally annexed the Golan Heights that it had seized from Syria and depopulated. In 1979 Egypt was able to recover its lost territories by signing a unilateral peace treaty with Israel, which left Syria permanently maimed and powerless to cut its own deal. (Ehud Barak made a token effort at a deal in 2000, then backed away when it looked like Assad might agree.)
America's relationship with Syria has always been a reflection of its relationship with Israel. When Israel sought alliances in the west, Syria had no other defense option but to turn to the Soviet Union, which only hardened US antipathy to them. Syria's relationships with other Arab nations broke up over one issue or another. Syria occasionally made gesture to appease the US, like their enthusiastic endorsement of the 1990 Gulf War against Iraq, but they were easily forgotten -- in large part because for the US Israel always came first. The US at first welcomed Syria's intervention in Lebanon, then ultimately insisted that they leave. It's hard to think of any nation the US has had a more fickle and unprincipled relationship with, although Iraq and Iran and Afghanistan come close, for much the same reasons. That Bush decided not to invade in 2004 most likely had less to do with excuses than with lack of imagination about what to do with the carcass. That in turn may be because Israel seems to like the Assad regime: it's not only the devil they know, it's such a toothless wreck of a government they can bomb it on a whim and know there won't be any consequences.
One major reason the situation in Syria has become so grave is that the regime is so isolated from the rest of the world. It has only partly rebuilt its relationship with Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it's unlikely that Russia has anywhere near the deep-seated relationship with Syria that the US was able to exploit in nudging Mubarak out of power in Egypt, even assuming Russia has any desire to do so. The only other countries with any links to Syria are China and Iran, and neither is very sensitive about the rights of pro-democracy demonstrators. One thing we've seen again and again is that the more isolated a nation is, the less its leaders have to lose in resorting to violent repression -- again, consider Iran, Myanmar, Libya. And in Syria's case, it's too late to fix that: now that the regime has so disgraced itself, the pressure is against anyone trying to build relationships.
Meanwhile, the anti-Assad opposition -- especially the exiles who are safe from retribution -- have only become emboldened, ever more militant. They plead for arms, for intervention, to fight not to depose the regime but to conquer it. We are, in effect, being asked to choose sides in a civil war we actually have no stake in and no comprehension of. Sure, we can grasp the brutality of the Assad regime, but not yet the brutality of an opposition that has already decided to resort to killing and maiming its opponents -- a process that the longer it persists the more dehumanizing it will become. Indeed, one theme that emerged in the meeting was the fear that a triumphant anti-Assad movement would take its revenge on the Allawite community that Assad came from and favors. Several people were reminded of Rwanda; my own thoughts gravitated to the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad by Shiite militias as the US decided that the only way to keep Iraqis from uniting against the occupation was to turn them against each other. On the other hand, we had to sort through wild stories about Assad importing Iranian snipers, mass incarcerations, torture, and ritualistic killings. It's impossible to know what's actually true because access is so limited and propaganda is so free.
The dehumanization of the other side is inevitably one of the first things that happens in war, and it's well under way in Syria. The longer and bloodier the struggle continues, the worse it will be for all sides. (The continuing turmoil in the so-called Libya success is an example of what happens when you militarize conflict.) It's dehumanization that leads to atrocities, which leads to more of the same. The sane way out is to back off from anything that implies violence, while maintaining a vigilant concern for any violation of basic human rights by any party. The most effective approach would be to shame the Assad regime into backing down, chilling out, and opening up. That involves engaging with the regime, no matter how distasteful that seems, and it involves rejecting any elements of the opposition who insist on fighting this out in the streets. The end result should be a democratic government where individuals can speak up and protest without fear, and the end result should have nothing to do with the ulterior motives of other countries.
Making this work will take some effort, and more carrots than sticks, but it has worked elsewhere, and the all-stick approach (so dear to John Bolton) has failed virtually everywhere. To take one example, Turkey had built up a pretty rotten human rights record, but over the last 10-20 years they've done much to turn that around. They still have a long ways to go, but the prospect of joining the European Union steered them toward reforms, and the odds of a military coup have gone way down. Latin America and the former Communist states provide more examples, and Myamnar, which only a few years ago brutally suppressed demonstrations, seems to be opening up to diplomatic efforts. The Middle East and North Africa remain in turmoil, but as more nations there become more legitimately democratic Syria will be more tempted to join them.
Aside from the short-sightedness of the Assad regime, the main obstacle to democratic reforms in Syria is Israel and its clumsy, incoherent puppet, the United States. The US has bases all over the region, which do little more than make it a target for local rage and offer opportunities for embarrassing adventures. Israel, meanwhile, has no desire for any form of peace that would entail concessions, like basic human rights, to its Palestinian subjects (let alone refugees). The whole Arab Spring movement makes Israel uneasy: Israel has long prided itself on being the region's "only democracy," but it is nothing of the sort, no longer "only" and hardly in any sense a democracy. What it is, however, is a rogue state -- with its targeted killings and nuclear blackmail -- the threat that generations of Arab dictators have used to rationalize their own corruptions. Solve the Palestinian problem, turn Israel into a normal nation, let the US pull back its tentacles, and the whole region will open up.
 Helena Cobban, citing Patrick Cockburn, makes this point effectively. Cobban goes on to counter the arguments for outside armed intervention: something you should bookmark and re-read every time you find yourself entertaining the thought that doing so just might work.
 The standard solution to the Israel-Syria conflict is for Israel to return the Golan Heights to Syria, which was pretty much (if not necessarily seriously) what Barak offered in 2000. I wonder if a simpler solution might be for Israel to buy the territory. It might work like a mini-Marshall Plan: I don't know what the price might be, but say $20 billion, offered as credits over 50 years, which works out to $400 million per year. Syria would cash in those credits by buying goods (anything but arms) from Israel, so this would be a domestic stimulus that also provided genuinely useful aid (which is pretty much what the Marshall Plan did, unlike USAID's scams to dump agricultural surplus). Just an idea. They could do similar things with settlements on Palestinian land. I would prefer for Israel to hand over the settlements with the understanding that any Jews who wish to stay become Palestinian citizens (with full and equal rights), but for a lot of (I'd say bad) reasons that ain't gonna happen. It may not be justice to convert your problems into money, but at least it makes them negotiable.
Monday, March 26. 2012
Music: Current count 19545  rated (+18), 889  unrated (+3). Got a nice jump at the start of last week, otherwise I wouldn't have nothing at all. Spent Wednesday evening prepping a picnic paella dinner then drove to Independence on Thursday, to see my 97-year-old aunt and her three offspring (now 68-71, my closest cousins when I was growing up). Got roped into a basketball game with a very young grandson of one, who managed to heave three baskets in to my one before I slipped or tripped and wound up smashing into a car fender nose first. I was a sore, bloody mess. Had intended to drive on to Arkansas the next day, but limped back to Wichita instead. Slept most of Saturday, then hobbled out to the backyard on Sunday and painted a bit on the shed. Made more dramatic progress today, but had one of the worst allergy attacks in my life afterwards.
Didn't intend to present any Jazz Prospecting this week, but I count a baker's dozen discs below, including a couple good ones. Hard to recall them given all that has happened, and how far under the weather I am. (Was going to cite an article in the Eagle this morning about how bad allergies are right now, and how unusual that is for this time of the year: highs in the low 80s today, bright, sunny, lots of bugs.)
Sarah Elgeti Quintet: Into the Open (2010 , Your Favourite Jazz): Plays tenor sax, soprano sax, flute, percussion; born in Germany, based in Denmark. First album. Group includes a second sax (Marianne Markmann-Eriksen on alto and baritone), guitar, piano (or Fender Rhodes), bass, and drums. Has some interesting postbop sequences, but also dips into bland pop. Ends with a remix that evens things out. B
Nobuyasu Furuya Quintet: The Major (2010 , NoBusiness): Japanese tenor saxophonist, has a previous album on Clean Feed, again recorded this in Lisbon with what looks to be a local group. This one is released in Lithuania on limited edition (300 copies) vinyl, but I'm listening to a CDR. Impressive depth in a free jazz setting, much aided by Eduardo Lâla's trombone -- gives the group a New Orleans polyphony feel, but rougher than that. B+(***) [advance]
Dennis González/Yells at Eels: Resurrection and Life (2010-11 , Ayler): Avant-trumpet player, from Dallas, has a long list of superb albums starting in the mid-1980s and getting a second wind around 2003, becoming even more prolific over the last few years. (I've reviewed a dozen of his records, but notice six more since 2009 that I didn't get but noted on my wish list.) Part of this burst is due to the maturation of his sons Aaron González (bass) and Stefan González (drums, vibes) in their joint group Yells at Eeels (along with trombonist Gaika James). This particular set adds ("featuring") drummer Alvin Fiedler, who frees Stefan to focus on the vibraphone -- the record is awash in tinkly chimes, not necessarily for the better, although the tight horns reward close listening, as does the bassist. B+(**)
David Greenberger with Jupiter Circle: Never Give Up Study (2011, Pel Pel): A writer, b. 1954, trained as a painter but got a job as "activities director" in a Boston nursing home, and built his "art" -- starting in 1979 with a self-published "zine" called Duplex World, extending to radio commentary on NPR and four records released late last year -- out of conversations with old people. The first person threw me off a bit, in part because the reading is so affectless, until the stories don't quite add up -- which takes a while here. Jupiter Circle provide unobtrusive musical backup. B+(**)
David Greenberger/Mark Greenberg: Tell Me That Before (2011, Pel Pel): More conversations from elderly centers, nursing homes, and suchlike -- a long list of credits is provided this time. Greenberg provides the background music -- also a long list of credits, including some bass guitar and drums credited to "DG" and guitar from "PC" (Paul Cebar). One track I should listen to again makes the point that creative people think up way more ideas than they can ever use, so the real skill is figuring out how to budget your time. B+(***)
David Greenberger/Bangalore: How I Became Uncertain (2011, Pel Pel): The elderly stories are short and pithy here, their frequent redundancy and cliché distancing them from Greenberger's first-person earnestness -- also the stories where the narrator identifies herself as a woman. Bangalore is a guitar-bass-drums band, more rock than the others, with Phil Kaplan's guitar sharp contrast. B+(***)
David Greenberger/Ralph Carney: OH, PA (2011, Pel Pel): Carney, who started out playing sax in the Akron rock group Tin Huey, became a long-term sideman for Tom Waits, and has a checkered solo recording career (including some Serious Jass), has done up music for a couple spoken word albums before, so he should be a natural here. However, his score is pretty scattered here, mostly keybs that get in or out of the way. As with the other discs, mostly Greenberger reading the stories of elderly people, but four cuts carry the concept one step further, with Mal Sharpe playing Greenberger interviewing subjects voiced by Greenberger. B+(**)
Steve Lehman Trio: Dialect Fluorescent (2011 , Pi): Alto saxophonist, studied under Anthony Braxton and Jackie McLean, leans toward the latter in this sax trio (Matt Brewer on bass, Damion Reid on drums), closing with McLean's "Mr. E." Also covers Coltrane, Duke Pearson, and "Pure Imagination" by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, mixed in with four (or five) originals. A
Don Mark's Fire Escape: In a New Light (2011 , Niromi): Front cover adds: "Jammin' Rhythm & Jazz Fusion"; I'd try to work "honkin'" in there somewhere. Mark plays tenor sax; has three previous albums, described as "solo projects." Credits are scant and don't match his website, but band includes piano/keyboards, electric bass, and drums: groove enough to set the sax off wailing. All covers, with "St. Thomas" and "Song for My Father" outstanding, as always. B+(**)
Ivo Perelman/Joe Morris/Gerald Cleaver: Family Ties (2011 , Leo): Tenor saxophonist from Brazil, released a cluster of six albums a year or two ago to celebrate twenty years recording: he had to differentiate those, but here he's back to his core strength, blowing fierce free sax. The bassist and drummer create an energetic background, but the focus is rarely away from the sax. Starts with a bit of kazoo, which doesn't channel enough wind, then raises his game. After the hard stuff, he's so relaxed he opens up and soars. A-
Rampersaud Shaw Martin Neal Krakowiak: Halcyon Science 130410 (2011, Barnyard): Canadian group: Nicole Rampersaud (trumpet), Evan Shaw (alto/baritone sax), Wes Neal (bass), Jean Martin (drums, laptop, trumaphone), Tomasz Krakowiak (percussion). Only Martin has much of a discography. Group improvs, interesting moments, nicely balanced, dense but not squawky. B+(**)
Stone Quartet: Live at Vision Festival (2010 , Ayler): One of those ad hoc all-star groups that are so easy to form on the avant-garde, but remain collages of individual talents, in this case: Joëlle Léandre (bass), Roy Campbell (trumpet, flutes), Marilyn Crispell (piano), and Mat Manieri (viola). Two string instruments and no drums keep this within the parameters of chamber jazz. Two pieces: one 32:20, the other 9:20, pure improv. B+(**)
Justin Walter: Stars (2011 , Walter): Trumpet player, b. 1978; looks like he has one previous album, plus an EP, plus side credits, mostly with experimental rock outfits like Nomo and His Name Is Alive (appearing on the latter's Marion Brown tribute). Dense postbop here, most cuts with trombone, two or three reeds, guitar, Rhodes, bass, and drums -- none of which emerges all that distinctly. B
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Monday, March 19. 2012
Music: Current count 19527  rated (+20), 886  unrated (-9). Light week. I lost three or four days, one cooking a very nice Spanish dinner (mariscada in almond sauce), the others painting on the shed and garage. Next week will be light too, as I'm planning a little trip to see some relatives between here and the ancient family stake in Arkansas.
Still, I started with some Jazz Prospecting left over from the previous light week, so there's enough to go with here. The Michael Moore albums showed up in late December, so technically count as 2011 releases -- a publicist would no doubt have jiggered the dates, but these came straight from the source. I was delighted to get them, but they've been a bear to sort out: with each adding seemingly insignificant facets to the whole, I might have been more impressed had he boxed them up and forced me to swallow them whole.
Available Jelly: Plushlok, Baarle-Nassau, Set 1 (2007 , Ramboy): Michael Moore's longest-running group, dating back to an album of that name released in 1984. Moore writes most of the material -- 5 of 7 here, the covers a trad piece from Myanmar and a very striking "Isfahan" from Billy Strayhorn -- and releases it on his label. Sextet, with Tobias Delius (also of ICP) the second sax, Eric Boeren and Wolter Wierbos the brass, Ernst Glerum on bass, and Michael Vatcher on drums. The mischief is in the horns, flipping and flying in all sorts of directions, the harmony all the more humorous. A-
Available Jelly: Plushlok, Baarle-Nassau, Set 2 (2007 , Ramboy): Could have been packaged into a 2-CD set in which case I'd just say, "more is more." Actually, the three Ellington covers had my hopes up, as did a closer called "Kwela for Taylor" (whoever that is), but the rowdiness level is down a bit. Terrific kwela, by the way. B+(***)
Jon Balke/Batagraf: Say and Play (2009 , ECM): Pianist, b. 1955 in Norway, has a dozen albums since 1991, most ECM. Not much piano here. Batagraf is his percussion group: Balke's credits start with tougone, darbouka, and hand drums; Helge Andreas Norbakken adds sabar, talking drums, djembe, metal percussion; and Erland Dahlen just drums, with Emilie Stoesen Christensen's vocals and Torgeir Rebodello Pedersen reading poetry (4 tracks). Beats are mostly African, maybe filtered through Cuba and back again. B+(*) [advance]
Tim Berne: Snakeoil (2011 , ECM): Alto (and sometimes baritone) saxophonist, a protégé of Julius Hemphill, took some time finding himself but must now be considered a major figure. First album as a leader on ECM, although he's appeared as a key sideman a couple times, most notably on David Torn's Prezens (2007). Quartet with Oscar Noriega (clarinet, bass clarinet), Matt Mitchell (piano), and Ches Smith (drums, percussion) -- no bass (or guitar, the instrument of choice in Berne's trio). The horn interplay is complex, often scintillating. B+(***) [advance]
Kyle Bruckmann's Wrack: Cracked Refraction (2010 , Porter): Oboe player, also English horn; b. 1971 in Danbury, CT ("hometown of Charles Ives"), studied at Rice and Michigan, moved to Chicago in 1996, on to Oakland in 2003. AMG lists eight records since 2000, not counting "the art-punk monstrosity" Lozenge (and who knows what else). Started avant-classical, moved into avant-jazz mostly in his Chicago phase which culminated in the album Wrack, with violist Jen Clare Paulson and drummer Tim Daisy both then and now, trombonist Jeb Bishop, and bassist Kurt Johnson. Here Anton Hatwich takes over the bass slot, and Jason Stein's bass clarinet supplants the trombone. A front line of oboe, bass clarinet, and viola may sound like a nice chamber group, but as Wrack they break into all sorts of odd fractures, refracted through the many antipodes of the group. B+(***)
Michael Campagna: Moments (2010 , Challenge): Tenor saxophonist, also plays flute (a lot of flute here). Graduated University of Miami; has taught in New York, and currently in Genoa, Italy. Second album, mostly quintet with trumpet (Michael Rodriguez), piano (Robert Rodriguez), bass (Hans Glawishnig), and drums (Eric Door), plus harp (Brandee Younger) on four tracks. Postbop, aims for evanescence but gets rather squishy with all the flute and harp. B
Louis Cole and Genevieve Artadi: Think Thoughts (2011, self-released): Cover only has title, but previous album didn't even have that so is listed eponymously under the artist names. Back cover lists songs and some "Ft." guests but no credits -- John Escreet and David Binney are pretty obvious, and Vikram must be the rapper on the last track. Cole is a drummer, and most of the tracks are built on frenetic beats. Artadi sings. Despite a few jazz connections, figure this as soft-core art-punk. B+(**)
Josh Ginsburg: Zembla Variations (2011 , Bju'ecords): Bassist, first album, composed all eight pieces, then assembled a quartet that could not just play along but add something: Eli Degibri (tenor and soprano sax), George Colligan (piano, fender rhodes), and Rudy Royston (drums). Colligan is well established but rarely plays this fast and free on his own. Degibiri is a young Israeli with a couple of records, none this impressive. B+(***)
Holshouser, Bennink & Moore: Live in NYC (2009 , Ramboy): Accordion player Will Holshouser's name is spelled right on the front cover, but misspelled two different ways on the back. He's the bedrock here, with Michael Moore's reeds building on his tone, but the oustanding performance here is by drummer Han Bennink, whose rat-tat-tat sound distinct from the start and develops into a tour de force. A-
Michael Moore Quartet: Easter Sunday (2011, Ramboy): Plays alto sax and clarinet, originally from California but settled in Amsterdam and has become a prominent member of the Dutch avant-garde scene, including a spot with the ICP Orchestra. Issued a shotgun blast of six albums at the end of 2011, mostly culled from live tapes, the sheer number and consistency of which make it hard to grade on any sort of curve. This is a quartet with piano (Harmen Fraanja), bass (Clemens van der Feen), and drums (Michael Vatcher). Runs 70:24. All originals, except for an especially nice "It Might as Well Be Spring." B+(**)
Michael Moore Quintet: Rotterdam (2008 , Ramboy): With Eric Vloeimans' trumpet complementing the leader's clarinet and alto sax, Marc van Roon on piano, Paul Berner on bass, and Owen Hart, Jr., on drums. All Moore compositions, recorded live, runs 67:33. Has a light and playful air, the horn interplay developing into something remarkable. B+(***)
Michael Moore Quartet: Amsterdam (2010 , Ramboy): Same lineup as the later Easter Sunday: Harmen Fraanja (piano), Clemens van der Feen (bass), Michael Vatcher (drums, saw, percussion). There are stretches where Moore's clarinet scales the heights so deftly that I find myself thinking this must be the pick of the litter. Then I wonder. B+(***)
Luis Perdomo: Universal Mind (2010 , RKM): Pianist, b. 1971 in Venezuela, based in New York. Picks up a lot of side credits, notably with Miguel Zenón. Fourth album, a trio with Drew Gress and Jack DeJohnette. Nice, tight set, but within the postbop frame, not against it. B+(**)
Pete Robbins Transatlantic Quartet: Live in Basel (2010 , Hate Laugh Music): Alto saxophonist, b.1978, based in New York, AMG lists four albums since 2002. Quartet with guitar (Mikkel Ploug), electric bass (Simon Jermin), and drums (Kevin Brow), offering Ploug a lot of space. B+(*)
Matthew Shipp: Elastic Aspects (2011 , Thirsty Ear): Nominally a piano trio with Michael Bisio on bass and Whit Dickey on drums, although much of this is done solo, and a couple pieces feature Bisio solos -- deep arco things that contrast with the hard percussive piano spots. B+(***)
Ben Wendel: Frame (2011 , Sunnyside): Saxophonist, specifies plural here, plus bassoon and melodica. Third album, postbop with piano (split between Gerald Clayton, Tigran Hamasyan, and Adam Benjamin) and guitar (Nir Felder), bass and drums -- robust in the middle, with striking sax leads. B+(**)
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Sunday, March 18. 2012
Before we get to the usual scattered links I squirreled away during the previous week, two front page items in the Wichita Eagle today:
And on to the usual links:
Saturday, March 17. 2012
The Wichita Eagle front-page headline is "Soldier suspected in killings gets to Kansas," the piece attributed to Kansas City Star staff and wire reports. (I can't find the piece online, but it is apparently based on this piece.) It doesn't acclaim Staff Sgt. Robert Bales as a hero, but isn't everyone who signed up for the post-9/11 Global War on Terror a hero? They're automatically acclaimed when they die, as at least 6,398 have done, or when they're wounded (as Bales was, losing part of his foot), or when they receive medals (Bales is oft described as "much decorated"). So why not when they go berserk? The Army may prefer precise and unemotional control over its violence against Afghan villagers, but Bales' methodical killing of sixteen (mostly) children wasn't far out of the long line of atrocities other US "heroes" have committed. It just underscores how unfit the US military is for the difficult task of nation building, and therefore how hopeless what Obama can only describe as "the Mission" -- an abstract noun that has thus far proven impossible to define -- really is.
Some background on Bales is available here and here, and here. He is 38, was born in the Midwest, is married, has two children (3 and 4). He served three tours in Iraq, and was recently deployed to Afghanistan. He was trained as a sniper, which is to say someone who calmly and methodically picks out targets at distance, and kills them. The Pentagon describes his career as "unremarkable." A neighbor is quoted: "A good guy go tput in the wrong place at the wrong time." Happens all the time.
Problem is, if you're Afghan, this looks like stone cold murder. And if you're Afghan, you probably have a clear idea of what justice should look like -- and it's probably not that it would only be fair to ship the killer half-way around the world to a cozy cell in Kansas to let his shrinks and lawyers come up with arguments and excuses to try show that Bales is the victim here.
There is a case to be made that Bales was indeed a victim: of a president who decided to double down on the same military that had turned eight years of arrogance into abject failure, but Obama was stuck, like Rumsfeld complained earlier, with the army he inherited, and with a political culture that insists that America's heroes will prevail eventually (unless sabotaged by cowardly politicians). No one thought of the welfare of the troops before launching this war, but ever since politicians have been hiding behind their confused feelings, ignoring the fact that they were never fit for the purpose, that their deeply trained lethality ensures a string of atrocities. Anyone who seriously believes the popular counterinsurgency theories should start by building a new army; the real one doesn't work, even if some officers have learned to talk the talk.
Talking the talk, after all, has always been the easy part. What's hard is understanding you can't occupy a country you have no business in, no understanding of, and no awareness of your own alien nature. The US entered Afghanistan seeking revenge for 9/11, and never quite satisfied that itch. Overstaying its welcome, the US set up a puppet regime, then proceeded to delegitimize it by continued dominance -- Bush was too busy starting new wars to bother cleaning up after this one. Then came Obama, proving that America's best efforts were just as futile as America's worst efforts. Now he thinks he can tiptoe away without admitting fault or error, when the entire campaign has been nothing but wrong.
Bales' massacre is deeply embarrassing for Obama because there's no way to scrub away the stain. Either it was policy or not, the latter proof that we cannot manage our policy: we can't control our own troops, nor the Afghans we've trained, even less the Taliban. Even the right is abandoning this war: the carnage doesn't bother them, but they'd rather hate Muslims from a distance than try to divide and conquer them far away. And I suspect more and more we'll see the military itself turn on the mission: as good as it's been for budgets and careers, incidents like this show that the troops are wearing out, that the strain is cracking them up. Maybe they even like the idea of leaving Obama holding the bag. His statements this past week have been the most tone-deaf of his tenure.
Some more relevant links:
Monday, March 12. 2012
Music: Current count 19507  rated (+25), 877  unrated (+3). Posted Rhapsody Streamnotes last week. I thought it hit a lot of the key records so far this year, and wound up supporting two records that have been given scant respect, but I got virtually no feedback on it. It also included two jazz reviews. Makes more sense to me to include jazz that I pick up on Rhapsody with the Streamnotes rather than listing them under Jazz Prospecting. For one thing, jazz is an integral part of a healthy musical diet, and slipping some into the Streamnotes acknowledges that. The other is that Jazz Prospecting is an on-and-off project these days. It's still probable that I'll get a jazz blog together, but I haven't managed to focus much on it lately. I wound up spending most of last week priming the pump for April's Streamnotes -- thus far I have four A- records lined up (see the year-end (in progress) list if you're curious), not counting the new Todd Snider (which is expected to show up here any moment now).
No Jazz Prospecting until next week. Don't really have enough of it, and more importantly I'm midway through Michael Moore's six live releases and having a tough time singling out any one -- excellent all, none really exceptional (although the first Available Jelly may have a slight edge). Should get that done, and more, next week.
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Sunday, March 11. 2012
Some links and comments, trying to get back onto some sort of weekly schedule:
Saturday, March 10. 2012
A bizarre thing happened after the Democrats won overwhelmingly in 2008, with a record turnout of American voters electing a black man as president, with an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress (including that much-touted "filibuster-proof" Senate majority): the Republican mainstream vanished from sight, and the party was taken over by the only mass force that still held a soapbox: talk radio and Fox TV. They orchestrated the faux protest movement marketed as the Tea Party, and they demanded and enforced the Republicans' no surrender/no compromise legislative strategy. The result has been a massive dumbing down of the party faithful, as their brains have become imprisoned in the contradictions of their knee-jerk rhetoric. One early indication was the insistence that government keep its hands off Social Security. Opposition to bank bailouts was matched by opposition to any kind of regulation of banks -- especially the kind that seeks to protect customers from credit card usury. Similar dynamics play out everywhere.
But the most extreme idiocies are no longer the exclusive property of the shock jocks: the long Republican presidential primary process has put the candidates out on the front lines. (Not that Rush Limbaugh hasn't tried to keep his edge, as when he insisted that if insurance companies cover the costs of birth control for women, they owe it to us to return the favor by posting tapes of themselves having sex.) But the overwhelming majority of really stupid things the right has said in the last few months has come from the mouths of front-running presidential candidates. Rick Santorum, for instance, has decided that people shouldn't go to college where they might be exposed to liberal ideas. And Mitt Romney knows that as president he won't have to care about the poor because they have their safety net. And everyone but Ron Paul wants to make sure we go to war with Iran, because diplomacy would only make us look weak. And Ron Paul wants to collapse the economy by returning to the gold standard.
A good example of this is a quote from Ryan Lizza: Life of the Party:
Where to start? A nitpick, I guess: Fox flunky Williams is only Fox's idea of a liberal; a real liberal would never use the word "entitlement." A more apt word would be "right": we believe that Americans (all people, really) should have an equal right to high quality health care services -- something that doesn't exist today because there's more profit to be made by private agencies rationing health care in an opaque, unfree market, and those who make those profits have been able to corrupt the political system to work in their interests as opposed to the interests of the vast majority of Americans. "Obamacare" is another misleading term: the law Obama signed (officially, the Affordable Care Act) isn't a system, just a band-aid on an existing system that no one should want to lend their name to.
But what exactly makes Obamacare the one-word definition of taking away "our economic freedom"? The main effect of the law is to make it harder for insurance companies to deny coverage, and to (eventually) make it easier for people to afford to be insured. So how does more (and better) insurance impact economic freedom? For most of us, having health insurance frees us from the worry of an illness or accident we cannot afford. The alternatives are either to save ahead (the idea behind health savings accounts, which locks up a large amount of money for a worst case scenario which may never happen, and is in any case an option only available to people who have more money than they know what to do with), or hope that someone else will pick up the bill if illness or accident strikes. It's hard to see how either alternative would make one free. Of course, if you're a corporation selling health care services, free may mean something else to you: like being free to extort ever-higher prices, being free to advertise benefits and hide adverse outcomes, being free of regulation or recourse like malpractice suits. Unfortunately, the ACA doesn't do much to limit those freedoms, if that's what you want to call activities that in most other spheres of life are considered crimes.
The whole thing about Catholic hospitals smells too. Religious freedom is necessarily personal, otherwise religions would constantly battle to impose their beliefs on each other. A hospital that denied services to patients based on the religious principles of its owners would be the denier, not the observer, of religious freedom. Of course, this is a subtle point that wouldn't impress Santorum, who has repeatedly decried the separation of church and state -- showing that his misunderstanding of freedom of religion is total.
The fish thing is equally bizarre. What he's basically describing is his fear that a government that does things for the people might in turn be supported by those people. That would seem to be the very essence of democracy, so you have to wonder about someone who thinks that people who understand democracy and vote their interests are "mindless fish." From the dawn of democracy the rich have feared that their enfranchised lessers would use their votes to help themselves, but they've usually seen education as a way of training the masses to respect their betters. Bush's desire to turn schools into test-taking factories reflected this position, but conservatives like Santorum distrust any process that even suggests the possibility of learning and thinking, especially one that costs the rich money -- an unconscionable transfer since the rich have their own schools, as do Santorum's religious favorites.
Santorum's defense of extremism is, of course, crassly self-serving and otherwise ludicrous -- even the idea that a second helping of Reagan would be a good thing is a horrendous thought. But then he does do something classically Reagan-like, as he reduces his campaign take-home message to a self-flattering chant. Why, after all, try to present a logical argument, especially after deciding that reasoning is enemy turf, when you can just whip yourself up into a nonsensical frenzy?
Santorum is probably the most extremely dippy of the Republicans' remaining presidential candidates, but they're all more or less like that. They've given up on reason, and have no real plans other than to make the rich richer and to further reduce the safety net for everyone else. They hate government and campaign to take it over so they can wreck it further. And all they have to draw on is the emotional fever pitch of truisms that are ultimately no deeper than "we're great" -- plus a lot of money and a well-oiled media.
No big surprise, but Rick Santorum won the Kansas Republican caucuses today, with 51.2% of the vote, compared to 20.9% for Mitt Romney (so much for Kobach's endorsement), 14.4% for Newt Gingrich, and 12.6% for Ron Paul (so much for Koch's commitment to libertarianism). By the way, total vote in the caucus was 29,857, which works out to 1.7% of the number of registered voters in KS. Ain't democracy grand?
Tuesday, March 6. 2012
I mostly blame the shortfall here -- I think this is the second shortest list of the last several years -- on the Detroit trip, which wiped out at least a third of the month. Until close to the end I thought I'd come up with an especially short A-list, but three items fell into my lap in the last few days -- two thanks to tips (Tatum for Prinzhorn, Monsen for Gayle). Could be some of the nine high-B+ records just need a little more time. (Cloud Nothings, Imperial Teen, and Sleigh Bells all got bumped up once already after rechecking.) One change from past years is that I've decided that Rhapsody jazz will appear here instead of in the currently off-and-on Jazz Prospecting. I'm also leaning towards putting previously unissued vault material here instead of in Recycled Goods -- Thomas Anderson is one case where that made sense.
These are short notes/reviews based on streaming records from Rhapsody. They are snap judgments based on one or two plays, accumulated since my last post along these lines, back on February 3. Past reviews and more information are available here.
Air: Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip to the Moon) (2012, Astralwerks): The French electronica duo, Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel, attempt a retrospective soundtrack to Georges Méliès's 1912 film (which you may more likely recognize from Martin Scorsese's film Hugo). From the first drum rumble this doesn't sound like a soundtrack: the music not only develops in the foreground, the occasional words are more than enough to drive the "fantastic trip to the moon." A-
Oren Ambarchi: Audience of One (2012, Touch): Australian guitarist, of Iraqi-Jewish descent, with twenty albums since 1999, with connections to metal and avant-garde. Mostly plays guitar, often tricked up. Four pieces here, the big one a 33:22 piece of industrial grunge called "Knots" -- takes its time coming around, but it has plenty of time. The other three pieces are 8:20 max, a cover called "Fractured Mirror" from Ace Frehley's 1978 solo album (recently graded D+ by Tatum). It's actually just a repeated riff that could go on a lot longer before wearing its welcome out. B+(***)
Thomas Anderson: The Moon in Transit (Four-Track Demos, 1996-2009) (1996-2009 , Out There): Singer-songwriter originally from Oklahoma, cut an obscure album I liked a lot in 1988, a few more of note after that, but never became big enough for this to qualify as "odds and sods" -- more like a slow-gestating next album. Several striking songs ranging from the Donner Family to antihistamines to Warren Smith, packed with spooky aura to fill out the four tracks. A-
Carolina Chocolate Drops: Leaving Eden (2011 , Nonesuch): Trio, inspired by the black string bands of the 1920s, with banjo and fiddle, and mostly old-time songs that don't sound so old-timey, perhaps because the band feels free to build on them without hewing to convention or stereotype. This does jump around a lot, the various looks not quite cohering although there are remarkable bits -- not least Rhiannon Giddens' acapella closer ("Pretty Bird"), not that you'd want many more like that. B+(***)
Chiddy Bang: Breakfast (2012, Virgin): Philadelphia hip-hop duo, Chidera "Chiddy" Anamerge and Noah "Xaphoon Jones" Beresin; the former held the Guinness record for longest freestyle rap, but this is pretty tight, playing both sides of the underground/pop divide, the latter with sampled choruses and even some Nelly "oohs" on top of deft rhymes. One song identifies with U. Penn, enough to suggest they're the reason Rick Santorum doesn't want the youth of America to go to college. Actually, they went to Drexel. A-
Cloud Nothings: Attack on Memory (2012, Carpark): Guitar-bass-drums band from Cleveland, has a lo-fi garage sound, a slightly squeak voice in Dylan Baldi. They can tighten up tunes, or break out a bit, and the more you play it the more they turn their ordinary skills into something impressive, albeit limited. Second or third album, give or take an EP -- which this one barely exceeds: eight songs, 33:47. B+(***)
Coldplay: Mylo Xyloto (2011, Parlophone): Arena-level band, dominated by Chris Martin's piano and given to soaring space pop -- something I've often found myself enjoying, although I can't recall them ever hitting so many sour notes before, or just getting on my nerves. B-
Chick Corea/Eddie Gomez/Paul Motian: Further Explorations (2010 , Concord, 2CD): The bassist and drummer suggest that Corea has developed an interest in Bill Evans, and the songlist bears that out: of 19 songs, 5 are by Evans, others are closely associated; one each is by Gomez, Motian, and Scott LaFaro, and Corea wrote an original called "Bill Evans" (one of three, plus a group credit). Of course, this doesn't much sound like Evans: Corea is an incurably extroverted player so this has a brashness to it you almost never got with Evans. But, like his Bud Powell project from a while back, this does bring Corea back to his jazz focus. B+(**)
Dion: Tank Full of Blues (2012, Blue Horizon): Smart move, refashioning himself as a blues singer since 2005's Bronx in Blue, much as he turned into a folksinger in the 1960s when doo wop went out of fashion and Bob Dylan came in. B+(**)
Escort: Escort (2011 , Tirk): Brooklyn disco group, principally Dan Balis and Eugene Cho with a live and that grows to 17 members. First album after singles and remixes going back to 2006. Leads off with a Kid Creole move, but that's only one of many rips they know. Nearly every song got sharper on the second play, and I could imagine dancefloor exposure bringing them home. B+(***)
Jay Farrar/Will Johnson/Anders Parker/Yim Yames: New Multitudes (2012, Rounder): Lyrics by Woody Guthrie, whose name looms larger on the cover than the artists who had to write some music to give the songs life -- Farrar best known for Uncle Tupelo, Johnson for Centro-Matic, Yames (as Jim James) for My Morning Jacket. They go for a country rock sound with extra guitar overhang -- that seems to be Parker's specialty. B+(**)
First Aid Kit: The Lion's Roar (2012, Wichita): Two sisters, Johanna and Klara Soderberg, from Sweden, dabble in Americana -- been described as "the Swedish answer to the Pierces," speaking of questions you never would have thought to ask. The harmonies are rich at first, then overly so. And they don't always stay in character, and can get real lost when they don't. B-
Galactic: Carnivale Electricos (2012, Epitaph): New Orleans jazz-funk-jam band, about a dozen albums since 1996, first I've heard. Some zydeco samples (or guests) shuffled into the heavy funk beats, as well as various Nevilles and Mystikal. The guests offer some variation to the loud, monotonous beat but not much more. B
Charles Gayle Trio: Streets (2011 , Northern Spy): Tenor saxophonist, former street busker, found God through Ayler and carried on the flame, now into his 70s. Trio with Larry Roland on bass and Michael T.A. Thompson on drums. He always runs the risk that his discordance will blur into one long shmear, but he sticks to basics here, as clear and forceful and transcendental as anything he's done in many years. A-
Grimes: Visions (2012, 4AD): Singer-songwriter from Vancouver, Claire Boucher, based in Montreal, self-released two cassettes in 2010, debuts on a well-distributed label. Music electronic, choppy but soft-edged, with thin, high vocals adding to the effect, for now a bit distant. B+(*)
Himanshu: Nehru Jackets (2012, Greedhead): Aka Heems, of Das Racist, with one of three mixtapes reportedly spawned by the combine this year -- the only one people talk much about, probably because it's got the whole package going for it, including the denser song the progression of Das Racist tapes has been aiming toward. Plus more cameos -- not necessarily a plus, but seems to be part of the cost of fame. A- [dl]
Homeboy Sandman: Subject: Matter (2012, Stones Throw, EP): Six songs, 22:08, claims his songs break new ground for hip-hop, and there's something to that -- "Canned Goods" is not just about charity but about making charity work. Some of the rhymes appear forcibly twisted, but he finds rhythm in that. B+(***)
Homeboy Sandman: The Good Sun (2010, High Water Music): Full-length debut, opposite problem of the EP: way too much stuff to sort through, at least with the attention span I'm stuck with here. Beats are tight, rhymes can feel forced, but any given couplet is likely to register. B+(***)
Hospitality: Hospitality (2012, Merge): Brooklyn band, had an eponymous EP in 2008 and now comes out with an LP with the same name. Amber Papini sings, plays guitar, gets her name on all the songs along with the band's name. Guitar band, but takes a surprising turn here and there. Ten songs, 32.53. B+(*)
Imperial Teen: Feel the Sound (2012, Merge): Possibly the most consistent alt-rock group to emerge in the 1990s, partly because they take their time -- this is only their fifth studio album since 1996. Male and female harmonies, gives them a light sound with some snap and depth. Still don't quite feel it all, but the front-loaded fast ones snapped in on the second play, and I wouldn't bet against this growing. B+(***)
Ital: Hive Mind (2012, Planet Mu): Electronica from Daniel Martin-McCormick, debut as Ital but has worked through several other aliases/groups. First piece works off a repeated title riff of "Don't Matter (If You Love Him)" for ten minutes; the rest dispenses with the vocals, keeping tight beats with an underwater feel. B+(***)
K'Naan: More Beautiful Than Silence (2012, Octone, EP): Somali-Canadian rapper with some stopgap product -- five songs, 19:08 -- three years after his second terrific album dropped. Nelly Furtado helps on the opener. The optimism of "Coming to America" ("I hope we're going to have a really good time") strikes me as misplaced, and the rest has yet to add up. B+(*)
Lambchop: Mr. M (2012, Merge): Nashville band, albeit securely ensconsed in the commercial netherworld, even after a dozen albums and countless ephemera. Kurt Wagner is the mainstay, opting for a low-key ballad groove, framed initially by movie music strings, all very noir. Wonder if the storytelling fleshes out the mood music? B+(*)
Mark Lanegan Band: Blues Funeral (2012, 4AD): Ex-front man of Screaming Trees, a 1980s group I never bothered with until way too late, his solo career starting in 1990 before the band expired in 2000. As straightforward as its blues reference suggests, his voice haunting, best suited for dirges which can go loud like "Quiver Syndrome" or soft like "Harborview Hospital" but "Tiny Grain of Truth" makes me wonder about even that. B
Kellie Pickler: 100 Proof (2011 , BNA): Finished 6th place on American Idol, generally the kiss of death, but went country, listened hard to Tammy Wynette, picked up Miranda Lambert's producer and a whole lot of pedal steel guitar, and stuck close enough to neotrad convention that her third album sounds real fine, even if the depth of her sass doesn't extend much beyond "stop cheating on me/or I'll start cheating on you." B+(**)
Prinzhorn Dance School: Clay Class (2012, DFA): A husand-wife duo, Suzi Horn and Tobin Prinz, although sources also cite Dr. Hans Prinzhorn as a name source. Second album. He plays drums and takes most of the vocal leads, while she sketches out bass lines that recall, in vastly simplified form, Gang of Four, New Order, Cabaret Voltaire (especially), while they nail their clinical dance vibe precisely. A-
School of Seven Bells: Ghostory (2012, Vagrant): Electropop group, formerly with the Deheza twin sisters harmonizing, now with just Alejandra Deheza. Something of a loss, although the churning beats of "When You Sing" make up lost ground. B+(*)
Skrillex: Bangarang (2011 , Big Beat/Atlantic, EP): Sonny Moore, has several previous EPs, seems to prefer the short form perhaps because it would be hard to handle anything hour-long that's this loud and cartoon loopy. This one ran seven songs, 30:08, when it came out as digital on Dec. 27, but the CD adds a 6:54 bonus track: "Skrillex Orchestral Suite by Varien" -- trips my classical gag reflex from the start, although I'm half-tempted to find humor in it somewhere. But then I'm less amused by his other excesses. B
Sleigh Bells: Reign of Terror (2012, Mom + Pop Music): Duo: Derek Miller writes songs and Alexis Krauss sings them. Second album, not as consistent as Treats because they're trying more different things, starting with a bit of live "True Shred Guitar," winding on between pop and metal, thin and brittle, the pop hooks buried waiting for fans to dig them out. B+(***)
Ringo Starr: Ringo 2012 (2012, Hip-O): The slightest Beatle, not that George and Paul didn't wind up making it a race to the bottom, but he's been steadily productive, with 20-some records over 40-some years. Not that he works hard: nine songs including two covers and co-authors on the rest, lots of friends to lend a party atmosphere not to mention Beatles-y guitar licks. The drumming and extra percussion, at least, is his signature -- good to hear, but even that wears thin, even over 28:50. C+
Tennis: Young & Old (2012, Fat Possum): Husband-wife duo from Denver (Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley), plus a drummer (good move, that). Second album. She does most of the singing, and he keeps up their jangly guitar sound. B+(*)
The 2 Bears: Be Strong (2012, Southern Fried): UK duo -- Joe Goddard (of Hot Chip) and Raphael Rundell (aka Raf Daddy) -- on their first album after three EPs last year. Synthbeats and synth horns, leans heavily on Jamaica without falling into a dub pit. Neither singer has much, but they sweeten up in harmony, and "Time in Mind" opens up so nicely I looked up the credit (but didn't find one). B+(*)
Sharon Van Etten: Tramp (2010-11 , Jagjaguwar): Singer-songwriter from New Jersey with a stop in Tennessee; has a bit of a folkie rep I don't hear, but when the roots get this turgid you lose interest in sorting them out. Sometimes I get the feeling of Kate Bush trapped in Stuart Dempster's echo chamber: dub without any step. B-
Wire: The Black Session: Paris, 10 May 2011 (2011 , Pink Flag): Live, not vintage enough to be part of their bootlegs series. I don't know their songbook well enough to be able to pick out what comes from where, how much is new (or at least recent), etc., but sonically they jump around the eras, the denser the better. After getting more applause than seems warranted for "Red Barked Trees" (title song from their latest), they launch into a 10:48 "Pink Flag" (title song from their first), which doesn't leave me missing their lost brevity. B+(*)
Betty Wright and the Roots: Betty Wright: The Movie (2011, S-Curve): A minor soul singer who broke in young but late in 1968 and has little to show since 1993 gets a revival in a soundtrack tie-in. Not sure whether this is all new, although the rap refrains thrown in by her backing band must be, and the band can do retro on demand. Runs long, stretching 14 songs to 77:41. B+(**)
Zola Jesus: Conatus (2011, Sacred Bones): Nika Roza Danilova, b. 1989 in Wisconsin, has a couple albums and/or EPs -- sometimes hard to tell. Also has a voice that portends gloom, and a drumbeat that defies it, an effective combination. B+(*)
Monday, March 5. 2012
Music: Current count 19482  rated (+38), 874  unrated (-0). Posted Recycled Goods and A Downloader's Diary this past week. Rhapsody Streamnotes is up next -- probably tomorrow. Didn't get much done in February, so the month's haul will be light. Meanwhile, there's barely enough Jazz Prospecting to bother with, so I'll include it here.
A couple other things are worth noting. There's a 1969 EWPnJ poll going on, so I dumped out my database and tried scanning through the Discogs 1960s list (only about 5000 US records) to build up a 1969 Record List. The list is sorted alphabetically within grades, so isn't easy to read as a ballot. However, what I sent in looked like this (extended to 30 slots, since you miss a lot if you don't):
Not a lot here, but enough to report, especially since I've started to dig into some of the better prospects I socked away for the trip then didn't get to. Still pondering what to do about a longer term gig/framework, although I'm wearying of thinking about it.
Juhani Aaltonen and Heikki Sarmanto: Conversations (2010 , TUM, 2CD): By no means the only important figures in Finnish jazz, but the tenor saxphonist and pianist, respectively, were its first notable figures, their ambitions announced in their early-1970s group the Serious Music Ensemble -- not that there wasn't a certain amount of joking even there. Sarmanto's early 1970s groups drove fusion to the edges of avant excess, while his 1990s UMO Orchestra placed bets on jazz tradition. With Sarmanto and on his own, Aaltonen has always offered a clear and eloquent voice. And while I'm actually an admirer of his albums with strings and his frequent forays into flute, I'm pleased to note that he sticks to tenor sax here, simply accompanied, as soulful as ever. A-
Tony R Clef: Tuesday Afternoon (2011, Big Round): Guitarist, first record, AMG saw Purcell as the first composer and slotted it as classical, but he also does three Brazilian tunes, two relatively arty Beatles/Kinks tunes ("When I'm 64," "Sunny Afternoon"). Solo guitar, light and airy but distinctly picked. B+(*)
Scott DuBois: Landscape Scripture (2011 , Sunnyside): Guitarist, has a couple albums, notably Banshees (2008). Quartet, with Gebhard Ullmann (tenor sax, bass clarinet), Thomas Morgan (bass), and Kresten Osgood (drums). If I'm a bit more ambivalent about this one, it's probably because Ullmann, uncharacteristically, stays well within the lines. B+(***)
Floratone: Floratone II (2012, Savoy Jazz): File under guitarist Bill Frisell. All of the pieces are group-credited, with Matt Chamberlain (drums), Lee Townsend, and Tucker Martine -- the latter two are credited with "production" which ranges from sax-sounding synths to electronic beats to other disturbances of the aether, but there are also guests to account for (notably Ron Miles' trumpet and Eyvind Kang's viola). B+(***)
Vijay Iyer Trio: Accelerando (2011 , ACT): From Iyer's liner notes: "today's context sounds like acceleration: rising inequality, populist revolution, economic crisis, climate change, moore's law, global connectivity. as the flow of information gets faster, denser and more intricately networked, our attention shifts to the larger forms, the slower tempos that gracefully evolve like the spiral arms of a hurricane." Some issues there: I'd say information is getting sucked into individual fractal wormholes, so the more you have the less good it does you, leading not to a bigger-picture view but to an ever tinier one. For that matter, those graceful slower tempos are less striking than the frenetic ones, but this piano trio is all about motion, not just speeding up and slowing down but dodging in and out. A-
Jeremy Pelt: Soul (2011 , High Note): Trumpet player, b. 1976, early in his career was tabbed as a "rising star" due to his exceptional chops, but nine albums since 2002 don't offer much more than the whiff of talent. This seems at cross purposes at first, as he clearly wants to take it slow and aim for quiet storm, but saxophonist JD Allen would rather burn, and the rhythm section -- Danny Grissett on piano, Dwayne Burno on bass, Gerald Cleaver on drums -- is happier with Allen. Joanna Pascale contributes a vocal to the slow side. Pelt can hang either way. B+(**)
Tan Ping: Paradise (2011, Goody Heart Productions): Singer-songwriter, grew up in Taiwan, don't know much else. First album, brimming with hopefulness, good wishes, determination; not a cynical bone in her body. B
Wallace Roney: Home (2010 , High Note): Major league trumpet player, 16th album since 1987. Basically a hard bop quintet with electric keybs, split between three drummers (none taking command). Once again, brother saxophonist Antoine Roney does most of the heavy lifting, with the trumpet weaving around expertly. Sound strikes me as thin, distant, murky. Perhaps more volume would open it up? B+(*)
Matt Wilson's Arts & Crafts: An Attitude for Gratitude (2011 , Palmetto): Drummer, has a dozen albums since 1996, composed 3 of 11 pieces here, plus one each from group members Gary Versace (piano, organ, accordion) and Martin Wind (bass). The other group member is Terell Stafford (trumpet, flugelhorn), and he's the one who carries the melodies. Covers hop all over the place, from "Happy Days Are Here Again" to "Bridge Over Troubled Water" via John Scofield, Jaco Pastorius, Cannonball Adderley, and Hugh Hopper. I read a blindfold test with Wilson where I was struck by his ability to find merit in everything. He adds merit too. B+(**)
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Saturday, March 3. 2012
Short month, especially with that two-week donut hole in the middle when I took a break from the warmest winter in memory to chill out in Detroit. Only reason there's much to show for here is my attempt to match up Concord's OJC reissues with gaps in my experience. I thought I might add some more recent reissues under "Briefly Noted" but Concord's own website makes this difficult: they list the Terry and Tyner records as new "Orrin Keepnews Editions" but every other source dates those reissues to 2007, and I gave up trying to figure out what's what. Thought I'd find more winners there, but I had already picked out the classics -- see the previously-graded list at the end of "In Series."
The Descendants [Music From the Motion Picture] (1930-2010 , Sony Masterworks): The film, set in Hawaii, stars George Clooney as the trustee of a large parcel of virgin Hawaiian beachfront property, inherited from ancestors including King Kahehameha and the haole King family. He is faced with two grave decisions: to liquidate the trust, making his many cousins rich, and to come to grips with his wife's coma and approaching death. The soundtrack cushions the somber subject matter with gentle but equally somber Hawaiian classics dating as far back as Sol Hoopii in 1930. Works as a much better than average primer, probably because it avoids the fake tourist cheer without denying the archipelago's natural lushness. A-
René Marie: Vertigo (2001, MaxJazz): Jazz singer, wrote 3 of 11 songs here. Didn't start until in her 40s, but she's brimming with poise and savvy, nailing songs from "Dem Dere Eyes" to "Blackbird" with original turns, scatting effectively, slotting in choice bits of Jeremy Pelt trumpet, Chris Potter sax, and John Hart guitar without losing her command. Only the title song overreaches, otherwise you wouldn't suspect that she has any limits. She got in trouble some years later slipping "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" into the middle of "The Star Spangled Banner" -- an idea that must have come natural after her mash-up of "Dixie" and "Strange Fruit" here. A- [R]
By the 1980s Fantasy Records had picked up a number of significant jazz labels, especially from the 1950s and 1960s -- notably Contemporary, Prestige, Riverside, Milestone, and Pablo. In 1983 they inaugurated a series of reissues under the Original Jazz Classics (OJC) rubric. Since the original artwork was used, the original branding was also easily discerned, so I tend to list them as, e.g., Prestige/OJC. The series eventually totalled more than 1000 titles. When Concord bought Fantasy, they should have folded their own superb catalog into the series, but instead they made a mess of everything, starting with massive deletions. Afterwards, they've done selective reissues, with one series each spotlighting legendary producers Orrin Keepnews and Rudy Van Gelder. In 2010 they started with another, called OJC Remasters with a distinct orange band near the spine. As best I can figure out, there are 20 CDs in this series -- they also seem to be available in a box set, but maybe not in the US.
I figured I'd use this as an opportunity to fill in my gaps: I've previously heard 8 of the records, leaving 12 unheard, so I streamed them from Rhapsody and wrote the following notes. The other 8 are listed below with my old grades. Perhaps no big surprise that the ones I picked up long ago are, on average, far better. That is, after all, the point of using reviews and experience to seek out what you really like.
Cannonball Adderley with Bill Evans: Know What I Mean? (1961 , Riverside/OJC): Starts with solo piano, then Adderley's alto sax enters in a warm rush; with Percy Heath and Connie Kay, who (unlike Paul Motian) wouldn't dream of tripping the leaders up: the result is that the oft-introspective pianist flows exuberantly -- needless to say, so does Cannonball. A- [R]
Chet Baker: It Could Happen to You: Chet Baker Sings (1958 , Riverside/OJC): Either you're touched by the poignant pathos in Baker's voice or repulsed; he has no range, scant command of nuance, and no tricks up his sleeve (other than his plaintive trumpet, rarely in evidence here), but for once he is utterly at ease with the melodies: try the bonus "You Make Me Feel So Young" -- probably cut from the original album because he sounds so skillful. B+(**) [R]
Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers: Ugetsu (1963 , Riverside/OJC): Live at Birdland, with one of Blakey's strongest lineups: Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Curtis Fuller, Cedar Walton, and Reggie Workman, stretched out on CD from 6 to 10 tracks; lots of energy, but the sound could be clearer, and they ramble a bit. B+(**) [R]
Ornette Coleman: Something Else!!!! (1958 , Contemporary/OJC): With his white plastic alto sax, scratch tone, and knack for breaking the rules and making them work, Coleman's debut album portends the shape to come, but the piano has yet to make the break and seems out of place -- despite the impressive chops Walter Norris brings to the job; easy to underrate compared to what he did in the next two years, or to overrate it if you look for prophecy. B+(***) [R]
Miles Davis/Sonny Rollins: Dig (1959 , Prestige/OJC): Davis's first album for Prestige, "featuring" Rollins -- released as a 10-inch at the time, reissued as an LP in 1956, with two bonus cuts added to the 1991 CD; he was 25 at the time, Rollins 21, and unherald Jackie McLean 19; basic bebop, most a dense thrash of rhythm with long, fast horn runs; the slower ones more articulate. B+(**) [R]
Bill Evans Trio: Explorations (1961 , Riverside/OJC): Piano trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, the studio record before the trio's justly famous Village Vanguard records; scattered covers, sometimes remarkable, more often (to me, at least) inscrutable. B+(***) [R]
Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson: Ella and Oscar (1975 , Pablo/OJC): An inevitable pairing as Norman Granz tries to extend his old label magic into his new label; Peterson is personable as always, and Fitzgerald knows her songbook, but this doesn't quite mesh. B+(*) [R]
Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass: Easy Living (1986 , Pablo/OJC): Guitarist Pass produce a widely acclaimed solo album in 1973 called Virtuoso, and he worked that title to death in subsequent years, but he just adds frosting here -- Fitzgerald is the real virtuoso, standing nearly every song up, her timing and phrasing impeccable. B+(***) [R]
Vince Guaraldi Trio: Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus (1962 , Fantasy/OJC): Front cover has the hit song "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" in larger type than the title, and indeed the melody jumps right out at you; otherwise the piano trio's impressions make for minor pleasures, like the slightly oblique "Moon River." B+(**) [R]
Thelonious Monk: Thelonious Alone in San Francisco (1959 , Riverside/OJC): Solo piano, something I've never got the hang of with Monk, probably because I expect that any pianist who would try such a thing must at least use both hands, preferably with a little extra on the left; the dissonances in Monk's original pieces create their own rhythm, especially on an opening "Blue Monk" that holds up especially well, but the most distinct thing about his covers is their simplicity. B+(**) [R]
Wes Montgomery: Boss Guitar (1963 , Riverside/OJC): With Mel Rhyne on organ and Jimmy Cobb on drums, your basic Montgomery album with his sweet, slick guitar turned inward, not nearly as imposing as the title proposes. B+(**) [R]
Cal Tjader/Stan Getz: Sextet (1958 , Fantasy/OJC): With Eddie Duran's guitar and Tjader's Latin vibes, this anticipates Getz's 1964 foray into bossa nova -- again, the sax seems lighter than air, floating away from the bubbly percussion and slinky guitar. B+(***) [R]
Other titles in the series that I already had graded from previous editions:
Jim Black: Alasnoaxis (2000, Winter & Winter): Avant-drummer plugs in, with electric bass (Skuli Sverisson) and guitar (Hilmar Jensson), and Chris Speed on tenor sax or clarinet to smooth things out or rough them up. B+(***)
Oscar Peterson: Unmistakable (2011 , Sony Masterworks): An update on the old piano roll trick, taking some kind of performance tape and tweaking it to drive a mechanical piano contraption, aiming for pristine sound -- the "binaural stereo" takes are billed as "the ultimate headphone experience" -- and sound personable enough to pass any blindfold test; Peterson is popular and distinctive enough that's an easily attainable goal. B+(*)
Clark Terry Quintet: Serenade to a Bus Seat (1957, Riverside/OJC): After duty with both Basie and Ellington, a straight hard bop set with one of the era's premier rhythm sections -- Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, Philly Joe Jones on drums -- and the ever-combative Johnny Griffin on tenor sax; Terry holds his own, and shines on "Stardust" when Griffin lays out. B+(***) [R]
McCoy Tyner: Horizon (1979 , Milestone): Fast, not least the piano leads, but excessively fleshed out with two saxes or flutes (George Adams and Joe Ford), John Blake's violin, and Guilherme Franco's congas; sweeps you away at first, but grows tiresome by the end. B [R]
Betty Wright: I Love the Way You Love (1972, Alston): Soul singer from Miami on her second album, just 19 but a seasoned pro -- joined her family gospel group at 3 and picked her stage name at 11 -- with her biggest hit ("Clean Up Woman") behind her, but close enough she recaps it here. 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 94, see the archive. Total records reviewed: 3181 (2783 + 398).
Thursday, March 1. 2012
by Michael Tatum
I was going to extoll the virtues of my new digital, er, "entertainment unit," which plays both hard discs and MP3s, making the additional yuks in the newly expanded trash section possible. Then, my iPod's wake/sleep button stuck. Oh, well -- at least there are ways around that. These are the first of my findings for 2012, with a heavy emphasis on co-ed energy, plus a bit of trash from late, late 2011 I couldn't leave, shall we say, untouched.
Thomas Anderson: The Moon in Transit (Four-Track Demos 1996-2009) (Out There) To give you insight into the quaintness of these "four-track demos," no one records on portable analog studios anymore: technology has evolved to the point where you can not only record dynamite sounding demos digitally, but you can feasibly produce an entire album from the comfort of your own living room and no one would be the wiser you didn't book a week at Sear Sound. So such marks of amateurism as that ungainly drum machine or that seemingly two-stringed guitar might strike some as chintzy to those weaned on Stephin Merritt and Tune-Yards. But in fact, as with Anderson's papyrus-thin tenor and nursery-rhyme-simple melodies, such low-rent conventions only heighten the timelessness of the lyrics, which at their best approach top-drawer John Prine (as Anderson notes of doomed rockabilly minor player Warren Smith: "Could have been a hundred years ago/Could have been today, for all we know"). After a somewhat frivolous instrumental (how many of those did Prine record?) Anderson takes on the Donner Party ("Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah/Good one boys, now fill my plate") and Harry Houdini ("What if she screams, 'My God, it's really real?'"), but also tries his hand at more modest sketches: a transvestite babysitting uncle, a former Humble Pie groupie, the perils of following in Fred Gwynne and Boris Karloff's footsteps. But the song that hits the hardest, both musically and lyrically, undoubtedly hearkens back to this former Oklahoman's small-town ennui, a rationalization for a bored high school kid spinning his wheels: "Hear my roar from miles around/Nothing else to do in this dumbshit town." A
Bhi Bhiman: Bhiman (Boocoo) A busking graduate of the San Francisco BART station, this Sri-Lankan singer-songwriter reminds me of no one more than Ted Hawkins -- his stridently percussive strumming and warmly commanding tenor suggest the experience of someone who knows he has only a few chance seconds to capture your attention before you board that 8:30 train. In fact, although Bhiman overdubs most of the instruments himself, many of the arrangement touches -- hand claps, vibraphone, double bass -- could all conceivably be reproduced on a street corner without the benefit of amplification. Even so, he relies so heavily on texture, atmosphere, and sublimated rhythm that I'm curious what he could accomplish with the help of someone like Tchad Blake, who might have transformed Bhiman's stately pulse into something more scintillating without sacrificing the artiste's innate naturalism. Nevertheless, Bhiman's inventive music is far more postmodern than anything Hawkins ever dared -- he processes one of his many Wall Street reprimands so that it sounds like an old 78, while he nicks the melody for that perhaps overly optimistic retiree from the traditional lullaby "Hush, Little Baby." And the amazing "Kimchi Line" doesn't concern the train you take to your favorite K-town restaurant, but rather a convict imagining away his time in a North Korean prison. Not exactly Ted Hawkins material, is it? A
Burial: Kindred (Hyperdub, EP) Having generated no major music since 2007's watershed Untrue, killing time with two EPs purposely issued under the radar only in download and vinyl formats, another cavalierly distributed obscurity may strike the impatient as more premature Burial. Certainly, any of the tracks from last year's unobtrusive Street Halo EP could conceivably have been folded into either of William Bevan's regular-release albums as filler -- fine experienced as background music, but too noncommittal and indecisive to justify a standalone release. But this time around, sputtering breakbeats and stacatto keyboard figures grab your attention early and refuse to let up, sustaining an impressively high level of energy for two tracks lasting almost twelve minutes and one almost eight, cresting on a wave of astounding momentum that never once bursts over the dam nor collapses in exhaustion before it reaches the shore -- Bevan even peppers what few rest breaks he allows with the unsettling sound of needles ominously skipping back and forth in out-grooves. Much can be said about the fascinating multipartite structures, cleverly repeated motifs, and occasional moments bordering on the ecstasy that raves and religion merely promise. But I marvel in how Bevan's pretensions condescend neither to his audience nor the house music they love: disembodying those divas from their original contexts and releasing their essence skyward as if doves in a cathedral, he's less outside a tradition than a true believer devoted to bringing that tradition closer to God. Of course, whether or not the mysterious Bevan actually promulgates any religious beliefs, conventional or otherwise, is doubtful. I certainly don't. But no matter whether you spend your Saturday nights on the dancefloor, your Sunday mornings in church, or your entire weekend purveying the outside world from the privacy of your living room couch, this is an incantation whose power you can believe in. A
Cloud Nothings: Attack on Memory (Carpark) With major help from his incendiary new band -- especially pitiless drummer Jayson Gerycz -- this indeed improves upon the wiry lo-fi rock of Dylan Baldi's 2010 one man EP: the music is more developed, the noise more articulate, and the reedy vocals slightly more muscular. But with the ad hoc band still slightly embryonic, having only recently been assembled for touring purposes and until now unproven in the studio, the choice of Steve Albini as a producer is somewhat questionable. Nobody questions Albini's technical proficiency -- his abrasive aesthetic is both singular and unmistakable -- but by his own admission, he tends to set up shop, press record, and stay out of the artist's way. So while this burns and blisters as mercilessly as In Utero or Surfer Rosa -- undeniably the touchstones Baldi aims to evoke -- Kurt Cobain and Black Francis' musical visions were so strong they didn't need much intermediary tinkering, which is why they could get away working with someone so laissez faire in his production style. One wonders if someone with a more applied approach might have pointed out to Baldi that, for example, the dirge-like opener wastes too much time getting started, grinding away for three and a half minutes before shifting upwards to the brutal climax that justifies the song's sluggish tempo. But between the song titles -- "No Future/No Past," "Stay Useless," "Wasted Days" -- and Baldi's sardonic admission "No one knows our plans for us/We won't last long," one gets the sense that not only does he no longer consider this band merely a way for him to kill time between classes, but the songs are his way of triumphing over his own boredom and complacency. No wonder he fixates so much on Nirvana and the Pixies -- he's an heir to a grand tradition indeed. A
Lana del Rey: Born to Die (Polydor/Interscope) From "Leader of the Pack" to Tom Waits, fatalism has always had a place in rock and roll. But as a product of sincere expression it often indicates an immature worldview, as an invention of cynical contrivance it smacks of base audience manipulation, and either way rarely succeeds in reflecting the way the world really works. The former Lizzy Grant however, falls into neither trap. Shrewd enough to surmise she would never hit the big time under her own name, she adapted an alter ego not only to fascinate the fickle blogosphere, but also because it provided her a medium in which she could explore fatalism ironically, as an explicit subject, an aspect of her art which has oddly gone unnoticed in the United States, even at Pitchfork, where they see irony in music the same way Fundamentalist Christians see the face of Jesus in convenience store breakfast sandwiches. Owner of a highly sophisticated, thought-through vocal style that reveals the otherwise decent bonus tracks on the "Deluxe Edition" as the juvenilia they probably are, Lana del Rey passively torches from an alternate universe where good girls live for the thrill of Bacardi chasers, slot machines, red nail polish, open-mouthed kissing, and wife-beater undershirts, who wait out their old man's release from Rikers by sipping Diet Mountain Dew through a plastic straw while leaving the Jesus on the car dashboard alone. The first six songs are pop perfection. After that it's somewhat more hit or miss, but even so each song will grab you by hook or by (ha ha) crook if you put in enough time, especially in regards to Grant's phrasing: the way she shortens the "i"s in the word "vitamin," or coos the phrase "like a fuckin' dream I'm livin' in" so sweetly you'll have to consult the lyric sheet to verify what your ear's not quite sure it's heard. Lindsay Zoladz completely missed the mark when she wrote, "Even when Del Rey offers something that could be read as a critique...she asks that we make no effort to change, escape, or transcend the way things are" -- what does she expect, a coup on the order of what Randy Newman did in 1974 when he singlehandedly solved America's race problem? Ruing the loss of the real-life middle school friends she lost when Daddy sent her to rehab -- which actually ends the record on an appropriately poignant note -- is one thing: it's the only moment in which she imbues her subject with the touch of the genuine. But when Del Rey asks that bad boy, "Do you think we'll be in love forever?" she has no idea what to expect. Lizzy Grant on the other hand knows for sure the answer is no. Get it? A
Ani DiFranco: ¿Whose Side Are You On? (Righteous Babe) I agree with the consensus that after ten years, DiFranco has finally cured herself of Joni Mitchell's Disease, the artistically crippling malady that deludes its victims into thinking that her highly suspect jazz pretensions supersede their unassailable (but highly specific) songwriting gifts. Perhaps the dire political climate convinced her to forswear the posturing and get back to business, but writing about politics has always been tricky, even for those with instincts as comparably as sharp as DiFranco's. Her Florence Reece appropriation hits all the right notes -- corporations, stolen elections, the not-so-free market, and so forth -- but the titular slogan has become as empty a platitude to the left as, oh, "Buying Ani DiFranco albums means the terrorists have won" is to the right. I cheer her on when she bullet points the rationale for the Equal Rights Amendment and admire how she poignantly incorporates abortion in her painful homelessness song, but even if it's intended as a joke, I wince when she attributes her "balance" to her astrological sign (because horoscope readings only reinforce patriarchy, don't you think?). And while the doobie-on-the-front-porch rumination "J" at least sets itself up to be somewhat unfocused, it's criminal that she aligns an insight as astute as Obama "could be the next F.D.R./But instead he's shifting his weight" next to the Weekly World News-worthy fear that street drugs are entering our water supply (according to WebMD, prescription pharmaceuticals represent a far more worrisome threat, and even those still appear in negligibly low quantities). She reminds me of a vegan acquaintance I once had several years ago, who while well-informed on most subjects, kept insisting that dairy farmers disguised blood-contaminated cow lacteal by utilizing it for chocolate milk. Then again, I never always agreed with Chuck D either, and even at her most trenchant, DiFranco never fails to radiate warmth and empathy, both in her deft singing and underrated guitar playing. Tipping the scales (like Libra, ha ha) is the wise, knowing "Promiscuity," which DiFranco defines as "research and development." Where was that line when I was in college? A
Imperial Teen: Feel the Sound (Merge) A decade plus past toiling on the major label treadmill and regrouping only when the spirit is willing, these San Franciscans remain one of indie rock's longest running bands, and none of their albums disappoints tune-wise. But if you think tunes are their reason for existing, I say subject yourself to a little test. Listen to 2007's excellent The Hair the TV the Baby & the Band, which begins with a perfectly serviceable "Be My Baby" cop via drummer Lynn Truell, and compare that to the punchy, unstoppable "Ivanka," which jumpstarts 2002's galvanic On. Now immerse yourself in the breathless rush of this album's glossy opener "Runaway" and ask yourself if, like the B-52s before them, this band's music bursts with so much life because these two gay men and their female rhythm section divide their time equally between discos and rock clubs. Although they playfully dirty up such two dollars words as "palindrome" and "affidavit," you may be disappointed initially by the lyrics, which adhere primarily to simple rhymes and automatic tropes: "Book the time, set the tone/Something borrowed, something sewn," preceded by the even more nonsensical "Are these feathers meant for down?/Are these letters meant for noun?" But they structure their songs thusly mainly because they prize rhythm above all else, though every now and then they subvert clichés for a cheap laugh, from "go in, go out" to "I could be you and you be me," topped by my favorite, "If I had my way, my way again/It would come in a spray." And the bracing music pulsates with so much sexiness, whether you're male or female, gay or straight, you'll feel its charge. And for those who like their clever a little more obvious, there's the catty "Last to Know," which concerns a doomed affair with a closet case stashing "steroids in the cabinet" and saddled with "a trophy wife with benefits." Me, I'm hoping it turns out to be about Rick Santorum. A
Prinzhorn Dance School: Clay Class (DFA) Although this husband-wife post-rock duo's 2008 debut veered precariously close to performance art territory, the audacious "Anthrax" cop that opens this follow-up announces their ambition to re-create the classic Gang of Four sound with half the personnel. It can't be done outside the studio, of course -- although they've toured by themselves with a shared, modified drum kit, the tenser, springier, more sophisticated rhythms this time around demand someone with two hands and undivided attention. Bassist Suzi Horn, who rarely adventures beyond rudimentary single-note lines, is still the weaker link, reminding us once again how lucky Dave Allen was to apprentice in that disco covers band. But while on the debut she clung to those root notes like a child to a teddy bear, here her confidence has increased enough so that she fights a little against the beat, and Tobin Prinz has replicated Andy Gill's choppy signature so masterfully it more than compensates. Initially chagrined that they sang/chanted/hectored primarily in unison rather than playing off each other like King/Gill, I accepted happily that perhaps they don't have that kind of adversarial relationship. True, the album begins with the couplet "I'm glad you're here/Building on sand," which I'm assuming references their marriage, described later as a "fleeting pact" and a "loving prison." But when they jointly attack the "Usurper" that dares come between them, you'll have no doubt where their loyalties lie. A
Standard Fare: Out of Sight, Out of Town (Melodic) The few critics that know this Sheffield power-pop trio unfairly dismiss them as "twee," but that shortchanges energy and spirit even more in evidence here than on the fine 2009 debut The Noyelle Beat. Bassist Emma Kupa's winsome alto, which dominates over guitarist Danny How's affably conversational baritone, is surer of itself this time around, while How's tuneful six-string cascades and arpeggiatons underscore his debt to Johnny Marr, although he doesn't shy from crunch and crackle when drummer Andy Beswick bears down on the tempo, which thankfully occurs often. With violin and trumpet making occasional cameos, this would be their maturity move, and there's not an unmemorable tune in the bunch. But while they may be dead set on growing up musically, their relationships are still stuck in high school. Kupa's dig at "Older Women" is irresistible, but she lets off that cougar chaser too easily -- he's not interested in the thrill as much as he is in being mommied, something made clear by the lovely separation ballad you'll be caught short to discover begins with the couplet, "I'm not Darth Vader/Luke, I'm not your father." The issue? She's going out for the night with her friends. For the night. I suppose this is a step up from The Noyelle Beat's love interests, one of whom was fifteen (what was that about older women?) and another whom lived an ocean away in Philadelphia. But when Kupa sweetly sings "You're not five years old" -- a line you'd expect would be sarcastic reading it on paper -- the forty-year-old married man listening wonders why she doesn't dump the simp and search for an equal. A
Schoolboy Q: Habits and Contradictions (Top Dawg) Appreciate his zeal for sex, but if he wasn't always so blunted he might not be reduced to treating sex as some sort of rare event ("There He Go," "Raymond 1969," "Hands on the Wheel") ***
Paul McCartney: Kisses on the Bottom (Merge) Finally as cute as he's always wanted to be, in part because he no longer has the youthful energy to shove his cuteness down your throat ("More I Cannot Wish You," "It's Only a Paper Moon") ***
Dr. Dog: Be the Void (Anti-) Toby Leaman should ditch Scott McKicken and lobby to replace either Taylor Goldsmith or Matt Vasquez in Middle Brother ("Lonesome," "These Days") ***
Hospitality: Hospitality (Merge) Björk and Sebastian, except would you believe it's the former who needs to dial down the twee? ("Friend of Friends," "The Right Profession") **
Nada Surf: The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy (Barsuk) Melodies like diamonds, though the charisma is so devoid of sparkle I wouldn't blame you for mistaking them for cubits zirconium ("The Moon is Calling," "Waiting for Something") **
Kathleen Edwards: Voyageur (Zoe/Rounder) It's like they tell you in therapy: never follow an ultimatum with a bunch of ballads ("Empty Threat," "Change the Sheets") **
The Little Willies: For the Good Times (Milking Bull) Psst, Norah -- "Jolene" wasn't a fucking Childe Ballad ("Fist City," "For the Good Times") *
The Caretaker: Patience (After Sebald) (History Favours the Winners) Has clearly mastered embalming, now should try his hand at cremation ("When the dog days were drawing to an end," "I have become almost invisible, to some extent like a dead man") *
Wiley: Evolve or Be Extinct (Big Dada) Grime kingpin confuses his own phyletic gradualism with punctuated equilibrium ("Boom Blast," "Link Up") *
Wilco: iTunes Session (Anti-) Although the Nick Lowe cameo makes me sad, it does point out the philosophical superiority of "You gotta be cruel to be kind" over "You gotta know how to die to learn how to live" ("Born Alone") *
Craig Finn: Clear Heart, Full Eyes (Full Time Hobby) Hold Steady albums work when they do -- I'm thinking particularly of the one-two punch of Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America -- when Craig Finn fights to make himself heard over Tad Kubler's guitars and Franz Nicolay's keyboards. Because Kubler and the now-departed Nicolay have been the primary architects of the band's music, this record finds Finn not only in the novel position of having to devise tunes himself, but also leading and arranging his backing band, two highly specialized skills for which he has up to now shown no perceivable knack. As a result, the band mostly chugs along anonymously while Finn delivers his latest missives from the lapsed Catholic front in a passively subdued sprechgesang -- the difference between drunkenly careening into a confessional and blandly wishing "Peace be with you" to the stranger on your right. Regardless of what he claims in song, these days he doesn't learn his lessons from Freddie Mercury or Johnny Rotten -- more like Jackson Browne. B
The Weeknd: Echoes of Silence (free download) Musically, the latest transmission from the House of Buffoons is sharper and edgier than Thursday, itself sharper and edgier than the debut (only eleven months ago, my how time flies). Unfortunately, in this context that's not a plus -- much like Michael Jackson de-evolving from "Billie Jean" to "Dirty Diana," the upped testosterone levels only make Abel Tesfaye's innate gynophobia that less forgivable, and that he chooses "Dirty Diana" for his first cover only illuminates his hypocritical damnation of any woman who sluts it up as much as he does (and by the way, Michael could hit those notes without the benefit of Auto-Tune, though I hope retaliatory testicle squeezing is responsible for the bum note Tesfaye blurts at the song's climax). Although Tesfaye's observation that his latest conquest needs money for a face lift at least encourages me he's an equal opportunity perv (and here I thought he limited his penthouse parties to minors), I wouldn't exactly rank "All that pain you feel/You can tell we ain't makin' no love" high in a list of the all-time great come-on lines. Plus, I'm spreading the rumor that downloading this little item gives you a dangerous virus. The virus? Herpes. B
Sharon Van Etten: Tramp (Jagjaguwar) A forty-five minute swooping contest between Sharon's voice and Aaron Dessner's guitar that neither seems happy to win. B
Cate LeBon: Cyrk (The Control Group) Evoking Nico a lot less than she does Lætitia Sadier, she satisfactorily explains her "abnormal fixation with death" to BBC Wales by citing "early experiences with a string of pet deaths." C+
Bahamas: Barchords (Jagjaguwar) Toronto singer-songwriter Afie Jurvanen makes like John Mayer channelling Santo & Johnny for the purpose of scoring jeans commercials, which I'm sure are already in negotiations. C+
Laura Gibson: La Grande (Barsuk) Postmodern "country," because without the prefix and quotation marks the mediocrity of the songs would be (even more) obvious. C+
First Aid Kit: Lion's Roar (Wichita) Not to say these Swedes don't nail the twang -- but why do they insist on accenting all the wrong words? C+
Howler: America Give Up (Rough Trade) Sure, they're influenced by the Strokes -- the Strokes of Angles. C
Keepaway: Black Flute (Greedhead) I have no problem with stoner rap, but stoner rock is another story. C
Rick Ross: Rich Forever (free download) Dozens of ways to rhyme the word "nigga," often with the word "nigga" itself. C