Monday, June 25. 2012
Music: Current count 20091  rated (+42), 762  unrated (-15). A lot of well-aged Jazz Prospecting records below: played them to unclog the queue, and didn't spend much time -- grades I think are fair, but reviews can be skimpy. Rosenberg was a pleasant surprise among the aged stuff. The Kell and Shelton records are more recent, pulled out of order because they're generally worth it, and indeed they are.
Still another week away from the early July posts, none of which have much going on at the time -- don't have a single new A-list record for Streamnotes. Not much more to say: I have some kind of something or other, running a it of fever, generally feeling shitty, and didn't enjoy the one record I played when I got up -- fled back to bed, in fact. Does help me get more reading done, but the current book is Adam Hochschild's To End All Wars, and I can't say that reading about the so-called Great War -- just finished the chapter on the Somme -- cheers me up.
Lisa Marie Baratta: Summertime Jazz (2012, self-released): Plays alto sax, soprano sax, flute, alto flute, in front of a piano trio here (her second album), but she's also pictured in something called Black Tie Jazz Orchestra. Eleven famous standards, taken at a genteel pace with few liberties, nor does she get much shine, let alone spit and polish, out of her horn. It has the unobtrusiveness of elevator music, but none of the ick, and the tunes are endlessly listenable. B
Ran Blake/David "Knife" Fabris: Vilnius Noir (2010 , NoBusiness): Piano, some solo, some duo with guitar; released LP only, 500 copies, I got a CD-R. As is often the case with Blake, the covers give you something to go on, helping set off what he adds -- "My Cherie Amour" is the best thing here, a knockout. The guitar slips in and out, not leaving much of a trace, probably the idea. B+(**) [advance]
Georg Breinschmid: Fire (2011 , Preiser, 2CD): Bassist, b. 1973 in Austria; has at least four albums since 2008. This is split between two projects: Café Brein, with Roman Janoska on violin and Frantisek Janoska on piano; and Duo Gansch/Breinschmid, with Thomas Gansch on trumpet. Cuts by the two groups alternate on the main CD as well as on the 4-cut bonus. Both groups are given to sing-alongs with a cabaret/folkie air, amusing, I think. B+(*)
Mel Carter: The Other Standards (2011 , CSP): Minor soul man, b. 1943, EMI has a The Best of Mel Carter that covers his 1964-67 heyday. Like most minor soul men, he's never been short of chops, just songs. At this stage, he reaches for standards of his youth, which means r&b from the 1950s -- Buddy Johnson looms large here, as well as singers like Billy Eckstine and Arthur Prysock -- rather than show tunes from further back. He gets a lift from a brassy big band, and "Goody Goody" is a terrific opener. B+(*)
Edmar Castaneda: Double Portion (2012, Arpa y Voz): Harp player from Colombia, third album, has made enough of a splash that he shows up in those "miscellaneous instrument" polls. Third album, the "double" indicating that he plays Colombian harp as well as classical. One cover, "Libertango" from Astor Piazzolla. Mostly solo, but guest spots by Gonzalo Rubalcaba (piano), Miguel Zenón (alto sax), and Hamilton de Hollanda (mandolina) are all big pluses -- especially the sax. B+(**)
Dan Cavanagh Trio: The Heart of the Geyser (2011 , OA2): Pianist, teaches at UT Arlington, has a couple previous albums, including a big band blast called Pulse. This is a trio, with Linda Oh on bass and Joe McCarthy on drums. B+(*)
Roger Chong: Send a Little Love (2012, self-released): Guitarist, b. 1983, Canada I think -- studied at York, teaches grades 6-8 in Toronto. Website says this is his third album, but I can only find one previous. Sweet tone, disarming when he sings, a very minor album, but a charming one. B+(*)
Chris Cortez: Aunt Nasty (2008-12 , Blue Bamboo Music): Guitarist-vocalist; website claims this is his sixth "solo" album, with 20 total. I am familiar with his Houston label, which lists four of his albums, plus others including his horn players here, Woody Witt and Carol Morgan. The horns help, but the guitar trends to a smooth jazz groove with occasional funk effects. About half vocals. B-
Adrian Cunningham: Walkabout (2011 , self-released): Saxophonist, based in New York since 2008, originally from Australia. Has at least four albums since 2004. Postbop, quartet with piano, bass, and drums, plus a string quartet here and there. Also plays clarinet and flute, quite a bit of the latter. B
Candy Dulfer: Crazy (2012, Razor & Tie): Blonde alto saxophonist, sings some, b. 1969 in the Netherlands, called her 1991 debut Saxuality, followed that up with Sax-a-Go-Go, is up to twelve albums now. Most cuts credit Printz Board with "all instruments"; four make the same claim for Ulco Bed -- synths and drums, mostly, but also background vocals. "Good Music" is pure funk, and as long as she keeps upbeat this is pretty pleasureful. B+(*)
The Element Choir & William Parker: At Christ Church Deer Park (2010 , Barnyard): The Element Choir has seventy voices, conduction by Christine Duncan. They don't sing much, but chant and groan and swoon along with an improv group that features trumpet (Jim Lewis), pipe organ (Eric Robertson), two basses (Parker and Andrew Downing), and drums/percussion (Jean Martin). Not quite sure what to make of it all. B+(*)
Amina Figarova: Twelve (2012, In + Out): Pianist, b. 1966 in Baku, the oil capital of Azerbaijan; had a good classical education in the Soviet Union, then picked up jazz in Rotterdam and Boston (Berklee). Ninth album since 1996, a sextet with three horns -- Ernie Hammes (trumpet), Marc Mommaas (tenor/soprano sax), and Bart Platteau (flutes) -- plus bass and drums. Postbop, all sauve and elegant, but the trumpet leads are striking, and Mommaas does his usual fine job. B+(**)
Tianna Hall: Never Let Me Go (2011, Blue Bamboo Music): Vocalist, from Houston, third album, the usual standards including two Jobims. Ends with a nice "Everything Happens to Me," but doesn't have much of a voice, and this sort of limps through the paces. B-
Alexis Parsons (2006-08 , Ellick): Vocalist, website claims two decades of experience, including study with Jay Clayton and Sheila Jordan, but this appears to be her first album. Eight standards, backed by nothing more than Frank Kimbrough's piano. Credits "Maryanne Faithful" with one song. B+(*)
Arthur Kell Quartet: Jester (2012, Bju'ecords): Bassist, based in New York but he's been around, including some tramping around Africa. Fourth record since 2001 -- haven't heard the debut, See You in Zanzibar -- but the three quartet albums are superb. Brad Shepik's guitar is essential here, nothing flashy but he brings the gentle bass lines up to conscious level, and Loren Stillman's bright and brittle alto sax builds from there. With Mark Ferber on drums. Live, doesn't grab you and shake you around, but seduces and mermerizes. A-
Lisa Maxwell: Happy (2011, self-released): Standards singer, has a couple previous albums. B. 1963 in England, according to AMG, which may be confusing her with the English actress -- don't see anything else in their bios or photos that matches up. This was recorded in Brooklyn, with English pianist Keith Ingham's Quartet backing -- the fourth member is guitarist Ed Gafa. She doesn't have an especially strong or distinctive voice, but she works slyly around the songs, and the pianist is very much at home. B+(*)
Giovanna Pessi/Susanna Wallumrød: If Grief Could Wait (2010 , ECM): Pessi plays baroque harp, along with Jane Achtman on viola da gamba and Marco Ambrosini on nyckelharpa, on a program mostly from Henry Purcell (1659-1695), salted with two songs from vocalist Wallumrød, two from Leonard Cohen, and one Nick Drake. Slow and stately, gorgeous if you're into that sort of thing. B+(**) [advance]
Dafnis Prieto: Proverb Trio (2012, Dafnison Music): Cuban whiz-kid drummer, came to the US and cut his debut in 2004 -- I didn't care for it much, but no denying his chops. This is something different, built around rapper-singer Kokayi (Carl Walker), who has also worked with Steve Coleman's M-Base outfit and has a stack of his own records over at Bandcamp. Third member is pianist Jason Lindner, who plays electric keybs here, sometimes sounding like a recorder, or a flute, with more than a little camp and/or shlock. Drummer takes a back seat, not that he can't help show off a little. Highly recommended anti-war pedagogy: "In War" -- at least once you get past the long intro. B+(**)
Marlene Rosenberg Quartet: Bassprint (2011 , Origin): Bassist, from Illinois, teaches in Chicago; fourth album since 1994, side credits include a 1990 debut with Ed Thigpen. Two songs by Kenny Barron; the rest originals, with Monkish moves to start and close. Builds off her bass lines, with Geof Bradfield (tenor and soprano sax) and Scott Hesse (guitar) elaborating adeptly. B+(***)
Anne Sajdera: Azul (2012, Bijart): Pianist, from San Diego, first album, based in San Francisco since 1985. Mostly trio plus extra percussion, including Airto Moreira on four cuts. Originals, one from Wayne Shorter, one from Sammy Cahn, three from Brazil (Ivan Lins, Egberto Gismonti, Chico Pinheiro). B
Diego Schissi Quinteto: Tongos (2010 , Sunnyside): Pianist, b. 1969 in Argentina, has at least one previous album. This is a classical-sounding tango album, with violin, bandoneon, guitar, and bass; the pieces all called "Tongo," "Liquido," or "Canción." B
Aram Shelton Quartet: Everything for Somebody (2011 , Singlespeed Music): Alto saxophonist, originally from Florida, b. 1976, moved to Chicago in 1999 and built most of his working relationships there before moving on to Oakland. Has a substantial discography since 2001, including projects like Ton Trio, reliably vigorous free jazz. This quartet is Chicago-based, with frequent collaborator Keefe Jackson on tenor sax, Anton Hatwich on bass, and Tim Daisy on drums. Resembles a sax trio with the saxes shadowing each other, but every now and then they spin loose. B+(***)
Mark Sherman: The L.A. Sessions (2011 , Miles High): Vibraphonist, b. 1957, has at least eight records since 1997. This one is basically an organ trio -- Bill Cunliffe on the B3, John Chiodini on guitar, and Charles Ruggiero on drums -- with a layer of vibes, highlighting but also swinging the band like Milt Jackson used to do. B+(**)
Ben Tyree: Thoughtform Variations (2012, Sonic Architectures): Guitarist, from DC area, plays solo acoustic here, has a previous record (a trio, BT3), plus side credits going back to 1995, including several with Burnt Sugar. This has an intricate feel, but the method of marking time does get to be samey over the long haul. B
Henry P. Warner/Earl Freeman/Philip Spigner: Freestyle Band (1984 , NoBusiness): Clarinets, bass guitar (and piano), hand drums; three cuts originally self-released, with two cuts added here. Warner was b. 1940, played around the NY lofts in the 1970s, shows up playing alto sax on early albums by William Parker and Billy Bang. Spigner's hand drums set up a nice homely vibe that Warner's clarinet sometimes flows with and sometimes cuts against; Freeman plays electric bass and piano, most often against the current, just to keep it all interesting. B+(***)
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Sunday, June 24. 2012
AMC's two-year run of The Killing, adapted from a Danish series called Forbrydelsen, was interesting to watch but both seasons ended with really egregious missteps -- so bad that I feel like commenting on something normally way out of my domain. For a great deal of detail on the series, see Wikipedia and its various sublinks (list of characters, season overviews, list of episodes, individual episode summaries -- damn near everything but the video is on-line, and AMC's website has at least a taste of that).
The setup is that you have one case -- a teenage girl, Rosie Larsen, was drowned in the trunk of a car that was rolled into a lake -- and one episode per day of the investigation as it drags out. The original Copenhagen was moved to Seattle, but actually shot in Vancouver. Several things stretch the case out compared to the usual concision of crime whodunits. They focus a lot on the grief of the victim's family -- a decision that is touching at first but threatens to become deadly mundane, so they wind up juicing the story up with all sorts of unlikely tangents -- the father used to be a mob killer, the father beats up one suspect and his friend/helper shoots another and kills himself, the father turns out not to be the biological father, the mother runs away from her family, the aunt moonlights as a hooker involved with the father of Rosie's ex-boyfriend, and in a really bizarre twist turns out to be the killer.
The case also stretches out because it gets wrapped up in a mayoral campaign, and both sides throw up multiple obstructions to the investigation. It also doesn't help that the detectives are often incompetent -- the senior, Sarah Linden, is psychologically haunted by a similar past case (although, to be fair, her fiancé and son appear to be bigger problems, so much so that the writers eventually had to pack them away), while her junior, Stephen Holder, is an ex-junkie promoted because he was regarded as corrupt. But they are mostly victims of the writers, who make a difficult case all the worse by throwing out red herrings, which the detectives snap at helplessly, and bureaucratic harassment -- the hapless lieutenant of the first season was replaced by an equally useless one in the second.
Still, Linden and Holder could have solved this case if only they had been a bit smarter and had a bit more help. To get an idea how far wrong this went, consider the two season "finales":
The decision to make Aunt Terry the unknowing murderer typifies the half-assed anything-is-fair-play approach to the storyline. (I used to think that fiction was constrained by some sense of integrity, but for these people it just means you can make any old shit up.) Still, Richmond's meeting is far more disgusting. I reckon what we're supposed to take away is the Who's "meet the new boss/same as the old boss," but before buddying up to Jackson and Ames, let alone dumping Eaton so callously, he really needs advice of counsel. (In fact, the absence of lawyers around any of the principals here is more than a bit surprising.) We still don't know all the facts in this case, but consider what we do know:
That's a lot of baggage for one scene, but it's typical of the show. An episode or two back Linden confronted Mayor Adams with her knowledge that he had falsified evidence to get Richmond arrested, then declared she'd let that go for his help in getting the actual murderer (at the time believed to be either Eaton or Wright). But she was wrong in letting Ames go: by then the conspiracy had taken over the murder, and the only way to the truth about the murder was through tearing apart the various conspiracies. That would have been more work, but it would also have been more rewarding than just getting to the end and tossing up your hands, decrying how all politicians are inevitably corrupt.
Also worthwhile to take a look at the piece by Jace Lacob comparing The Killing to the original Forbrydelsen (which I would like to see some day). In partiuclar, here's a short list of changes:
I'm not a fan of all the psychological troubles detectives go through, even if that seems like a realistic occupational hazard. (We just saw another example, Thorne; nor is going nuts limited to detectives, as Homeland showed.) And I see a lot of merit in the Indian casino angle -- indeed, Chief Jackson is the most plausible villain in the series (give or take a mob boss).
By the way, at AV Club Meredith Blake compiled a list of things that didn't make any sense at the end of season one. I won't quote them here because there are 20 of them (only one I recognize as resolved in the second episode), and then adds another 10 "stray observations (or 'other things that don't add up')." Also at AV Club, Todd VanDerWerf picks up the same thread for season two. Note that for both seasons, the lowest-rated episode was the finale (D+ and C).
Will have to write about something non-fiction next time. In the meantime, I'm reminded of the Valerie Plame affair, where the only one charged was Scooter Libby, not because he was the only one guilty but because by perjury he made it practically impossible to prosecute the crime. Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald explained: "The truth is the engine of our judicial system. If you compromise the truth, the whole process is lost . . . if we were to walk away from this, we might as well hand in our jobs." Libby was convicted, but escaped doing jail time thanks to George W. Bush, the benefactor of Libby's lying -- along with Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, etc. You'd think that such utter contempt for the law would have destroyed any semblance of respect for the Bush administration, but the whole affair has been quietly forgotten -- as if the ending of The Killing has become a cultural norm.
Wednesday, June 20. 2012
The New York Times Sunday Book Review once again went out of its way to reestablish its centrist (conservative) credentials by recruiting Matthew Bishop to pan Paul Krugman's book, End This Depression Now! The key paragraph with his laundry list of objections:
Bowles-Simpson is "widely respected"? They were rejected out of hand by virtually all Republicans for even suggesting the need to raise taxes, and they fared little better among Democrats for their insistence on gutting what's left of the safety net. They're toxic enough that even the president who appointed them had had virtually nothing to do with them, although there's little reason to think that he wouldn't relish a "grand bargain" of the sort they imagine if indeed they enjoyed any respect at all.
The important thing to understand about any such "grand bargain" is that the context precludes any real compromise. If left and right were in some sort of equilibrium, some sort of tit-for-tat exchange could be negotiated and might prove advantageous. However, since the mid-70s we have been subjected to a systematic onslaught by moneyed interests which has materially damaged the working class, permitted the rentier class to greatly aggrandize its wealth, and undermined democracy here and abroad, and every time you compromise with this onslaught you give up ground, and hope.
At some level Krugman understands this. He does, after all, recall a time -- he calls it the Great Compression -- when income and wealth was much more equable in the U.S., and becoming more so, and he notes that even such conventional economic indicators as GDP growth were much stronger then than they've become under conservative hegemony. And he also understands, and cares, that high unemployment rates entail real human costs as well as economic ones. But Bishop's idea that Krugman "the gifted economist" gives way to Krugman "the populist polemicist" in this book is precisely wrong. Krugman focuses almost exclusively on basic macroeconomics here. The irritating stylistics is all Bishop's, as should be clear from the weasel-wording.
For instance, "the rise in unemployment may be largely the result of inadequate demand": not "largely," but as Krugman shows, plainly. The drop in demand is due to deleveraging, which is what happens when an asset bubble bursts and everyone invested in it suddenly has to retrench to recover solvency. Also, "the austerians may be excessively fearful of so-called 'bond vigilantes'": Krugman shows that during a liquidity trap -- the technical term for the desperate deleveraging we are still in -- there can be no "bond vigilantes" because during such times only government bonds are safe havens for investible cash. Nor is this just theory: Krugman repeatedly points to actual interest rates to show that there is no "bond vigilante" effect. (The Eurozone is somewhat different in this respect, which Krugman also explains at length.)
Krugman's assertion "that any extra government borrowing probably 'won't have to be paid off quickly, or indeed at all'" also isn't cavalier: he points to historical examples where even greater debt had little or no consequence. On the other hand, Bishop's insistence that present unemployment has a "structural" component is nothing but a hapless red herring. On the one hand, it's impossible to see how a structural flaw would have manifested itself so suddenly as the economy collapsed. On the other, such a problem could easily be remedied by public investment to provide the missing skills, but no one who talks about "structural" unemployment seems to want to fix that particular problem.
Indeed, that's true of a lot of the things that Krugman's "Very Serious People" say. Mike Konczal has done useful work in mapping out the various things all sides have to say about the current depression. He maps them out into two clusters, one called "demand-based solutions" -- the sorts of things Krugman favors doing -- and "supply-based explanations," which aren't solutions at all, just rationalizations for letting the depression run its course. Krugman, of course, points out the falsity of each of those arguments, but striking them down is a futile task, because the right is committed to repeating them endlessly -- whatever it takes to prevent politicians from trying to solve the crisis by shifting wealth and power from those who have too much to those who don't have nearly enough. And if that means perpetuating the depression indefinitely, that's a price the rich are fully prepared to let the poor pay.
Monday, June 18. 2012
Music: Current count 20049  rated (+25), 777  unrated (+2). Hit a point midweek and just gave up. Spent the better part of three days cooking up a fancy dinner for my sister's birthday, and mostly spent that time playing things I had already rated/written about, like MDNA and Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, and occasional older things I pulled randomly off the shelves. My wife retires in two weeks, and that promises to change things. I'm not sure whether that means I can give up my make-believe music reviewer work, or do I need to get serious about my own work?
Was figuring I'd punt on Jazz Prospecting this week, but I might as well dump out what I have. Should make a project some time out of Raoul Björkenheim, given that all of the few things I've heard by him have "A-" written next to him in my database. My favorite is still one called Shadowglow he did with Lukas Ligeti on TUM in 2003, but I've missed all those Scorch Trio records -- the first is the only complete one on Ingebrigt Håker Flaten's bandcamp page, and it's another winner.
Started playing ECM's advances when I noticed that I wasn't always getting final copies, and jumped the gun on Sclavis. Have held that review back a few weeks now, but as short as this week is, I figured I might as well share it.
Raoul Björkenheim/Anders Nilsson/Gerald Cleaver: Kalabalik (2012, DMG/ARC): Two guitarists from Scandinavia, perhaps not natural allies back home but they fit together remarkably well in New York, plus a drummer -- always a good idea. Cut live at Bruce Lee Galanter's downtown record store. First four cuts are hard fusion thrash with a lot of intricacy between the lines. Then they cut the volume for a duo that spreads their lines out. A-
Budman/Levy Orchestra: From There to Here (2010 , OA2): Alex Budman plays tenor sax, soprano sax, and bass clarinet. He has a previous record (nice title: Instruments of Mass Pleasure), a couple dozen side credits. Jeremy Levy composes, arranges, and plays trombone. Looks like his first album (side-credits include Brian Setzer and Susan Tedeschi). Everything you'd expect in a big band, including both piano and guitar, plus extra percussion for that Latin tinge, and a string quartet on one track. B
Orrin Evans: Flip the Script (2012, Posi-Tone): Pianist, from Philadelphia, in a trio with Ben Wolf (bass) and Donald Edwards (drums). Played it four times and it keeps slipping away from me. B+(*)
Jazz Soul Seven: Impressions of Curtis Mayfield (2012, BFM Jazz): Ad hoc group, in the order given on the jacket: Terri Lyne Carrington (drums), Russ Ferante (piano), Master Henry Gibson (percussion), Bob Hurst (bass), Wallace Roney (trumpet), Phil Upchurch (guitar), Ernie Watts (sax). No idea why just that pecking order, but Ferrante appears to be the main arranger. The songs, of course, come from Curtis Mayfield, the melodic themes are glorious, and everything else is typical mainstream jazz. B+(*)
Guillermo Klein/Los Gauchos: Carrera (2011 , Sunnyside): Argentine pianist, studied at Berklee, stuck around New York, frequently composing and arranging for a near-big band he calls Los Gauchos. This plays like a song cycle, and while I have no idea what the vocals signify, nor do I much care for them, the flow is intriguing, and the solos -- including saxophonists Chris Cheek, Miguel Zenon, and Bill McHenry -- are proper highlights. B+(*)
Hailey Niswanger: The Keeper (2012, Calmit Productions): Alto saxophonist, b. 1990, studied at Berklee, second album, plus a side-credit on Terri Lyne Carrington's The Mosaic Project. Don't know the quartet, although there's a drummer named Mark Whitfield Jr., and they're joined by trumpeter Darren Barrett on three cuts. She can swing and wail through the straight postbop set, and switch to soprano for a charming "Night and Day." B+(**)
Ben Powell: New Street (2011 , self-released): Violinist, don't have any bio readily available, but looks to be his second album. Seven cuts with is piano-bass-drums quartet -- one each with guitarist Adrien Moignard and vocalist Linda Calise guesting -- plus three cuts by his Stéphane Grappelli Tribute Trio, with Julian Lage (guitar) and Gary Burton (vibes). Does like to swing. "La Vie en Rose" with Calise is especially delicious -- I've rarely felt more Francophile. B+(**)
Louis Sclavis Atlas Trio: Sources (2011 , ECM): French clarinet player, twenty-some albums since 1981. Trio adds keyboards (Benjamin Moussay) and electric guitar (Gilles Coronado). The guitar has a charged rough edge the other instruments flesh out, and everyone is so keyed to the flow they avoid thoughts of chamber music without bass or drums. A- [advance: June 26]
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Tuesday, June 12. 2012
Not much to intro here. Haul looked skimpy until the turn of the month, when I finally buckled down on the downloads -- Action Bronson is still in the queue. And I picked up four of the five records I mentioned as missing last time -- Father John Misty remains beyond my purview. Still working haphazardly, but mostly off my metacritic file, which is mostly green down to 50, mixed to 100, then more black (with occasional blue) after that. The blue, of course, is mostly jazz, which starts to pick up around 267 with Steve Lehman (still my record of the year). However, no jazz below (unless you count BBNG). Doesn't mean a thing. Just broke that way.
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 May 15. Past reviews and more information are available here.
Ab-Soul: Control System (2012, !K7): Black Hippy crew (Lamar Kendrick, Schoolboy Q) solo, has sharp beats, like the overall sound, less sure about his quick rhymes (for one thing, his tendency to accentuate every other line with "nigger"), could be smart but can also get stupid, and runs on for 71:43 -- an awful lot to bother sorting out for someone who doesn't give you much reason to care. B
BadBadNotGood: BBNG2 (2012, self-released): Or BBNG for short. Piano trio from Canada, possibly Ottawa -- Matthew Tavares, Chester Hansen, Alexander Sowinski -- go electric sometimes and try to pass themselves off as hip-hop even though the instrumentation is jazz. Two cuts with Leland Whitty on sax enter into some dense, almost industrial wailing. Same with guitarist Luan Phung's one cut. More postrock than fusion, more interesting with the extra noise. B+(*) [bc]
The Beach Boys: That's Why God Made the Radio (2012, Capitol): Reunited -- minus Dennis and Carl, but that leaves Brian, Al, Mike, second-stringer Bruce Johnston, and masses of studio help -- to cash in on their 50th anniversary, presenting their first album since 1996 (or 1992), but Brian (who's really all that matters) has worked erratically since then. Aside from the song Mike Love wrote for his unreleased 1978 solo joint -- First Love; he's as good with unreleased album titles (others include Unleash the Love and Mike Love Not War) as he is bad at songwriting -- this is all Brian, imitating Brian, which he's not only good at but is becoming ever funnier over time. Inspired lyric: "spring vacation/good vibration/summer weather/we're back together." B+(**)
Beach House: Bloom (2012, Sub Pop): Dream pop duo, previous (third) album was a year-end contender, as this one may well be. It certainly qualifies as lush and vibrant, the balmy waves of sound washing over you warm and numbing -- a pleasure at first, but eventually the sensual monotony sets in, takes over, and reduces this to tedium. So convincing I almost expect to wake up with a sunburn. B
Willis Earl Beal: Acousmatic Sorcery (2011 , XL): Chicago singer-songwriter, has a primitivist vibe, sounds like he built all his instruments, starting with an instrumental on what sounds like a variant of thumb piano. Discomforting at first, but he's so direct he breaks through and make an impression. I've seen him compared to Daniel Johnston, which isn't fair. But he's not quite Swamp Dogg either. He's different. (Bonus track, for real: "Masquerade.") B+(*)
Best Coast: The Only Place (2012, Mexican Summer): Bethany Cosentino's vehicle -- she has a partner, but that doesn't much enter into the songwriting -- back with an album that sounds like a prequel to her Crazy for You breakthrough: less jangle, more angst. Lets the simple songs come through more clearly, like "How They Want Me to Be" -- would be an anthem, but the best she can do is define herself negatively. B+(**)
Big Baby Gandhi: Big Fucking Baby (2011, mixtape): Only bio I can find describes him as a Bangladeshi-American based in Queens, a fellow traveller of the guys in Das Racist. This is pretty elemental, not quite dumb but intending to pass, yet he managed to keep a smile on my face from beginning to end, even on the one that insists it's worth a blunt, not just a jay. A- [dl]
Big Baby Gandhi: No 1 2 Look Up 2 (2012, mixtape): Draws more instrumental chutney from his south Asian background, a mix of sweet and sour and hot I often find a bit harsh, and is less interested in slipping by with a sly grin -- lots of clever rhymes here, although the only one I bothered to write down was, "fuck it/do anything for a ducat." A better mix would pull this over the cusp. B+(***) [dl]
Big K.R.I.T.: Return of 4Eva (2011, mixtape): Country rapper from Mississippi -- can't say I would have figured that out without help, but on the few occasions when he sings he doesn't stray far from the chitlin circuit. Nothing fancy about the raps either, or the low budget beats, but they keep coming. B+(***) [dl]
Big K.R.I.T.: 4Eva N a Day (2012, mixtape): Acronym supposed to mean "King Remembered in Time," but was also cut down from the previous handle Kritikal, a highfalutin' term for someone proud of his Mississippi country heritage. A- [dl]
Big K.R.I.T.: Live From the Underground (2012, Def Jam): By all accounts a studio album, and an advance budget-wise, picking up slicker and richer samples, plus a few guest shots -- notably Ludacris and B.B. King. A-
Bigg Jus: Machines That Make Civilization Fun (2012, Mush): Justin Ingleton, from New York, started out in Company Flow, moved south to Atlanta and released an EP, Plantation Rhymes. Raps over an industrial vibe, his own science-oriented rhymes impress, but when he goes instrumental, less so, until the title track comes on as some kind of horror show -- no fun at all. B+(*)
Blockhead: Interludes After Midnight (2012, Ninja Tune): Anthony Simon, best known for feeding beats to Aesop Rock, but now has a handful of solo albums. Twelve pieces, remarkably close to five minutes each. Vocals scattered, occasionally amusing, beats more often so. B+(***)
Dean Blunt & Inga Copeland: Black Is Beautiful (2012, Hyperdub): Early reviews attributed this to Hype Williams, a name that collides with that used by hip hop video producer Harold "Hype" Williams, so maybe there's some legal tussling going on. Fifteen merely numbered pieces, ranging from atmospheric to dubstep, the latter the better. B+(*)
Bright Moments: Natives (2012, Luaka Bop): Solo project from Kelly Pratt, who plays brass and winds for Coldplay, LCD Soundsystem, and Beirut. Keybs lead, the brass piles on, the rhythm just quirky enough label head David Byrne may have felt flattered. B
Chairlift: Something (2012, Columbia/DMZ/Kanine): Synthpop duo from Brooklyn (or Boulder or something like that), second album, the sort of thing I invariably enjoy even when it doesn't seem special. B+(*)
Ablaye Cissoko/Volker Goetze: Amanké Dionti (2012, Motéma): A kora player and singer from Mali, as calm and gentle as the quiet Saharan genre gets, with a wash of trumpet from a friendly German. B+(**) [cd]
Claro Intelecto: Reform Club (2012, Delsin): Mark Stewart, from Manchester, UK, fourth album. Little washes of synth over beats that always seem to be in the right place. Not much to albums like this, but often it pays to keep them simple. B+(*)
Cornershop: Urban Turban: The Singhles Club (2012, Ample Play): Took three plays for this to kick in pretty much all across the board, and the beats were key -- "greatest ever," says my wife. I don't have a roster of the rotating vocals -- foreign at first, but as they're all interesting, and turn into old friends. A-
Cypress Hill/Rusko: Cypress X Rusko (2012, V2/Cooperative, EP): Haven't followed the Latino hip-hop crew since I dismissed their highly touted 1991 debut, and indeed they've only dropped one album since 2004's Till Death Do Us Part, but they do get juiced up on dubstep beats here, at least for 5 cuts, 16:17. B+(*)
El-P: Cancer4Cure (2012, Fat Possum): Jaime Meline, more producer than rapper but has a handful of records now. Haven't accounted for guests (Killer Mike is one), but rhymes are so rapidfire I haven't parsed much, the beats with a trace of metal. Could be an blowaway album once you get the hang of it, but not yet. B+(***)
Garbage: Not Your Kind of People (2012, V2): Pretty great pop-rock album in 1995, decent follow up in 1998, increasingly infrequent efforts ever since then, this one ending a seven-year gap. Same basic sound, mostly keybs with extra fuzz, and that much still works. B+(*)
Glee Cast: Glee: The Music, Season Three: The Graduation Album (2012, Columbia): Three seasons, about time some of these twenty-somethings move on. I checked out their first couple albums and found them uninteresting if not quite unlistenable -- unlike the show, which can make a bad arrangement of a dreadful song watchable, even without a joke (although there are plenty -- some awful but so many zingers that, unlike Smash, you can imagine watching the show without the music). Especially without this music, which sends "We Are the Champions" so far over the top Freddy Mercury would blush, misconceives "Glory Days" and "Forever Young," and bottoms out in "Roots Before Branches." Still, Puckerman manages to squeeze out a passing grade with his slashing, snarling "School's Out." B-
Gossip: A Joyful Noise (2012, Columbia): Beth Ditto's band, probably more garage when founded in 2000 but leans more toward dance pop these days. Songcraft is pretty solid, and this is consistently enjoyable, but nothing threatens to break loose and turn into fun. B
Laurel Halo: Quarantine (2012, Hyperdub): Electronica, creates a very nebulous froth around otherworldly voices, nothing I can latch onto yet. B
Kelly Hogan: I Like to Keep Myself in Pain (2012, Anti-): Singer, not much of a songwriter (one song here), fifth album since 1996 but last one was a decade ago, time she spent backing Neko Case. A fine, clear voice, not enough twang or corn for Nashville; no real accent in the band, songs from off the beaten path -- not many folks cover Jon Langford or Robbie Fulks -- but aside from the Robyn Hitchcock title song nothing odd or perverse. B+(**)
Alan Jackson: Thirty Miles West (2012, ACR/EMI Nashville): Fifteenth album, wrote 6 (of 13) songs, by no means the best but not bad, keeps his neotrad country sound clean and pure, is such a natural that he never produces a bad album and such a pro that he always his his mark, a bit short of making history. B+(**)
Japanroids: Celebration Rock (2012, Polyvinyl): Garage rock duo from Vancouver, second album, dense and roiling but with little wasted energy -- the fireworks on "Continuous Thunder" a minor exception, but until the guitar cleared my first thought was an amplifier on the fritz. B+(**)
K-Holes: Dismania (2012, Hardly Art): New York punk band, named for schizophrenic episodes brought on by abuse of the drug ketamine. Second album, both male and female singers, considerable crunch, not much more. B+(*)
Killer Mike: R.A.P. Music (2012, Williams Street): Georgia rapper, started out in the OutKast orbit but much more hardcore these days, smashing hard beats, crashing symbols, not gangsta because he don't really have an angle, just a view -- one that informs one of the most anti "Reagan" songs ever, one that finds salvation in truth. A-
Liars: WIXIW (2012, Mute): Guitar-synth-drums trio, originally considered dance-punk, now that they've lost all their hard edges sometimes touted as an American equivalent of Radiohead. This time at least they're harder, simpler, and dumber, which makes for a relatively tolerable album. B
Janiva Magness: Stronger for It (2012, Alligator): Blues singer, writes some, ninth album since 1997 (an early title that stands out is My Hard Luck Soul), third on Alligator. I'm unimpressed when she opens up and wails, but her more intimate songs sound lived in, her voice worn and rugged. B+(*)
JD McPherson: Signs & Signifiers (2010 , Rounder): Singer-songwriter from Oklahoma, started out in a blues band called the Starkweather Boys (one album, from 2007). His voice is well suited for rockabilly, which is basically what this solo debut is, although he also uses honking sax for highlighting. Not sure how much meat is on the bones, especially once he settles in for rock and roll anthems, but the sound hits my sweet spot. B+(**)
Occupy This Album (2012, Razor & Tie, 4CD): Ninety-nine artists contribute ninety-nine songs for the 99%, on sale cheap, proceeds pledge to the movement. Leans more toward the folk of politics past than to the punk and rap of today, but the latter are show up and sometimes turn up the volume. Some are preachy, more are didactic, some just follow the crowd, or mean to move it. Some names are well known, most are obscure -- maybe a quarter below my radar. No point nitpicking: even if one song annoys you, something else is coming right along. The last disc does strike me as slacking off (or maybe it's just too alt-rocky), but I still want to hear it. Call that solidarity. A-
Of Montreal: Paralytic Stalks (2012, Polyvinyl): Athens, GA group, regarded as psychedelic because they synthesize a sloppy prog brew that sometimes amazes but more often turns out to be flabbergasting. This is more of the latter, although one song does stand out as an oasis of clarity: "Malefic Dowery." It accounts for 2:36 (out of 57:42). B-
Oh No: Ohnomite (2012, Five Day Weekend/Brick): Given name Michael Jackson; son of singer Otis Jackson, brother of hip-hop producer Otis Jackson Jr (dba Madlib), nephew of trumpeter Jon Faddis. Seventh album since 2004, counting two as Gangrene. "Whoop Ass" is a title, the beats kicking hard, the rhymes slamming even harder. B+(**)
Ponykiller: The Wilderness (2011, Housecore): The scant info available describes them as "a high-def grunge/psychedelic Prague rock band with modern pop undercurrents." Based in New Orleans, I'm least sure of what they mean by "Prague." Their grunge can get slippery, which is so off the point I suspect they're smarter than they sound, just not very creative. C+ [cd]
Porcelain Raft: Strange Weekend (2012, Secretly Canadian): Dream pop vehicle led by Mauro Remiddi, born in Italy but based in New York; looks to be more alias than group. Can get dense, as on the opener, but also opens up when the pace slackens and the synths retreat into an aura. B+(**)
Public Image Ltd.: This Is PIL (2012, PIL Official): The title song amounts to little more than brand assertion, dumber than usual for the insistence on their abbreviation. After that they relapse into song, their guitar tunings a bit softer and more refined than their old signature, a bit of ska worked in here and there. It's still a sound that works, just no longer a new one. B+(*)
Lee Ranaldo: Between the Times and the Tides (2012, Matador): Ex-Sonic Youth guitarist. AMG lists 16 albums under his name since 1987, but they are mostly scattered obscurities, jams with jazz musicians, guitar solos, etc. This looks to be the first that attempts to build on Sonic Youth's legacy, but you mostly hear that in the familiar ring of the guitar. The voice is unfamiliar and undistinguished; the songs more substantial but don't exactly grab you. B+(*)
Rye Rye: Go! Pop! Bang! (2012, NEET/Interscope): Ryeisha Berrain, from Baltimore, debuts on MIA's boutique label connected to the Universal megacorp. Has some rough spots but at best it's pure ear candy -- cf. "DNA," "Crazy Bitch," "Boom Boom." B+(***)
Saint Etienne: Words and Music by Saint Etienne (2012, Heavenly): Brit group with a French name, date back to 1991, haven't heard them since So Tough (1993), which was anything but tough. No new ideas here, just continues their pleasant synth pop, similar to but less dense than Garbage (and better for that). First song is a talkie, the most beguiling thing here. B+(**)
Seefeel: Seefeel (2011, Warp): British postrock group, cut a couple albums 1993-96, then this one, which aims for industrial ambience, the groan of machinery toned down to something that almost passes for easy listening. B+(**)
Sigur Rós: Valtari (2012, XL): Icelandic group, been around since 1997 although I never bothered with them before; led by a Jónsi Birgisson, who sings falsetto and uses a bow on his guitar -- presumably the point is to add exaltation to the churchy organ. Has a certain appeal, more so when they come back to earth and conjure up a shimmering ambience. B+(*)
Simian Mobile Disco: Unpatterns (2012, Wichita): UK electronica duo, James Ford and Jas Shaw, started out as plain old Simian. House, I gather, although I'm responding more to the disco. Some voice samples, but they mostly rely on their beats -- until they fall into fuzz at the end. B+(**)
Sly & Robbie: Blackwood Dub (2012, Groove Attack): Jamaica's legendary rhythm section, working with Alberto Blackwood on an instrumental album, all groove and a bit of echo. Nothing wrong with that. B+(*)
Smash Cast: The Music of Smash (2012, Columbia): First for the TV series, season one: I've never set through or put up with so many inept, inane, and just plain atrocious plot turns, even when I was a teenager and watched way too much TV. If some musty puritan wanted to prove that nothing good ever comes from sex, this show would make the case. Of course, the reason for putting up with all that is the music and dance -- mostly dance. Minus the visuals, the determination of the singers and the frenzy of the arrangements becomes excess. The gospel "Stand" is especially awful. Some of the show tunes work better, even if they haven't been fleshed out into a coherent story. Thirteen songs -- a small subset of all the music that appeared. B-
Patti Smith: Banga (2012, Columbia): Her Pulitzer prize seems to have tickled her ambition, especially on the two pieces that relate the discovery of America, "Amerigo" and the more violent "Constantine's Dream -- the latter followed by a calm, poignant cover of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush." A-
Regina Spektor: What We Saw From the Cheap Seats (2012, Sire): Russian-American singer-songwriter, sixth album, has hung out in anti-folk circles in New York but plays piano, which gives her a touch of class she'd rather pass off as kitsch -- not that she cares to hide her cosmopolitanism. One song quotes "Don't Let Me Be Understood"; another reworks "Ne Me Quitte Pas"; one of the strongest is chiselled from guttural Russian. B+(**)
The Starkweather Boys: Archer St. Blues (2007, Charlier): JD McPherson's previous group, based in Tulsa, lacks the sax of his solo record but makes up for it with pedal steel when they want to sound jazzy like western swing or just crank up the guitars when they when they want to rock a blues. Looks like their only album, mostly McPherson originals but they end with one from Little Richard. Forty years ago this would have sounded retro. Now it's just classic. B+(**)
Tedeschi Trucks Band: Live: Everybody's Talkin' (2012, Sony Classical, 2CD): This continues to be a fruitful merger, with Susan Tedeschi taking most of the vocals and Derek Trucks leading on guitar. They do tend to jam at length, the eleven songs averaging close to ten minutes each. Note that the best is the shortest ("Rollin' and Tumblin'"), but even the one with the flute is fun. B+(*)
Tindersticks: The Something Rain (2010-11 , Consetllation): British group, dates back to 1992 through a dozen albums although I've never heard them before. Will note that their Island comp was called Working for the Man, and that they have a 5-CD box of Claire Denis Film Scores: 1996-2009. This has a relaxed, melancholy feel, the first cut just spoken word over a 9:04 vamp. B+(*)
Rufus Wainwright: Out of the Game (2012, Decca): Offspring of two of my favorite singer-songwriters, plying the family trade in his own distinct way: divaesque voice, lush tones, slow enough to parade about without a hint of fun. B-
Jack White: Blunderbuss (2012, Third Man): Like, oh, Bruce Springsteen, White is held in esteem for his fidelity to rock and roll virtues. He's a big name despite a rather low profile, his first album under his own name showing no hint of swelling his head. The title suggests an antiquated explosive prone to backfiring, so he handles it with care. The result is unsurprising and uninteresting but not without its pleasures -- notably, none more so than the song he didn't write, "I'm Shakin'." Some day he'll inevitably turn in a whole album of covers, and while it will seem anticlimactic to his fans, I expect it will be his best ever, and no doubt the happiest. B+(**)
Neil Young/Crazy Horse: Americana (2012, Reprise): Young and his band take a dozen familiar folk songs and make them sound like a typical Neil Young and Crazy Horse album: lots of grungy guitar; stiff, cloven beats; nasal vocals. Neat trick, especially when you don't expect it, as on the opening "Oh Susannah." On the other hand, the lead-in to "This Land Is Your Land" comes so close to Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper you expect some humor but there is none. Then the ultimate let down: when I saw "God Save the Queen" as the closer, I hoped he'd be doing the Sex Pistols but instead we get the British national anthem. Hadn't thought through how the former might work, but dammit: we fought two wars to escape from that stupid song. B+(*)
Monday, June 11. 2012
Music: Current count 20024  rated (+33), 775  unrated (+3). Rated count topped 20,000. Don't know that that's a big deal. Robert Christgau has rated a bit more than 15,400 records, but he's listened to and not rated many more -- in total a lot more records than I have. Same is true for dozens of other critics who haven't bothered to build databases, and for the most part don't feel compelled to weigh in on everything they hear. On the other hand, I use grades like a hash, an index. I started doing this back in the 1990s, mostly as a way to keep track of what I've heard, and to quickly look up what I like. Probably started in the nick of time, as my memory was crystal clear then -- the marks would be all the nudge I needed to bring back the experience. Much less so now, so more useful personally.
The other reason I do it is that it's a cheap way to communicate, which I assume is a public service. It takes very little extra effort on my part to come up with a letter grade, and at least some people find it useful. Hopefully, they understand that these are often one-shot, knee-jerk reactions. Most are based on a single play -- better records often get more, but not much. I don't play records very loud, and I don't listen especially closely -- in particular, I almost never catch lyrics. I'm often doing something else while I listen. I get a lot of jazz in the mail, but not much else, but have managed to make up that deficit by streaming stuff (and much more rarely downloading) through the computer. The latter has doubled how much I rate (183 of 348 in the y2012 file, 52.5%), and kept me from becoming too much of a jazz specialist -- also kept me current, which isn't all that easy to do at my age.
Three weeks went into this Jazz Prospecting, but only one week into unpacking (and Monday isn't in yet, so less than that). The ESPs, of course, are recycled from Recycled Goods. Counter to what I said above, my first take on the Threadgill was higher, but only after many plays (more than 5, less than 10) did I decide it wasn't all there. That may be the case for Kalabalik as well -- playing that as I write (third time, I think). Jason Gubbels, who's always worth reading, mentioned Black Music Disaster the other day. Shipp's farfisa isn't quite as bad as Anthony Braxton playing bagpipes, but it is (barely) a joke, and the guitar duo of J. Spaceman and J. Coxon is lightyears behind Raoul Björkenheim and Anders Nilsson. Held back the still-unreleased Louis Sclavis -- probably the best thing I've heard from ECM this year.
Rhapsody Streamnotes should post tomorrow. Looks like I'm the only one who doesn't like the new Neil Young, and maybe the only one who does like the new Patti Smith. Am I losing it?
Peter Appleyard and the Jazz Giants: The Lost Sessions 1974 (1974 , Linus): Vibraphonist, b. 1928 in England, had an album in 1958 (The Vibe Sound of Peter Appleyard), another in 1977, two more for Concord in 1990-91 (Barbados Heat and Barbados Cool). These previously unreleased sessions pivot around the group, jazz giants indeed: Hank Jones (piano), Zoot Sims (tenor sax), Bobby Hackett (cornet), Urbie Green (trombone), Slam Stewart (bass), Mel Lewis (drums) -- the first three have especially fine spots, and the vibes add some twinkle to the pianist's sparkle. Includes short bits of studio dialogue before each cut, and concludes with 25:13 of out takes, generous on the one hand but too much start-stop to listen to. B+(**)
Todd Bishop Group: Little Played Little Bird: The Music of Ornette Coleman (2011 , Origin): Drummer, based in Portland, OR; second album under his own name (both tributes, the other to Serge Gainsbourg), a couple more as Lower Monumental, Flatland, Iron John. Ornette Coleman doesn't record enough these days, so it's nice to hear his music here, in a quintet with two saxes (Richard Cole, Tim Willcox), piano, bass, and drums. B+(**)
Black Music Disaster (2012, Thirsty Ear): Matthew Shipp on farfisa organ, Steve Noble on drums, two electric guitarists -- J. Spaceman and (Jason Pierce, Spiritualized) and John Coxon (Spring Heel Jack). One 38:18 piece, starts with an organ solo that doesn't portend well. Turns into some interesting fusion midway through, but the concept is rather limited, and the farfisa always sounds cheezy. B+(*) [advance]
Ran Blake/Christine Correa: Down Here Below: Tribute to Abbey Lincoln Volume One (2011 , Red Piano): Veteran pianist, active since the early 1960s, has a ton of solo albums, but also has a great fondness for duos with singers, Jeanne Lee a case in point. Correa is another, and she makes a rather convincing Abbey Lincoln here, although the confluence is tightly held, for believers only. B+(**)
Ralph Bowen: Total Eclipse (2011 , Posi-Tone): Tenor saxophonist, originally from Canada, studied at Indiana and Rutgers, teaching at the latter since 1990; ten albums since 1992. Mainstream player, working here with an organ quartet: Jared Gold on the organ, Mike Moreno on guitar, and Rudy Royston on drums. B+(*)
Fly: Year of the Snake (2011 , ECM): Sax trio: Mark Turner (tenor sax), Larry Grenadier (bass), Jeff Ballard (drums). All three contribute songs, Turner a bit more, the 5-part "The Western Lands" credited to all. Has an inner flow to it that keeps everything tight and coherent, the sax a bit on the sweet side. B+(***)
Narada Burton Greene: Live at Kerrytown House (2010 , NoBusiness): Pianist, b. 1937, cut an exceptionally explosive Quartet album for ESP-Disk in 1964 then faded into obscurity, popping up with a couple widely scattered albums in the 1970s and 1980s, then moving into klezmer in the 1990s -- sample titles: Klezmokum, Jew-azzic Park, ReJew-Venation -- and he's done some solo piano since, returning to his avant roots. This solo set was cut live in Ann Arbor, sharp and full of brittle edges, several pieces titled "Freebop." B+(**)
Rich Halley 4: Back From Beyond (2011 , Pine Eagle): Tenor saxophonist from Oregon; I've been a big fan of his work since Mountains and Plains in 2005, and this is every bit as satisfying as long as the sax is front and center. Less so when he plays wood flute, or when he mixes it up with trombonist Michael Vlatkovich, even though the latter has an appealing rough-and-readiness of his own. B+(***)
Tom Harrell: Number Five (2011 , High Note): Plays trumpet and flugelhorn (quite a bit of the latter), b. 1946, has a sizable discography, adding to it every year. Quintet, right down the middle of the mainstream, with Wayne Escoffery on tenor sax, Danny Grissett on piano and Fender Rhodes, Ugonna Okegwo and Jonathan Blake. Escoffery's solos are typically fluid but a bit subdued. Harrell's are eloquent, and even more subdued. B+(*)
Frank Lowe: The Loweski (1973 , ESP-Disk): Previously unreleased outtakes from around the time of the tenor saxophonist's first album, Black Beeings. Crude and scratchy, with Joseph Jarman's soprano and alto grating against Lowe's tenor, with a very young William Parker on bass, and Rashid Sinan on drums. I've never been a fan of Lowe's debut, but this goes down easier, in large part because Raymond Lee Cheng's violin provides notable contrast. Cheng was advertised as The Wizard here, and he makes that conceit work. B+(*)
Aaron Novik: Secret of Secrets (2012, Tzadik): Clarinet player, based in San Francisco; third album since 2008, "a darkly epic exploration into the roots of Jewish mysticism through the writings of Eleazar of Worms" [Eleazar Rokeach, a late 12th century rabbi who lived in Worms, in Germany]. Each book of Eleazar's Secret of Secrets is given an 11-17 minute piece, "based on an Ashkenazi dance rhythm wedded to heavy metal beats," but no words. The metal pours out of Fred Frith's guitar and Carla Kihlstedt's electric violin, with drums, percussion, programming, a string quartet, a brass quartet (Jazz Mafia Horns), and Ben Goldberg joining Novik on clarinet. B+(**) [advance]
John Samorian: Out on a Limb (2010 , self-released): Pianist, UNT graduate, based in NJ; first album. Also sings, splitting the album with wife Kim Shriver, who gets some "featuring" small print on the cover. All originals by Samorian (one song co-credited to Dan Haerle). B
Kayla Taylor Jazz: You'd Be Surprised (2011, Smartykat): Standards singer, from Atlanta, fourth album since 2005, all identified as "Jazz" -- maybe her idea of a group, since guitarist Steve Moore shares the cover. With Will Scruggs on tenor and soprano sax, plus bass and drums/percussion. No effort at picking obscure gems: I've heard nearly all of these songs dozens of times, and they rarely disappoint -- sure don't here. B+(***)
Henry Threadgill Zooid: Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp (2011 , Pi): Alto saxophonist, also has a not undeserved rep for flute (and bass flute), started with Air in the 1970s, ranks as one of the most important figures in avant jazz. Third Zooid album, group expanded to a sextet with the addition of Christopher Hoffman on cello, fleshing out the mishmash of sounds -- Liberty Ellman (guitar), Stomu Takeishi (bass guitar), Jose Davila (trombone and tuba), and Elliot Humberto Kavee (drums). At its best, the rhythm is remarkably ragged, the sax staggered, a jumble that should crash but doesn't -- clip out this stuff and expand on it a bit and you get the album of the year. No real problem with the flute, but there are spots where they lose focus and ramble, losing the edge. B+(***)
Manuel Valera: New Cuban Express (2011 , Mavo): Cuban-born pianist, been in US since 1994, studied at New School, has a handful of albums since 2004. This one reflects his first visit to the island in 17 years, the Cuban rhythms juiced up by Mauricio Herrera, the whole affair dressed elegantly with Yosvany Terry's saxophones. B+(**)
Elio Villafranca/Arturo Stable: Dos Y Mas (2010-11 , Motéma): Piano and percussion, respectively, both born in Cuba, now based in US; duets plus a guest vocalist, Igor Arias, on the closer. B+(**)
Marzette Watts: Marzette Watts & Company (1966 , ESP-Disk): Saxophonist (here tenor, soprano, bass clarinet), b. 1938 in Alabama, d. 1998. Looks like he only cut two records, this and The Marzette Watts Ensemble for Savoy in 1968. Free jazz, somewhat underdefined considering he has Byard Lancaster (alto sax), Clifford Thornton (trombone, cornet), and Sonny Sharrock (guitar) to contend with -- the sound you take away is more likely to be Karl Berger's vibes. B+(*)
Frank Wright Quartet: Blues for Albert Ayler (1974 , ESP-Disk): Tenor saxophonist, cut a couple of avant-garde albums for ESP-Disk in 1965-67, not a lot more before his death in 1990 but the label fished out an unreleased winner from 1974 called Unity, and now found another. One of the first things you'll notice here is the guitar -- James "Blood" Ulmer some years before he recorded under his own name. Also with Benny Wilson on bass and Rashied Ali on drums. Wright plays some ugly flute, but his tenor sax is remarkably cogent even while keeping the edges rough. A-
John Yao Quintet: In the Now (2011 , Innova): Trombonist, from Chicago, based in New York, don't have any more bio than that. First album, quintet with Jon Irabagon (alto/soprano sax), Randy Ingram (piano, keyboards), Leon Boykins (bass), and Will Clark (drums). Postbop, Irabagon tends to slink around the leader rather than butting heads. B+(*)
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Sunday, June 10. 2012
Some scattered links I squirreled away during the previous week (or two):
Further study: some interesting links I'll just note for future reference:
Saturday, June 9. 2012
by Michael Tatum
By some strange confluence of events, many of the records reviewed below in the main section have attracted controversy from one rockcrit corner or another, leading many to label them "problematic" if not dismissing them outright. Such records often pique my interest even before I actually hear them, but I was surprised by how many of them I turned out liking if not downright loving. I'm not a contrarian, merely someone who often finds music more rewarding when it has to be unraveled before it can be understood. Then again, one of the reasons I love such unfairly maligned records as the Neil Young or Die Antwoord is that I don't have to work so hard to derive pleasure from them. So I hope this month's mini-dissertations inspire you to take a chance on some actually good-to-great items you may have thought twice about. If not, well, there's always De La Soul.
Amadou & Mariam: Folila (Nonesuch) The title translates into their native Bambara as "music," which in this highly cross-promoted case doesn't necessarily make the bourgeoisie and the rebel come together. A little background: originally, Mali's most famous musical couple intended to make this a double disc affair, split between one set of sessions cut in New York with a bevy of indie rock musicians, and another comprising the same songs re-recorded with traditional musicians in their hometown of Bamako -- a world music take on Shania Twain's Up!, if you will. Later, they rethought this strategy, integrating the two halves digitally (a world music take on, er, "Strawberry Fields Forever?"), a painstaking process that reportedly took longtime engineer Antoine Halet about three months. The results are as pleasurable as anything they've ever done, and because the duo has always been so openhearted and catholic in their musical approach, cynical accusations of selling out don't wash; but on the other hand, no one would be complaining if the album wasn't denser and busier than 2009's more expansive Welcome to Mali -- all of the musical elements feel jammed together. Like cheap CGI effects, the music dazzles superficially but lacks organicity -- I think I'd appreciate the boast that they eschewed westernized drum kits in favor of traditional Malian percussion if not-so-indigenous drum machines weren't constantly churning in the background. Then there's the bizarre PR nightmare of French pop star Bertrand Cantat, convicted of uxoricide (I say tomato, the French say dolus eventualis) and inexplicably paroled after serving only four years of his sentence: shunned by the French music industry, yet who somehow cajoled his way into not one, but four of this record's tracks. Oh Amadou, tu n'as pas le choix/Oh Amadou, c'est plus fort que toi, he sings tortuously, lines pitilessly lifted from so many chansons: "You don't have a choice/You can't do anything about it." The callousness of the subtext is predictable and cowardly. More importantly, Amadou and Mariam's passivity toward that callousness clouds this project -- not least because it shores up their passivity toward everything else. A
BBU!: Bell Hooks (Mad Decent/Mishka download) Sympathetic of slam poetry as an extension of high school arts programs if not necessarily convinced its leading lights should be anthologized, I was completely caught short by the apocalyptic allegory borrowed from seventeen-year-old Malcolm London, in which a metaphorical hurricane tears through south side Chicago as teens ravage the streets armed with guns and camera phones. "This is a wake up call/So how many of you will answer," it ends, and the extraordinary mixtape that follows provides the answer: a cocky, literate, downright incendiary Chicago crew claiming to have no interest in being stars, yet who hardly tow the underground hip hop line, gleefully noting: "Too many conscious rappers need to face facts/That drug dealers happen to make better raps." An unfair generalization, you say? Maybe, but one not without a kernel of truth, and even more than their buddies in Das Racist, this collective bridges the chasm between "politics" and "fun" better than anyone since the Coup, making the oft-heard complaint they run their choruses into the ground completely moot -- did anyone hurl that complaint at Run-DMC or A Tribe Called Quest? Testifying not only for Bobby Seale and James Baldwin but also for "sisters in the struggle who fought to be seen as queens" and "young queer kids who never fit in the scene," they also wonder if Sarah Palin would still have a hard-on for the Second Amendment if fully strapped brothers showed up at a Tea Party rally. Which leads me to the "cracker" issue, a word their presumably white manager (gleefully slipping into the "Steve Berman" role in a series of three hysterical skits) counts they use a total of "48.3 times." Quaint, damn near archaic, and far less scabrous than "honky" (which appears only once, toward the end) its pointed over usage only underscores how few racial epithets there are for whites to begin with -- as Chevy Chase learned from Richard Pryor the hard way, and this trio must know all too well. And besides, their idea of outreach is sampling Nirvana and (someone alert Don Boy!) the Eagles' "One of These Nights." I wish the piecemeal production cohered a little better. But "Fuck gangsta rap/Black Power is the hardest" is a credo the hip hop world should take to heart. A
Best Coast: The Only Place (Mexican Summer) Those who disparage this record's aesthetically conservative approach should consider Bethany Cosentino's blasé acknowledgement that two years ago, her "song writing style was pretty different" and they are now recording in "a much more professional studio" -- a purposefully banal way of cloaking the fact the debut would have sounded like this had they had the experience, the resources, the money, and producer Jon Brion. Those who laugh at the naivety of sentiments such as "I don't want to die/I want to live my life" should consider the leagues of young people who don't -- that such a statement achieves profundity precisely because it risks elitist scorn. Those who roll their eyes at the amount of time Cosentino sings the word "fun" in the cheekily breezy Beach Boys homage that opens should consider "Rockaway Beach," or at the very least, appreciate the joke that a song about the state that's got the babes and the waves sets up a concept record about the state of mind of the babe who dates the Wavves, i.e. indie fixture and Cosentino boyfriend Nathan Williams. Those who think Cosentino comes off as a long-suffering codependent should consider how many strong-willed feminist types know the gender war score intellectually even if they can't reconcile what they know emotionally -- hell, anyone who admits that both she and the object of her affections are "too lazy to make it work" can't possibly be that submissive. Those who turn their noses at the deceptively simple lyrics should consider a subversion like "You seem to think you know everything/But you don't know why I cry." And those who swoon in song that Nathan Williams "knows everything" should probably be reminded who was whose opening act. If she had -- and I do mean she -- this would be one more concept record with an end, not just a beginning, middle, and cliff-hanging question mark. A
Cornershop: Urban Turban (Ample Play) Roughly, think of the subtitular "Singhles Club" as Tjinder Singh's equivalent of Kanye West's "G.O.O.D. Friday." As West did in the weeks before My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Singh and musical partner Ben Ayres e-mailed their website subscribers six collaborative projects over a period of as many months, all of which they reprise here, augmenting them with three newbies, an encore, and a "bonus track" (what that means in this digital age, don't ask me). On the one hand, I'm delighted to have a third Cornershop record in four years, especially since the ten years preceding only generated one, but I feel two ways about their sudden burst of productivity. Perhaps I've been conditioned to expect a period of dormancy between their great records (1997 to 2002 to 2009 makes the young Lucinda Williams look like a workaholic), but there's a touch of hobbyism here, of expediency, of messing with Mr. In-Between -- though everything save the dessicated udder that is "Milkin' It" rides a good groove that sometimes the band actually puts in service of a good song, like last year's Bubbley Kaur project, there's a sense that much of this material would have been filler on their peak albums, improved in their proximity to that increasingly rare of beasts, Cornershop songs that actually feature their head honcho's lead vocals. Too bad, especially since the one classic here, the mischievous "What Did the Hippie Have in His Bag?," ranks as one of their best kiddie numbers -- Singh signals a breakdown by announcing he's dropped a crayon, and amuses his primary school charges with wordplay that must signify to them as pleasurable gobbledygook even when it means something to you and me ("Doubleday books and Double gum"). Then again, maybe since he swiped the backing for that song from 2002's "Staging the Plaguing of the Raised Platform," maybe a little chill out time between releases should be recommended. B+
De la Soul's Plug One and Plug Two Present . . . First Serve (Duck Down) Because they've been in the game longer than other rappers of the first rank -- only Public Enemy and (we hope) the Beastie Boys have longer tenure -- De La Soul's latter-day albums have a winning maturity about them uncommon in the hip world. Songs about your newborn daughter have become the hoariest of genre clichés, but songs about being forced to explain terrorism and religious fanaticism to that daughter when she's a little older, as Kelvin Mercer a.k.a. Posdnuos a.k.a. Plug One did on 2002's AOI: Bionix? Much more unique, as almost everything else released by this Long Island crew. Still, introspection and adulthood haven't necessarily endeared themselves to the mainstream hip hop audience, who with a few exceptions never trust anyone over the age of thirty. So for this concept record about the ups and downs of a fictitious hip hop duo, Mercer and De La Soul cohort Dave Jolicoeur re-invent themselves as "Jacob 'Pop Life' Barrow" and "Deen Witter," whose rocky but loyal partnership the more ambitious Jacob sums up thusly: "Known each other since grade four and I've been cheating off his homework since grade five." The temptation is strong to compare this record to their buddy Prince Paul's 1999 A Prince Among Thieves, but not only is it funnier, starting with Deen's malapropism-loving mother ("I didn't squeeze your little ass outta me so you get shot over some east coast/west coast pork!" Jacob: "It's actually beef, Mrs. Witter."), but it's also darker, and more personal: while in the former album one comrade murders another for a hit song, here business and personal difficulties crush a friendship while the record company sits back and happily profits. Even the ironies are deeper, as the duo parlays multiple plays on the title trope, and turn "Push It Aside, Push It Along" from a promise to parents to get serious when the rap game falls through, to an anti-anthem "celebrating" music played for money not for love (while the record company sits back and happily profits). Best of all, while the Prince Paul record is nuanced like a good novel, this record, with French production team Chokolate & Khalid on the beat, is all climax all the time, from start to finish. Think they had this much juice when they were kids? They didn't -- I checked. A
Die Antwoord: Ten$ion (Downtown) Critics revile their nightmarish rap rave because at no point do Watkin Tudor Jones and Yolandi Visser ever drop their masks to reveal the prankish performance artists underneath -- in one of their promotional videos, they're portrayed as dirt-poor urchins living next door to each other in a South African squatter camp with their respective parents, when in fact the real-life duo are longtime musical professionals who have a son. Artist and countrywoman Jane Alexander -- who one assumes would be hep to this -- sued them for their appropriating her anti-apartheid "Butcher Boys" sculptures for a recent video on the premise that she feared her original intent would be perverted and misconstrued, yet not only did the band delete the video from YouTube without argument, Jones noted: "These beautiful sculptures are one of the few South African artworks we are truly proud to be associated with." Likewise, it's clear their vitriol for South African president Jacob Zuma has little to do with the color of his skin than the fact he's a corrupt racketeer and unrepentant polygamist who should rightfully have been prosecuted years ago for the rape of that HIV activist. Meanwhile, their American label kicked them to the curb for DJ Hi-Tek's use of the word "faggot" in their projected single, but check out Jones' rationalization: "DJ Hi-Tek is gay . . . [he] says the word faggot doesn't hold any power over him . . . [he uses it] all the time. He's taken that word and made it his bitch" (didn't Hi-Tek's threat to "fuck you in the ass/fuck you till you love me" strike anyone at Interscope as paradoxical?). Even "Ninja"'s boasts about getting fucked up are part of the ruse -- the real life Jones doesn't even drink. In the warped skit in which he plays a creepy benefactor drooling over Yolandi, he offers her herbal tea -- how funny is that? So resist these hard beats and rapid-fire rhymes all you want -- this is some of the most exciting music I've heard all year, and that it makes the uptight politically correct side of me nervous only intensifies its aesthetic charge. And it closes with a choir of integrated South Africans singing, in what is apparently a Zulu and Afrikaans mixed criminal language, "You can't stop me." May they rake in a shitload of cash and donate a hefty chunk of it to something useful. A
Tommy Womack: Now What! (Cedar Creek Music) The Lord forgave this Nashville-based roots rocker for nicking "Greensleeves" for the dire "A Songwriter's Prayer" by providing him his great theme: making something of failure, defined in this particular case as "not becoming a famous rock star," the "shameful" (albeit completely redundant) admission of the centerpiece of 2007's well-turned There, I Said It!. If the back-to-back exclamatory titles didn't clue you in, this record picks up where its predecessor left off, transitioning from last time's "If that's All There Is to See" (in which "seeing it all" includes touring such gorgeous Meccas as Hoboken and Omaha) to the diminished but contented sexual expectations of the absolutely graceful "It Doesn't Have to be That Good," in which Womack gently coaxes his wife to let the kid play Nintendo while they beg, borrow, and steal a little time for themselves. Because the tunes are sturdily functional rather than solid gold catchy -- Freedy Johnston's Can You Fly serves as a good paradigmatic comparison -- Womack's neurotic self-deprecation always strikes one as humble rather than maudlin, a rare trait in your standard self-absorbed singer-songwriter. Still, I could do more with his more visionary detours, represented last time by "Alpha Male & the Canine Mystery Blood," a rumination on lost youth spurned on by a concert poster, and epitomized here by a sorta-rap featuring only him and his drummer, and the rollicking "Guilty Snake Blues," both of which sneakily reference the twelve step programs that I'm betting are the reason -- more so than even the love of his wife and son -- the man's made two albums this strong in a row. A
Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Americana (Reprise) Although not normally accustomed to quoting from someone's Twitter account, I can't resist this bon mot from Rob Tannenbaum: "There will be people who like the new Neil Young album. There are also people who drink their own urine." Well, I say pull the tap and make sure there's a head on it, because this hippie weirdo has just pulled off the ultimate parlor game for jokers who complain his albums with the definitive proto-grunge trio all "sound the same." Covering twelve oldie moldies, the majority of them in the public domain, the selections range from Stephen Foster to Woody Guthrie, from "Tom Dula" to (the one ringer) "Get a Job," and include two I sung every morning before school at Rocky Ridge Elementary. Had the artiste replaced their familiar lyrics with the usual ruminations on love and war, everyone would be championing this as another classic Crazy Horse record. But in fact, I would argue the resistance to this record partially stems from precisely those sentimental childhood memories to which I just alluded, memories which Young underscores by enlisting the backing of a grade school choir that play it far straighter than the kids who hang out with Tjinder Singh. But there's a few twists, because between digging up forgotten verses and re-writing a few of his own, re-arranging chords from major to minor and sometimes discarding melodies and starting completely from scratch, these songs aren't as engraved in memory as you might remember: is the narrator of "Clementine" a tormented father or lover? Why did my second grade teacher neglect to teach us the line in "This Land is Your Land" about hungry people at the relief office? And what about that astonishing passage in "God Save the Queen" about confounding politics and frustrating dirty tricks? Damn near inventing its own genre -- let's call it campfire grunge -- Young's production hasn't been this admirably ragged in years, and one can't help but love that the Talbot-Molina rhythm section is finally in a position to juice up songs more four-square rhythmically than they are. If they're too unkempt for your tastes, get over it -- I bet David Crosby doesn't think they have the chops for that delightful Silhouettes cover, either. A
Disappears: Pre Language (Kranky) Looking forward to their intraverbal period ("Joa," "Fear of Darkness") ***
Actress: R.I.P. (Honest Jon's) The Secret Life of Geiger Counters ("Holy Water," "Marble Plexus") ***
Regina Spektor: What We Saw From the Cheap Seats (Sire) Outweirds Tori Amos -- outcharms her, too ("Don't Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)," "Small Town Moon") **
Rye Rye: Go! Pop! Bang! (Interscope/N.E.E.T.) M.I.A. secretly dreams of Nicki Minaj's numbers, but wouldn't dream of stooping to her commercial level, which is why she's only too happy to have this Baltimore native do her dirty work ("Sunshine," "Never Will Be Mine") **
John Mayer: Born and Raised (Columbia) He hasn't given up the shallowness of his previous life as much as chosen to wade at the opposite end of the pool ("Queen of California," "Shadow Days") *
K'Naan: More Beautiful Than Silence (A&M/Octone, EP) Takes optimism in the face of genocide a little too far ("Nothing to Lose") *
Odd Future: The OF Tape Vol. 2 (Odd Future) I resigned myself to accepting beforehand that this collective's "proper" debut would sound nothing like Frank Ocean's sublimely beautiful Nostalgia, Ultra, the finest record of 2011, and more like Tyler the Creator's baldly stupid Goblin, one of 2011's more dubious artifacts. Far more comparable to the latter in its scattered, chaotic music and reliance on tasteless shock tactics, it distinguishes itself by being completely undistinguished -- five plays and I can't tell you anything about the record other than the ninety second spoken word intro. Which I've thoughtfully transcribed for you, as it provides as good a taste as any to their scintillating poesy. [Cue muzak, with light drum machine accents] "Let me tell all you niggas a little motherfucking story real quick. Once upon a time, there was this group of dusty-ass motherfuckers, created a little group for they-selves, they called themselves 'Odd Future.' These little niggas made a motherfucking tape: Odd Future Tape Volume Two. You know, that ugly ass nigga Tyler, with his bitch ass, I should FUCK that nigga up when I see him . . . nappy ass hair. Left Brain? That nigga ugly as FUCK! Big ass nose? Syd, gay ass . . . puttin' her . . . clit on other bitches' nipples and shit, whatnot. Matt? Big ass, big ass nigga with with some small ass earrings, bald? Mike G, crusty ass? My nigga Earl, ugly as FUCK! Let's have a moment of silence for that nigga real quick. [brief, merciful caesura] Fuck silence, fuck that! My nigga Jasper, dirty fat ass, that nigga's boxers STANK! My nigga Frank? [another meaningful pause, disgust clearly building up in the face of actual talent] Fuck, fuck Frank nigga, fuck you! Taco? Ohhhh . . . young bitch-ass, I should . . . aw, fuck, I hate all these niggas! And you know, that little short, gay, light-skinned nigga Hodgy and that fat ass nigga Domo? Let me jes [blows disdainful raspberry]. C
The Chap: We Are Nobody (Lo Recordings) "Writing's for cowards/Talking's for men/Cowards write songs/And never do what needs be done." B
Gotye: Making Mirrors (Universal Republic) This Australian-by-way-of-Belgium's music and singing have been compared to Phil Collins, Sting, Peter Gabriel, and Toto -- and this is from his supporters. C+
Claro Intelecto: Reform Club (Delsin) Este intelecto no está claro tanto como vacío. C+
Garbage: Not Your Kind of People (Stunvolume) They swipe the hook for lead single "Blood For Poppies" from, I shit you not, Laura Brannigan, from whom they also could have learned subtlety, or perhaps borrowed a slightly less bonkers mastering engineer. C
Kimbra: Vows (Warner Bros.) Easy to stuff your songs to the gills with arrangement ideas when they're totally empty. C
PS I Love You: Death Dreams (Paper Bag) As I write this letter, over the blare of arena indie in the Lincoln Tunnel . . . C
Thursday, June 7. 2012
Steve Coll: Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power (2012, Penguin)
Steve Coll's big book on America's biggest oil company starts with the Exxon Valdez's giant oil spill in 1989 and ends in 2011 with a ruptured Exxon pipeline that dumped a thousand gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River. In between, a lot of oil, and some blood, get spilled, Exxon -- now ExxonMobil, after swallowing Mobil Oil in a $73.7 billion merger in 1998 -- itself becomes much larger and more profitable, and its lawyers and lobbyists have had a lot of work to do to cope with the mess.
Over the last decade, Coll has focused on America's terrorism wars, first with his history of the CIA's involvement in Afghanistan, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden -- you know, when the terrorists were the "good guys" -- then in The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century he looked further into the confluence of business interests and terror in the middle east. But before that he had started out writing about business, with previous books on the breakup of AT&T and the takeover of Getty Oil. The current book combines all those interests, especially given how large and rich ExxonMobil is, and how it moves all over the world, looking for oil and finding trouble.
One persistent theme is how companies like ExxonMobil have come to operate both parasitically and independently of American interests, at least as understood by successive presidential administrations. The book jumps fairly quickly from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill to the 1998 ExxonMobil merger, so it mostly overlaps with what Billmon liked to call the Cheney administration. Naturally, ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond was very close to Cheney -- a participant in Cheney's secretive energy planning sessions, and beneficiary of numerous special favors -- but ExxonMobil never had a problem getting access and government help. (The Clinton administration's rubber stamp approval of the merger, which combined the two largest Standard Oil companies broken up in the famous 1911 antitrust case, was the most remarkable favor, but the Obama administration followed suit in helping to secure ExxonMobil's takeover of the large Qurna oil field in Iraq -- maybe that war was only about oil after all?)
On the other hand, Raymond emphatically rejected the notion that ExxonMobil was an American company, insisting that his shareholders, employees, and customers were scattered all over the world, and that he had no special fealty to U.S. foreign policy. Given how confused US foreign policy wonks are about oil policy -- someone smarter than Michael Klare should write a book about the abuse of idiocy in the US trying to protect its supply of cheap oil with military efforts which disrupt markets and lobbying in favor of multinationals like ExxonMobil that benefit much more when oil becomes more expensive -- Raymond is refreshingly focused. He uses Washington when it's useful for ExxonMobil, and steers clear when they're more trouble than they're worth.
There are many case examples of the latter, especially in Africa, where ExxonMobil is a more significant force than the US government. Equatorial Guinea is one case in point: its corrupt dictator, Teodoro Obiang Ngeuma, ran up such a bad human rights record that even the Bush administration kept him at arm's length, but ExxonMobil had no problems doing business with him. Similar stories appear in chapters on Indonesia, Nigeria, and Chad, although in those cases the US did eventually get involved, providing guns to supposedly to quell civil wars. (The Aceh revolt in Indonesia eventually ended in negotiation; piracy in Nigeria is an ongoing problem, and Chad remains all the poorer, but at least the oil still flows.)
Probably the most egregious example of ExxonMobil pursuing its private interests over U.S. government wishes was when Raymond went to China to rail against the Kyoto agreement, which ExxonMobil was also lobbying against in Washington. That may seem pale compared to his predecessor, Walter Teagle, who sold patents to I.G. Farben in the late 1930s then refused to manufacture synthetic rubber without the Nazis' permission. But it is an example both of how narrowly ExxonMobil targets its interests, and how single-mindedly they pursue them with all their might.
The most notorious example is ExxonMobil's propaganda war against the idea of global warming, where they have pulled out all of the usual tricks, including creating front groups and hiring scientists to disinform the public. They weren't the only oil company to do so, but had considerable impact given their immense size and drive. Coll seems to admire Raymond for his disciplined management, but starting so late in the story we never get a clear picture of how Exxon got to be so large.
Under John D. Rockefeller, Standard Oil had become the most notorious monopoly of the gilded age. In 1911, the company was broken up into 34 separate companies, many of them delineated by state boundaries, like Standard Oil of New Jersey (future Exxon), Standard Oil of New York (future Mobil), California (Chevron), Ohio (SOHIO), and Indiana (Amoco). I'm not sure how Exxon (as we'll call Standard of New Jersey even before its 1972 rebranding) came to be the largest of the "baby Standards," but during Teague's management (1917-42) the company grew its market share from 2% to 11.5%. One chunk was their purchase of 50% of Humble Oil (one of the larger independents in Texas) in 1919 -- they bought up the rest of the stock in 1954. But they also made significant claims outside the US, like their controlling interest in Canada's Imperial Oil. They also owned fields in Venezuela, Iran, and elsewhere. After WWII they were the largest of the "seven sisters" that were organized to take over Iran's oil after the CIA's 1953 coup. Before that, in 1948 they took a large (30% stake) in Aramco, which became Saudi Aramco when it was nationalized in the 1970s. The nationalizations undercut their reserves, but they were often replaced by deals where Exxon would continue to refine the no-longer-owned crude, so they maintained their standing as the largest multinational oil company.
Mobil (originally Standard Oil of New York, reduced to SOCONY, then several other variants) also grew by acquisitions, like Magnolia Oil and Vacuum Oil) and foreign exploration, inheriting Standard's interests in China, and adding Vacuum's stake in Australia. Mobil was generally the second largest oil company in America. At the time of the merger, it had many of the fields that figure prominently in the book: Aceh (Indonesia), Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, and a huge gas field in Qatar. As Coll sums up, "ExxonMobil had always been better at buying other people's oil than at finding it."
One particular aspect of history that Coll ignores by starting in 1989 is the role the oil companies interacted with US foreign policy, especially early on. The US didn't actually have much of a foreign policy before WWII, and in the early postwar period the State Department and the CIA tended to look to US companies for insight and expertise abroad -- especially in the Middle East. This could on occasion be disastrous, as when the CIA intervened in Iran in what was basically a dispute between Anglo-Iranian Oil (later BP) and a newly-elected democratic government in Iran over an extremely one-sided and unfair contract. (Much the same as the CIA intervened in Guatemala at the behest of United Fruit.)
The merged ExxonMobil's revenues in its first year were $228 billion. By 2011, they had grown to $486 billion, with $41.1 billion in profits. Lee Raymond retired in 2006 with a package valued at $400 million. He was replaced by Rex Tillerson. Raymond had moved the corporate headquarters to Irving, Texas, a suburb of Dallas that seemed to fit the management culture better than. The book includes some numbers of how much ExxonMobil put into various political campaigns, and needless to say they favored Republicans -- even in 2008, when the Democrats won massively, their take was only 11% -- but the numbers are piddly compared to what the Koch family spends. Still, you can't say that they were less effective: they've pretty much won every legislative and regulatory battle they've entered, and have had no problems getting Democrats like Clinton and Obama to do their bidding.
That is a huge flaw in our political system: we basically put government favor up to the highest private bidder, while at the same time not expecting corporations to take anything more than their shareholder's narrow pecuniary interests into consideration. In this system, the oil and banking industries loom exceptionally large, and their influence has been exceptionally corrupting.
One problem here is that oil has always engendered the worst in extreme right political crackpots -- Bryan Burrough's The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes is a veritable catalog of them, although you'd also have to factor in non-Texans like the Buckleys, the Kochs, and the Cheneys. This has always struck me as rather perverse, as the root of all oil fortunes is a paper from a government giving someone arbitrary ownership of unseen pockets of hydrocarbons buried millions of years ago: nothing is more exemplary of the old adage about being born on third base and thinking you've hit a triple. But whereas such crackpots will always be with us, it is the sheer size of the oil industry that makes them so dangerous, and that size is readily inflated as every uptick in gasoline prices magnifies the value of unpumped reserves.
Those reserves, by the way, play a crucial role here. ExxonMobil's power -- in particular, their ability to merge with Mobil and to buy out XTO -- depends on their stock price, which is normally an estimate of future profitability: for an oil company, that mostly means the product of current profitability times proven reserves. Coll shows how nearly every strategic move ExxonMobil has made has been driven by the need to increase their reserves to make up for their yearly production. For several reasons this has been a tough problem, which for a long time Raymond was able to finesse by unorthodox accounting.
Coll highlights the problem of "resource nationalism": most nations, especially those long victimized by Euroamerican imperialism, insist on owning their own oil, even when in order to exploit that oil they wind up making production deals with foreign companies. (The first "third world" country to nationalize its oil fields was Mexico, and I'm pretty sure the foreign company was Exxon.) Since then Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and other major producers have taken their reserves off the company books, and it will be tempting for countries like Nigeria and Angola to do the same.
Another problem, which Coll doesn't cover in any systematic way, is that oil fields run dry, that there are only a finite number of them, and that new discoveries of oil fields are increasingly hard to find. This is consistent with the "peak oil" theory, which in its original version predicted that US oil production would peak in 1970 and decline thereafter. (In fact, the peak year was 1969. That this was non-calamitous was due to our ability to import oil to cover the shortfall, but that immediately resulted in the US turning its trade surplus into a deficit, which has only widened ever since.) Kenneth Deffeyes predicted that the peak for world oil production would be in the 2000-2005 window. (Results are less clear: production has basically plateaued since 2000, with a peak in 2005, but a slight rebound in 2011.)
What is clear from Coll's book is that the only way ExxonMobil has been able to increase its reserves is by counting things that wouldn't have been counted before. For starters, ExxonMobil has been replacing oil fields with gas fields -- both large, conventional ones like those in Aceh (Indonesia) and Qatar, and more recently with a lot of nonconventional fields (XTO was a major player in shale gas, which is obtained by horizontal drilling and "fracking" -- fracturing the shale with explosive blasts of highly toxic fluids). Gas is less valuable than oil, more expensive to drill, and much more expensive to distribute (ExxonMobil has an advantage in its experience in liquifying natural gas, but it's still relatively expensive).
Secondly, offshore oil deposits are much more expensive to drill than onshore, and deepwater even more so (especially if you factor the risks Deepwater Horizon ran into), and that's where many recent finds are. ExxonMobil is not a big player there, but is so desperate for new reserves they want to.
Third, there are nonconventional oil deposits, which have never been economically efficient but come more and more into play as oil prices rise. These include a couple of giant tar sand deposits, one in Canada, another in Venezuela. ExxonMobil has a stake in the former, and built (and gave up) a processing plant in the latter. Technology is likely to make these deposits more accessible, but they are very expensive to develop and produce, have massive environmental impact, and have very low recoverability ratios.
(When you initially drill into an oil reservoir, it will probably be under enough pressure that it will gush oil out: that's as good as it gets. When the pressure drops, you can still pump oil out, but you have to burn energy to run the pumps. You can also drill another hole, and pump water into the reservoir, repressurizing it to push more oil out, but before long most of what you're pumping out is water you pumped in, so that it some point it costs you as much to pump as the oil you get is worth. There are a few more techniques that help, but eventually you stop, leaving unrecoverable oil in the reservoir. Tar sands are worse because the tar isn't liquid, so can't be pumped, unless you can figure out a way to melt it. Until recently, it's mostly been strip-mined like coal, then cooked, which means you can only get to near-surface deposits, and even that is expensive, not to mention messy. Oil shales are even worse. Richard Heinberg has written about this sort of thing many times; e.g. in The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies. He tends to be very pessimistic, but raises valid questions.)
This increasingly frenzied search for bookable reserves is the reason why people think Bush's invasion of Iraq was for oil. Indeed, it took a while, but the key feature of ExxonMobil's 2009 deal to take over production of Iraq's Qurna oil field was that the reserves be bookable. The book includes two chapters on Iraq, and a couple more on Russia, which for a while in the kleptocratic 1990s looked like it might be willing to sell off ownership of its oil resources. (The main person interested in selling was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is currently off the market, doing time in one of Putin's jails.) That leaves only one major underdeveloped oil power in need of regime change, and that is the one you hear so much misleading propaganda about: Iran. (Embargoing Iran's oil does three things: it starves Iran, hopefully causing popular unrest; it reduces the world's oil supply, resulting in higher prices and profits for the oil companies; and it keeps oil in the ground, where it can eventually be booked if and when Iran adopts a legal system more friendly to ExxonMobil and its ilk.)
Coll's book raises as many questions as it answers. It offers a sobering demonstration of how one domineering executive, Lee Raymond, has been able to control, tune, and limit critical thinking within an organization that actually employs 86,000 people. Single-mindedness, as much as anything else, has made ExxonMobil a formidable force, both in its pursuit of profit and in its denial of responsibility. They, as much as anyone, have kept us from any sort of serious discussion about the declining quantity and quality of oil and gas, about what a more conserving approach to those resources would really mean for growth, about whether indeed that might be a better idea. They have been nothing less than deceitful about their environmental record, and especially about the potential effects of pumping so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And they have used every ounce of their political clout to preserve the fantasy that we'll never have to face a world where oil isn't infinitely abundant, even though nothing could be clearer when you fill up your car.
This should be a cautionary tale against letting corporations get too big and granting them too much influence. We just passed the 100th anniversary of the breakup of Standard Oil, and in that century we have become markedly more cynical about democracy and remarkably more naive about corporations. On the other hand, if you read this closely, you can sense that ExxonMobil's triumphant era is coming to a close. Indeed, the merger mania of the 1990s -- not just Exxon + Mobil but BP + Amoco and Conoco + Phillips and all the rest -- were a desperate attempt to fall upward, one where the companies have mostly been saved by rising prices. On the other hand, there are any number of forces that could force us to rethink not our dependency on oil so much as our blind faith in oil companies. Of course, one could have said that just as emphatically about banks 3-4 years ago, but our political leaders utterly failed to face up to the challenge. It is, for now at least, so much easier to pretend all is well, or to blame it on your choice enemies.
For more "quotes and notes" see the book page.
Monday, June 4. 2012
Music: Current count 19991  rated (+32), 772  unrated (+31). Rated more records than I expected, mostly because the Aretha Franklin lode proved so deep and rich. Added a few items to the Rhapsody Streamnotes file too, although it's still short at 24 items. I'll probably focus more on that this coming week than on Jazz Prospecting, but I'm falling behind there faster than I expected -- the incoming mail kicked up quite a bit when I left for Arkansas, and I just unwrapped five more discs that came in today's mail.
A Downloader's Diary should appear by the end of the week. Rhapsody Streamnotes will trail it by a day or two. No Jazz Prospecting this week, but there should be one next Monday -- I haven't avoided it as scrupulously as I had hoped, partly because it's already way too hot to do much work outside. I will, however, run unpacking below, just to get it out of the way.
Unpacking: Found in the mail last two (or three) weeks:
Sunday, June 3. 2012
Note: updated below.
Jonathan Alter is one of those names that blurs in my mind with clusters of others (most obviously Eric Alterman), so when he got one of his op-eds reprinted in the Wichita Eagle, I didn't automatically peg his Romney vs. Obama spiel as particularly partisan. I read a bit:
Mostly stupid, but my mind seized on the last line and spelled out a clear distinction between "venture capitalists and vulture capitalists." Never mind that the etymology of "vulture capitalist" was as a twist to venture capitalist, meant to disparage those who got too greedy. Indeed, that's all too common among venture capital firms, but for the most part venture capitalists have a positive reputation: their greed puts money up to build new companies based on developing new technologies, and their greed is at least tempered by the recognition that they need to offer equity positions to at least some key technical employees and often to the whole team. And I can see an argument for aligning Obama with the venture capital folk, what with his "green jobs" projects and his general stance that growth solves all economic problems.
But the real vulture capitalists are the private-equity firms, where greed is untempered with any desire to build anything. They work out deals where the target company borrows a lot of money to pay off the old owners; the vultures, having put up a small share of their own money, then swoop in, recouping their investment by paying themselves huge management fees (usually by borrowing even more money), stripping off assets, and squeezing out costs, mostly from the workers. The resulting company may be crushed under its debt load, or may fail more slowly by neglecting r&d and other longer-term investment, or it may limp along and be repackaged for another round of profit-taking, fed to other vultures, or dumped onto the market through an IPO.
Mitt Romney's connection to vulture capitalism is direct -- that's exactly how he made his fortune -- whereas Obama has little more than an affinity for venture capital, but the contrast is straightforward: Obama's approach promises growth and technological progress (and maybe a slightly broader distribution of profits), whereas all Romney is interested in is extracting advantage for himself and his ilk. This contrast may flatter Obama excessively, for it could hardly be more accurate in characterizing Romney.
Problem is, Alter didn't write it like that. He conceded the totally unearned moral high ground of venture capitalism to Romney, while muddying the waters with his supposed alternative, Obama's contrasting position: "human capitalists." Now what the fuck is that supposed to mean? I could speculate, but quite frankly I have no problem seeing Romney et al. as human -- just a little warped by their narrow-minded misanthropic greed, but that's a pretty common human trait. But Alter, clearly, has no idea what he means. The closest he comes to a contrast is here, discussing tax policy:
In other words, both intend to lavish tax breaks on businesses, one across-the-board, the other slightly more targeted to keep the vultures from becoming too self-destructive, but Alter doesn't offer any reasoning why the latter should be better. He accepts blindly that both candidates' blind faith in capitalism -- indeed, he seems so pleased to have rescued Obama from the vile charge of socialism that it never occurs to him that there may be a problem with either being "capitalist tools."
I need to interject a disclaimer here: in what follows I'm not saying that we should in any way abandon capitalism (although I could make that argument elsewhere, and certainly think that some reforms and restructuring is in order). Capitalism is a reasonably productive and efficient way to run much of the economy. (Health care is a glaring exception, and there are a few others.) But that doesn't mean that politics should be in thrall to business. Indeed, one thing we should have learned from two-hundred years of American history is that when capitalists have too much power they will soon abuse and wreck the economy -- not just their own, but everyone's, and we've seen that happen time and again.
In the midst of the previous great depression, the New Dealers came up with a useful principle they called "countervailing power." The idea was to create a system of checks and balances that would keep any segment from getting too powerful. One example of this was how the New Deal encouraged workers to join unions. Another was the progressive income tax, and its use to provide popular services (like education and transportation), limiting inequality and opening up broader opportunities. Another was the regulation of banks, which ensured stability for many years until it was dismantled by Reagan and Clinton (resulting directly in the S&L debacle of the late 1980s, and the panic of 2008).
What's happened in the past thirty years is that capitalism has become so hegemonic in American politics that it's become almost impossible even for Democratic Party hacks like Alter to conceive of any form of countervailing power. So, when faced with the threat of a ravaging vulture capitalist like Romney, all Alter can do is propose a hypothetically "human capitalist" alternative, no more distant from Romney than the elder Bush's "kinder, gentler conservatism" was from Reagan's orthodoxy.
Sadly, Obama doesn't seem to have any more understanding, or imagination, than Alter. The closest he came to having a concept of countervailing power was when he threw the 2010 elections to the Republicans so he could act more bipartisan -- the result, of course, was that he has been ineffectual ever since, arguably blameless (although it remains to be seen how well he can sell that).
Alter is, of course, right in his intuition that Obama is every bit as committed to preserving the current order as Romney -- maybe even more so, as Romney is more likely to fall back on the pet MBA rationalization of "creative destruction," and Romney's party is set on destroying every part of the public sphere except those dedicated to war and security -- the part most useful for wrecking the rest of the world. So one could argue that Obama is the only true conservative in the race, but I don't take any comfort in that. For one thing it is a stance that leaves him in the wrong on nearly everything. Maybe not as wrong as Romney, but if we have to make such distinctions, make them by showing how wrong Romney is, because that at least is something one can learn from. On the other hand, touting Obama as the "human capitalist" just makes us dumber.
My fondest hope for Obama's election was that it would lead to Bush and Cheney being tried in the Hague. Now, clearly, Obama belongs in the docket alongside them.
Update: For a reminder that the distinction I made above between venture and vulture capitalists isn't so clear cut, see Andrew Leonard: Private Equity's Evil Twin:
Of course, IPO time is when the avarice underlying venture capital comes to the top, often abetted by the big sharks always cruising for a killing. The moral case for venture vs. vulture capitalists that the former plays a non-zero-sum game where, in principle at least, everyone who gets in on the ground floor can come out ahead. In contrast, the big bank trading desks, the hedge funds, etc., mostly play a zero-sum game where their gains are at the expense of other traders. Sometimes these bets fail spectacularly, as recently happened at JPMorgan Chase, but the fact that the banks and hedge funds usually come out ahead suggests that they are taking their clients for a ride. It's worth noting that the prevalence of zero-sum profiteering tends to create a norm where larceny is the rule, and that's where we're at now.
Saturday, June 2. 2012
For some reason, long since forgotten, about a month ago I thought I should use Rhapsody to listen to a batch of prime-period (1967-72) Aretha Franklin albums I had missed -- or more accurately, had only heard through compilations like the perfect Aretha's Gold or the more expansive 30 Greatest Hits. Actually, it was probably because I wrote about her second (or third) generation Arista best-of last month (Knew You Were Waiting: The Best of Aretha Franklin 1980-1998). Before that, I had only written up one Columbia-era compilation (the grade-B Jazz Moods: 'Round Midnight). Normal people don't need any more than I had before this exercise, but when so much more is available, why should I settle for normal?
I resisted expanding this to include the early Columbias, the later Atlantics, and the Aristas until nearly the end of May, then relented and plowed through. As a career summary, this misses such important albums as I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) (1967), Spirit in the Dark (1970), Young, Gifted and Black (1972), Who's Zoomin' Who? (1985), and A Rose Is Still a Rose (1998) -- items I've long owned so could skip here, but see the fine print for an accounting, plus some comps. Still missed some, but only because Rhapsody did. (Also skipped a lot of comps that Rhapsody did have, although I finally worked in a reissue of her teen debut gospel album from 1956. I may check out some more later, but had to draw the line somewhere.)
Then on May 17, Donna Summer died. I cobbled together a quickie blog post, and resolved to look up what I had missed from her oeuvre. Not so much there, but I did manage to add a couple items to this file. I imagine I'll be doing more things like this in the future, but most likely not to completist. (I wrote up a Joe Cocker item a few months back, and have been kicking it down the road, this month because I'm never going to do all the Cocker I missed, although there may be a couple more albums I should take a listen to.) With the Briefly Noted so series-bound, I moved everything else up top, changing semicolons to periods and not bothering to tighten it all up.
Steve Lacy: Estilhaços: Live in Lisbon (1972 , Clean Feed): Still waiting for the avalanche of previously unissued recordings promised after the soprano sax legend's death in 2004, and eager to look at every piece that does appear to see how it fits into the puzzle. This one has been released before, first on LP in 1972, then on CD in 1996, both on obscure Portuguese labels. Lacy's quintet has rarely raised such a ruckus, and while much of it is hard to take, it does give you a sense of the thrill of freedom. I doubt that this had any role in triggering the revolution that freed Portugal two years later, but if Salazar had heard it I don't doubt that it would have scared the bejesus out of him -- in which case I'd have to grade it much higher. B+(*)
Frank Lowe: The Loweski (1973 , ESP-Disk): A previously unreleased five-part jam recorded during the sessions that yielded the tenor saxophonist's debut, Black Beeings. Joseph Jarman's soprano and alto provide contrasting variations in scratch and screech, while Wizard Raymond Lee Cheng's violin opens up space and offers some relief. A young bassist in one of his first recordings, William Parker, goes both ways. B+(*)
Mutamassik: Masri Mokkassar: Definitive Works (1996-2003 , Sound Ink): This is Italian-Egyptian-American turntablist Giulia Loli, who has popped up on records by Arto Lindsay and DJ/Rupture, sometimes going as DJ Mutamassik. Works more scattered than definitive, but the beats are of one piece, sometimes enhanced with Middle Eastern strings, less often voices ranging from prayer calls to radio patter to raps by 4th Pyramid and Cyra Unique, even a bit of George Lewis trombone. A-
Marzette Watts: Marzette Watts & Company (1966 , ESP-Disk): Saxophonist, was a founder of SNCC but escaped Alabama for New York, then Denmark, leaving this and one other album (1968) before dying just shy of 60 in 1998. With Byard Lancaster (alto sax), Clifford Thornton (trombone), Sonny Sharrock (guitar), Karl Berger (vibes), Henry Grimes (bass), and J.C. Moses (drums), this should be a powerhouse, but comes off a bit underdefined, as if no one (but Berger) wants to take charge. B+(*)
Frank Wright Quartet: Blues for Albert Ayler (1974 , ESP-Disk): Little recorded tenor saxophonist who died in 1990, his best known records two free improvs on ESP-Disk 1965-67 -- my interest in Wright was raised when Ken Vandermark dedicated a piece to him and followed that with a cover in Free Jazz Classics. This is dedicated to the late drummer Rashied Ali, but the real find here is some of James "Blood" Ulmer's earliest buzzsaw guitar work. Wright is also superb, a guy who could express a lot with few notes, an economy that may have suggested blues or Ayler but isn't bound to either. A-
Aretha Franklin: You Grow Closer [Peacock Gospel Classics] (1956 , MCA): The fourteen-year-old preacher's kid showing off for the folks at her dad's New Bethel Baptist Church, originally on JVB and much purloined ever after (Rhapsody has three other versions, including Aretha Gospel on Chess); she plays piano and raises the rafters with grim songs -- two with "blood" in the title, one the choir-backed "He Will Wash You White as Snow"; primitive, amateurish, scary. B
Aretha Franklin: Aretha: With the Ray Bryant Combo (1960-61 , Columbia): Aside from some gospel cut barely in her teens, her first album, still just 18 but in full voice and remarkably poised, standards and originals by arranger J. Leslie McFarland, with various backing, notably including Ray Bryant on piano, Al Sears on tenor sax and/or Quentin Jackson on trombone; Rhapsody has 2011 remasters and a mixed bag of bonus cuts but I haven't find a matching CD release. A- [R]
Aretha Franklin: The Electrifying Aretha Franklin (1962, Columbia): John Hammond and Richard Wess struggle to find arrangements that work, throwing together various mixes of strings, big bands, and small combos, and she struggles mightily to overcome them; one exception is the big band-propelled "Rough Lover." B+(**) [R]
Aretha Franklin: The Tender, the Moving, the Swinging Aretha Franklin (1962, Columbia): Robert Mersey's strings spoil nearly every arrangement, and even her magnificent voice sometimes serves her ill -- hope I never hear this "God Bless the Child" again; on the other hand, no fault of hers that she comes up short on "Try a Little Tenderness" -- Otis Redding's definitive take was still to come. B- [R]
Aretha Franklin: Laughing on the Outside (1963, Columbia): More strings, more standards, done at a crawl -- "Skylark," "Make Someone Happy," "Solitude," "Until the Real Thing Comes Around," "I Wanna Be Around"; she seems hopelessly trapped, but eventually you tune out the arrangements and take comfort in her suffering. B [R]
Aretha Franklin: Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington (1964 , Columbia/Legacy): Franklin could out-belt Ethel Merman, anyone really, so it's no surprise that she winds up murdering Dinah; the songbook breaks some ground for Franklin -- "Cold, Cold Heart," "Drinking Again," "Evil Gal Blues" -- but doesn't open her up, while Robert Mersey's strings are as anesthesizing as ever. B- [R]
Aretha Franklin: Runnin' Out of Fools (1964, Columbia): Ex-Mercury A&R director Clyde Otis takes the reins, finally giving up on shoehorning Franklin into the jazz tradition, turning her loose on contemporary pop covers -- "Mockingbird," "Walk On By," "My Girl," and "The Shoop Shoop Song" are amusing novelties, but she finds her calling on "You'll Lose a Good Thing"; question is: did anyone at Columbia notice? B+(**) [R]
Aretha Franklin: Yeah!!! (1965, Columbia): Subtitled In Person: With Her Quartet, notably guitarist Kenny Burrell, a live return to the standards repertoire -- "Misty," "Love for Sale," but also "If I Had a Hammer" and "There Is No Greater Love"; great voice, but little nuance -- she powers through everything, and the quartet gets little chance to jazz it up. B+(*) [R]
Aretha Franklin: Aretha Arrives (1967, Atlantic): Second album on Atlantic, cobbled together from outtakes and live shots and rushed out when I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) struck it rich; one hit ("Baby I Love You"), a remarkable cover of "Nite Life" (at least until the live band hams it up), a furious live "Satisfaction" that was her only non-chart single in 1967-68, more obvious filler that she's better than. B+(***) [R]
Aretha Franklin: Lady Soul (1968, Atlantic): Third album on her Atlantic run, short (28:41) but packed with remarkable songs including her towering domination of "A Natural Woman"; two more top-10 hits, filler as sweet and slippery as "Groovin'" and as powerful as "Good to Me as I Am to You." A [R]
Aretha Franklin: Aretha Now (1968, Atlantic): As strong as she got, burning through ten songs, adding something to singers like Sam Cooke ("You Send Me") and especially Big Bill Broonzy ("Night Time Is the Right Time") -- a non-single because she works it hard for 4:50 where her hits ("Think," "See Saw") typically came in just over 2 minutes. A [R]
Aretha Franklin: Aretha in Paris (1968, Atlantic): Third album of the year, a greatest hits live set dumped out quick while she was hot; redundant and unnecessary, still hard to fault either the singer or the songs, especially on "Nite Life." B+(**) [R]
Aretha Franklin: This Girl's in Love With You (1970, Atlantic): She wrote one song, "Call Me," not nearly as good as the song Al Green would attach to that title; otherwise a hit-and-miss covers album, her gospelized Beatles pumping up "Let It Be" and salvaging more from "Eleanor Rigby" than Ray Charles managed; then there is "Sit Down and Cry," which does just that. B+(***) [R]
Aretha Franklin: Live at Fillmore West (1971 , Atlantic): Original release, culled from three nights, runs 10 songs, 48:32, including two takes of "Spirit in the Dark" (the "reprise" with Ray Charles), a couple of her fast ones turned up a notch ("Respect," "Dr. Feelgood"), a few that make you scratch your head, or elsewhere ("Love the One You're With," "Bridge Over Troubled Water," "Eleanor Rigby"); it's mostly loud, but nothing Franklin can't sing over; also available in a much expanded 2-CD Deluxe Edition (2004), and a 4-CD stretched so thin they let King Curtis lead "Mr. Bojangles" (Don't Fight the Feeling: The Complete Aretha Franklin & King Curtis at Fillmore West) -- I figure the original is long enough. B+(*) [R]
Aretha Franklin: Oh Me Oh My: Aretha Live in Philly, 1972 (1972 , Rhino Handmade): More impressive than the live albums Atlantic released: by this time, like Elvis, she's opening with "Also Sprach Zarathustra," before seguing into "This Girl's in Love With You"; she's compressing hits into medleys, manages to drench "Bridge Over Troubled Water" with so much soul I forgot what song it was, gives her piano a feature, and closes with a revivalist "Spirit in the Dark." B+(***) [R]
Aretha Franklin: Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky) (1973, Atlantic): Easy enough to blame this on Quincy Jones, who at the time probably still considered himself a jazz man, not that there has ever been any evidence that it did any good to nudge her toward jazz; a few songs she rescues from the production, and a few that get out of hand, with the gospel inflections as culpable as the jazz. B- [R]
Aretha Franklin: Let Me in Your Life (1974, Atlantic): Of this, Christgau wrote, "her great gift is her voice, but her genius is her bad taste." I noticed the bad taste, which she delivers with great power and poise, but I wouldn't call that genius. B [R]
Aretha Franklin: Sparkle (1976, Atlantic): Nominally a soundtrack, penned by Curtis Mayfield no less, the eight songs hold up well and aren't weighted down by the moods and motions that connect most soundtracks; some even sparkle, although with Franklin's voice you wouldn't expect so many backup singers -- I guess the films was about a Supremes-like group, but there's no mistaking the lead here. B+(*) [R]
Aretha Franklin: Aretha (1980, Arista): Sparkle was Franklin's only gold record between 1972 and 1982, and is her only Atlantic in print (or online) after 1974's Let Me Into Your Life, a decline too easily blamed on disco, but her label change in 1980 started a mini-comeback: this album peaked modestly at 47 -- better than any of the deleted Atlantics -- and the next few climbed to 36, 23, 36, and 13 with Who's Zoomin' Who? Producer Chuck Jackson manages to connect Aretha's classic soul with contemporary R&B, but it doesn't necessarily work; as a wise man once wondered, "can you imagine Doobie-in' your funk?" B [R]
Aretha Franklin: Love All the Hurt Away (1981, Arista): The title cut finally moderates her enough to ease into the flow of 1980s R&B -- it's a duet with George Benson, who absorbs enough neutrons to chill an atom bomb; a brassy cover ("Hold On! I'm Comin'") turns up the heat, the funk feels real, and she can turn a ballad when the time's right. B+(**) [R]
Aretha Franklin: Jump to It (1982, Arista): First gold record since Sparkle, produced and mostly written by Luther Vandross, who draws out a sweeter timbre in her voice by keeping her from oversinging -- suggests she may have a future as a soul professional, not as an indomitable force of nature. B+(**) [R]
Aretha Franklin: Get It Right (1983, Arista): Luther Vandross produces again, although note that his first four songs are co-credited to Marcus Miller, who jacks up the funk groove and adds fuzz to the bass, not that Vandross doesn't do his damnedest to keep it in check; Franklin goes with the flow, adding just enough to every song -- even though only "I Wish It Would Rain" has much to it. A- [R]
Aretha Franklin: Aretha (1986, Arista): Third album with this title, second in six years with Arista, bidding for a first-name-only status that causes me agita every time I jot down "Franklin"; her best album since 1972 was Who's Zoomin' Who?, produced by Narada Michael Walden, back this time but less resourceful. B [R]
Aretha Franklin: One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism (1987, Arista, 2CD): Back to church, live, with more than a little preaching -- including prayer invocation and/or intros by Revs. Cecil Franklin, Jaspar Williams, Donald Parsons, and Jesse Jackson, plus guests like Mavis Staples and Joe Ligon; this runs on and on, and I don't have much patience for the fury unleashed, but it's often remarkable, as much in the cadence of the sermons as in song; looks like there is also a budget 1-CD version, but I haven't seen the cuts. B+(*) [R]
Aretha Franklin: What You See Is What You Sweat (1991, Arista): Opens with "Everyday People" and closes with a "singles remix" of same, a framework that would be perfunctory for a lesser artist; in between she goes through the motions without breaking a sweat. B [R]
Aretha Franklin: So Damn Happy (2003, Arista): Only her second album in more than a decade: 1998's A Rose Is Still a Rose missed this rundown because I bought it when it was new, but it established a new standard for how she would cope with the evolved nu soul universe; this follows up in the same mode, her once domineering voice now reduced to the first among equals, equally able to blend in and to raise highlights. B+(**)
Donna Summer: The Wanderer (1980, Geffen): Wandering into rock, not that she hadn't broken that ground with Bad Girls, and off to a new label which hasn't had the good sense to keep one of her better records in print -- no big hits, I suppose, but they'd get in the way of the organic flow, which downshifts at the end with a Jesus song that will disappoint no one. A- [dl]
Donna Summer: Crayons (2008, Burgundy): The disco diva's only album since 1999, a major production and something of a hit (peaked at #17 on the album chart); she had a hand writing all of the pieces, got a lot of help with the production, and sang as hard as ever; the singles material is mixed up front, but the tail end drags, or grinds on the fast ones. 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 97, see the archive. Total records reviewed: 3287 (2889 + 398).
Additional Consumer News
Previously rated by artists featured above: Summer is more complete because I previously reviewed her for The New Rolling Stone Album Guide, whereas I had only cherry-picked Franklin's best-regarded discs.
Both Franklin and Summer have a lot of compilations, as redundant as usual, so I ignored them above. But I have sampled and rated a few, so might as well report them here:
The Summer sets are very redundant, the later ones adding only a few more cuts to the usual ones from the Casablanca period. The extra disc on the Deluxe Ed. of Bad Girls turns out to be the best programmed one of the bunch, what The Dance Collection should have been.
The Franklin comps tend to split out by label: the Atlantics are similarly redundant, with none topping the initial, perfect Aretha's Gold, underscoring the rule that the earlier the better. Arista has a tougher time: even though there is superb material scattered about, it doesn't necessarily assemble into a coherent hole. There are lots of Columbia comps, the first trying to cash in on her hit period with Atlantic (Take a Look and Aretha Franklin's Greatest Hits in 1967, Soft and Beautiful in 1969, In the Beginning in 1972) and on and on (Aretha After Hours in 1976, Aretha Sings the Blues in 1980, The Legendary Queen of Soul in 1981, Jazz to Soul in 1992, Queen in Waiting in 2002). In 2011 they released Take a Look: Aretha Franklin Complete on Columbia and carved that carcass up several ways, including the online-only versions of the original albums above.
I may look at some of these compilations later if/when I get the chance.
Friday, June 1. 2012
I've had several people older than myself tell me that they always read the obits because that's where people they know are most likely to show up. The unspoken corollary is that if you don't people you know are likely to slip on by unnoticed. Sometimes someone will tell you when someone you know dies, but often that's not the case. For instance, I only found out about my uncle Bob's death (July 20, 2004) a year or two later, when I dropped by his son's business and asked how his dad was doing. I knew Bob had some health problems (and that he was 79), but had no idea how grave they were, nor was I aware that he had moved back to Wichita from Las Vegas a few months before. He called me in January, 2004, and told me that his second wife, Nellie, had recently passed away. My wife had seen both of them in Las Vegas a few months before, and the year before that we had driven to Las Vegas to get married -- Bob and Nellie were our witnesses, as well as guides and hosts. That was my fourth trip to Las Vegas, and each time I sought them out. They, in turn, flew to Wichita for my father's funeral in 2000.
Actually, worse than not hearing when he died was not knowing he came back to Kansas. Having driven half way across the country to see him, I certainly would have trekked to his son's house in El Dorado, or to the Veterans Hospital in Wichita, where he spent his last days. He was two years younger than my father: in many ways his mirror image, in some his mirror opposite. I had known him every day of my life. When I had my worst problems as a teenager at home, I ran away and sought shelter at his house. He always meant a lot to me, and never more so than the last few times we talked. I should have paid more attention, but that's true of so many people -- even of my parents, who demanded (and got) vastly more attention.
I've generally avoided going to funerals, and doubt that I've been to more than a dozen, including my first wife in 1987 and my parents in 2000. The first I can remember was a great-uncle, Dal Cotter, in 1960 -- a miserably hot day in Arkansas, with what seemed like several hundred people unable to cram into the church. The second was my grandfather, another hot day in 1964. I managed to miss the next two important ones in my family: Lola Stiner (my mother's oldest sister) in 1968, and George Hull (my father's older brother) in 1969. A few years later I left Wichita, putting more distance between myself and my family. I barely noticed as my mother's siblings passed on: Clagge (1974), Ted (1981), Murph (1990), Ruby (1992). My grandmother died in 1987, but I hadn't seen her since about 1974, so that seemed more like a data point. I returned to Wichita in 1999, and my parents died in early 2000, as the passing of the older generation took on for me a greater poignancy, perhaps even nostalgia.
Since 2000 I've been to three family funerals: Bob Burns (2003) and Zula Mae Reed (2007) were cousins close enough I made a point of seeing when I could. And Yona Julian (2007) was the 36-year-old daughter of a very close cousin, and granddaughter of an aunt I visited often. I felt like I should have attended the funeral of Edith Hixon (my mother's last surviving sister), but the family played it down and the distance (San Jose) was impractical. Edith wasn't able to attend my mother's funeral, so we drove to see her in Arizona -- a better option than the funeral.
Still, the main reason for reading obits is information. One name I saw recently was Billie Appelhans. She lived two doors from us until I was about thirteen, then moved to the west edge of town. Her oldest son, Terry, was two months younger than me, my closest friend all that time. I only saw her a couple times after that -- most recently at my mother's funeral, where she came up and challenged me to identify her. (I couldn't.)
All this is a prelude to noting the obituary I recognized yesterday:
Last time I saw Glenn was when he came over for dinner, along with his wife Lucille, her son Don, and his wife Karen. (Don't have it in my notebook, but judging from mail seems to have been June or July 2005.) I made something Chinese, and dinner seemed to go nicely. I had only seen Glenn a couple times before, but I've known Lucille and Don all my life. She was married to Uncle Bob, and Don was their only child, a year older than me. Theirs was my second home for a few weeks in the mid-1960s, but I rarely saw them after they broke up (sometime late-1960s) and Bob married Nellie. Lucille had been a stay-at-home housewife, but on her own got a job at Beech Aircraft. There she met Glenn. She also befriended my mother's sister Ruby, who had worked there at least since the 1940s, and who was also divorced. For some time after that, most of what I heard about Lucille was from my mother griping that she was driving a wedge between her and Ruby. But at one point I asked my mother about Lucille, and we drove over to their old house, where she was living with Glenn. She recognized me immediately, and made a big fuss over how happy she was to see me.
The big surprise in the obit wasn't that Glenn had died. It was that Lucille had "preceded" him. I had missed that in the obits (December 20, 2010; she was 83), and no one told me. I had been thinking about her a lot recently. One time while driving around I tried to find the house, but didn't know the number and nothing looked familiar enough. Last week I took two DVDs of home movies that my father made, mostly 1956-67, with me to Arkansas and showed them three times. They jump around a lot, but there are 10-12 sequences with Lucille in them, half that many with Bob, a few with Don, and lots more with other Hulls -- even if you don't count my nuclear family -- that Lucille would recognize. I've never shown them to any of the Hull relatives. Would have been fun to show those and talk about those times.
There have been other people recently I've thought about and looked for, only to come up with an obituary or death notice (FamilySearch turns out to be useful for nailing down dates, but little else). Johnny and Hildegard Kreutzer were my parents' closest friends when they got married. We went to their house on the far west edge of town at least once a week into the early 1960s. There are several pictures of them in the DVDs, as well as pictures of the rabbits and the dog they gave us. I spoke to Johnny briefly at mother's funeral, but never followed up (other than driving around and not recognizing their house). Turns out that Johnny died in 2007, age 91, followed by Hildegard in 2008, also 91.
Another person I talked to at my father's funeral was Sister Rose Agnes Gehrer. I'm not sure exactly how we're related, but I recall going to visit some distant cousins named Gehrer in Wichita. My grandfather had a sister named Agnes Hull (1903-47), and she married Otho Wade (1891-1972), and I believe they lived on the same farm that great-great-grandfather Abraham Hull homesteaded in the late 1860s. We went there a few times when I was young: looked like somewhere the Dalton Gang would hide out in, with a broken-down house on one side of a gulch and a dozen small cubby holes on the other -- I think they were dug out to shelter sheep, but they always looked to me like they'd be perfect for rattlesnakes. Zula Mae took us to the homestead last time I saw her. We drove through a field carpeted with grasshoppers, and the roof had caved into the house, but other than that it was quite recognizable. Anyhow, I think the Gehrers are somehow related to Otho, but at any rate Rose Agnes was close to Zula Mae, so I figured it would be good to follow up and keep track of her. However, I lost the contact and never did. And when Zula Mae died, I found out Rose Agnes was already dead (turns out, a couple months earlier in 2007).
All this got me to wondering who else had passed away that I didn't know about. My cousins on my mother's side are all older than me, ranging from Ken Brown at 68 to Orbrey Burns at 87. I just saw three in Oklahoma and Arkansas, and heard of several more. There are some more I'm in more or less regular contact with, and others I'm not, so I tried searching out the latter. Some I couldn't verify one way or another -- not many significant computer profiles in that age group (I seem to be the only one with a blog, for instance). But I did verify that two of Edith's four had passed: Joe Ben Hixon (in 2009) and Verdell Hixon (in 2011; obituary here). I only remember meeting them once, circa 1960, when they brought Edith back from California for a visit. (I may have seen them in 1956, when we drove to California, and/or before 1952, when they still lived in Oklahoma, but I don't recall anything that far back.) I had heard that Joe Ben and Verdell were estranged from their mother, and at one point talked to their sister about it, but don't recall the details. The obit suggests that Verdell was gay, something I never had a clue to.
I didn't appreciate this for the longest time, but I come from a very interesting family.