Monday, February 24. 2014
Music: Current count 22868  rated (+0), 596  unrated (+0).
In other words, no change. I've been on the road all week. Didn't take any new unrated music with me -- just three travel cases with familiar discs, about half left over from previous trips. (I thought I was going to take the new Allen Lowe set, but decided the packaging could neither be left behind nor survive the trip.) Also haven't played any Rhapsody, nor written much other than trip notes (and not much there either). I have been able to check mail nightly, but my ancient laptop isn't up for much more than that. Also, the proxy server schemes used by more and more hotels these days -- combined with my use of NoScript, but hey, it's my computer and I have my rights -- has been especially painful. (I was only able to get through Best Western's trap tonight by running Epiphany -- my usual choice is Firefox with NoScript -- and as soon as it connected the browser crashed.)
Don't know whether I'll be home next Monday -- probably, but not by much, and certainly won't have much in the way of ratings to report.
Thursday, February 20. 2014
by Michael Tatum
A month with no real pick hits encourages me to tell you that if you're going to spend your hard earned money on anything here, go for Babyface/Braxton and the New Mendicants before anything else. And note that for two guys on the side of the proletariat, Todd Snider and Bruce Springsteen give you the least value for your money.
Against Me!: Transgender Dysphoria Blues (2014, Red Distribution) If you penned a dramatic thinkpiece about how this little item challenged your latent heteronormative prejudices -- even you, a sensitive leftie type! -- please pat yourself on the back and move forward three squares in the game of Cultural Enlightenment, to the space "Consider all the things Macklemore has to apologize to the African-American community for." As for those of us who are in it for hard-hitting tunes rather than self-congratulatory platitudes, it's worth nothing that Laura Jane Grace rocks harder here than she did on 2010's White Crosses as a man named Tom Gabel -- maybe she didn't have the heart for all that phony lost-youth nostalgia after all. In fact, she reveals a far more trenchant high school reminiscence on the vicious "Drinking with the Jocks," a portrait of adolescent macho insecurity in which she's conflicted between swinging her dick and sticking it between her legs, concluding with an angry, defiant "There will always be a difference/Between me and you," one of many clichés upended in this explosive context. But although I'm impressed by the subversion of such red button words as "cunt" and "faggot" and "pussy" (have those pejoratives ever been wrapped up in such pain, such anguish?), I'm disappointed by Grace's mundane self-production, pretty humdrum for a coming-out party -- alter the lyrical perspective and this could be whatever Orange County punk record you tuned out at your precocious cousin's house last week, even if Grace's tunes are more catchy-compelling rather than catchy-annoying. Still, there's no getting around that these aren't just new sentiments for Grace, they're new sentiments for rock and roll -- thrilling, even -- though I feel obligated to point out that her threat to "piss on the walls of your house" is a logistically masculine privilege. And as for the band mates that deserted her after she no longer wanted to be a him, they can sink their teeth into a soggy turd sandwich. A
Katy B: Little Red (2014, Columbia) I'll never understand UK dance music. By definition a singles genre, why would anyone bother with the records proper -- because the filler is "acceptable?" That certainly didn't make much of a difference with Katherine Brien's debut, home of the definitive dubstep crossover hit "Katy on a Mission" and not much else. And over the pond they've considered slotting singles on albums as being in bad form since "She Loves You," one of the reasons why last year's "What Love is Made of" failed to make the final cut for this, her sophomore outing. Except as it turns out, "What Love is Made of" is pretty negligible (struggled to number twenty-one -- do the charts lie?), while the record proper solves my two problems with 2011's On a Mission. First, in the zippy opener, she finally justifies her club-centric lyrical focus with one succinct chorus -- "We move on to the next thing/Until the break of dawn" -- thus rationalizing what follows by establishing the only real theme most raver kids have to offer (you know, "the futility of life" or some such). But second, and more important, producer Gordon Warren, probably having figured out that more people will be listening this time around, finally whips those rickety-rockety hooks into shape, so most of the hit-bound first half is memorable -- "beats so sick/tunes so ill," indeed, and when he goes out for fish and chips on the second half, it shows. I still am unsure about Brien's voice, caught in that inscrutable netherworld between muted-soul and low-affect, perhaps the reason why she and fellow traveler Jessie Ware name their fierce sexual rival "Aayliah." On the other hand, that voice is also the reason why I'll take the slow-burning denouement "Still" over Adele's bathetic "Someone Like You" in an automated heartbeat. A
Toni Braxton & Babyface: Love, Marriage, and Divorce (2014, Motown) In which a minor R&B genius gifted with a musicality for which the current scene has little use plays house with a minor R&B diva only as strong as her material, resulting in a concept album about a doomed relationship crafted as cannily as classic Ashford & Simpson. You want sumptuous melodies yoked to silky arrangements emboldened by mellifluous singing? You'll get them, and just to show he's learned something from his younger charges, Kenny Edmonds makes sure even the sleek ballads come fitted with forward propulsion. But with neither of the principles a stranger to the three conditions triangulated in the album title, what makes this record remarkable are the lyrics, penned not only by Kenny but by Toni, which I'm betting makes the difference. Every song carefully hones in on one discrete sentiment, unpacking details one by one until each is neatly squared away in matching his-and-her luggage. I'm leaving you today, but I hope that you're okay. I'd rather be broke than be with you. If you want to fight, let's take it to the bed tonight. I hope she hurts you, but not too much -- enough to make your life hell, but not enough so that you'll leave. As for "Reunited," I'm relieved to report it's not a Peaches & Herb cover. These two are so on they don't need covers -- unless they're getting underneath them for one last goodbye. A
Hard Working Americans: Hard Working Americans (2014, Melvin/Thirty Tigers) Often described as a roots-rock "supergroup" even though the only person I know by name besides leader Todd Snider is drummer Duane Trucks (and even that because of his more famous brother Derek), this collection of covers, despite its surface nonchalance, is thoughtfully chosen -- the average Americana fan has probably only heard two: Randy Newman's oh-so-timely "Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)" and Frankie Miller's "Blackland Farmer," the latter of which I assume Todd nicked from touring buddy Elizabeth Cook, if not Faron Young. I myself have only heard two others: Hayes Carll's hilarious "Stomp and Holler" (with its immortal boast "I'm like James Brown/Only white and taller") and the Bottle Rockets' lovely "Welfare Music," which Todd owns if only because he has charisma and, well, poor Brian Henneman (remember him? right) doesn't. Even Gillian Welch's pensive "Wrecking Ball" is derived from an independently-released album unknown to anyone who let their subscription to No Depression lapse after O Brother Where Art Thou's mainstream breakout. Yet this is the rare instance in which being a walled-off genre specialist gets you somewhere: Kevin Gordon's plaintive "Down to the Well" and Kieran Kane's "The Mountain Song," to name two, are winners salvaged from micro-indie obscurity, while Snider invests even the lesser material with his thoughtful phrasing and delivery. And the sloppy Randy Newman revival (can't have too many of those) suggests their glib moniker isn't merely an ironic wink to their dubious work ethic -- this is, after all, Todd's fourth album since 2011 -- but rather an insouciant brag that especially if you're getting dirt to do it, being on the clock is more fun on your own terms. I mean, let's face it: Randy Newman hasn't worked -- in the sense that he means it, anyway -- a day in his life. B+
Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks: Wig Out at Jagbags (2014, Matador) From one forty-something with an impossible full head of floppy hair to another, there's not too much "wigging out" here, at least not compared to Malkmus' old records with Pavement, where percussionist/wild card Bob Nastanovich countered the increasing persnicketiness that has made much of Malkmus' solo career such a drag. In particular, the willful rhythm shifts are a real irritation, and not just because they point up Malkmus emerging prog-leanings -- where the Beatles made such devices so natural you didn't notice them unless you concentrated on Ringo's drumming, here the added/subtracted beats call attention to themselves in every instance, in that annoying, elementary school look-what-I-did kind of way. And yet Malkmus' critical standing hasn't yet taken a nose dive -- indeed, this improvement on his treasured jam band format has been getting the same yeah-why-not seals of shrugging approval as 2011's considerably more fastidious Mirror Traffic. But an improvement it is, not that anyone would notice -- even though he yawns he's "not contractually obligated to care," not since his eponymous debut have his tunes been this hummable, nor his jokes so outgoing, so eager to please: making room for a mopey French horn solo, coyly rhyming "chariot/lariat/carry it/bury it," wagging a finger at "all you Slim Shadys," extolling the adolescent pleasures of "Tennyson, venison, and the Grateful Dead" and "the music from the best decade ever" (the '80s apparently, a great decade for jam bands). All that's missing is an unironic embrace of conjugal monogamy and fatherhood -- which would sink his reputation with the cognoscenti pronto. A
Modern Baseball: You're Gonna Miss It All (2014, Run for Cover) A ringer for latter-day Haley Joel Osment and singing in a adenoidal warble that suggests the Cloud Nothings' Dylan Baldi irked over the size of Adam Green's trust fund -- the first of many indicators he's a stock character in a grand indie rock tradition -- Philadephia's Brendan Lukens spends more time complaining about his inability to get to second base rather than bragging about his skill at getting to first: "I hate worrying about the future/'Cause all my current problems are based around the past." He soothes his callow pain with aspirin and pizza, pores over BBC's Planet Earth for tattoo inspiration, sneaks the word "Instagram" into one of his many putdowns of ex-girlfriends, and before getting his one good night of sleep a year, sums himself up thusly: "Sharp as a tack but in the sense that I'm not smart, just a prick." Probably an exaggeration, at least in terms of intellectual rather than emotional IQ, but not without its entertainment value -- the wonky guitars jolt new life into those "high school songs" bouncing around in his head, and like Jonathan Richman before him, he parlays his failure to hit any note not pitched straight to the batter to evoke that time honored suburban collegiate anguish. Now someone tell drummer Sean Huber this ain't no fucking emo outfit. A
The New Mendicants: Into the Lime (2014, Ashmont) Canadians only by virtue of their borrowed drummer and Joe Pernice's Toronto-based microindie, Pernice and Teenage Fanclubber Norman Blake are my kind of sourpusses, ones with a sense of humor -- "mendicants" are beggars who live off of alms, like maybe the Kickstarter campaign to which they might have to resort after this record fails to move their minute fan base. Too bad -- granted, they prefer Hollies/Zombies to the Beatles because the latter are way too R&B for their construction-papered larynges. And sure, not even middle-school poets say "How can I love someone so cruel" in regular conversation. But I say two birds with one broken wing each, joined together, might actually be capable of flight, as on the bracing power pop of "Shouting Match," which sounds less like "World War III in a third-floor flat" than classic Yo La Tengo. Elsewhere, on sparkling tunecraft that only goes south on the "Sister Ray"-styled rant that closes, they cover Sandy Denny, court a girl who has no need for either one-upmanship or August Strindberg, and wander snowy streets on "a very sorry Christmas Eve" looking for redemption you can be sure they don't get. I say for Pernice to absolve the guy whose halfway-decent Bandwagonesque inexplicably beat out Nirvana in Spin's notorious 1991 album poll is deliverance enough. A
Bruce Springsteen: High Hopes (2014, Columbia) Stop picking on David Fricke and his reflexive five-star reviews -- what's the guy gonna do at this late juncture, teach non-fiction writing at a junior college? But don't let that one-stop-hype-shop put you off to a pretty good record, either -- take it from someone who dismissed (in hindsight, perhaps unfairly) 2011's Wrecking Ball as "Lee Greenwood for Liberals." The complaint that this collection of formerly orphaned songs doesn't cohere "thematically" doesn't ring true to me -- since when has Bruce ever aimed for high concept? Aside from the one about his failed marriage (every boomer has a few of those, right?) there have been electric ones and acoustic ones, with the peerless examination of blue-collar plight his only constant. As for Tom Morello's wall of guitars bringing the Boss ever closer to grandiose arena rock bluster, hasn't that always been his unapologetic métier? It's not like these objections are new ones -- weren't 80s punks nay-saying the bombast of River-era Bruce while championing the superiority of Feelies-style minimalism? Bet thirty years from now, long after the fog from the dry ice machine has cleared, this will be remembered as a sturdy half-classic, one of the rare cases (Lord forgive me) where swollen ostentation actually works, Bruce's batshit-nuts heavy metal-Celtic-gospel amalgam be damned. Compare The River's clean, bright mix to the dense, unnerving swirl of "Harry's Place" and "American Skin," two numbers that belong at the top of the Boss' canon, or Morello's white noise fury on the remake of "The Ghost of Tom Joad." And for your precious subtlety, your iron fist in a velvet glove, try the murmured, bitter "I read Robert McNamara says he's sorry." Audioslave with actual songs and cogent politics? Sign me up. B+
Tinariwen: Emmaar (2014, Anti-) In their own way, these nomadic rockers are as formalist as Crazy Horse -- to hear them perform a song in a major key (which happens on this record only once) is as jarring as it would be to hear Neil and Co. jam away in 6/4. Because their aesthetic is austere, singer/guitarist Ibrahim Ag Alhabib limited in his vocal range, and their lyrics accessible to English speakers only through trots, the only way you can tell their very similar records apart is through their guest stars. However, where 2011's particularly Spartan Tassilli at least had Nels Cline and TV on the Radio to lend color to the predominantly acoustic textures, this far more urgent sequel, though it returns to the electric guitar interplay that made many a foolish record label prez dream that Ag Alhabib might be the Muslim world's answer to Bob Marley, reduces the cameos to such luminaries as Chili Peppers guitarist Matt Klinghoffer, Chavez leader Matt Sweeney, and hapless multi-media figure Saul Williams, who dashes off some doggerel about "walking on water in the desert." Yet would you believe that the record is strongest at its most elemental: that the two pastoral departures at the end sacrifice fervor for a stab at diversity that won't register as such for most of their American fanbase? And that even there, a prosaically translated lyric such as "I no longer believe in unity/I will only believe in it again if/Those opinions serve a common ideal/That of the people from which they emanate" rings with the sublimity of great poetry in context? Maybe that speaks to their innate gifts, maybe that's the result of living through terror, exile, and kidnapping, and either way, I pray no one else from their part of the world will leave me wondering which. A
Lake Street Dive: Bad Self Portraits (2014, Signature Sounds) Boston hipster jazz-pop quartet dominated by lusty contralto Rachael Price, who strikes me as a young Carole King the morning after she sold her soul at the railroad tracks for Martha Reeves' lungs -- but sacrificed Gerry Goffin in the Faustian bargain ("You Go Down Smooth," "Bad Self Portraits") ***
Rosanne Cash: The River & the Thread (2014, Blue Note) Someone tell this subtlety junkie that there are more colors in this "big, wide world" than a "million shades of modern blue" ("Etta's Tune," "Night School") ***
Jennifer Nettles: That Girl (2014, Mercury Nashville) The Sugarland lead singer still sometimes emotes as if Steve Perry's squeezing an ovary, but in this context, underplaying Bob Fucking Seger is some kind of accomplishment ("That Girl," "Like a Rock") **
Dum Dum Girls: Too True (2014, Sub Pop) At its best, the comedy record the Cocteau Twins would have made had they not been so damn moony ("Rimbaud Eyes," "Evil Blooms") **
Irene Kelley: Pennsylvania Coal (2014, Patio) Like Ashley and Kacey, a country songsmith performing her own songs, but since Irene's weakness is bluegrass rather than rock and roll, we get lyrics about angels, babies, and gardens ("Breakin' Even," "You Don't Run Across My Mind") **
Eric Church: The Outsiders (2014, Universal) His vocals milder and his guitars crunchier, his idea of "progressive" Queen or maybe Pantera, his brightest tune squandered honoring the right-leaning left-turners at Talladega, and his album art a clear homage to the movie poster of The Expendables 2, this is where Church fritters away any outreach he might have gained with 2012's Chief. His doltish metaphors -- wrecking ball, rollercoaster, broken records -- have about as many layers as James Carville's haircut. Of course, all of these transgressions add up to is one more country music blockbuster, but two songs in particular edge this disappointment into the realm of appalling. The long, muddled monologue about Nashville paints the city as a "princess of darkness," a "tramp, slut, bitch, and mutt," and a "junkie with a limb (???)" who will "bury it in your ass," yet I'd love Eric to show me pictures of Universal Nashville president Mike Dungan's moist vagina. Then there's the revolting "Dark Side," which warns "all you thugs and ugly mugs dealing drugs and making noise" that "You can kill each other all you want, but if you touch my little boy/You begging for this bullet will be the last thing that you say," which I'm inferring from that creepy laugh might include that twelve-year old black kid wearing a hoodie innocently asking Eric's son directions to the Boys & Girls Club. In short, more proof than you need that secession may not be such a bad idea. C+
Hospitality: Trouble (2014, Merge) The first time Amber and I met it was a real Meet Cute -- even if it this doesn't turn into a fulfilling long-term relationship I reasoned, maybe she'd be the kind of girl I'd wanna hang out with every now and then. Goes to show you how much I know -- our first actual date she took me out to see goddamn Laser Floyd at the IMAX, while she rambled on about "parasols" and such like her real dream was to write Jane Austen fan fiction. How could I have misjudged her? Have I not gotten over Isobel running off with that dildo Mark Lanegan? Maybe someone who Meets Cute really isn't my type. Or maybe, better yet, like so many times before, I didn't realize how insignificant our initial Meet Cute really was. B
The Pixies: EP-2 (2014, PIAS America) Of the thirteen bands profiled in Michael Azerrad's definitive '80s indie rock chronicle Our Band Could Be Your Life, only one group recorded music in this millennium that could stand with the music they made in their respective heydays: Sonic Youth. So why should this seminal band (left out of Azerrad's book because they had the bad taste to sign with Elektra), no matter how crucial a missing link between that era and Nirvana, be expected to top, let alone equal, the gleeful imp rock they perfected on such touchstones as 1988's much-adored Surfer Rosa and 1990's underrated Bossanova? Especially with Black Francis' inside joke of a solo career manna only to his adoring claque and ethereal-voiced bassist Kim Deal -- who made far more interesting records in the interim -- completely indifferent to returning to the fold? Surprisingly, with Gil Norton once again behind the boards, the down-to-a-trio still sound remarkably like themselves. But only the occasional 7/8 measure keeps the ham-fisted "Blue Eyed Hexe" (more cowbell, please) from being mistaken for Back in Black-era AC/DC, the siren-call hook of "Magdalena" cries out for Deal's larynx, and throughout Francis doesn't sound quite as, shall we say, agitated as he did back when he anointed himself a "nimrod's son." Leaving me to speculate whether Kim's role wasn't just to be a wild man's maternal foil -- maybe having a chick in the mix really got up in his dander. B
Broken Bells: After the Disco (2014, Columbia) The dullest guests on The Barry Gibb Talk Show. B
Doug Paisley: Strong Feelings (2014, No Quarter) Daniel Romano for wistful Poco fans, which explains why, unlike Romano, Doug isn't in it for the laughs, unless repeating the first bar of Joni Mitchell's "Little Green" ad nauseam in a ditty called "What's Up is Down" counts. C+
Warpaint: Warpaint (2014, Rough Trade) Darker than you'd expect from a band the original members of which included A Knight's Tale's Shannyn Sossamon, but these days, "dark" doesn't mean shit -- betcha Lorde and Haim think "Love Is to Die" is a deep insight, too. C
Actress: Ghettoville (2014, Ninja Tune) Don't judge Darren Cunningham because he's a former footballer from the nondescript London suburb of Wolverhampton -- judge him because he thinks the ghettos he'll never really know are desolate, ugly, boring places to be. C
Monday, February 17. 2014
Music: Current count 22868  rated (+18), 596  unrated (+0).
Wrapped this up on Thursday evening so I would be ready to post it on Monday (assuming Internet access). So everything here reflects about one half of a normal week, but then the next two weeks won't be normal at all: I'll be on the road, traveling around Florida, then eventually heading back to Wichita.
Most of the half-week's newly rated records already appeared in Rhapsody Streamnotes, but Thursday added a couple pretty good new jazz records. I'm a bit on the fence about James Brandon Lewis -- hard to say exactly why I gave him the edge and held it back from Jon Irabagon's latest, but the latter slips a bit from two superior albums, and the former is a new face backed by William Parker and Gerald Cleaver. Still, seemed firm enough until I played the Craig Handy disc and loved every minute of it. Only question there is whether further play bumps it up another notch.
Adding this bit on Monday: I'm in Florida, after a pleasant if uneventful drive and a lot of minor nuissances involving living on the road -- lousy, overpriced hotels; lousy food. Stopped and spent some time with a good friend I hadn't seen in nearly a year. Saw a lot of varying degrees of swampland, but thus far not much ocean. The aged laptop computer I brought along is very slow and erratic, so it looks like I'm going to get even less done than imagined.
New records rated this week:
Old records rated this week:
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Wednesday, February 12. 2014
The first (and probably the last) installment for February. New records remain spotty, meanwhile I'm finding lots of old ones to recommend. Just to review, records that previously would have gone into Jazz Prospecting or Recycled Goods wind up here. The former are tailing off, but make up the majority of the new records I've heard this year.
I might as well announce here that I did a major update to the Robert Christgau website tonight. The CG database is now up to date, and the recent articles I'm aware of at least have stubs. Also a few new old articles.
These are short notes/reviews based on streaming records from Rhapsody. They are snap judgments based on one or two plays, accumulated since my last post along these lines, back on January 31. Past reviews and more information are available here (4414 records).
New Releases (More or Less)
Actress: Ghettoville (2014, Ninja Tune): This suggests that an electronica artist can differentiate albums by coming up with successively stranger samples, but also that the more you do so, the more you are likely to come up with something unpleasant. B+(*)
Eddie Allen: Push (2013 , Edjallen Music): Trumpet player, from Milwaukee, handful of albums, I tend to think of him as a mainstream player but he started with AACM before he joined Mongo Santamaria and, later, Rabih Abou-Khalil. Septet with three horns and two keyboard players, sound up front, with a touch of funk. B+(**) [cd]
Scott H. Biram: Nothin' but Blood (2014, Bloodshot): A Texan with a half-dozen albums, wrote most of his songs but covers Mance Lipscomb, Willie Dixon, Doc Watson, and "John the Revelator" and seems closest to the blues, especially turning on his exaggerated growl. B+(***)
Lena Bloch: Feathery (2012 , Thirteenth Note): Tenor saxophonist, from Moscow, emigrated to Israel in 1990, studied in Germany and Canada and wound up in the US, recording her debut in NJ. Quartet with Dave Miller (guitar), Cameron Brown (bass), and Billy Mintz (drums), each contributing a song. Postbop tone, wouldn't call it "feathery" but it sinks into the aether, occasionally spitting out something reminding you to listen. B+(***) [cd]
John Brown: Quiet Time (2007 , Brown Boulevard): Officially a Valentine's Day release although the back cover says 2012 -- don't know if that makes this a reissue. Bassist, leads a quintet with Ray Codrington (trumpet), Brian Miller (sax), Gabe Evens (piano), and Adonis Rose (drums) through some slow, romantic ones, including an original each by Brown and Evens. B+(**) [cd]
Steve Cardenas: Melody in a Dream (2012 , Sunnyside): Mild-mannered guitarist, fond of long lines and mindful of the groove -- AMG groups him under Metheny and Scofield, but I've always considered him part of the Montgomery school, not that you'll find a contradiction there. Thomas Morgan and Joey Baron are thoughtful trio-mates, and Shane Endsley is a plus on trumpet. B+(*) [cd]
Cities Aviv: Come to Life (2014, Young One): Gavin Mays, from Memphis, more of a beat crafter than a lyricist, giving him a dense and arcane flow. B+(*)
The Wayne Escoffery Quintet: Live at Firehouse 12 (2013 , Sunnyside): Hard-charging tenor saxophonist, more than a handful of albums since 2001. Quintet includes two keyboard players: Orrin Evans on acoustic, Rachel Z on the toys. Escoffery runs hot and cold. B+(*) [cd]
Hard Working Americans: Hard Working Americans (2014, Melvin/Thirty Tigers): I'm not impressed enough by Dave Schools, Neal Casal, Chad Staehly, or Duane Trucks to call this a supergroup, or even to hear it as something other than a throwaway covers album by instantly recognizable lead singer Todd Snider. B+(***)
Jon Irabagon/Mark Helias/Barry Altschul: It Takes All Kinds (2013 , Irabbagast/Jazzwerkstatt): Tenor sax trio, as was Altschul's The 3dom Factor last year (only with a different bassist), or for that matter Irabagon's Foxy (yet another bassist). This is a bit more scattershot than the others. B+(***) [cd]
Kidd Jordan/Alvin Fielder/Peter Kowald: Trio and Duo in New Orleans (2002-05 , NoBusiness, 2CD): Avant tenor sax player, both from and based in New Orleans, looks like he recorded once in 1983 with the Improvisational Arts Quintet, but his career didn't pick up until he turned 65 in 2000. Since then he's become famous enough he got a cameo in Tremé -- when he shows up with Donald Harrison at a private after hours conclave, the trad trombonist character says something like, "ut-oh, the serious guys have arrived." Drummer Alvin Fielder was in that 1983 group and plays on both discs here, with the trio disc adding bassist Peter Kowald, who does a lot to soften the rough edges -- a plus, but the duo disc sharpens them, and that works too. A- [cd]
Daunik Lazro/Joëlle Léandre: Hasparren (2011 , NoBusiness): Baritone sax and bass duets, nothing rushed, and not as bottom-heavy as you'd expect, what with all the reaching for novel sounds, separated by satisfied drones. B+(***) [cd]
The John Lurie National Orchestra: The Invention of Animals (1993-94 , Amulet): Lurie plays soprano and alto sax and is best known for his work in the Lounge Lizards. This isn't much of an orchestra -- just Calvin Weston on drums and Billy Martin on percussion -- and appears to be old work, some live, some studio outtakes, seven cuts including the 17:40 title piece. B+(***)
Eleni Mandell: Let's Fly a Kite (2014, Yep Roc): Something innocuous to listen to on the "way to the protest march on the mall." B+(*)
Parker Millsap: Parker Millsap (2014, Okrahoma): Singer-songwriter from Oklahoma, likes red dirt and Jesus, which is to say he likes Oklahoma more than I do -- in fact, the most memorable line here is "Oklahoma's hotter than hell but it's better than Texas." Sometimes sounds so much like Guy Clark or John Prine you realize he isn't, but maybe he could be. B+(**)
Ian O'Beirne: Glasswork (2013 , self-released): Saxophonist (alto and tenor here, although the hype sheet pictures him with a bari), based in Philadelphia, first album, backed by guitar, Fender Rhodes, bass, and drums. Has a nice tone, and keeps the horn out front for a pleasant, unassuming album. B+(*) [cd]
Eric Paslay: Eric Paslay (2014, Capitol Nashville): Country singer-songwriter from Texas, hype talks about how he studied the music business at Middle Tennesse State University and parlayed his songwriting (he shares credits on all but one song here) prowess into a shot at a traditionally overproduced album -- just like on Nashville except we're spared the idiot romance subplot. Sound is so sureshot it's hard to complain, except when the songs get as bad as "Good With Wine." B
Amy Ray: Goodnight Tender (2014, Daemon): One of the Indigo Girls goes for a country-folk record and gets it pretty close to right. B+(***)
Rudy Royston: 303 (2013 , Greenleaf Music): Drummer, lately of the Dave Douglas Quintet, a connection he parlayed into this debut album. He wrote all but two songs, getting a bit fancy with piano and guitar, two bassists, and two horns. The softer mood stuff feels a bit slick, but no complaints when Jon Irabagon busts open a solo, unless he accidentally picks up a flute. B+(**) [cdr]
Herb Silverstein: Monday Morning (2013 , self-released): Pianist, also an MD; not sure how many records he has -- website shows a dozen but he's played with his name [Dr. HS; HS, MD; HS (Doc)] enough to throw off AMG, and I'm not sure all dozen are properly attributed to him. Subtitled "10 Original Tunes." Quintet, no one I've heard I've heard of (sax, guitar, bass, drums), although saxman Jeff Rupert is a plus. B+(*) [cd]
Snowbird: Moon (2014, Bella Union, 2CD): Simon Raymonde, formerly of Cocteau Twins, with singer Stephanie Dosen, make something variously called dream pop (probably because the pop isn't real) or ambient pop (because it isn't pop enough to register). On the other hand, as it runs on and on (and into a second disc of RX Gibbs remixes) the ambience doesn't turn tiresome, so maybe there's something to it after all. B
John Stein & the Mingotan Project: Emotion (2013 , Whaling City Sound): Guitarist, has a dozen albums since 1995, meets up here with an Argentine tango group led by drummer Matias Mingote German, including accordion, flutes, and bass. B+(**) [cd]
Helen Sung: Anthem for a New Day (2013 , Concord Jazz): Pianist, from Houston, sixth album since 2004, expansive postbop with Ingrid Jensen on trumpet and Seamus Blake on tenor/soprano sax, some extra percussion, and several guest spots. B+(*)
Camille Thurman: Origins (2013 , Hot Tone Music): Tenor saxophonist, also plays flute and sings. There is a theory, and some evidence to back it up, that vocals are the way for jazz artists to break through to a larger audience -- notably Esperanza Spalding, or I could just note George Benson, and I'll add that smooth jazzers almost invariably throw down a vocal track as radio bait. Thurman has several vocals here, pleasant but not especially interesting, amid more substantial instrumental tracks, also pleasing. B+(*) [cd]
Adam Unsworth/Byron Olson/John Vanore: Balance (2009-11 , Acoustical Concepts): Unsworth plays French horn, Vanore trumpet and flugelhorn, and the group includes tenor sax, piano (Bill Mays), bass, and drums. Olson arranged and conducted two orchestras -- strings, flute, clarinet, bassoon, one had oboe and vibes. I wouldn't have bothered with the strings although they're not awful, more busy background. B+(*) [cd]
Young Fathers: Tape Two (2013, Anticon, EP): Scottish hip-hop trio, two African-born, rap some, sing some, beats grime and/or trip-hop. Seven cuts, 20:40. B+(**)
Young Fathers: Dead (2014, Anticon): Not much longer than the previous EPS, only 33:37 from 11 cuts. The increase is mostly doom and gloom -- not enough beat for hip-hop, let alone wordplay. B+(*)
Old Music: Reissues, Compilations, Vault Discoveries
Gene Ammons: The Happy Blues (1956 , Prestige/OJC): Son of the great boogie woogie pianist, Ammons pushed no boundaries but may have possessed the most readily identifiable tenor sax sound of anyone who emerged in the 1950s (Coltrane and Rollins included, but maybe not Ayler). Early jam session with Art Farmer, Jackie McLean, Duke Jordan, Candido, bass, and drums. B+(***)
Gene Ammons All Stars: Jammin' With Gene (1956 , Prestige/OJC): Names on cover: Don Byrd, Jackie McLean, Art Farmer, Doug Watkins, Art Taylor, Mal Waldron. Three cuts, shortest 10:00, mostly blues, ample space for everyone but I keep hoping for the leader. B+(**)
Gene Ammons: Funky (1957 , Prestige/OJC): The septet has loads of talent -- Art Farmer, Jackie McLean, Mal Waldron, Kenny Burrell -- but none pushes it hard nor gets out of the leader's way, so you get long jams with moments but not a lot of momentum. B+(*)
Gene Ammons' All Stars: The Big Sound (1958 , Prestige/OJC): Four jam tracks with Jerome Richardson on flute; two also have Pepper Adams on bari sax, and one of those adds John Coltrane on alto and Paul Quinichette on tenor sax -- those are the cover names, with Mal Waldron, George Joyner, and Art Taylor for rhythm. I wouldn't call that such a "big sound" especially at a time when Basie was going atomic. The most conspicuous instrument is the flute. B+(*)
Gene Ammons and His All Stars: Groove Blues (1958 , Prestige/OJC): Same day session at The Big Sound, same stars split up over four tracks: Adams (bari: 2); Coltrane (alto: 3); Quinichette (tenor: 2); Richardson (flute: 3). Still, it is Ammons himself who provides the best moments, especially when the guests clear out and the pace slows down on the closer. B+(**)
Gene Ammons/Sonny Stitt: Boss Tenors: Straight Ahead From Chicago August 1961 (1961 , Verve): Coming shortly after Boss Tenor -- possibly Ammons' greatest album -- this adds a second tenor sax and doubles down. Stitt always enjoyed a good scrap, but Ammons is too genteel for that, so they just cuddle up around some blues. B+(***)
Gene Ammons/Sonny Stitt: Boss Tenors in Orbit! (1962 , Verve): The second of many meetups between the saxmen -- a 1973 date released as God Bless Jug and Sonny: Live at the Left Bank is a personal favorite -- is jump-started by Don Patterson's organ, but by midway the two saxes are so deftly intertwined that the band ceases to matter, and they keep getting better through 9:58 of "Bye Bye Blackbird." A-
Gene Ammons: Angel Eyes (1960-62 , Prestige/OJC): Cobbled together from two earlier sessions while Ammons was in jail (1962-69) for narcotics: one with Johnny Smith on organ and Frank Wess on tenor sax and (mostly) flute, the other a quartet with Mal Waldron. The ballads are the high points, of course, but so is the upbeat "Water Jug." B+(**)
Bix Beiderbecke: Volume 2: At the Jazz Band Ball (1927-28 , Columbia): Cornet player from Iowa, joined the Wolverines in 1923, moved on to orchestras led by Jean Goldkette, Frank Trumbauer, Paul Whiteman, and others before he died, age 28, in 1931. This is the second of two volumes collecting various sides from the middle of his career, only 4 (of 23) originally credited to Bix Beiderbecke & His Gang. I've never been clear what it is that makes Beiderbecke the star here -- his solos are nowhere near as dominant as Louis Armstrong's were in the day -- but I also can't deny how attractive this jumpy, bouncy music is. Roughly on par with Volume 1, although it lacks anything as perfect as "Singing the Blues." A-
John Coltrane/Paul Quinichette: Cattin' With Coltrane and Quinichette (1957 , Prestige/OJC): The latter was a tenor saxophonist who worked so hard to adopt Lester Young's style he was nicknamed Vice-Prez. This was originally attributed to the Paul Quinichette-John Coltrane Quintet -- the first Prestige LP under Coltrane's name was recorded two weeks later, but several earlier efforts have been re-credited. Coltrane adds a lot of heft to Quinichette's airy tone, and pianist Mal Waldron ties it all up neatly. B+(***)
John Coltrane: Coltrane/Prestige 7105 (1957 , Prestige/OJC): First proper album for Coltrane -- usually just known by his name but the label/ID are prominent on the cover -- starts with a sextet anchored by bari saxist Sahib Shihab, then a gorgeous duet with piano, a quartet with Red Garland, more sextet (or quintet when Shihab drops out). Prestige seems to have thought of Coltrane has just a super-sideman, so his debut gives you lots of looks and lets him struggle for unity. B+(***)
John Coltrane With the Red Garland Trio: Traneing In (1957 , Prestige/OJC): Art Taylor is the drummer, otherwise this would be the Miles Davis Quintet minus trumpet. The leader is remarkably poised on ballads, and barrels through the fast ones. B+(***)
Miles Davis: Miles Davis and Horns (1951-53 , Prestige/OJC): Early session with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims (tenor sax) and Sonny Truitt (trombone); second with Sonny Rollins and Benny Green. The horns aren't as intrusive as I expected, nor does Davis particularly need the help. Rather, the title discloses that these sets are a bit low in energy and imagination. B+(*)
Miles Davis: Blue Haze (1953-54 , Prestige/OJC): Compilation of session scraps assembled in 1956 when Davis left Prestige for Columbia. I've noted before that in the early days of bebop there were only three competent drummers, and they're all here: Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey, and Max Roach. The pianists are Horace Silver, John Lewis, and Charles Mingus. Percy Heath plays bass, and the only other horn is Davey Schildkraut's alto, just one track. Nothing fancy, but this winds up being a neat example of Davis' early craft. B+(***)
Miles Davis: Bags Groove (1954 , Prestige/RVG Remasters): Expanded with two alternate takes: 20:40 of Milt Jackson and Thelonious Monk on the title track, the rest with Sonny Rollins and Horace Silver, including three famous Rollins tunes that couldn't have been very old at the time ("Airegin," "Oleo," "Doxy"). Early stuff: the only guys here who've hit their stride are Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke, but simple as it is, this is pretty engaging. A-
Miles Davis All Stars: Walkin' (1954 , Prestige/OJC): With Horace Silver, Percy Heath, and Kenny Clarke, plus: Lucky Thompson and JJ Johnson on the A-side, Davey Schildkraut on the B -- not really a star but he has a nice run and Davis ups his game to close. B+(***)
Miles Davis: Blue Moods (1955 , Debut/OJC): A short one (4 cuts, 26:40) on bassist Charles Mingus' label, with Britt Woodman (trombone), Teddy Charles (vibes), and Elvin Jones (drums). Two takeaways: one is that Mingus is much more intrusive, and much more interesting, than other bassists; the other is that Davis could have had a future in ballads. Still, this is too slight to bother with. B
Miles Davis and Milt Jackson: Quintet/Sextet (1956 , Prestige/OJC): Two tracks each, short at 6:35-8:15, the delta between 5 and 6 is Jackie McLean on alto sax (playing his own songs). Nice work by all, not least Ray Bryant on piano, but nothing really stands out. B+(**)
Miles Davis: Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants (1954-56 , Prestige/OJC): Another album cobbled together after the fact (1959), combining four cuts (two takes of "The Man I Love") from a quintet with Thelonious Monk and Milt Jackson with a later "'Round Midnight" with a rather hoary tenor sax solo by John Coltrane. Only Jackson seems totally comfortable here. B+(*)
Eric Dolphy Quintet: Outward Bound (1960 , New Jazz/OJC): First record as a leader, starting a brilliant streak that ended with his death a little more than four years later. He plays alto sax, bass clarinet, and flute, opposite Freddie Hubbard and backed by Jaki Byard, a live outing pushing all sorts of boundaries. A-
Eric Dolphy: Out There (1960 , New Jazz/OJC): Only one horn, so Dolphy's reed roulette -- adding clarinet to his previous mix -- comes off as different things rather than various looks. The other novelty here is Ron Carter playing cello, contrast to George Duvivier's bass and a bit of chamber jazz. B+(**)
Eric Dolphy: Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot: Volume 2 (1961 , Prestige/OJC): With Booker Little on trumpet, dead at 23 a few months later in 1961, plus Mal Waldron, Richard Davis, and Ed Blackwell, a very vital group although the two long pieces here have more dull spots than Volume 1. B+(**)
Eric Dolphy & Booker Little: Memorial Album: Recorded Live at the Five Spot (1961 , Prestige/OJC): Two cuts, 16:29 and 14:40, recorded the same night as the two Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot volumes and released in 1964 shortly after Dolphy died, three years after Little passed. Some good spots here, but they wander a bit. B+(***)
Ray Draper Quintet: Tuba Sounds (1957 , Prestige/OJC): Tuba player gets a rare session, and it's fun to hear him try to play bebop, but the "with" names on the album cover set the tone and pace -- Jackie McLean (alto sax) and Mal Waldron (piano) -- even "introducing Webster Young" (trumpet). Also, note that adding bass and drums adds up to a sextet. B+(**)
Tommy Flanagan/John Coltrane/Kenny Burrell/Idrees Sulieman: The Cats (1957 , Prestige/OJC): With Doug Watkins and Louis Hayes, their names missing on the front cover, but that's fair if you consider this a revolving spotlight for soloists rather than a band. The four headliners handle their leads with aplomb -- especially the guitarist -- but those parts don't add up into more than the sum. B+(*)
Tommy Flanagan: Overseas (1957 , Prestige/OJC): Piano trio with Wilbur Little and a terrific Elvin Jones, a fine example of his legendary erudition and touch. A-
Tommy Flanagan: The Tommy Flanagan Trio (1960 , Prestige/OJC): Piano trio with Tommy Potter and Roy Haynes, originally released in Prestige's Moodsville series, a fact which dominates the artwork. Exceptionally measured even by Flanagan's standards, but I doubt that anyone has gotten more out of "You Go to My Head." B+(***)
Clancy Hayes: Swingin' Minstrel (1956-58 , Good Time Jazz): Banjo-playing trad jazz singer, came up in Bob Scobey's Frisco Jazz Band, on one of his few headline albums, pieced together from sessions with tuba for depth and Ralph Sutton or Jess Stacy on piano. As for the minstrel bit, I don't hear any exaggerated effect -- just a lot of good time jazz. B+(**)
Booker Little: Booker Little and Friend (1961, Bethlehem): Title has an asterisk, and front cover refers that footnote to his trumpet -- I might have guessed Eric Dolphy, but he is nowhere to be found. Little died later that year at 23, and no one else in the well known band was more than three years older: Julian Priester, George Coleman, Don Friedman, Reggie Workman, Pete LaRoca. Remarkably advance harmonically, what we would call postbop now, which can be a sticking point for me, although rarely when the leader is blowing. This makes me recognize what a loss his death was, but hearing this generation of young players just after spending a lot of time with the 1953-56 Prestige "all stars" -- Monk, Davis, Rollins, Coltrane, Ammons, McLean, Silver, none really had it together at the time -- makes me wonder if the whole generation that started out c. 1960 wasn't wiped out by the jazz market crash of the 1970s. A-
Jack McDuff and Gene Ammons: Brother Jack Meets the Boss (1962 , Prestige/OJC): Ammons started with organ players shortly before 1960 and found the soul jazz idiom they were developing fit him like a glove -- The Gene Ammons Story: Organ Combos, a 1977 2LP released on CD in 1992, adding tracks from Velvet Soul and Angel Eyes to Twistin' the Jug, is a good place to start, but there are a few others, including one led by Richard "Groove" Holmes (Groovin' With Jug) and this one under McDuff's name. B+(**)
Ken McIntyre/Eric Dolphy: Looking Ahead (1960 , New Jazz/OJC): The former's name is larger and higher placed, so Dolphy's elevation appears to have been an afterthought, perhaps some marketer's? Both play alto sax and flute, often in unison so there isn't much contrast or distinction. B+(*)
Charles Mingus: The Charles Mingus Quartet + Max Roach (1955 , Debut/OJC): With George Barrow (tenor sax), Eddie Bert (trombone), and Mal Waldron that makes five, although Roach only plays on 2 (of 6) tracks, Willie Jones taking over for the rest. Gives you a taste of where Mingus would go, but a very modest one. B
Oliver Nelson: Screamin' the Blues (1960 , New Jazz/OJC): Best known as a big band arranger, and he hints at that here, juggling three horns -- Richard Williams on trumpet, Eric Dolphy on alto sax and bass clarinet, and himself on tenor and alto sax -- on a set of basic blues forms: all they have to do to sound great is wail, but they're more talented than that. A-
Oliver Nelson with Eric Dolphy: Straight Ahead (1961 , New Jazz/OJC): Mixed messages here as Nelson seems to start heading into shifty postbop, but before long Dolphy blows right past him. B+(**)
Mel Powell: The Best Things in Life (1953-56 , Vanguard): A pianist with Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, Powell cut a number of albums for Vanguard in the mid-1950s, and this is the first of two sampler compilations. Not sure of the credits, but Buck Clayton and Edmond Hall were in Powell's Septet, Ruby Braff played elsewhere. Wish I knew more. B+(***)
Mel Powell: It's Been So Long (1953-56 , Vanguard): More from the pianist's mid-1950s Vanguard albums. I give it an edge because it starts off so strong but even when they peel back the horns and slow it down the piano is fun to follow. A-
Paul Quinichette/Shad Collins/Freddie Green/Walter Page/Jo Jones: For Basie (1957 , Prestige/OJC): The tenor saxophonist bounced around big bands from Jay McShann's in 1942-44 to Count Basie's in 1952-53, a nice landing for a guy who grew up on Lester Young. Pianist Pierce was a frequent Basie sub, and the others were all Basie vets. B+(**)
Jimmy Smith: Groovin' at Small's Paradise (1957 , Blue Note, 2CD): Early, an organ trio with Eddie McFadden on guitar and Donald Bailey on drums. The organ still feels clunky, especially on its own, but the fast guitar runs turn spots into quite a race. B+(**)
Jimmy Smith: Bashin': The Unpredictable Jimmy Smith (1962 , Verve): Minor point, but the idea of doing completely different things on each side of an LP made more sense when albums had two sides, but on CD the four big band cuts fizzle out as the trio takes over. The big band has its moments, especially on "In a Mellotone," but has its rough spots too. As for the trio, Jimmy Warren never jumps out front, so Smith stays low key. B+(*)
Jimmy Smith & Wes Montgomery: Jimmy & Wes: The Dynamic Duo (1966 , Verve): Oliver Nelson's big band arranging is jarring at first, and only when the band peels way back do the stars get a chance to shine -- which, of course, they do. B+(**)
Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery: Further Adventures of Jimmy and Wes (1966 , Verve): Nominally a quartet (except for a couple stray big band tracks), but often intimate -- on "Maybe September" you wonder if Jimmy isn't trying to put Wes to sleep. B+(*)
Rex Stewart/Dicky Wells: Chatter Jazz (1959, RCA): Cornet and trombone, dubbed "the talkative horns" here, veterans of 1930s swing bands (Ellington and Basie, respectively, before which both played for Fletcher Henderson). They have a light touch here, almost comic as they swing through a set of standards. A-
Mal Waldron: Mal-1 (1956 , Prestige/OJC): The pianist's first album as a leader, still tied close enough to bebop that one tune's called "Bud Study." Quintet with Idrees Sulieman on trumpet and Gigi Gryce on alto sax, a fine pairing that the pianist ties together neatly. A-
Mal Waldron: Mal/2 (1957 , Prestige/OJC): Two sessions from April and May, both with John Coltrane on tenor sax, the former with Jackie McLean on alto, the latter with Sahib Shihab on alto and Idrees Sulieman on trumpet. The horns are all first rate, but the pianist is special. A-
Mal Waldron: Mal/3: Sounds (1958 , Prestige/OJC): Kind of an odd duckling set with cello and flute joining trumpet (Art Farmer), bass, and drums. B+(*)
Mal Waldron: Mal/4: Trio (1958 , New Jazz/OJC): Piano trio, with Addison Farmer on bass and Kenny Dennis on drums, neither heavyweights but Waldron is steady and impressive. A-
The Mal Waldron Trio: Impressions (1959 , New Jazz/OJC): Another piano trio, with Addison Farmer on bass and Tootie Heath on drums, picks up the pace on a couple vamp pieces which may or may not be a plus, given how thoughtfully he plays on the slow ones. B+(***)
Mal Waldron: Update (1986 , Soul Note): Solo piano, several standards like "A Night in Tunisia" and "You Are Getting to Be a Habit With Me," but also two long pieces relating to Cecil Taylor -- another example of Waldron's range. B+(**)
Mal Waldron Trio: Our Colline's a Treasure (1987 , Soul Note): Piano trio, with Leonard Jones and Sangoma Everett. Whereas Waldron's use of horns -- either duos or in groups -- was rarely less than daring, his plain piano work is carefully constructed, subtle, and somewhat magical. B+(***)
Ben Webster/Don Byas: Ben Webster Meets Don Byas (1968 , MPS): Late in the game for both tenor sax greats -- Byas died in 1972 at age 60 and Webster, only three years older, died the following year. Cut in Germany with Tete Montoliu on piano, perhaps the freshest player here, but the leaders are as recognizable as ever. B+(*)
Clarence Williams: Dreaming the Hours Away: The Columbia Recordings Volume One (1926-28 , Frog): Ran away from home at 12 to join a minstrel show, landing in New Orleans where he learned to play piano, compose, and run various businesses, then moved on to Chicago and finally New York. His personnel revolved, including at some point or other nearly every notable musician coming out of New Orleans (his 1925 "Cakewalking Babies From Home" shows up in many Louis Armstrong best-ofs) -- the cover has a long list here including King Oliver and Bennie Moten, and singers Lucille Hegman, Lizzie Miles, Ethel Waters, and Eva Taylor. For all the variations, remarkably consistent and fun. A-
Clarence Williams: Gimme Blues: Washboard Bands 1926-29 (1926-29 , Frog): This collects several washboard bands led by or featuring pianist Williams, including Dixie Washboard Band (14 cuts) and Blue Grass Footwarmers (5 cuts), most with Ed Allen on cornet and/or Bennie Morton on clarinet. They sound rougher than Williams' Jazz Kings, which may have been the point, and there are fewer vocals. B+(***)
Clarence Williams: Shake 'Em Up: The Vocalion, Brunswick, Victor, Paramount & Grey Gull Recordings (1927-29 , Frog): Some washboard band tracks, several orchestras, a few piano solos, and the front cover adds some famous names -- Henry Allen, Buster Bailey, Coleman Hawkins -- to his standbys. A-
Clarence Williams: Whoop It Up: The Columbia Recordings Volume 2 (1929-31 , Frog): Williams, especially in his Jazz Kings sides, continues to have a special feel for orchestrating small group classic jazz, but the cover list of names are a bit more obscure, with only Eva Taylor (aka Mrs. Williams) repeating among the vocalists. B+(***)
Mary Lou Williams: Zoning (1974 , Smithsonian Folkways): One of the first really important women in jazz, starting out arranging for Andy Kirk's big swing band, and lasting far enough to duet with Cecil Taylor. These are mostly trio pieces, sharp bits of piano over a rumbling bass beat, remarkable. A-
Mary Lou Williams Trio: At Rick's Café Americain (1979 , Storyville): With Milton Suggs and Drashear Khalid, two years before she died, an often dazzling set of standards material (including three Ellingtons), the sound a bit uneven and a couple flat spots the only downside. B+(***)
Lester Young, Roy Eldridge and Harry Edison: Laughin' to Keep From Cryin' (1958 , Verve): One of the tenor saxophonist's last sessions (a year before he died), lifted by two swing trumpeters, Herb Ellis on guitar, and Hank Jones on piano. Nice record, although Young seems even more evanescent than usual, happy to lurk behind the trumpets. B+(**)
Tuesday, February 11. 2014
I knew I hadn't done a book thing in quite a while, but was surprised to check up and find the last one was on July 26. To try to force myself to do these things more regularly, I decided to limit them to 40 books each. This one actually runs a bit long (52 books) in an effort to clear out my backlog and get a fresh start. Not sure when I'll get the research done for the next one, but most likely the books are already out there.
By the way, I've actually read the Bacevich and Blumenthal books, as well as the three I list under new paperbacks (albeit in the illustrated hardcover editions). I recommend all five, especially Timothy Noah's The Great Divergence as a good general introduction to the inequality issue -- a topic Christopher Hayes' discussion of meritocracy feeds directly into.
Jack Abramoff: Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America's Most Notorious Lobbyist (2011, WND Books): Out of jail after 43 months, not like he killed anyone, just redistributed millions of dollars from the public till to needy clients ("a corporation, Indian tribe, or foreign nation"), congressmen, and himself and his fellow fixers. And now he's had a change of heart, trying to raise himself to muckraker from muck. Problem is, he hasn't had a change of character. As an Amazon reader put it: "This book could be really good if Abramoff wasn't such a total narcissist."
Akbar Ahmed: The Thistle and the Drone: How America's War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (2013, Brookings Institution Press): One thing US intervention under the "global war on terror" guise has done is to break down traditional tribal hierarchies, as jihadists vie with elders as to how to defend communities against foreign (and to some extent anything modern counts) attack. Author is Pakistani but solidly wedged into the US foreign policy estate.
Kjell Aleklett: Peeking at Peak Oil (2012, Springer): An extensive review of the peak oil theory: the idea that the maximum point of oil extraction occurs when about half of all recoverable oil has been pumped, and is followed by declining production at elevated prices. US oil production peaked, as the theory predicted, in 1969, after which the US had to import oil to meet increasing demand (plus decreasing production). Recent advances in recovery technology have complicated things a bit, and the world (unlike the US in 1969) lacks a cheap external source to fill unmet demand, so the world production peak (predicted to have occurred some time in 2000-2010) has been a bit bumpy, but the basic facts remain: oil fields deplete, new ones become increasingly difficult to find and develop, and virtually no new oil is being created, so sooner or later we will run out, and along the way oil will become expensive, a painful way of weaning us from its use. All that and more should be in here.
Daniel Alpert: The Age of Oversupply: Overcoming the Greatest Challenge to the Global Economy (2013, Portfolio): Contends "the invisible hand is broken" by an "oversupply of labor, productive capacity, and capital relative to the demand for all three." Strikes me as true, largely the effect of technology on productivity but also growing inequality which converts those gains almost exclusively to capital. Not sure what an investment banker like Alpert wants to do about that, but demand could be increased by more equitable income distribution, and oversupply of labor can be reduced by increasing leisure time (which, if adequately supported, would also help out on the demand front).
Jonathan Alter: The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies (2013, Simon & Schuster): Thought this might be one of those "centrist" tomes that balances loathing for the left against a few nitpicks with the right, but turns out this is just a campaign book, a recap of the 2012 election, where Obama's centrism worked because the right went crazy. Alter's previous books were on FDR's 100 days and on the 100 days he hoped Obama would have in 2009, so figure he's been disabused of some illusions.
Marc Ambinder/DB Grady: Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry (2013, Wiley): Several obvious questions here: how much of what Edward Snowden is now being hounded for leaking was known by the "inside" authors here? And how much of what they knew has been obsoleted by Snowden's revelations? I don't doubt that anyone who cared to look could have found various pieces of what the NSA has been up to, and this may help to understand it all. But most likely we're still far from understanding it all, so this and similar books are far from definitive. (I notice that Amazon wants to bundle this with Mark Mazzetti: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth and Jeremy Scahill: Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield -- two other key pieces to the puzzle.)
Scott Anderson: Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East (2013, Doubleday): Every decade or two someone returns to T.E. Lawrence for further confirmation of the insights they've finally tuned into after further mayhem in the Middle East, yet they always miss the basic point: what makes Lawrence an effective critic of British (and more recently American) intervention is that he was helplessly at the center of the problem: he was convinced he could make it work. This also focuses on Aaron Aaronson, Curt Prüfer, and William Yale.
Reza Aslan: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (2013, Random House): Wrote one of the more accessible histories of Islam, No God but God: The Origins and Evolution of Islam, and a book critical of the Jihadist impulse, Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization. Here he attempts a historical inquiry into the life of Jesus. Long ago I read Marcello Craveri's The Life of Jesus, a similar attempt to flesh out a historical character about whom little is known and much is imagined. Aslan must know this as well as anyone, but judging from the cover, I have to wonder whether the association of Jesus with the Jewish zealot movement isn't imposing something from the modern mind's must justified fear of violent fundamentalism.
Andrew J Bacevich: Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (2013, Metropolitan Books): Continues the author's critique of American militarism -- cf. The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (2005), The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2008), Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War (2010) -- all useful books. Still, I think his argument here, that Washington has found it too easy to use (and abuse) the all-volunteer Army can be countered by restoring the draft, is misplaced. He surely recalls that having "citizen-soldiers" in Vietnam did little to prevent the politicians and brass from abusing them. Nor did the Army's later scheme to make itself unable to fight wars without calling up the reserves deter the Bushes. I don't doubt that the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have done immeasurable damage to the troops, but you're never going to end American militarism by fetishizing the troops -- they ultimately have too much stake in perpetuating the system to buck it, even if many wind up its victims.
Peter Baker: Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House (2013, Doubleday): Big (816 pp) instant history of the two Bush-Cheney terms, based on sympathetic insider interviews by a long-time White House correspondent. One angle seems to be questioning who called the shots when -- for much of this time Billmon commonly referred to the Cheney Administration, while only occasionally mentioning "Shrub." My impression is that after Cheney's chief of staff Libby was convicted the tables turned and we went from the Cheney menace to the Bush muddle, not that anything got better.
Max Blumenthal: Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (2013, Nation Books): The hidden, and rather embarrassing, story revealed by living a couple years in Israel, of talking to right-wingers in Knesset and in the streets, to peace activists, and to strange folk who invariably wind up "shooting and weeping" like David Grossman. I'm not sure he covers all the bases, but he shows, for instance, how the schools are used to train Jewish Israelis for military service, and how that reinforces right-wing political culture. The result is a grossly distorted society.
David Carey/John E Morris: King of Capital: The Remarkable Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of Steve Schwarzman and Blackstone (2010; paperback, 2012, Crown Business): Puff book on the largest private equity company and its billionaire leader, and presumably a few words about his partner, Pete Peterson -- you know, the guy who wants to take your Social Security away. The authors buy into the great moral fallacy of our time: the belief that making obscene amounts of money is laudable no matter how you do it.
Thurston Clarke: JFK's Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President (2013, Penguin Press): Much speculation about what Kennedy would have done had he lived and been reëlected, especially given how poorly Lyndon Johnson fared with Vietnam. McGeorge Bundy later observed that LBJ's basic Cold War attitude was to make sure he wasn't perceived as weak, JFK's approach was to make sure he was right. The author argues that JFK's openness made him a different man at the end of his life than he was when he ran for president.
Jonathan Crary: 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (2013, Verso): Short book (144 pp) on how capitalism's need to sell you things has chewed up the clock. I suspect this might dovetail nicely with James Gleick's Faster, had Gleick thought his book through better instead of just letting it bum rush him.
Diary of a Very Bad Year: Confessions of an Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager (paperback, 2010, Harper Perennial): Interviews with an anonymous hedge fund manager from September 2007 to late summer 2009: gives you a chance to view the panic from the inside, and also to lay out the perspective of a hedge fund trader, someone always on guard to exploit any given situation.
Barbara T Dreyfuss: Hedge Hogs: The Cowboy Traders Behind Wall Street's Largest Hedge Fund Disaster (2013, Random House): Another hedge fund disaster: Amaranth Advisors LLC, worth $9 billion one day, collapsed a few weeks later -- mostly the work of one trader's high-risk bets on natural gas prices. Hope there is some useful historical context. Amaranth collapse in 2006, before the crash; Galleon Group in 2009, after.
Terry Eagleton: Across the Pond: An Englishman's View of America (2013, WW Norton): One might think that the author's status as one of the world's foremost Marxist literary critics might have some bearing on how he views America, but most of the examples I see are stereotypically English views of generic Americans, easy to come by and more self-sure than is warranted. Other relatively recent Eagleton books (some reprints of older books, many university presses): How to Read Literature (2013, Yale); The Event of Literature (2012; paperback, 2013, Yale); Why Marx Was Right (paperback, 2012, Yale); On Evil (paperback, 2011, Yale); Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (paperback, 2010, Yale); The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction (paperback, 2008, Oxford); Literary Theory: An Introduction (3rd edition, paperback, 2008, Minnesota); Trouble With Strangers: A Study of Ethics (paperback, 2008, Wiley-Blackwell); How to Read a Poem (paperback, 2006, Wiley-Blackwell); Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory (paperback, 2006, Verso).
Russell Faure-Brac: Transition to Peace: A Defense Engineer's Search for an Alternative to War (paperback, 2012, iUniverse): Short book (142 pp), but the basics seem obvious, requiring only a will to not do stupid and self-destructive things. Of course, coming out of a war culture, he probably has more stupidity to argue against.
Michael Fullilove: Rendezvous With Destiny: How Franklin D Roosevelt and Five Extraordinary Men Took America Into the War and Into the World (2013, Penguin Press): The "five" were envoys sent by Roosevelt to Europe to lay the foundations for the future US alliances in WWII, and ultimately the transformation of the US from isolationism to internationalism and ultimately to our hallucination of sole superpowerdom -- something that may have been more true in 1946 than in 1990 (or 2001). There has been a sudden confluence of eve-of-WWII books, including: Susan Dunn: 1940: FDR, Wilkie, Lindbergh, Hitler -- The Election Amid the Storm (2013, Yale University Press); Lynne Olson: Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 (2013, Random House); David L Roll: The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler (2013, Oxford University Press); Maury Klein: A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II (2013, Bloomsbury Press).
Charles Gasparino: Circle of Friends: The Massive Federal Crackdown on Insider Trading -- and Why the Markets Always Work Against the Little Guy (2013, Harper Business): Fox business analyst, which is probably where the "massive federal crackdown" rhetoric comes from. More dirt on the Galleon Group case, which is probably better covered by Anita Raghavan: The Billionaire's Apprentice and Turney Duff: The Buy Side. Gasparino previously wrote Bought and Paid For: The Unholy Alliance Between Barack Obama and Wall Street, which is true enough, but hardly the only "unholy alliance" Wall Street has.
Rosemary Gibson/Janardan Prasad Singh: Medicare Meltdown: How Wall Street and Washington Are Ruining Medicare and How to Fix It (2013, Rowman & Littlefield): Given the alternatives it's tempting to give Medicare a free pass, but the program isn't immune from the profit-driven US healthcare industry, and the greed of the latter is as much a threat as the political right. So this is a real problem, but I'm not sure this book is much of a solution. Thumbing through it, the "Fifteen Medicare Facts That Will Astonish You" are mostly astonishing for their abuse of statistics. Gibson and Prasad also wrote Wall of Silence: The Untold Story of the Medical Mistakes That Kill and Injure Millions of Americans (2003, Lifeline Press), The Treatment Trap: How the Overuse of Medical Care Is Wrecking Your Health and What You Can Do to Prevent It (2011, Ivan R Dee), and The Battle Over Health Care: What Obama's Reform Means for America's Future (2012, Rowman & Littlefield).
Henry A Giroux: America's Education Deficit and the War on Youth: Reform Beyond Electoral Politics (2013, Monthly Review Press): Blames "four fundamentalisms: market deregulation, patriotic and religious fervor, the instrumentalization of education, and the militarization of society." The other three are right-wing ideology, but the third is less a theory than a consequence. Conservatives want to shift the responsibility for success from society to the individual, which means there will be less wealth and what there is spread more inequitably. They figure this to be a good thing: if success is rarer we should appreciate it, and the virtues that help individuals accumulate it, more, but the net effect is to create a declining economy where education becomes an ever more dear tool. That strikes me as less a "war on youth" than gross indifference to the future of civilization. Giroux has also written: Disposable Youth: Racialized Memories, and the Culture of Cruelty (paperback, 2012, Routledge), and Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future (paperback, 2013, Paradigm).
Doris Kearns Goodwin: The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism (2013, Simon & Schuster): Follow-up to her ridiculously acclaimed Lincoln book, Team of Rivals, taking another juicy slice of hyperbole and puffs it up to 848 pp.
Laura Gottesdiener: A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home (2013, Zuccotti Park Press): How predatory lending and foreclosure have wracked black America, contributing to the failure to build real economic security on top of nominal civil rights gains.
Richard N Haass: Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America's House in Order (2013, Basic Books): Veteran foreign policy mandarin, realist division, but not realist enough to concede that the gig is up. But he does realize that American power has always been built on the American economy, so that's something worth paying some attention to, especially if you hope to remain a foreign policy mandarin.
Carl Hart: High Price: A Neuroscientist's Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society (2013, Harper): A memoir, detailing the author's early interest in crack addiction as a user before he became a scientist and started researching others, rethinking how anti-drug laws work and what they are doing, especially given their racially-selective enforcement, and providing research on what drugs actually do, which is often not what you think.
Richard Heinberg: Snake Oil: How Fracking's False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future (paperback, 2013, Post Carbon Institute): Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing promises to increase the amount of oil we can extract from already largely depleted oil fields, and to make the extraction of natural gas from widespread shale deposits economically attractive -- assuming you don't get too squeamish about the environmental risks, which for gas at least are considerable. Heinberg wrote a book in 2003 which declared The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies and followed that up in 2007 with Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines, and he's sticking to his guns here. For less dismal views of fracking, see: John Graves: Fracking: America's Alternative Energy Revolution (paperback, 2013, Safe Harbor); Vikram Rao: Shale Gas: The Promise and the Peril (paperback, 2012, RTI International); Tom Wilber: Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale (2012, Cornell University Press).
Rawn James Jr: The Double V: How Wars, Protest, and Harry Truman Desegregated America's Military (2013, Bloomsbury Press): One of the first important breakthroughs in post-WWII civil rights, partly because it could be done by executive order, but also, I suspect, because becoming gun fodder wasn't much of a step up, and trying to maintain segregation in a modern military as large as the US wanted for its "cold" and not-so-cold wars would have been a nightmare. Indeed, one can argue that segregation only survived in the South as long as feudalism did.
Gregg Jones: Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America's Imperial Dream (2012; paperback, 2013, NAL): Taking the Philippines from Spain was the easy part. Crushing their war for independence was a much larger and more arduous ordeal.
Simon Lack: The Hedge Fund Mirage: The Illusion of Big Money and Why It's Too Good to Be True (2012, Wiley): Formerly worked at JPMorgan making investments in hedge funds, only to find out that despite occasionally spectacular stories they didn't in general work out.
Mark Leibovich: This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral -- Plus Plenty of Valet Parking! -- in America's Gilded Capital (2013, Blue Rider Press): "There are no Democrats and Republians anymore in the nation's capital, just millionaires. That's the grubby secret of the place in the twenty-first century. You will always have lunch in This Town again. No matter how many elections you lose, apologies you make, or scandals you endure." So don't expect anything on the real problems America faces; just the surreal ones.
Michael Levi: The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America's Future (2013, Oxford University Press): Bullish on US energy from all corners, covering the oil and gas booms as well as the ever-more-competitive renewables, seeing bright futures in both. The "battle" is likely to be more political than economic, as the Kochs and other oil partisans, for instance, would love to see solar and wind power stamped out. No indication that nuclear comes into play here at all.
Jonathan Macey: The Death of Corporate Reputation: How Integrity Has Been Destroyed on Wall Street (2013, FT Press): When you hire a banker to manage your money, he is supposed to work for you, to serve your interest. When he uses your money to buy his bank's toxic securities, he's taken your trust and used it to screw you. That, in a nutshell, is what banks have turned into since the "greed is good" age took over. Sure, mostly they screw other people, but as that becomes habitual it ceases to matter to them who they screw, or how. And the more they've gotten away with it, the more they do it: one of Macey's big points is the SEC, created to stop securities fraud, "got captured," becoming "toothless."
Sebastian Mallaby: More Money Than God: Hedge Funds and the Making of a New Elite (2010; paperback, 2011, Penguin Books): Big book on hedge funds, starts with the originators and tries to cover the field, taking a positive view and covering the "heroes" when the "villains" have become all the more noteworthy. Probably useful for all this history, even if the ethics seem a little shaky.
Jerry Mander: The Capitalism Papers: Fatal Flaws of an Obsolete System (paperback, 2013, Counterpoint): Former advertising executive, wrote Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television in 1977, In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology & the Survival of the Indian Nations in 1992, and cowrote with Edward Goldsmith The Case Against the Global Economy: And a Turn Toward the Local in 1997. In the post-Cold War period the suggestion that capitalism is obsolete is rank heresy, but it isn't so hard to see that a system dependent on infinite growth cannot be indefinitely sustained, or that the way we practice capitalism -- where the rich make up for their inability to grow adequately by hollowing out everyone else -- leaves much to be desired.
Geoff Mann: Disassembly Required: A Field Guide to Actually Existing Capitalism (paperback, 2013, AK Press): Short book (160 pp), reprising economic theory from Marx to Gramsci, looking at capitalism as a self-destructive as well as productive engine, and expecting the worst.
Richard Manning: Rewilding the West: Restoration in a Prairie Landscape (paperback, 2011, University of California Press): Author of the marvelous Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics and Promise of the American Prairie (paperback, 1997, Penguin) returns with a book on a project to create an "American Serengeti" where a large chunk of Montana is rewilded replete with buffalo, wolves, elk, grizzly, much as it was when Lewis and Clark first traipsed through it a scant two hundred years ago.
Leslie McCall: The Undeserving Rich: American Beliefs About Inequality, Opportunity, and Redistribution (paperback, 2013, Cambridge University Press): Research on a topic I can only speculate about. My impression is that throughout most of US history Americans were quick to condemn the rich, at least in bad times, but over the last 30-40 years that populist reaction has diminished -- at least partly due to the success the Cold War has had in characterizing and championing capitalism as freedom. On the other hand, the rich have taken advantage of this free pass, and are ripe for revulsion once again.
Greg Muttitt: Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq (2012, Free Press): Denials to the contrary, oil was always a big subtext of the US decision to invade Iraq -- how could it have been otherwise when Bush and Cheney were so steeped in the oil industry culture? It's played out more slowly than those who carried "no war for oil" placards, or for that matter the rosy-eyed warmongers in the Bush administration, ever imagined, but ten years later most of the big western oil companies are doing business in Iraq, and booking reserves that have become increasingly hard to find anywhere else. So it's good that someone's finally pulling this history together. And, by the way, the oil companies made out on both ends: early on knocking Iraqi oil out of the market caused shortages and higher prices, and later the companies got those reserves.
Sönke Neitzel/Harald Welzer: Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying (2012, Knopf): Based on 800 pages of declassified transcripts of interrogations of German POWs, the book offers "an unmitigated window into the mind-set of the German fighting man" -- before the Reich fell, before the "Final Solution" was final.
Anthony Pagden: The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters (2013, Random House): I'm not sure that the enlightenment ever achieved notably enlightened political rule, but the various insights gained proved (at least until recently) intractable, and as such moved the reference points for those in power, a considerable feat. Why it still matters may owe to my parenthetical: although conservatives have always opposed enlightenment, they have rarely been so successful as lately, so the story bears repeating. Indeed, the squalor of the past dark ages should argue strongly against the future dystopia that today's right-wingers so have their hearts set on.
Christopher S Parker/Matt A Barreto: Change They Can't Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America (2013, Princeton University Press): Argues that the Tea Party isn't "simple ideology or racism" but draws on the psychological sense of losing one's country, a "fear that the country is being stolen from 'real Americans.'" And who believes that? Well, mostly racists and devotees of simple right-wing ideologies. It is ironic that they've never come closer to running the country than they are now, but their worst enemy is their own success, because all they truly offer is ruination. Also see: Lawrence Rosenthal/Christine Trost: Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party (paperback, 2012, University of California Press); Ronald P Formisano: The Tea Party: A Brief History (2012, John Hopkins University Press).
Anita Raghavan: The Billionaire's Apprentice: The Rise of the Indian-American Elite and the Fall of the Galleon Hedge Fund (2013, Business Plus): Focuses on South Asian emigré hedge fund traders, especially Galleon Group founder Raj Rajaratnam, something the Malaysia-born author can relate to. For more on Galleon: Turney Duff: The Buy Side: A Wall Street Trader's Tale of Spectacular Excess (2013, Crown Business).
Jonathan Rowe: Our Common Wealth: The Hidden Economy That Makes Everything Else Work (paperback, 2013, Berrett-Koehler): Short book (144 pp) on the importance of "the commons" not just to the economy but to wealth and well-being of all. Published posthumously with forwards and afterwords by Bill McKibben, David Bollier, and Peter Barnes. I see numerous testimonies that Rowe was "a unique and original thinker," so it's nice to have him collected in a book.
Jeffrey D Sachs: To Move the World: JFK's Quest for Peace (2013, Random House): Focuses on four speeches Kennedy gave during his last days, covering similar ground to Thurston Clarke: JFK's Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President. Sachs is an economist, best known for his contentious work on world development, so this is something of a pet project.
Jonathan Schlefer: The Assumptions Economists Make (2012, Belknap Press): It's hard to avoid the impression that most of what passes for economics is applied logic based on unexamined assumptions -- it's not that there is no empirical data, but it's so messy you need models to make sense of it, and most economists wind up believing their seductively logical models over their lying eyes. The point here is to examine the unexamined assumptions, starting with Adam Smith's "invisible hand."
Kevin Sites: The Things They Cannot Say: Stories Soldiers Won't Tell You About What They've Seen, Done or Failed to Do in War (paperback, 2013, Harper Perennial): Interviews with eleven US soldiers who did time in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of memoirs from these wars -- way too many to list, and one thing they're unlikely to provide is any historical sense of how or why they were put into those wars. Karl Marlantes: What It Is Like to Go to War (2011, Atlantic Monthly Press; paperback, 2011, Grove Press) is similar on the Vietnam War. Nancy Sherman: The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of Our Soldiers (2010; paperback, 2011, WW Norton) tries to cover both Vietnam and the Bush Wars.
Tom Standage: Writing on the Wall: Social Media -- The First 2,000 Years (2013, Bloomsbury): Looks at pre-Internet analogues to "social media" -- for instance, the much older practice of graffiti. Author previously wrote An Edible History of Humanity, A History of the World in 6 Glasses, and most relevantly, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers.
Benn Steil: The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order (2013, Princeton University Press): The system of monetary exchanges set up at the Bretton Woods conference held up from 1944 to 1973, a period of tremendous and widespread growth for both the US and Europe, so how it came about is bound to be an interesting story.
Chuck Thompson: Better Off Without 'Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Succession (2012; paperback, 2013, Simon & Schuster): You're more likely to hear southerners urging secession -- Rick Perry is one who made headlines, but then as a Texan he felt doubly entitled -- but when you look at the political and economic splits you get a sense of how much of a drag the South places on the rest of the country. I'm just worried that, living in Kansas, I might wind up on the wrong side of the border -- Gov. Brownback's whole agenda amounts to nothing more than Texas-envy, so he for sure would want to stick with the South.
Euclid Tsakalotos/Christos Laskos: Crucible of Resistance: Greece, the Eurozone and the World Economy (paperback, 2013, Pluto Press): Greek leftists, the former an economic professor who previously wrote 22 Things That They Tell You About the Greek Crisis That Aren't So, explain the Greek popular revolt against the Eurobankers' imposition of austerity programs, meant to solve a problem largely caused by the Euro.
Richard Wolfe: The Message: The Reselling of President Obama (2013, Twelve): Insider book on the 2012 presidential election from within the victorious Obama camp, a good chance for the author to compliment his own brilliance, if you're into that sort of thing. Wolfe's memoir of the 2008 campaign was Renegade: The Making of a President. Guess he couldn't use that title again.
Some recent paperbacks of books previously listed in hardcover:
Kurt Eichenwald: 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars (2012; paperback, 2013, Touchstone): Figures the 18 months from 9/11/2001 to the invasion of Iraq tell us all we need to know about the emergence and development Bush administration's strategic thinking about war and terror, with a clarity that is only muddled by the subsequent 5-10 (and counting) years of grappling with the many failures and complications of such muddled thinking.
Christopher Hayes: Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (2012, Crown; paperback, 2013, Broadway): Shows how the idea of meritocracy is a two-edged sword: on the one hand, it accustoms you to thinking that inequality is due to merit; on the other, Hayes shows how the meritocracy game can be rigged, and inevitably degrades into oligarchy. He also shows that we're so far gone down this road one scarcely bothers with meritocracy any more, even as a shallow excuse.
Timothy Noah: The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It (2012; paperback, 2013, Bloomsbury Press): Probably the first book to start with if you want to understand how incomes and wealth have diverged since 1973, with the rich and the superrich pulling ever further ahead while everyone else stagnates or worse.
Monday, February 10. 2014
Music: Current count 22850  rated (+45), 596  unrated (+1).
Rated count is very high this week. I've been snowed in all week and have wound up sitting at the computer, listening to old jazz on Rhapsody. It goes fast, mostly because I don't dawdle but also because the records are often quite short. I've mostly stuck to the 1950s, although I couldn't resist playing the Bix Beiderbecke comp that previously escaped me when it popped up in a search. I did pass on some other records that would have moved me out of the zone. Just goes to show that there's much more to mop up even if Rhapsody's coverage of jazz is rather spotty.
A couple 2014 non-jazz items in the new records. I've started a 2014 prospect list file as a sort of cribsheet to keep track of things I might want to check out sooner or later: it sort of splits the difference between the various "wish list" files I've had in the past and the all-encompassing metacritic file. I have a sort of prioritization ranking built into it, but at present the code doesn't let you scope in and out. I've also tried to add genre info (although different sources use different schemas so don't expect consistency or precision) and possibly other notes. Thus far I've only consulted AMG and Metacritic for recommendations, but I'll probably expand the search a bit. Just don't want it to become a big time sink.
I expect I'll run a February Rhapsody Streamnotes later this week. As the rated lists (below and for previous weeks) show, I'll have notes on a lot of good old jazz records and a few (mostly not-so-good) new records. I did two such columns in January, and probably could this month as well, but I doubt if I'll have a second February column. I'm trying to wrap things up before a long car trip later this week. I'm headed to Florida, and probably won't be back until the end of the month. I'll pack a boom box and a bunch of CDs, but they'll mostly be old friends rather than new work. I'll take a laptop, but I've never managed to get much work done on it, so can't promise much. Should have internet access, although it will be more intermittent than usual. What may be more productive would be to take a paper notebook and sketch out some schemas for various projects. One thing long drives are good for is the chance to think, and that, combined with the break to the routine, is much of what I'm looking forward to. Of course, warmer weather will be a plus.
I've finally put all of Christgau's Expert Witness capsule reviews into my local copy of the database. I expect I'll do a major update of his website before I leave. Still have some loose ends to tie down, then I have to figure out how to actually do the update -- some things have changed on the server end. I also hope to have a Downloader's Diary to post before I leave, but if not we'll wrap it up from the road. Tatum missed January, but has moved on to new 2014 releases, and is much more enthusiastic about them than I am so far. (My only "new" A- release below is technically a 2013 release, although what happens in December in Lithuania isn't always something we can get to within the calendar year here.)
One new record in my queue that I've been playing but haven't sorted out yet is Allen Lowe's Mulatto Radio: Field Recordings 1-4 (or: A Jew at Large in the Minstrel Diaspora). Just way too much to sort out quickly. It's the one new record I'll pack for the trip, but I doubt if I'll write it up until I get back.
New records rated this week:
Old records rated this week:
Sunday, February 9. 2014
Some scattered links this week:
Also, a few links for further study:
Monday, February 3. 2014
Music: Current count 22805  rated (+37), 595  unrated (+17).
I'm dragging my feet on new jazz -- only five new albums below -- despite having gotten way too much in in the mail this past week. (Maybe the lack of response to my publicist letter means hadly any one bothered to read it.) I'm not complaining about all of it: Mike DiRubbo wrote me before sending and sent it anyway, and the French label Fou records were a pleasant surprise -- something I hadn't been aware of, plus I always regretted not getting more from Europe. Also curious that I've started to get Zoho again after having been shut out last year. Not listed below are download offers, and not just because I haven't taken advantage of them yet.
The rather high rated count mostly went into Rhapsody Streamnotes last week, and I've continued checking out old missed albums, with batches by Jimmy Smith and Mal Waldron below, and Eric Dolphy next in line. I held the new jazz reviews back so the grades appear here first, except for Ben Flocks -- so notable I felt I should push it out.
Minor formatting change in the rated records: I've started to sort out new releases from old ones. The Lurie counts as new because it is a new release, and the music has (as far as I can tell) never been released before. The Zé counts as new because it isn't all that old. I held Hard Working Americans back from RS because Tatum and others I respect like it more than I do -- thought I might give it another shot.
I should also mention that five of the Mal Waldron albums below (three A-, the others close) are included in Real Gone Jazz's Mal Waldron: Seven Classic Albums, which lists at $19.99 (most likely on 4-CD). I've yet to buy any of the Real Gone Jazz sets, so can't speak as to packaging (I've heard it's pretty shoddy) and the packages evade US copyright laws, but they seem to offer bargains. I went a little further into Waldron's later works than I've been doing recently -- his Soul Note recordings have always been tempting, and there's another budget box available there: Mal Waldron Quintets: The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint & Soul Note -- The Git-Go and Crowd Scene are my favorites there. One of the great jazz pianists of all time.
New records rated this week:
Old records rated this week:
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Sunday, February 2. 2014
Some scattered links this week:
Also, a few links for further study:
Saturday, February 1. 2014
I finally got around to reading, as opposed to reading about, billionaire Tom Perkins' Wall Street Journal rant about "the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the 'rich.'" I was under the impression it was an "op-ed" but the header calls it a letter, and it is fairly brief, weighing in at less than 200 words. It cites a WSJ editorial "Censors on Campus" which is behind some kind of paywall and not obviously relevant. Much of what Perkins complains about is hard to gauge. I don't read the San Francisco Chronicle, but I'd be real surprised to find that his charge -- "the demonization of the rich embedded in virtually every word of our local newspaper" -- is true of that or any elite media in the US. (I read enough of the New York Times to recognize that its reputation for liberalism is vastly exaggerated, and that any suggestion that it is even further to the left is plain ludicrous.) Nor do I have an opinion on whether Danielle Steel is a "snob" -- nor do I much care.
Most of the commentary concerns Perkins' attempt to liken the objects of his contempt to Nazis:
I have several points in response. The first is arguable, but I believe that Kristallnacht was very "thinkable" in 1930. The Nazi Part wasn't in control yet but it was gaining traction and power, and anyone paying attention would have noticed both that Nazis were savagely anti-semitic and had built a paramilitary organization of thugs (the "brown shirts") who gloried in violence. Treblinka may have been unthinkable in 1930, but mobs breaking windows and beating up Jews? That sort of thing had happened periodically in Russia and Romania, and the argument that it couldn't happen in civilized Germany was belied by every advance of Hitler.
The second point shouldn't be controversial at all: there is no "progressive war on the American one percent" nor can there be for the simple reason that those most critical of extreme inequalities of wealth and power are very largely the same ones who are most conscientiously opposed to war -- indeed, to violence of any sort. "War" is a word we take very seriously, and war is something that no one should be subjected to, either as victim or as combatant.
You might object that the "war on poverty" and the "war on drugs" were liberal trivializations of the word. Both phrases, the former as farce and the latter as tragedy, derive from a deep misunderstanding of WWII as "the good war." Several aspects of the history conspired to lend a superficial "goodness" to the most horrific six years in human history: the Axis powers were naked aggressors bent on regional (if not world) domination, and the racist brutality of the regimes became all the more glaring when they occupied foreign lands; the US government at the time was the most fair-minded and equitable in US history, so they organized the war as a unifying and all-consuming public good; the US was allied with the Soviet Union, so for once the anti-imperialist left supported the war effort; the war acted as a giant jobs machine which lifted the US out of the Great Depression to unparalleled (and relatively evenly distributed) wealth. Americans were fully engaged in the war, their feelings of satisfaction and moral superiority reinforced by a deluge of propaganda, and it helped that nearly all of the destruction took place elsewhere.
Americans were so enthused by that "good war" that they invented a long "cold war" with their Soviet allies to sustain the high. The same liberals who led us through WWII architected the "cold war" but they lost their bearings, turning against labor abroad (and ultimately at home), allying with tyrants against democrats as well as socialists, trading in their anti-imperialism for visions of world hegemony, their commitment to human rights reduced to economic neoliberalism. During the early days "defense" was cited to justify everything from education programs to building interstate highways. So if you wanted to put an end to something, why not declare war on it?
One catch was that WWII set up a standard for absolute victory that proved impossible to maintain -- either in real wars like Korea and Vietnam, or in metaphorical wars like poverty and drugs, let alone in bizarre combinations like the "global war on terrorism." Another was that these wars, unlike WWII, weren't run by the sort of people who could make the nation feel united, nor the sort who could be depended on to treat a vanquished country right. This was basically why Peter Beinart argued that the "war on terror" could only be "won" if led by liberals, but liberals aren't actually much better, except inasmuch as they're reluctant to get involved. WWII looks good in retrospect less because the US occupation of Germany and Japan was competent and benign than because the former regimes had totally discredited themselves.
But another problem is that war isn't a good solution to much of anything. It is vastly destructive. It perpetuates cycles of hatred and revenge. But even the so-called victors, in the rare cases where there are any, are permanently stained and scarred by the experience. Nor are we only talking about physically and/or mentally maimed vets here. Many of those brought up on violence move to the right, toward parties that institutionalize privilege and order, readily projecting violence.
Of course, there have been instances of armed revolts against the rich: notably during the French and Russian Revolutions. Still, one wonders if either of those revolts would have been so violent had the anciens régimes not been so autocratic and so repressive themselves. Democratic systems are never so brittle: they bend rather than break, and in the past the US has accommodated several waves of anti-rich rhetoric without physical menace (unlike, say, civil rights advocates and labor organizers).
Indeed, take a look at actual program proposals to reduce inequality in the US. The most basic one is to restore or increase progressive income taxation. Do that alone, even at very high levels, and you may narrow the gap a bit, but you'll wind up with exactly the same 1% at the top. Increasing estate taxes might even legitimize the rich by making wealth correlate more with achievement than just fortuitous birthright: so that may shuffle the membership slightly, but there would still be a richest 1% -- just not quite as far out of whack as now. Changing laws and regulations on banking might also affect the composition of the top 1%. Same with intellectual property, which is really just a government-granted license to exorbitant rents. One might also seek to limit rent-seeking by enforcing or even extending antitrust laws -- one gain there would be more efficient markets.
Some of the things on that policy list were previously law before business interests started to effectively band their political power together to obtain special favors from the government. Others are new but not so far fetched, and should result in a healthier economy. On the other hand, I don't know of anyone who is seriously pushing for much more extreme measures, like massive expropriation of property, forced income levelling, or reassigning the children of the rich to random families to prevent them from having unearned advantages. Nor do I have the slightest sympathy for robbing the rich or vandalizing their property. Indeed, I worry that efforts to criminalize poverty will blow back against the relatively rich.
This actually gets to be a rather complicated question. It is easy to establish the facts of inequality, but much harder to understand what they mean. In particular, how does inequality translate into real differences for people? It turns out to be very easy to list many ways: money gets you more options for education and jobs; it cushions you against all sorts of economic hardships; it gets you better advice and therefore makes you more knowledgeable about how the world works, and how best to navigate it. Levelling incomes should make those ways more equal, but there is another approach: to offer services equitably regardless of income. If the costs of education were fully socialized, for instance, the rich would have no advantages over anyone else, nor the poor any disadvantages. Lots of things could work like that, and the more (and more important) that did, the less important it would be to equalize incomes.
So why don't the rich lobby for more social programs that equalize opportunity and such? Actually, they lobby hard for the opposite, and not just because they expect a payback in less taxes and therefore more take-home income. They want less social spending because they want the inequality they benefit from to be more valuable and more of an advantage. That's just one of many points where the wealth of the already rich increases at the expense of others -- overcharging rents, depressing the wage market, and outright theft are others. I suspect that the reason the superrich have gotten so defensive is that they sense they may really be in the wrong here.
Here's an example: Paul Krugman cites a Forbes report that the top 40 hedge fund managers in 2012 took home a combined $16.7 billion, which is to say about the same total income as 300,000 high school teachers. Now, teachers teach, and nearly everyone who has accomplished much of anything can point back to an inspirational teacher. (Even I can point back to a couple who inspired me to drop out of high school, but that's a diversionary story.) But what do hedge fund managers do? Well, they're very adept at finding the loose change that fell into cracks in your sofa, except that they work on bank accounts and they use a lot of leverage, so any loose change they find blows up into substantial amounts of money. They probably contribute some value to the economy in finding that loose change, but everything else is zero sum: they mostly move money from other bank accounts into their own. And they have enough political clout to get special tax treatment, so they wind up keeping more of it (minus their lobbying expenses, of course).
One thing you cannot conclude from this data is that there is any just relationship between what one does and how much one makes. You may decide it's not practical to try to regulate incomes, but if you have any desire to live in a society which considers itself fair, you need to do something to reduce the disparities between a socially useful and necessary job and one that is essentially useless but somehow pays 7,500 times as much. One thing you can do is to tax some of the excess away. The other is to reduce the practical advantages of the higher income. Neither approach has to get you all the way there. There will always be differences in how well various people manage their money, so no balancing act can be perfect. Nor need it be, since the intent is more to establish the sense that society and its economic system are basically fair -- i.e., that people don't have legitimate reasons to feel cheated. A schoolteacher may very well feel that intangible rewards of the job, such as the satisfaction of teaching others, may outweigh some difference in wages. But the more the practical difference, the harder that is to swallow.
One fair question is why billionaires have become so sensitive to affronts lately. There was, for instance, a flap a while back by Jamie Dimon complaining about something Obama had said -- odd, considering that Obama had allowed major bankers like Dimon to escape the meltdown unscathed, returning to profitability way ahead of the rest of the economy. Josh Marshall has a piece speculating on why:
It's rather painful for me to read anyone try to defend Obama as a progressive -- Paul Krugman, also responding to Kristallnacht Redux, takes his own shot at it here -- when the most you can say for Obama is that he's not yet prepared to ditch every achievement of the New Deal/Great Society democracy: he didn't even try to bring revenues back to pre-Bush levels, he made no effort to restore Carter-Glass, all he could come up with was Republican think tank proposals for health care and carbon dioxide limits and he couldn't get the latter passed, meanwhile he's let Republicans push him around on spending issues even at the cost of extending a recession, and I can go on and on. He hasn't moved a thing to the left, and doesn't even seem to be aware of that direction. It's only that the Republicans have exited stage right, complaining shrilly about all the distance between them.
Meanwhile, I still blame the cold war, when America allowed itself to become the world's standard bearer not for democracy or freedom but for capitalism. When the Soviet Union collapsed, following the Reagan "greed is good" decade, neoliberal hubris shot sky high, as did the neoconservative fantasy of the US as the world's sole hyperpower. Both delusions should have crashed during the Bush era, but the intellectual rout was so complete that they limp on as zombies, devouring the brains of politicians with remarkable ease.
This is much different from the 1930s when lots of people intuitively understood that capitalism had failed, or from the 1950s when communist economies appeared to be gaining. Under those conditions, enough of the upper class was willing to allow reforms to occur, bending and mending the system instead of letting it shatter. But since the 1980s the rich see no countervailing powers, no challenging ideas, nothing to stop them from running amok, and that's just what they've done. The political system in the US has become utterly corrupt, with the Republican party taking right-wing positions to ridiculous extremes -- unless stopped, they threaten to destroy the very idea of public interest, the basic idea of countervailing powers, even the notion that our system is based on a sense of justice. It's all very scary, the great irony being that the unfettered power of the rich is building a world much poorer not only for us but for them as well.
And what do they have to show for their concerns? Hackneyed historical analogies they don't begin to understand.