Monday, August 31. 2015
Music: Current count 25408  rated (+40), 429  unrated (+3).
Christgau makes a big point about never writing about an album until he is sure what he thinks about it, including a firm grade. I've never been so certain about anything, or at least about music, so I've always regarded my grades as provisional approximations. That doesn't mean that I don't take due diligence. I very rarely grade an album A- on one play, although I also rarely give a second play to a B+(*) to give it a chance to rise of fall a notch, or a B- to see how bad it really is. Still, it seems like the line between B+(***) and A- is unusually cloudy this week. The Barry Altschul album and a couple of the old Hat discs are pretty solid, but all the rest of the A- records are borderline. Some of the B+(***) come close, too -- in particular, it's tempting to bump up everything Ellery Eskelin does, while on the other hand, I rarely get excited enough by Paul Bley and/or Jimmy Giuffre.
I finished digging through the ECM records on MPE. They only go back to March (or maybe later, as the label's German and US release dates aren't always the same), so there are still some 2015 ECM releases I missed -- notably everyone's favorite, Jack De Johnette's Made in Chicago. Despite the "[dl]" notation below, everything I rated was based on streaming, and the user interface requires me to login again every time I finish an album, so there's a built-in bias against second plays. The only ECM record I downloaded was Elina Duni's, and I haven't tried burning a copy yet, but it struck me as something I'd be willing to do a little work to hear again. (She's an Albanian folk singer, but works with a first-rate Swiss jazz group, Colin Vallon's piano trio.) Falling just short of that are two other B+(***) albums by Gary Peacock and Stefano Battaglia -- good records, but not as exceptional.
Jerry Bergonzi's new record is probably the most borderline of all. I must have played it six, maybe as many as eight, times, and every time I was ready to file it as a high B+ I'd hear something special -- always from the tenor saxophonist. The problem is he get diluted with a second horn -- no knock on Phil Grenadier, whose trumpet sparkles throughout, but I prefer Bergonzi's trios and quartets, albums like Tenor Talk and Simply Put.
After Christgau declared Stuff Like That There Yo La Tengo's "loveliest album ever," I almost reflexively considered it an A-, but then I looked up Fakebook in my database and was reminded that I had only given it a B+(*) -- the best thing about their covers album was that it showed that they owned some of the same esoteric records I did. Aside from the Hank Williams, this new batch of covers is even more esoteric, sometimes a plus, sometimes not. And while it is lovely -- it reminded me of one of those later, hitless Everly Brothers albums -- much of the middle wasn't especially distinguished. But it ends on a song so good I started having second thoughts. Just didn't follow up on them.
Going into the week, it wasn't clear what I would do down in the old music section, but last week I had followed the new Gary Peacock album with an older Paul Bley duet, Partners -- a 4-star from the Penguin Guide list, and that got me to looking at what else Rhapsody had from Bley that I hadn't heard before. That's when I discovered that Rhapsody had added a sizable chunk of the Hatology (aka Hat Hut and Hat Art and Hat Now) catalogue. Hat was one of a handful of European labels that rescued avant-jazz in the late 1970s -- the only more important label, at least for American avant-gardists, was Black Saint/Soul Note (in Italy), with DIW (Japan) coming a bit later, and Leo (UK) and FMP (Germany) focusing more on European artists.
Checking back through my database, I had previously rated 72 Hat albums, and had another 109 in the "shopping" list. To give you a taste, all of the following are rated A- or higher ([A] so marked):
So that's 26 A/A- records, before I added six this week (plus one more after the cutoff, so next week). Possible I'm loosening up the curve: I'd expect the percentage of A-/A records to decline over time, having cherry-picked the best prospects early on. Indeed, it has: the legacy share is 36.1% (26/72), whereas this week's haul is down to 28.5% (6/21). I expect it will drop further as I keep tapping into this resource. By the way, I've run across a couple cases where cuts are missing. If that seems minor, I may just hedge, but Mal Waldron & Steve Lacy: Live at Dreher Paris 1981 was reduced from 4CD to three cuts (all takes of "Round Midnight"), so there's nothing a critic can do about that.
Also, I haven't found much here that predates the launch of the Hatology (or as they prefer to style it, "hatOLOGY") label. There are several weird things about Hat's business model. One is that they tout their releases as "limited editions" -- usually that means a run of 3000 units -- so their most popular titles tend to run out of print, while they periodically binge and put the rest on deeply discounted sales (I've picked up a lot of titles for $5 or less over the years). Currently Hatology is used both for new releases and reissues of out-of-print titles.
One pair of grades is worth breaking down. The two Joe McPhee discs are both solo, one coming in at A-, the other B-. As near as I can figure it, McPhee's 1976 album Tenor was his answer to Anthony Braxton's 1969 For Alto, an album often held to be brilliant as well as uncompromising -- Penguin Guide awarded it one of their crowns -- but which I've always found to be plug ugly (I gave it a D based on an LP I no longer own). Tenor takes the same approach and, given the larger horn, digs even deeper. If I were to revisit For Alto (and I do have the CD somewhere) I would probably bump it up some, but I found myself anxious for Tenor & Fallen Angels to end long before it did. On the other hand, As Serious as Your Life varies the instruments -- McPhee is also a superb trumpet player (actually, pocket cornet here), and will astonish you on crashing piano, and he adds some electronics to a couple cuts so he actually has a beat to bounce off, so it winds up being a very different album.
The Tony Coe album is another Penguin Guide 4-star that I found while looking for Hat releases -- he has a couple of them, a long association with Derek Bailey and/or Tony Oxley, an avant side far removed from his roots with Humphrey Lyttelton in Britain's trad jazz movement. Could be this swing album sounded even better as a break from all the avant-jazz. At any rate, I found it delightful.
One more thing to note: with the author's permission, I've revamped the Michael Tatum archive. Hopefully in the future we'll add some more old pieces, but for now it has all of the A Downloader's Diary columns (including his latest), all properly indexed, a total of 978 albums.
New records rated this week:
Recent reissues, compilations, and vault discoveries rated this week:
Old records rated this week:
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Sunday, August 30. 2015
I want to start with the text of a short speech that Laura Tillem gave at a demonstration at the office of Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Koch). It does a nice job of summarizing the basic points in favor of the Iran Deal, which Pompeo, in typically kneejerk fashion, opposes.
Of course, this is tailored a bit for the Wichita, Kansas audience. The appeal to "open-minded" and "independent" Republicans is partly because the Republicans have such a stranglehold on elective office in Kansas, but such people have been scarce since the Great 2010 Purge. Still, but Sens. Roberts and Moran embraced Obama's normalization efforts with Cuba (as well as his TPP nonsense), and both opposed Obama's request for authorization to use force against Syria (although they didn't object when Obama didn't ask, as in Libya or later in Syria once ISIS clouded the issue). On the other hand, Pompeo, like Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, never saw a war he didn't want to jump into (he's a West Point grad, has run aerospace and oil businesses, rushed to the head of the NSA fan club, and did yeoman service as one of the Republicans' Benghazi! clowns -- he's so intransigent he made Bill Kristol's dream list of "October Surprise" presidential candidates).
The case for supporting the Iran Deal is so overwhelming you have to question the sanity (and/or ethics) of anyone opposing it. Netanyahu opposes it, as far as I can discern, for three reasons: (1) because he is in principle opposed to anything that reduces the usefulness of a marketable enemy (Iran is the prime example, because Americans remain prejudiced against the people who overthrew their beloved Shah, and because Israeli leaders need foreign distractions to avoid talking about the Palestinians); (2) because the internal political dynamics of Israel favors right-wing leader who prove their toughness by never compromising with anyone (even though Israelis negotiated in private with the PLO pre-Oslo, when they refused to agree on a shape of a table for public meetings, and are reportedly negotiating in secret with Hamas now -- if/when such negotiations bear fruit, you can be sure that right-wing leaders like Netanyahu will condemn and undermine them); and (3) Netanyahu has made a personal ploy to bind his party to the Republicans in some sort of grand anti-Obama coalition, which thus far the Republicans are playing along with (among other things, this makes Netanyahu look to his homies like a big player in American politics, and encourages Americans to view Likud as the unified face of Israel). None of these reasons have to do with the effectiveness of the Deal at curbing the Iranian nuclear weapons threat, suggesting Netanyahu never took the threat seriously in the first place. (Gareth Porter wrote a whole book to that effect: Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare . Trita Parsi wrote an earlier  book, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States, on the relationship of Iran and Israel over time, pointing out that Israel discovered an existential threat in Iran not when the Ayatollahs came to power but when a new enemy was required after Iraq was disarmed in 1991.)
Obama, on the other hand, seems to have taken the Iranian threat seriously, inasmuch as he bothered to build a coalition with Russia and China that put serious teeth into sanctions, then used that leverage to negotiate a strictly verifiable Deal that ensures that Iranian nuclear technology cannot for many years, if indeed ever, be used to build nuclear weapons. Anyone who took the Iranian threat seriously should be delighted by the Deal, and anyone who isn't -- that is, anyone who claims the previous regime of harsh sanctions, clandestine warfare, and periodic threats of Israel and/or the US bombing select targets would be more effective than inspections based on official agreements -- cannot be taken seriously.
That means Netanyahu and his AIPAC cronies, and it also means the Republicans. The latter's rejection of the Deal is little more than an effort to tarnish one of Obama's signature accomplishments, built on the casual prejudice that Obama and the Democrats are intrinsically weak on security, and the even more casual assumption that Republicans, by snarling more, are tougher. (I won't bother demolishing this, in large part because I think Obama is already way too belligerent for the nation's good.) So most Republicans see this as a game, one they've been playing without much evident downside (forgetting Bush-Cheney), so they don't expect anyone to call them on their warmongering. On the other hand, it's interesting that they agreed to a process they cannot possibly win -- Obama only needs to sustain a veto, which can be done by the Democratic minorities in either house -- so no matter how much they rant and rave the deal will go through. And if, say, Ronald Reagan's demagogic attacks on Jimmy Carter's Panama Canal Deal in 1980 are any indication, they'll never act on what they're threatening now. (Indeed, even when Reagan's VP became president and invaded Panama, he didn't make any effort to renege on ceding the Canal to Panama.)
Still, the Republicans' hot air campaign isn't harmless. Nor should it be painless for them. Every Republican who votes against the Deal should have to account for their stance in the next elections. They should be painted as warmongers: a party that so loathes the idea of diplomacy that they'd rather shoot first, and a party that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, believes that a quick show of force is the answer to all of America's problems in the world. In particular, their opposition to the Iran Deal shows the hollowness of their now common regrets over the Iraq War -- one that was started by Bush in 2003 over the same "WMD" charges, where Bush not only refused to negotiate but insisted that UN inspectors, which had not shown any evidence that Iraq had the alleged WMD, stop their work. What Obama has done is diametrically opposite to what Bush did with Iraq. It very predictably ensures that: (1) Iran will not be able to develop nuclear weapons for the duration of the deal, well beyond 10 years; (2) Iran will continue to be ruled by a stable government, and will not collapse into chaos as Iraq has done; (3) America will not earn new legions of enemies due to attacking another country. In doing this deal, it's hard to see any real cost to the US. Maybe some US defense contractors might lose some Persian Gulf business if Iran seems to be less of a threat. And oil prices may dip as Iran's oil enters the world market. But is that the platform Republicans want to run on in 2016: more arms jobs and higher gas prices? You can see the attraction for someone like Pompeo, but how many Americans actually live in the pockets of the defense and oil industries? -- as compared to, say, how many only pay the bills?
(Lest you object that letting Iranian oil out into the world market would accelerate global warming, that's attacking the problem at the wrong end, with the wrong solution. Right now the main cause of cheap oil is conservation, and the main effect is to make particularly nasty oil, such as the Alberta Tar Sands, uneconomical.)
On the other hand, the cost of a war to topple and replace Iran's regime would run into trillions of dollars (first approximation: Iraq + Afghanistan + another 50%) -- given the GOP's tax lock that adds to a national debt they already deem insupportable (although they won't say that if there's a Republican deficit -- most of the run up came under Reagan and "deficits don't matter" Cheney). The side-effects of such a war are incalculable, but one is that it will validate the argument that the only defense against American/Israeli aggression is to develop nuclear deterrence. Republicans might try to argue that harsher sanctions would suffice to contain Iran, but the only example of such they can point to is nuclear-armed North Korea, probably the most dangerously deranged state in the world today (unless you count Israel and the US -- i.e., the countries which actually do attack other countries with no thought to the consequences).
The biggest problem I see with the deal is that it shows Obama and the Democrats to be not only smart and shrewd but rigorous and tough. The latter trait allows them to sell the deal on the grounds that it will be effective at ending a threat, burying the fact that Iran has never actually threatened to develop, let alone use, nuclear weapons. It allows the Democrats to continue portraying Iran as an international scourge, when in fact the balance of wrongs between the US and Iran is tilted the other way. And by continuing to demonize Iran, we give up opportunities to align with Iran to help stabilize the Middle East. Not that Iran's interests naturally align with America's, but mutual engagement might help both countries move towards peace, stability, democracy with respect for minority rights, open trade -- the sort of things that are mutually agreeable precisely because they are universally aspired to.
Monday, August 24. 2015
Music: Current count 25368  rated (+42), 426  unrated (+0).
Another big, busy week. Rhapsody Streamnotes came out on Wednesday, so some of this week's loot appeared there. I've added a Comments section to the archive file. The comments in question were scraped from emails from Facebook, mostly in response to a notice I posted. I don't know whether I'll do this as a regular feature. Depends mostly on whether I get feedback that adds to the long-term value of the piece: the clincher this time was Clifford Ocheltree's discography note on Huey "Piano" Smith. Other valuable points/tips are that the A-rated Irène Schweizer/Han Bennink album, Welcome Back, is on Bandcamp (as is about one-third of Intakt's catalog, including A- from this year: Schlippenbach Trio, Marilyn Crispell/Gerry Hemingway, Chico Freeman/Heiri Känzig, Christoph Irniger Trio, and Oliver Lake/William Parker -- looks like a "label of the year"), and that Phil Overeem's "Mid-August Top 50" list -- a big help for me recently -- can be found on his blog. (I've added his blog to my "Music" list on the left.)
Since then I've spread out in all directions. I complained some while back that Rhapsody got rid of their interface for browsing new releases in genres, but it turns out that they merely hid it -- no doubt, as they like to say, "to improve your experience." As I tweeted, I took a look at their new folk releases and picked out three, all rated B+(***) below: Bobby Bare Jr: Don't Follow Me (I'm Lost); Lindi Ortega: Gloryville; and Rod Picott: Fortune. I then turned to country but didn't do so well (Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, Shelby Lynne).
Another resource that offered some things to check out is Robert Christgau's new iteration of Expert Witness at Noisey. Unfortunately, the first two weeks haven't yielded anything that I've been tempted to A-list (Miguel came closest the first week, while I had dismissed Sam Smith with prejudice when the first hype appeared; Hop Along is just too idiosyncratic vocally, and I panned Go! Team when it came out, but I rather like Girlpool). Don't mean to complain, just noting a minor anomaly. I'd also like to plug We Are Nots over any of the girl-rock bands in the second column. And wonder when he'll get to Sleaford Mods? The new one is the third A- I've listed (with their singles comp just a notch lower). And the old ones are on Bandcamp, so you don't have to take my word (or wait for Bob's):
Another new resources is that I finally figured out how to use MPE Player to get recent ECM releases. They only go back a few months, so they don't have this year's early releases, including several I missed (Jack DeJohnette, Julia Hulsmann, Kenny Wheeler; I did manage to hear downloads, now lost, of Tim Berne, Jakob Bro, Vijay Iyer, and Chris Potter). Awkward interface, puts a premium on getting the record right the first pass, but does seem to have a download feature if I find anything worth hearing again. (The Gary Peacock Trio, with Marc Copland and Joey Baron, comes closest so far. PS: Tried downloading Elina Duni Quartet, which seems to have worked.)
The Miles Davis boxes were done in one pass. I might have given the Acrobat an A- if I had the actual box, but Rhapsody only made the first half available (as Volume 1) and doesn't offer the booklet. The selling point is that you're catching John Coltrane in transition from sideman to superstar, a moment of some historical value, but not as rewarding musically as the later recordings where he really made his mark. I haven't seen enough of Acrobat's boxes to have any real guess as to the documentation. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure that Legacy's documentation and packaging are first rate. And I've heard nearly all of the music there -- Rhapsody dropped a couple tracks from the first disc -- albeit only once. Of that, I'm quite certain that the second and third discs are really superb -- not that I'd pick them above the best live sets already available from the period (the various Plugged Nickel packages from 1965, Live-Evil and Dark Magus from 1970-73). The fourth disc is more marginal (more like the Fillmores). The first I'm less certain about: it has the most reissued material, mostly from Miles Davis at Newport 1958, which when it came out in 2001 I dismissed with a B. Sounded better than that this time, but not quite A-list. Again, that's just one play (with a break midway), but it's also not stuff I have to recondition my ears to grasp.
The old stuff this week is background to the new. I own a copy of Love and Peace but never got around to it, so I was particularly anxious to knock that off my todo list. The two disco albums and two live jazz albums could be described as varying degrees of competent. I'm still missing a well-regarded 1992 album, Keeping Tradition, but I've heard most of Bridgewater's later work, and it doesn't come close to the Silver set. Partners I had listed under Peacock -- a 4-star Penguin Guide record -- but careful inspection reveals Paul Bley gets top billing. I suppose I should go back and look through Bley's back catalog to see what I'm missing. I currently have 20 records graded, including his dazzling 1953 Introducing Paul Bley (with Mingus and Blakey), his 1958 Quintet (with Ornette Coleman), his 1965 ESP-Disk (Closer), and one more A-.
Still working on the long-promised update to Robert Christgau's website. Any day now.
New records rated this week:
Recent reissues, compilations, and vault discoveries rated this week:
Old records rated this week:
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Sunday, August 23. 2015
Some scattered links this week:
Also, a few links for further study:
Friday, August 21. 2015
Christian Appy: America's Hiroshima and Nagasaki 70 Years Later: On Aug. 6, 1945, the US obliterated the Japanese city of Hiroshima with a single bomb. Three days later they repeated that feat with Nagasaki, demonstrating that the "total war" that had been fought for the past six years (actually, longer in China) would turn much more destructive in the future. Japan surrendered a couple weeks later, pretty much on terms they had (too discreetly) proposed in the weeks before Hiroshima: clearer messages could have spared us all the ordeal of nuclear warfare (but then mutual respect and understanding might have spared us so much more). I know people who every year mark the anniversary of Hiroshima with vigils, not because they remember the 100,000+ victims there any different than the other 60 million lives the war took. They mark Hiroshima because the weapon the US introduced there still looms over us with its threat to instantly devastate life as we know it. And they mark it because our own nation -- not the only one to possess such weapons but the only one to have actually used them on an "enemy" people -- has still not demonstrated the maturity and modesty necessary to put the age of nuclear terror behind us. Two pieces of evidence here: one is that the US, despite having negotiated a deal (the NPT) where the world's nuclear powers promise to dismantle their arsenals in exchange for the rest of the world pledging to never develop such weapons, continues to build new bombs and formulate war plans assuming their use; the other is that the US has engaged in conventional and guerrilla warfare almost continuously since WWII ended, using its nuclear weapons as an umbrella for an empire of bases that girdle the world, allowing the US to poke its nose into nearly every country around the world (and shun the few -- at least the little ones -- that deny its hegemony). Or maybe the second is just the reason and effect of the first. Another way to phrase the second is that the US has repeatedly failed to support international efforts to resolve conflicts (especially its own) without resorting to war. So where many thought the advent of nuclear weapons would make further wars unthinkable, American defense mandarins not only embraced the horror -- the classic is Herman Kahn's Thinking About the Unthinkable -- but have resuscitated the concept of limited war and applied it repeatedly (even though they've virtually never achieved their stated goals).
I understand and appreciate anti-nuclear protesters, especially in the 1960s (which led to the Test Ban Treaty and the NPT) and in the 1980s (which led to several arms reduction treaties between the US and USSR). I also fully appreciate that Japan would have surrendered in 1945 regardless of whether the US bombed Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Nonetheless, those bombings don't bother me more than the rest of the war. I feel that it was inevitable that the bombs would be used once developed, and the end of WWII was as appropriate as any time could be: they were the icing on the cake, as if the fire-bombings of Dresden and Tokyo weren't enough, or the German death camps, or the Rape of Nanking, or the starvation of Bengals far from the fighting lines. They remind us, among other things, that by the end of the war the US had descended to the barbarity of its enemies -- that indeed the real enemy was war, and that it had morally crippled those it didn't kill outright. That realization gave rise to the UN as a forum for preventing future wars -- a failure nearly from the start, but at least the fear of another Hiroshima many times over, of what came to be called MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), forced powers with no good will whatsoever to pull back from brinksmanship. Arguably, nuclear deterrence also thwarted a fourth India-Pakistan war in 2002, and has kept Israel safe from attack since 1973 -- no Arab nation even thinks of such a thing, even though Israel continues to strike Syria whenever it feels like it. I think it's fair to say deterrence works, but also that its driving force is fear, the effect of which is to preserve and nurture hostility or worse: our so-called "limited wars."
Appy does a good job of reviewing Truman's "decision" to bomb Hiroshima:
Appy also writes about changing American attitudes to Hiroshima, which most recently appear to have hardened. For example, he writes about Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 bestseller, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption:
Also see Susan Southard: Entering the Nuclear Age, Body by Body, on the bombing of Nagasaki -- adapted from her new book, Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War. The second bomb has been much less documented than the first -- Southard seems to be aiming for a belated companion to John Hersey's first-on-the-scene reporting in Hiroshima. Lest you forget the immediate experience:
The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were simple kiloton-range devices. The fusion-powered bombs first tested in the early 1950s were as much as a thousand times more powerful. J. Robert Oppenheimer famously argued against developing fusion bombs because the real-world targets were too small. Edward Teller was able to convince the US military not only to go ahead but to strip Oppenheimer of his security clearance, excluding him from future influence. With hawks like Teller clearing out all possible opposition, it shouldn't be surprising that virtually every proposal of a pre-emptive nuclear strike came from the US. Until the Soviet Union developed its own bomb, many hard-core anti-communists agitated for "preventive war." When American efforts in Korea stalled and Vietnam went from bad to worse, many hawks saw nukes as a way to snatch victory from defeat. Nixon's version of this was what he called his "Madman Strategy": the idea was to convince the Soviets that he was so crazed he'd risk destroying the world to avoid losing Vietnam. By the 1980s, Andropov was so unnerved by America's "first strike" threats that the Soviets almost started a nuclear war by accident. Even recently, the US was promoting the idea of nuclear bombs as "bunker busters" to "take out" deeply buried infrastructure in Iran and North Korea. In fact, every time an American politician makes a point about "not taking options off the table," the world hears a threat to use nuclear weapons. No wonder the US is so flustered by Iran: every time we look at them, we see a mirror image of the US. (Israel, of course, has the same problem.)
Tuesday, August 18. 2015
My trip to the northwest pushed July's compilation all the way to the end of the month, but I've been knocking down records at a furious clip this August. Still, this is only average length for this year, where I've only done one Rhapsody Streamnotes per month, usually close to the middle. I suppose I could have waited another week and come up with something ridiculous. But I hit a logical endpoint in the "old music" section and I'm looking forward to doing something different there in the future. (Not that I know what.)
The "old music" section is mostly the result of my attempt to fill in the gaps in Spin's Top 300 Albums of 1985-2014. When that list was published on May 11, I copied it down, noted my grades, and discovered that I hadn't heard 81 of those 300 records (27%). Not a big surprise. There's a generation gap between me and the younger critics who picked the list -- I know 1970s rock pretty well, but didn't review records during much of this period (1980-2003), so I had no reason to pay attention to things I wasn't likely to like. And while I like alt/indie much more than metal, say, I don't like it enough to write for Spin. (For diversity, Spin likes, and does a pretty decent job of covering, hip-hop -- 19.6% of their list -- but my tastes there are more underground, and I missed a lot of the 1990s gangsta bubble they're so fond of. Their EDM is about as spotty as mine -- making it hard to intersect -- and they only listed three country albums, one Africa comp, and no jazz.)
On the other hand, since I got onto Rhapsody -- 2007 was when I started taking notes -- it's been more tempting (or at least cost-effective) to check out records other people like even when I'm pretty doubtful I'll like them myself. For instance, I wound up hearing 47 of the top 50 finishers in last year's EOY Aggregate (OK, only 42 of the next 50, 38 of the third 50, and with interest really starting to wane, 20 of the fourth -- although I later caught up with U2 and Fred Hersch). So the Spin list offered a form for working backward. Along the way, I picked up other records of likely interest by artists placing a record on the list. For instance, Green Day's American Idiot made the list, but Christgau had much preferred their previous album, Warning (A- to C+), so it didn't make sense to hit one without checking out the other. On the other hand I didn't bother rechecking records I had previously rated -- in Green Day's case, Dookie (also on Spin's list) and Insomniac (not on the list). In those cases, for your convenience, I listed my previous grades at the bottom.
Of course, not every artist got the same treatment. I checked out an extra album for Aerosmith, M83 and Cursive and found that was more than enough. And I didn't feel like exploring Tori Amos or Killers at all. Of course, not everything was available on Rhapsody. I wound up with 10 records still missing (3.3%). I've heard that most of those are available on YouTube, but haven't tried chasing them down yet. (I did go to YouTube to find the Nots album, and I noticed a lot of unheard Ty Segall there -- Memphis artists. Segall's Manipulator was number 25 on last year's EOY Aggregate list.)
Since then I've added a few more "old music" artists, a side trip from listening to their new albums: Kurt Elling, Alan Jackson, the Sonics, Tamikrest. The new stuff is relatively straightforward, although I should note again that one exceptional source of leads was Phil Overeem's "Top 50 of 2015 (So Far)" list (posted on Facebook, so no link), pointing me toward 79rs Gang, Dead Moon, Mdou Moctar and Nots among the A-list, and several more high B+s. Only three records came from my jazz queue (Adair/Aliquo, ElSaffar, and the magnificent Schweizer/Bennink disc) -- I had to chase James Brandon Lewis, and for that matter, Miles Davis, down on Rhapsody. Both Davis boxes, by the way, are incomplete on Rhapsody -- the Acrobat is only half there, the Sony just missing a couple cuts. I felt I had heard enough (in one pass) to offer a fair grade, but I would much rather had heard it all. (I do, by the way, never grade something I haven't listened to all the tracks I can hear.) In both Davis reviews I take pains to explain my limits. My hedge on the Acrobat box was to pick the lower of the two most likely grades. It could be that the missing material will nudge it over the A- cusp. Also possible that doc and multiple plays might make the difference, but that's pure speculation.
Most of 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 July 29. Past reviews and more information are available here (6797 records).
79rs Gang: Fire on the Bayou (2015, Sinking City/Urban Unrest): Big Chief Romeo Bougere of the 9th Ward Hunters and Big Chief Jermaine Bossier of the 7th Ward Creole Hunters team up to form the Soixante Dix Neufleurs Bande, aka 79rs Gang. A throwback to the great New Orleans Indian bands of the 1970s, though the beats are sharper and tenser, the jungle denser, the struggle harder. A-
Beegie Adair/Don Aliquo: Too Marvelous for Words (2015, Adair Music Group): Piano and tenor sax quartet from Nashville, backed by Roger Spencer on bass and Chris Brown on drums. I hadn't run into Adair before, but AMG credits her with 48 albums since 1997 -- admittedly a rather cheesy list with lots of standards and tributes, piano music for special occasions (not just Xmas but Mother's Day), a Cocktail Jazz Party and Beautiful Ballads. She goes for standards here, especially Strayhorn with a dash of Monk. I am familiar with Aliquo, a mainstream tenor who really shines on the ballads. Perhaps too easy, but they earn their title. A- [cd]
Alessio Alberghini/Garrison Fewell: Inverso (2014 , Floating Forest): Duets, Fewell plays guitar, Alberghini mostly soprano sax, sometimes baritone. Originals plus two pieces by John Tchicai. Nice, intimate, "little gem" is the phrase from the liner notes. B+(**) [cd]
Gregg Allman: Gregg Allman Live: Back to Macon, GA (2014 , Rounder): Like Elvin Bishop, Allman realizes that the long-term career strategy for southern rockers is to revert to the blues, so he starts off here with Blind Willie McTell and works his way through Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and Elmore James, also Ray Charles and Wilson Pickett, working in a few ravers from his old band. Saxophonist Jay Collins always hits the spot. B+(***)
Takeshi Asai: French Trio Vol. 2 (2014 , De Trois Cités): Pianist, based in New York, only bio I've seen (AAJ) gives his birth date as 1864 (presumably a typo on '8') but doesn't mention where. He has a couple New York Trio records, but also likes France, and Pascal Combeau (bass) and Maxime Legrand (drums) show why. B+(**) [cd]
Baltazanis: End of Seas (2015, self-released): Guitarist, first name Costas, has previously recorded in the group Iasis. This is a postbop quintet (trumpet, keyboards, bass, drums) plus guests) which favors a steady groove. B+(*) [cd]
Bastet: Eye of Ra (2015, self-released): Cat-headed Egyptian goddess, something I know because my sister had a black cat she named Bastet. This one is a San Francisco-based quartet where guitarist Justin Rock writes the songs, backed by sax, bass, and drums -- a little more postbop than fusion, a lot more guitar than sax. B [cd]
Louie Belogenis: Blue Buddha (2015, Tzadik): Tenor saxophonist, credits go back to 1993 with groups God Is My Co-Pilot and Prima Materia, but not much under his own name -- indeed, looked like this was an eponymous group album until I found his name on the spine, and I can't be sure of that. Quartet, with Dave Douglas on trumpet, Bill Laswell on bass, and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. B+(***) [cdr]
Karl Berger/Kirk Knuffke: Moon (2013-14 , NoBusiness, 2CD): Duets, Knuffke on cornet, the 80-year-old German best known on vibraphone but he's also a remarkable pianist. Runs long, and not a lot of sparks, but gaps of age and continent give way to shared dreams (old and new). B+(**) [cd]
Luciano Biondini: Senza Fine (2014 , Intakt): Accordion player, from Italy, AMG credits him with eight records, I've run across him on a couple of Rabih Abou-Khalil's discs. This one is solo, but his instrument is so rich harmonically the set escapes the spareness of so many solo sets. B+(*) [cd]
Michael Blum/Jim Stinnett: Commitment (2015, self-released): Guitar and bass, plus a couple others (Brad Smith on piano, Fred Haas on tenor sax, Grant Stinnett one track on bass guitar) here and there. I wasn't sure why Stinnett got cover billing, but he contributed three (of ten) songs, two more than Blum, who plays tasteful guitar and sings several standards ("Pick Yourself Up," How Deep Is the Ocean") with awkward charm. B+(*) [cd]
Don Braden: Luminosity (2010-14 , Creative Perspective Music): A fine mainstream tenor saxophonist with 18 albums since 1991. Credit here refers to his Organix Quartet, with Dave Stryker (guitar), Kyle Koehler (organ), and Cecil Brooks III (drums), with Claudio Roditi and Sherman Irby listed as special guests (one track each). Sumptuous soul jazz, but too much flute. B+(*) [cd]
The Dan Brubeck Quartet: Celebrating the Music and Lyrics of Dave & Iola Brubeck (2013 , Blue Forest, 2CD): Five of Dave & Iola Brubeck's six children became professional musicians, Dan playing drums. Iola was a jazz lyricist before she married Dave in 1942, and they both lived together into their nineties, so there's something especially sweet about this project, with its thick booklet and many pictures. Dan's quartet is modeled on dad's, with Steve Kaldestad on tenor sax, Tony Foster on piano, and Adam Thomas on bass -- Thomas also sings the lyrics that figure largely (although not exhaustively) here. B+(***) [cd]
Casa: Futuro (2012 , Clean Feed): Avant-sax trio: Pedro Sausa on sax, Johan Berthling on bass, Gabriel Ferrandini on drums. Has some strong moments, but doesn't sustain them. B [cd]
Kasey Chambers: Bittersweet (2015, Sugar Hill): Australian singer-songwriter, emerged in 2000 with a voice that rivaled anyone in Nashville. She married Shane Nicholson in 2008 and has a couple duet albums with him, but this is her first solo since divorce. Still, not much of a breakup album, not that the title cut -- a duet with Bernard Fanning -- doesn't try. Does end on an up note with "I'm Alive." B
Greg Cohen: Golden State (2014, Relative Pitch): Bassist, has only a handful of albums under his own name but has appeared on many dozens more, equally home in trad jazz (Marty Grosz), in avant-garde (John Zorn, Ornette Coleman), and with the occasional rock star (Tom Waits, Lou Reed). This is a duo album with guitarist Bill Frisell doing his impressionist folkie thing on a set of venerable California-themed chestnuts. B+(**)
Jay Collins and the Kings County Band: Rivers Blues and Other People (2012, Sundown): Tenor saxophonist for Gregg Allman and Levon Helm, who appreciate his blues honk, Collins has an early (1994) jazz album with Kenny Barron, Joe Locke, Rufus Reid and Ben Riley I'd like to hear someday, but here he's moved into a blues format. Presumably he's the singer -- I don't see a credits list, but he's still got some jazz guys in the band (Dred Scott, anyway). B+(***)
The Coneheads: L.P. 1 (2015, Erste Theke Tonträger, EP): Title runs on: Aka 14 Year Old High School PC-Fascist Hype Lords Rip Off Devo For The Sake Of Extorting $$$ From Helpless Impressionable Midwestern Internet Peoplepunks L.P.. Punk band from Indiana, I don't know that they aren't 14 but they're old enough to know from Devo. Discogs lists five other albums, all self-released cassettes since 2014. This has 15 songs, two of them covers (Residents' "Lizard Lady" and Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer"), runs 21:11 with a slow fade at the end. B+(***) [bc]
The Convergence Quartet: Owl Jacket (2013 , NoBusiness): Avant-jazz group -- Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet), Andrew Hawkins (piano), Dominic Lash (bass), Harris Eisenstadt (drums) -- has a couple good records together. Hawkins continues to impress in this group, but the cornet seems less out there. B+(**) [cdr]
Easton Corbin: About to Get Real (2015, Mercury Nashville): Country singer, more/less neo-trad, third album. One thing that strikes me, looking at Wikipedia, is that while his three albums have peaked on the country charts higher (4-2-1) sales have hit the skids (371-177-29, in thousands). I've heard sales in general have slacked off, but not that much. B
Linda Dachtyl: A Late One (2015, Chicken Coup/Summit): Organ player, third album since 2006, with Don Hales on guitar and Cary Dachtyl on drums, plus various guest slots for sax and/or brass. Two originals, most of the rest from early bop sources (Dameron, Monk, Silver) but swung pretty hard -- one tune's "A Tribute to Cozy Cole," and another has a croonerish vocal. B+(**) [cd]
Doomtree: All Hands (2015, Doomtree): Minneapolis hip-hop crew -- includes solo artists I've heard: P.O.S., Dessa, Sims, plus four more I don't know -- sixth group album. Lots going on here -- maybe too much, plus the synths can get busy and they try to slam everything down. B+(***)
Benjamin Duboc/Jean-Luc Petit: Double-Basse: This Is Not Art (2013 , Clean Feed): Double-bass duets, most often one plucked, the other bowed, the latter offering deep moans as a backdrop to random rhythm. B+(*) [cd]
Kurt Elling: Passion World (2015, Concord): Jazz singer, a dozen albums since 1995, used to be an impressive dervish of fancy technique, which isn't to say better, but this is rather plodding. C
Amir ElSaffar: Crisis (2015, Pi): Trumpet player, originally from Iraq, named his 2007 album Two Rivers and calls his group Two Rivers Ensemble -- more appropriate than ever as he figures out more ways to integrate Arabic motifs into his music. The superb jazz rhythm section of Carlo DeRosa (bass) and Nasheet Waits (drums) is matched by Tareq Abboushi (buzuqi) and Zafer Tawil (oud, percussion), and ElSaffar sings three pieces. Ole Mathisen's sax complements his trumpet, which has advanced to a new plane. A- [cd]
Field Music: Music for Drifters (2015, Memphis Industries): Fifth album, this one written as a soundtrack to a 1929 documentary (John Grierson's Drifters), dispenses with vocals and plays more like a series of jazz set pieces, a bit regular but more hypnotic for that. B+(**)
Nick Finzer: The Chase (2014 , Origin): Trombonist, second album, leads a sextet with Lucas Pino on sax, Alex Wintz on guitar, Glenn Zaleski on piano, plus bass and drums. All originals, postbop, nice to hear the deep leads but nobody gets dirty. B+(*) [cd]
Future: DS2 (2015, Epic): Rapper Nayvadius Cash, third album, title short for Dirty Sprite 2. B+(***)
Laszlo Gardony: Life in Real Time (2014 , Sunnyside): Pianist, originally from Hungary, has a dozen albums since 1986, most trios but this time he unleashes the saxophones: Don Braden, Bill Pierce, and Stan Strickland (all tenor, with Strickland also playing bass clarinet), and they create all sorts of excitement. B+(***) [cd]
Mary Halvorson: Meltframe (2014 , Firehouse 12): Guitarist, one of several impressive musicians to study under Anthony Braxton at Wesleyan, has been very prolific since 2005 -- AMG lists 20 albums, Discogs 19. This is solo, ten pieces written by other jazz musicians, Ellington and (maybe) Coleman the only standards. Shows off many of her favorite tricks, and when she gets noisy and dissonant you don't miss anyone else. B+(***) [cd]
Lafayette Harris, Jr. Trio: Bend to the Light (2011 , Airmen): Mainstream pianist, seven albums since 1973, this a sparkling trio with Lonnie Plaxico and Willie Jones III (also "help" on percussion by Thomas Dyani, and uncredited scat by Jazzmeia Horn. B+(**) [cd]
Albert "Tootie" Heath/Ethan Iverson/Ben Street: Philadelphia Beat (2014 , Sunnyside): Brother of Jimmy and Percy Heath, the drummer's discography goes back to 1957 (Red Garland, John Coltrane, Nina Simone) and runs on for hundreds of records since then, but before 2013 he only had two albums under his own name. Second album with this piano trio, all standards. Nice to spotlight the drummer, although Iverson offers the surprises. B+(**)
Bret Higgins: Bret Higgins' Atlas Revolt (2015, Tzadik): Bassist, from Canada, first record, leads a quintet with electric guitar (Tom Juhas), violin, keyboards, and drums. They keep a groove going, a touch of klezmer in the violin, but mostly opens up for the guitar. B+(**) [cdr]
Paul Hubweber/Frank Paul Schubert/Alexander von Schlippenbach/Clayton Thomas/Willi Kellers: Intricacies (2014 , NoBusiness, 2CD): Trombone, alto/soprano sax, piano, bass, drums, respectively, mostly German. I had never heard of Hubweber before, but he seems to be a fairly major figure in the German avant-garde: Discogs credits him with 15 albums since 1998, but his Wikipedia page (in German) lists 37 albums going back to a solo, Aus meiner Sicht, in 1976. Two long improvs (49:39 and 44:40) plus a 14:34 encore. Focus on the pianist, who most likely you have heard of. B+(***) [cd]
Alan Jackson: Angels and Alcohol (2015, Capitol Nashville): Sixteen albums in, the neo-traditionalist sounds most like himself. If this seems easier than most of his albums, like he's aging comfortably, that's probably because he knows he's got a good bunch of songs. A-
Jar-e: Chicas Malas (2009, Exotic): In the new records queue for six years now -- can't even find a hype sheet. Jar-e sings (male) and plays keyboards and trombone, band includes guitar-bass-drums, some horns, and background singers (female). Third album, recorded after he moved from North Carolina to Mexico. Basically southern rock, ulta-lightweight division. B- [cd]
Stefan Keune/Dominic Lash/Steve Noble: Fractions (2013 , NoBusiness): German saxophonist, sopranino and tenor here (alto elsewhere), ten or so albums since 1992, backed by bass and drums. Free improv, fast and furious, although the sopranino tends to be a bit squeaky. B+(***) [cdr]
Lama + Joachim Badenhorst: The Elephant's Journey (2015, Clean Feed): Lama is a mostly Portuguese trio led by bassist (and composer) Gonçalo Almeida, with Susana Santos Silva on trumpet and Greg Smith on drums. Here they add a clarinet -- gives them some color contrast but doesn't perk up the group much. B+(*) [cd]
Gaetano Letizia/Mike Clark/Wilbur Krebs: Froggy & the Toads (2015, self-released): Guitar-drums-bass trio, the leader originally from Naples, plays in blues and fusion groups, this trio somewhere in between, maintaining a groove while adding something more. B+(**) [cd]
Daniel Levin Quartet: Friction (2015, Clean Feed): Avant-cellist, ten albums since 2003, this a quartet with Nate Wooley (trumpet), Matt Moran (vibes), and Torbjorn Zetterburg (bass). Has a couple moments when they all get moving, but also bogs down a lot. B [cd]
James Brandon Lewis: Days of FreeMan (2015, Okeh): Tenor saxophonist, born in Buffalo, went into gospel before jazz, self-released an album in 2011 and got his second picked up by Sony when they relaunched the Okeh label. Third album, a sax trio with Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Rudy Royston, although he's mixed in some vocal bits, which may (or may not) have anything to do with the hip-hop the hype sheet says he's been studying. The horn, however, rings clear. A-
Lil Wayne: The Free Weezy Album (2015, Young Money/Republic): A good-will gesture, I suppose, dumped on the web after Wayne sued Birdman and Cash Money over the delay/non-release of Tha Carter V (although Sorry for the Wait 2 came out first). His post-jail albums have lost something -- nothing in technique so much as that swagger that elevated rather mundane ideas (mostly "fuck bitches/make money") into a transcendent joke. Obviously, he can still crank this shit out by the truckload. B+(*) [dl]
Frantz Loriot/Manuel Perovic Notebook Large Ensemble: Urban Furrow (2014 , Clean Feed): The leaders composed this, with Loriot playing viola and Perovic conducting. The group itself isn't that large -- I count nine pieces, including Loriot (but not Perovic): two reed players (tenor and alto sax, but also bass clarinet and bassoon), two brass, guitar, cello, bass, drums. I don't know what to make of the bit of vocal, but the ensemble work is powerful. B+(**) [cd]
Shai Maestro Trio: Untold Stories (2014 , Motema): Israeli pianist, third album, recorded in Brooklyn and France, backed by Jorge Roeder (bass) and Ziv Ravitz (drums). B+(*) [cd]
Nick Mazzarella Trio: Ultraviolet (2015, International Anthem): Alto saxophonist from Chicago, with Anton Hatwich (bass) and Frank Rosaly (drums), has several previous albums plus tenure in the Chicago Reed Quartet. B+(***)
Miguel: Wildheart (2015, RCA): Neo-soul singer from Southern California, surname Pimentel, third album, built with thick, loopy layers of chorus, occasionally punctured by an unexpected "fuck." I could see losing oneself in the swim, but I don't relish drowning, even if that's someone's idea of heaven. Does end on two exceptional pieces, both (wtf?) "feat. Lenny Kravitz" (guitar, I guess). Easy to underrate. Easy to overrate, too. B+(***)
Mdou Moctar: Afelan (2013, Sahel Sounds): Tuareg guitarist from Niger, one of those Saharan rockers although this keeps its groove on a fairly even keel. B+(*) [bc]
Mdou Moctar: Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai [Original Soundtrack Recording] (2015, Sahel Sounds): English title of the film is Rain the Color of Blue With a Little Red in It, about a Tuareg musician, which is exactly what Moctar is. None of the usual soundtrack pitfalls, just lots of guitar, some chant vocals, and that Saharan beat that's as accessible as the blues. A- [bc]
Mount Eerie: Sauna (2015, PW Elverum & Sun): Lo-fi singer-songwriter Peter Elverum, started out as the Microphones in 1999, has more than a dozen albums since 2004, when he adopted this more appropriate moniker -- AMG describes his albums as "massive and mysterious." Dirges built on drone (or organ), tarted up with background voices. B-
Larry Newcomb Quartet: Live Intentionally! (2015, Essential Messenger): Guitarist, I don't see any previous albums, but Bucky Pizzarelli seems to like him. Three originals, the rest standards and jazz tunes from Charlie Parker and Carla Bley. Eric Olsen plays a lively piano, and everyone swings. B+(*) [cd]
Nots: We Are Nots (2014, Goner): "Weird punk" band from Memphis, originally guitarist Natalie Hoffmann and drummer Charlotte Watson before adding bass and keyboards. Eleven songs, only runs 26:28. Not sure I caught any of the words, but Hoffmann has a unique guitar sound ("reverb-soaked noise bursting forth like shards of aural shrapnel") and they build up an impressive sonic wall. A- [dl]
Obnox: Know America (2015, Ever/Never): Lamont Thomas, from Cleveland, fifth album under this moniker since 2011, has bounced around through various other bands (Unholy Two, Puffy Areolas, Bassholes, and the only one I've heard of, This Moment in Black History -- look for their 2006 album, It Takes a Nation of Assholes to Hold Us Back). A synthesis of surrealism and noise rock, seems promising as it wears you down. B+(*) [bc]
Oceaán: The Grip (2014, B3SCI, EP): Electronica, approximately trip-hop, from Oliver Cean (Brussels-born, Manchester-based), four songs, 15:15. B+(*)
César Orozco & Kamarata Jazz: No Limits for Tumbao (2015, Alfi): Piano/keyboard player, born in Cuba but also identifies as Venezuelan, group a quartet with bass, percussion, and drums, to which the album adds many featured guests and a few surprising turns, like Linda Briceño's vocal on "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square." Orozco argues that tumbao is as pervasive as swing was for Ellington. B+(**) [cd]
Matt Panayides: Conduits (2014 , Pacific Coast Jazz): Guitarist, second album, tone and lines put him in the Montgomery mainstream of jazz guitar. Quartet: Rich Perry's tenor sax helps out but doesn't threaten to steal the show. B+(*)
Evan Parker/Joe Morris/Nate Wooley: Ninth Square (2014 , Clean Feed): Sax-guitar-trumpet improv, live from Firehouse 12, the guitarist at his most prickly, which brings out the same when Parker switches from tenor to soprano. The trumpeter manages to get himself into all sorts of interesting avant mixes, but doesn't add much. B+(**) [cd]
Simon Phillips: Protocol III (2015, Phantom): British drummer, started out in trad jazz bands, but has run the table doing jazz, classical, and rock (Big Country, Judas Priest, Toto). This is your basic fusion quartet, with Andy Timmons (guitar), Ernest Tibbs (electric bass), and Steve Weingart (keyboards), all with long resumes (not that I didn't have to look them up). B [cd]
Howard Riley: 10.11.12 (2012 , NoBusiness): No sound (someone screwed up), no grade. [cdr]
Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique: Love Is Free (2015, Konichiwa/Cherrytree/Interscope, EP): The Swedish pop-disco diva, keyboardist Markus Jägerstedt, and the late Christian Falk (1962-2014, best known as a producer). Four originals, an Arthur Russell cover, total 20:50. One terrific dance piece after another. Wish there were more. A-
Jason Roebke: Every Sunday (2014 , Clean Feed): Avant-bassist, from Chicago, has appeared on 40+ albums since 1997, several under his own name. This is one of those bass-guitar-drums trios where the normally louder guitar (Matthew Schneider) is held down to play around the bass. Drummer Marcus Evans does leave marks. B+(**) [cd]
Robert Sabin: Humanity Part II (2014 , Ranula Music): Bassist, wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Gary Peacock. Third record, originals except for the title piece by Morricone, arranged for ten pieces -- five brass, two saxes, guitar-bass-drums. B+(***) [cd]
Irène Schweizer/Han Bennink: Welcome Back (2015, Intakt): Piano-drum duo, both should be household names by now, and indeed the Dutch percussionist is one of the very few Europeans to make Downbeat Hall of Fame ballot. On the other hand, I've had to write in the name of the Swiss pianist the last few years -- this year ahead of Myra Melford and Marilyn Crispell, who are similar players only in the sense that anyone can be described as similar to Cecil Taylor; Schweizer comes as close as anyone to matching Taylor, but she can also work in some boogie woogie or pennywhistle jive, and closes here with a bit of Monk that evokes "Lullaby of Birdland." In the late 1980s Schweizer started a series of duos with top avant drummers (Louis Moholo was the first, followed by Gunter Sommer and Andrew Cyrille). The best was her 1995 meeting with Bennink (although I also have the 1990 Pierre Favre at A). This return engagement belongs alongside. A [cd]
Songhoy Blues: Music in Exile (2015, Atlantic): The group members fled war-torn north Mali for Bamako, and have kept on moving, finding a welcome for their desert blues/Saharan rock in the west. Produced by a guitarist in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, this seems a bit slowed down and bulked up compared to their numerous competitors. On the other hand, that may make them a bit more accessible. A-
The Sonics: This Is the Sonics (2015, Revox): Garage rock band from Tacoma led by Gerry Roslie, had a hitless run in the late 1960s, regrouped in 1972 and 1980 and 2007, putting out some live albums but this is their first studio joint in many decades. Still hard, fast, loud, ramshackle, and Rob Lind is still on sax. Fewer obvious covers, and they can't quite write them like they steal 'em. B+(***)
Vince Staples: Summertime '06 (2015, Def Jam, 2CD): West coast rapper, came up in a group called the Cutthroat Boyz, released a much-admired EP last year (Hell Can Wait), intends to make a big splash with his studio debut (split into two discs, but total time just 59:07). B+(***)
Grant Stewart: Trio (2014 , Cellar Live): Mainstream tenor saxophonist, recorded three albums 1992-99 then picked up the pace since 2005. I think of him as the kind of guy who usually has a piano on hand, but this time it's just bass (Paul Sikivie) and drums (Philip Stewart). B+(**)
Swervedriver: I Wasn't Born to Lose You (2015, Cobraside): British band, filed with shoegaze for their guitar echo, released four albums 1991-98, broke up, regrouped a decade later, but only now do they have a new album. Much like the old sound, maybe a bit heavier, as happens, a bit more obscure too. B
Tamikrest: Taksera (2015, Glitterbeat): Tuaregs from Mali, fourth record, "live" which may make it redundant as it certainly doesn't kick out the jams. B+(**)
Brianna Thomas: You Must Believe in Love (2013 , Sound on Purpose): Singer-songwriter, debut album, wrote four originals to go with seven standards, lined up some guests to go with Allyn Johnson's piano trio -- trombonist Wycliffe Gordon made the biggest impression on me. Will Friedwald and Bill Clinton are fans. B+(*) [cd]
Helen Tzatzimakis: Soulfully (2014 , Cobalt Music): Pianist-singer, from Greece, has at least one previous album (also a book of poetry), mistakes sadness for soul, gloom too -- quotes Brecht, "In the dark times/Will there also be singing?/Yes, there will also be singing/about the dark times." Most appealing when I can't make out the words -- not just not "Crazy," but not "Ne Me Quitte Pas" either. On the other hand, Marianne Faithfull's "So Sad" does her justice, or vice versa. B+(*) [cd]
Bill Warfield and the Hell's Kitchen Funk Orchestra: Mercy Mercy Mercy (2015, Blujazz): Trumpet player, has led big bands since 1988 (at least). Shows funk is just another twist on swing. B+(*) [cd]
Brad Allen Williams: Lamar (2012-13 , Sojourn): Guitarist, UNT grad, first album, trio with Pat Bianchi on organ and Tyshawn Sorey on drums, nice soul jazz groove, nothing that hasn't been done dozens of times. B+(*) [cd]
Mark Winkler: Jazz and Other Four Letter Words (2015, Cafe Pacific): Jazz singer, has a dozen albums since 1985, writes most of his own lyrics but draws on Dave Frishberg and Bob Dorough for the song that frames the album "I'm Hip" -- he ends with his own "Stay Hip," so close it sounds like a reprise. Two songs are paeans to beatnik-era jazz (title cut, which name drops no one after the '50s, and "You Cat Plays Piano"). Two duets with Cheryl Bentyne, who is also hip. B+(***) [cd]
Wire: Wire (2015, Pink Flag): Seems a little late in the day to be releasing an eponymous album -- suggests the imagination is flagging. But what they've come up is the most generic rendering of their brand yet. Doesn't blow you away, but it's served them well over nearly 40 years. B+(***)
Recent Reissues, Compilations, Vault Discoveries
The Miles Davis Quintet: All of You: The Last Tour 1960 (1960 , Acrobat, 4CD): Cover adds "featuring John Coltrane" -- the tenor saxophonist who had played in Davis' Quintet since 1955 but had finally broken out as a star in his own right with 1959's Giant Steps. The Quintet was filled out with Wynton Kelly (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Jimmy Cobb (drums). The tracks come from eight dates on a European tour, and while Davis gets the first solo, the cuts were picked to show Coltrane breaking away from the band. He's making those giant steps, but Wynton Kelly is also superb doing his usual bebop thing, and Davis gets his licks in. Rhapsody bills this as Vol. 1, only including the first two discs. It seems unlikely that the other two drop off much, but I'll hedge a bit. Caveat emptor. B+(***)
Miles Davis: Miles Davis at Newport 1955-1975 [The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4] (1955-75 , Columbia/Legacy, 4CD): Since I fell off Legacy's mailing list, it's been impossible to fairly evaluate their bootleg boxes. I used to ease myself into a box, playing a disc here and there until I was familiar with the terrain, and then there's the booklets with all that info and pictures and such. Those are the tangible things that make box sets worthwhile, and judging from the reviews by critics so treated this one must be a dandy. (Then, again, box sets almost never get negative reviews.) The 1955 group was a rather ad hoc mix of stars (Zoot Sims, Gerry Mulligan, Thelonious Monk, Percy Heath, Connie Kay), but I can't say much about them given that Rhapsody dropped 3 (of 4) cuts. Davis returns with his regular group in 1958, with seven cuts that were previously released on CD in 2001: I gave that a B but was more impressed this time, especially by Coltrane's "Bye Bye Blackbird" solo. (Some also on the 1963 LP Miles & Monk at Newport, more on a French LP in 1968.) The second disc gives us two Quintet sets from 1966 and 1967: really superb material, with Wayne Shorter in especially fine form. The third disc offers three 1969 cuts by the transitional electric band (Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette), starting with "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" -- again, superb. Then we get six sizzling tracks from the 1973 8-piece band playing in Berlin, a bit sloppier but the trumpet rises to the occasion, and one cut from 1975. Fourth disc steps back to 1971, a Newport show in Switzerland with Gary Bartz on alto, Keith Jarrett on electric piano and organ, Michael Henderson on electric bass, and lots of percussion, which drags a bit in the 25:38 "Funky Tonk" but closes strong -- I can't say it's essential but it fills a slot on a shelf full of dazzling early '70s live albums. Assuming the box is up to snuff, probably: A-
Dead Moon: Live at Satyricon (1993 , Voodoo Doughnut): Guitarist-singer Fred Cole drifted through close to a dozen bands from 1965 until he formed this DIY punk trio, which lasted two decades, with wife Toody on bass and Andrew Loomis on drums. They subsisted on self-released records and touring, cutting corners by limiting their album covers to black ink only. AMG lists this as Tales From the Grease Trap, Vol. 1: evidently we can expect a series of old live tapes. As someone who hasn't heard any of their previous albums -- 10 studio, 4 live, the 2-CD retrospective Echoes From the Past -- I can't really say this is their best or the one you should have, but it could be. A-
Charlie Haden/Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Tokyo Adagio (2005 , Impulse): The search through the late great bassist's vault tapes continues, having yielded a thoroughly delightful duo with guitarist Jim Hall last year. This matches him with a familiar Cuban pianist -- they and Paul Motion appeared on The Montreal Tapes Volume 4. Rather placid, though. B+(*)
Phil Haynes: Sanctuary (1999 , Corner Store Jazz): Drummer, has close to ten records since 1998 and more side credits going back another decade. This is solo, a limiting factor on any instrument. B+(*)
Nu Yorica! Culture Clash in New York City: Experiments in Latin Music 1970-77 (1970-77 , Soul Jazz, 2CD): Updates a compilation with the same title issued in 1996, dropping 4 (of 16) tracks, adding 5. One of the first things I did when I got to New York in the 1970s was to try to dive into salsa music, but while it always sounded great on the street I never developed a knack for finding records I much liked. This does better than I did, but for every couple blistering rhythm tracks there's one that throws up something incomprehensibly prog. The luck of the experiments, I guess. B+(***)
Mammane Sani et Son Orgue: La Musique Electronique du Niger (1978 , Sahel Sounds): Full name Mamman Sani Abdoulaye, originally released this album of organ groove pieces on cassette -- typos seem to be as common as copies of this (the original cassette, optimistically titled Vol. No. 1, is credited to Mamman Sani Aboullaye, while the LP reissue is as above. B+(***) [bc]
Mamman Sani: Taaritt (1985-88 , Sahel Sounds): Previously unreleased groove pieces recorded in Niamey and Paris using analog synths, originally intended as a "relaxation guide," the album cover depicting a fantastic space ship hovering over the Agadez Mosque in the middle of a very barren desert. Much more beat than you get from new age, and more amusing than either minimalism or prog rock. B+(**) [bc]
Daniel Smith: Jazz Suite for Bassoon (1995-97 , Summit): Bassoonist, recorded a lot of classical music since 1986 (including at least thirteen CDs of Vivaldi) before trying his hand at jazz with 2006's Bebop Bassoon -- best title is 2014's Smokin' Hot Bassoon Blues, but none are very good. This is earlier material, transitional I suppose. The 20:16 "Jazz Suite for Bassoon" was written by someone else (Steve Gray, who plays piano) and has some twisty moves but not a lot of dynamic range (nothing that would bury the bassoon). The first two-thirds of the album contains "Baroque Adaptations for Bassoon and Jazz Trio" and three "Scott Joplin Rags" -- so at least you get a regular beat. B [cd]
Huey "Piano" Smith: Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu (1956-62 , Hallmark): I first heard the title tune on the Flamin' Groovies' Supersnazz and was even more delighted when I tracked down the original -- ever since every bit as essential to my New Orleans soundtrack as "West End Blues." That may not have occurred until Rhino compiled Serious Clownin': The History of Huey "Piano" Smith & the Clowns (1986). Later I picked up Music Club's now-out-of-print This Is . . . Huey "Piano" Smith (2000) and, on Christgau's tip, this shorter (14 vs. 18 cuts) and cheaper redundancy. Note, though, that you get no liner notes at all, And while more isn't necessarily better, if I had it to do again I'd check out the 24-cut The Very Best of Huey "Piano Smith & the Clowns, Volume 1 (1999, Westside; evidently reissued 2013, Traditions). A- [cd]
J.B. Smith: No More Good Time in the World for Me (1965-66 , Dust-to-Digital, 2CD): Bruce Jackson's field recordings of Prisoner No. 130196 at Ramsey State Farm in Rosharon, TX. This is much extended beyond the three songs that appeared on the Takoma LP Ever Since I Have Been a Man Full Grown (1965). All vocal, on some Smith may be leading others, a couple spoken sections every bit as dramatic. B+(**)
2Pac: 2Pacalypse Now (1991, Interscope): Lesane Parish Crooks (1971-96), aka Tupac Shakur, first album, peaked at 64 on the charts but eventually went gold as his next three albums -- all he released before he was shot and killed -- proved increasingly popular. Nothing splashy here, just solid beats and fairly conventional observations, even "Words of Wisdom." B+(*)
2Pac: Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z... (1993, Interscope): Acronym allegedly stands for "Never Ig'nant Getting Goals Accomplished" with the "Z" signifying something plural, whatever any of that might mean, but I'll take the acronym over the onomatopoeia (I guess that's the right word). The album itself is also rather opaque, which may at least save it from being something worse. B
2Pac: Me Against the World (1995, Interscope): In 1992 Shakur's gun shot and killed a 6-year-old (he reportedly drew the gun, put it down, and it accidentally fired when one of his entourage picked it up -- who says "guns don't kill people; people do"?). In April 1993 Shakur pled to an assault charge, doing a few days in jail. In October Shakur was charged with shooting two off-duty cops, but charges were dropped. In November Shakur was charged with sexual assault and sentenced to 18-54 months in jail, but was released pending appeal. In early 1994 he was found guilty of assault and served 15 days in jail. In November he was robbed and shot five times -- an event detailed in the "Intro" here. In February 1995 he began serving his sentence for sexual assault, and was in jail when his third album topped the charts. I don't see when he got out of jail, but in September 1996 he was in Las Vegas, where he assaulted a Crips gang member and later that night was shot and killed. Shouldn't it be I Against the World? Not his worst grammatical offense, nor is his grammar his worst criminal trait. B-
2Pac: All Eyez on Me (1996, Death Row, 2CD): Working off his bail debt -- Suge Knight and Jimmy Iovine ponied up $1.4 million and got a deal for Shakur's next three, this counting as two. Two things: first is that the production has taken a big step forward -- nearly every song is full of ear candy, which had never been the case before; second is that the political context has given way in favor of the supposed luxuries of the thug life, a parable of capitalism triumphant. The combination, probably hyped by his martyrdom, sold more than five million copies. Actually, third thing: the auteur himself generally disappears into the mix, a trait which must have helped him become so prolific after his death. B+(*)
Aerosmith: Aerosmith's Greatest Hits (1972-79 , Columbia): A hard-rocking band from Boston, one that I've rarely bothered with or took an interest in. This is their original best-of, LP-length at 10 songs, 37:32, often preferring edited-down singles to album cuts. Two originals rise above the generic, and the two covers at the end help. B+(**)
Aerosmith: Pump (1989, Geffen): This album (and its successor, Get a Grip, is their second act, a resurgence of hard and fast, presumably what made them in the first place. B-
Tori Amos: Little Earthquakes (1991, Atlantic): Singer-songwriter, plays piano, previously led a synthpop band that released an eponymous album, Y Kant Tori Read (1988). Not clear at this point which way this falls. B
Animal Collective: Sung Tongs (2004, Fat Cat): Evidently just a duo at this point, Avey Tare and Panda Bear, the idea to present a more stripped down sound, achieved by blocking out half the group. A typical piece is "Visiting Friends," with its basic folk guitar strum and background noises, not exactly animal sounds. Actually, more typical is the incoherent shit that follows. C+
Animal Collective: Feels (2005, Fat Cat): Back at full strength, which means they can add some harmony to the guitar riffs and they can keep a groove going on the rare occasions when they can find one. And when they can't, that's why they call it "experimental" -- frequent failure is to be expected. B+(*)
Birdman & Lil Wayne: Like Father, Like Son (2006, Cash Money/Universal): Bryan Williams pops up on records here and there, originally with Big Tymers, most recently with Young Thug, but his real claim to fortune (if not fame) was in co-founding Cash Money Records. This started as a mixtape to promote his biggest star -- Wayne is 13 years his junior -- and turned into a legit album. The father frames his business as a classic gangsta operation. The son plays along, showing respect, earning his keep. B+(***)
Neko Case: Blacklisted (2002, Bloodshot): Singer, grew up in Tacoma, joined Canadian alt/indie New Pornographers in 2000 but was also pursuing a solo career, initially on country-ish but later the country influence faded -- this album is transitional, neither here nor there. B+(*)
Cursive: Domestica (2000, Saddle Creek): Alt/indie band from Omaha, third album of seven 1997-2012, a little heavy-handed for my taste. B
Cursive: The Ugly Organ (2003, Saddle Creek): Proves its case against the organ, then sinks deeper. B-
The Deftones: White Pony (2000, Maverick): Alt-metal band, guess that means they can suspend the grind for a few moments of relative peacefulness and make something musical out of it. They do, several times, and while the vocal scream could easily wear thin, their grind is succinct enough I can get into it. B+(*)
Kurt Elling: Close Your Eyes (1994 , Blue Note): Jazz singer, from Chicago, made a big splash with this his first album, impressing people with his quick shifts and flashy scat. I can't say he has an especially effective voice on ballads, but it's much clearer than on the new album, twenty years later. Has a good band with pianist Laurence Hobgood, and slots a couple guests on sax (notably Von Freeman). B
Kurt Elling: The Messenger (1994-96 , Blue Note): Second album, leads with an impressive enough "Nature Boy" and a not-bad "April in Paris," but soon wanders into usual thing, way too convoluted for me to follow let alone care, although I noticed myself noticing the vocalese "Tanya Jean" on both plays, the hip-talkie "It's Just a Thing" too, plus there are scattered touches, like the saxophone. Cassandra Wilson joins in on "Time of the Season" -- I wouldn't call that success but it is sorta interesting, par for the album. B+(*)
Kurt Elling: This Time It's Love (1997-98 , Blue Note): Like Betty Carter -- another singer I admire more than like -- he has a tight command on the band, and when he's not singing there's almost always something interesting going on. But I doubt I'll ever care much for his voice or mannerisms, especially when he loads up on the ballad schmaltz as he does here. B
Kurt Elling: Flirting With Twilight (2001, Blue Note): Seems like the same formula mix, but the voice is more plodding and very little strikes me as interesting, even in a bad way. B-
Kurt Elling: Man in the Air (2003, Blue Note): A Penguin Guide 4-star album, like Live in Chicago and Flirting With Twilight, although I can't begin to fathom why. (Unlike his first albums, where he seemed to have something novel going.) B-
Green Day: Kerplunk (1992, Lookout): Postpunk, early (second album), keeps it clean and straightforward. B+(*)
Green Day: Nimrod (1997, Reprise): Fifth album -- Dookie was their ten-million unit breakthrough, with Insomniac selling a couple million more, but neither much impressed me at the time. This is probably no better, but they do have a way of being hard and clean and crunchy at the same time. B+(**)
Green Day: Warning (2000, Reprise): Reviews argue over "maturity" but they mean things like the ability to construct credible songs along multiple lines, to slow down as well as speed up, and to throw things into the mix I never expected from this band. Doesn't feel like a masterpiece, and I doubt I'll ever love it, but there's not a bad moment. A-
Green Day: American Idiot (2004, Reprise): I assume the title song is for Bush, although he's hardly the only American idiot they could have targeted. It's as snappy as they ever got, but other pieces are merely loud, and when they toy with the Who's rock opera concept they can get, uh, operatic. B+(*)
Alan Jackson: Here in the Real World (1989, Arista): First album, leads off with the only song Jackson didn't have a hand in writing and it's the one song that comes off a bit stilted. He's clearly studied country music, coming up with a sound that came to be called neo-traditionalism -- like real country music -- and songs that ply classic country tropes, occasionally with a modern dollop (like "I like my sushi southern fried"). First single only made it to 45, but the next 27 went top 10, only 3 falling short of top 3. Four of them are here. B+(***)
Alan Jackson: Don't Rock the Jukebox (1991, Arista): Declares his fealty to country music over rock in the title song, and doesn't make you regret it, even though he's not the sort of guy who drinks doubles or hops trains. But he namechecks George Jones (twice, even eliciting a cameo), pays tribute to Hank, and spins Ernest Tubb around. A-
Alan Jackson: A Lot About Livin' (and a Little 'Bout Love) (1992, Arista): Five more singles, one cruising on a motorcycle, another in a Mercury (suggesting he's secretly been searching through old rock & roll records). B+(**)
Alan Jackson: Everything I Love (1996, Arista): Skipping ahead to his sixth album, he's become really consistent, mostly because his sound -- that fiddle and steel guitar and honky tonk piano -- is so appealing. Still, I note that this has a record number of other people's songs, including the ones that grab your attention ("Little Bitty," from Tom T. Hall, and "Who's Cheatin' Who," by Jerry Hayes). B+(**)
Alan Jackson: High Mileage (1998, Arista): Jackson dips a toe into the political economy. Sure, his "Little Man" wasn't a worker -- just a small business proprietor buried by big business, but when he thinks it through he'll find a worker, and maybe he'll find more than nostalgia. B+(***)
Alan Jackson: Under the Influence (1999, Arista): A dozen covers. You'd expect as devout a student of country music as Jackson to dig deeper into the tradition, but 10 (of 12) songs came out 1971-81, when he was 13-23 (the other two came out in 1963 and 1967). He picks Merle Haggard and George Jones twice, but his Hank is Jr. and he winds up in "Margaritaville" -- sober as usual. B
Alan Jackson: When Somebody Loves You (2000, Arista): Seems to be struggling with his writing -- song titles include "www.memory" and "Three Minute Positive Not Too Country Up-Tempo Love Song" -- but the songs he picked off the rack are pretty lame. Maybe one can make a case for "It's Alright to Be a Redneck" but you need a better song than the one Bill Kenner and Paul McLaughlin wrote. B
Alan Jackson: Like Red on a Rose (2006, Arista Nashville): Alison Krauss replaces Jackson's longtime producer Keith Stegall here. The most obvious result is that everything slows down, but also note that Jackson only penned one song, and that was a remake ("A Woman's Love"). B+(*)
Killers: Hot Fuss (2004, Island/Universal): From Las Vegas, which has shed its tawdriness to become the home of homegenized American culture. Even the group's name have become as main street as apple pie. Still, seems like a perfectly average new wave rock band. B
Frankie Knuckles: Beyond the Mix (1991, Virgin): Francis Nicholls, born in the Bronx but became "The Godfather of House Music" DJing in Chicago. This was his first album, nine fine dance tracks, plus an undanceable gospel wail, "Soon I Will Be Done." B+(**)
Frankie Knuckles: Best of Frankie Knuckles (1986-87 , Mirakkle): I don't think anyone has tried to assemble a career retrospective for Knuckles like Rhino did for Larry Levan, so the "best-ofs" are side glimpses. I was only able to track down about half of these 12-inchers (5-of-12 released under Knuckles' name), and they all come from his first year or two of recording. ("It's a Cold World") B+(**)
Lil Wayne: Tha Block Is Hot (1999, Cash Money/Universal): First album from the New Orleans rapper, must have been about 17 at the time, but he had signed with Cash Money when he was nine and had been in the Hot Boys. Long (70:18), most tracks have "featuring" credits (but not big stars -- mostly his old crew: B.G., Juvenile, [Young] Turk, producer Mannie Fresh). Basically a mixtape, gone platinum. B+(**)
Lil Wayne: 500 Degreez (2002, Cash Money/Universal): Third album, another long one (70:21), Mannie Fresh again produces, but the "featuring" credits are way down as Wayne (Dwayne Michael Carter) comes into his own. B+(***)
Lil Wayne: Tha Carter (2004, Cash Money/Universal): Fourth album, a breakthrough at least in the sense that he returned to this title three more times, even though this didn't sell nearly as well as his debut. Even longer (79:07), chock full of hooks -- even one called "Hoes" is too catchy to fret over. A-
Lil Wayne: Tha Carter II (2005, Cash Money/Universal): His worldview has finally settled down to "get money/fuck bitches," although sometimes he swaps the priority. But he doesn't stop there, and in the long run -- and his records always run long -- I can't help but marvel at the beats and grooves and wordplay, sometimes even the change ups. A-
Lil Wayne: The Leak (2007, Cash Money, EP): Five tracks, 19:29, leaked outtakes from The Carter III sessions, quickly turned into product, then eventually palmed off as bait for the album's "deluxe edition." B+(**)
M83: Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts (2003, Gooom Disques): French electronic group, second album, last with co-founder Nicolas Fromageau (survived by Anthony Gonzalez). Multiple synths, have some appeal when you can sort them out but not much when they amass into huge curtains of sound. B-
M83: Saturdays = Youth (2008, Mute): I guess someone told them they'd need vocals to break pop, so they subcontracted some. B
Maxwell: Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite (1996, Columbia): First album from one of the blander neo-soul discoveries of the '90s. No doubt it flows. B
The Microphones: The Glow, Pt. 2 (2002, K): Early lo-fi project from singer-songwriter Phil Elvrum, recorded four main albums 1999-2003 plus a lot of mini-albums, EPs, singles, etc. -- Elvrum adopted the last of his album titles, Mount Eerie, as moniker from 2005 on. This one is very erratic, with many flashes of promise, some noisy and some not. Evidently, "The Glow, Pt. 1" was just a track on the previous album, It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water. B+(**)
Miguel: All I Want Is You (2010, Jive): Debut album, makes his bid at a "love man" and backs it up with slinky, marginally funky rhythm. B+(**)
My Chemical Romance: Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge (2004, Reprise): I guess you'd call this an emo band: a little anguished which comes off as heavy but not quite metal. Recorded four albums (2002-10), this the second their major label breakthrough. B-
Ride: Nowhere (1990, Sire): British shoegaze band, cut five albums 1990-96 but only the first two are well-regarded. This is their debut, a steady, rolling storm of guitar wrapped around songs with some pop appeal. B+(***)
Slint: Spiderland (1991, Touch & Go): Math rock band from Louisville, started out in punk then mixed up time signatures, volume levels, etc., working in spoken word vocals -- considered innovative although they also come off as tentative and unfocused, at least on this, their second and last album. B
The Sonics: Here Are the Sonics (1965, Etiquette): Garage rock band from Tacoma, first album, four original songs by singer-keyboardist Gerry Roslie ("The Witch," "Boss Hoss," "Psycho," and "Strychnine") padded with eight covers (two from Berry Gordy) done as rough and raw as they could. Retro even then. A-
The Sonics: Boom (1967, Etiquette): Second album, similar mix of originals (5) and covers (8), though neither are quite up to the first album's. B+(**)
Swervedriver: Mezcal Head (1993, A&M): British group, second of four albums from their 1991-98 heyday, a little on the heavy side of shoegaze, but the guitar pulse is strong, consistent, a bit nervous. B+(**)
System of a Down: Toxicity (2001, American): LA hardcore group's second album -- AMG considers them alt metal, overlooking the humor and politics and quirky rhythms, although I have to admit no real hardcore group would interpose a hymn about "when Angels deserve to die," or the Gypsy touches that anticipate Gogol Bordello. (One metal trait is that they tend to wear out their welcome.) B+(*)
Tamikrest: Adagh (2010, Glitterbeat): Tuareg group from northeast Mali, dodged civil war in a French school and picked up scattered western influences which they combined following the model of Tinariwen. Discovered at Festival au Désert in 2008, which led to Chris Eckman (of Dirtmusic and the Walkabouts) producing this first album. B+(**)
Tamikrest: Toumastin (2011, Glitterbeat): Christgau went through the trot sheet and approves ("tell the world that a little education can be a broadening thing"). I'll settle for the sound, which is clear in details that are rarely rushed -- there are certainly hotter Tuareg bands. A-
The Unicorns: Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? (2003, Alien8): Canadian band, from Montreal, their only studio album (not counting a limited edition live set and a couple EPs, one from a brief reunion in 2014). Lo-fi, likes flutes, not without a certain element of whimsy. B+(*)
Sometimes further listening leads me to change an initial grade, usually either because I move on to a real copy, or because someone else's review or list makes me want to check it again:
Miguel: Kaleidoscope Dream (2012, RCA): Listening to the new one, I suspected that I must have underrated this widely praised second album smash, but the first few cuts -- through the title track -- were limper than anything on the first or third, and when it got better it wasn't by much. former('1210-1', 'B'); ?> B+(*)
Additional Consumer News:
Previous grades on artists in the old music section:
Monday, August 17. 2015
Music: Current count 25326  rated (+49), 426  unrated (-6).
Huge rated count. I got off to a fast start when I decided to fill in the records I hadn't previously heard by Kurt Elling and Alan Jackson, both with new records last week. I've never cared for Elling, but he has a huge reputation, including four Penguin Guide 4-stars. Main thing I found out was that his exuberance on the first two albums makes his mannerisms more palatable. After Elling, Jackson cleaned my ears out, and the albums were so short they piled up fast. Still best, I think, to approach his early work through compilations, like 1995's The Greatest Hits Collection, or 2007's more economical 16 Biggest Hits. His new one, Angels and Alcohol, was A- last week. (Elling's new Passion World came in at C: by my reckoning his worst ever, not that Night Moves or 1619 Broadway were much better.)
The next thing that happened was that Phil Overeem posted a list on Facebook of his top 50 albums so far this year. I jotted them down in my notebook, and tallied up that 25 of the 34 I had heard were rated B+(***) or higher. That's close enough to my taste that I tried tracking down the rest. I managed to find 11 of the missing 16, and the first three (79rs Gang, Nots, Mdou Moctar) came in at A- (as did, later on, Dead Moon). Overeem's list also included the new Sonics album (***), which led me to their back catalog and a belated A- for their 1965 debut. Of the remaining five, I managed to find bits of Big Chief Don Pardo and Golden Comanche (New Orleans Indians) and the Reactionaries (pre-Minutemen D. Boon from 1979) -- not enough to rate but both sounded promising. That leaves three albums to keep an eye open for: Jack DeJohnette, Made in Chicago; Iris DeMent, The Trackless Woods; and J.D. Allen, Graffiti.
I had, by the way, tracked down Coneheads (***) and The Red Line Comp (*) from earlier Overeem notices -- I would never have known about them otherwise. One thing I had trouble with was hip-hop: three albums (two from Overeem's list -- Doomtree and Vince Staples -- plus Future) wound up at B+(***). I gave them two plays each, all were pretty good, but they didn't come through quite clearly enough to grade higher. That seems to be happening a lot -- others on my 2015 list: Joey Badass, Action Bronson, Cannibal Ox, Rae Sremmurd. Or maybe that's just a normal break: A- hip-hop so far: BBNG/Ghostface Killah, Heems, Kendrick Lamar, Murs.
Michael Tatum, who's resumed his A Downloader's Diary, recommended Songhoy Blues -- a close second, I think, to Moctar's soundtrack. Overeem also recommended the new Tamikrest (**), so I went back and filled in the old ones, netting Toumastin. Mamman Sani (Overeem picked his 2013 album) is also from Niger, but not in the dessert blues genre -- more like spacey electronic minimalism. It was a big help for me finding Sahel Sounds on Bandcamp -- will probably explore some more older titles later on.
That didn't leave a lot of time for my current jazz queue, but I moved Irène Schweizer to the front and was dazzled: not a surprise given that her previous record with Han Bennink was an A -- one of 4 A records I credit her with (plus 5 A-). A really great pianist, and a pretty great percussionist too. The one I still recommend to start with is her 2006 2-CD compilation, Portrait. Maybe I should change its grade to A+.
Biondini (*), Braden (*), Halvorson (***), Harris (**), Letizia (**), Maestro (*), Mazzarella (***), and Orozco (**) also came from the new jazz queue, but I had to grab James Brandon Lewis (A-) from Rhapsody. I did find some mail on the record, apparently with a watermarked download link I never bothered with. No telling how many records like that slip past me. My pre-crash system for dealing with download links is still broken -- Firefox refuses to connect to a mail server that has self-signed SSL certificates, even after storing the exception, so my message-passing mechanism is broken. Also, all the ECM links I had are stale now, and I find myself not caring enough to get them refreshed. Similarly, I hardly ever deal with the world music links I get from Rock Paper Scissors: true that a high percentage of important world music comes through them, but also true that that's a small slice of what they promote. I keep getting disabused of the concept that I can cover it all. There needs to be some meeting of the willing for this to work, but this week at least it seems to have worked pretty well.
Robert Christgau found a new outlet for his Expert Witness -- I still think of it as The Consumer Guide -- column, at Noisey, promising a new one every Friday. Last week's covered three "love men" he likes more than I do: Miguel (***), Jason Derulo (*), and (most surprising) Sam Smith (B- last time I heard it), with Tinashe (**) and Oceaán (* -- the only one I hadn't previously checked out) in the HMs. Once again, he's catching up to make up for the downtime since Medium sacked him in early June. I've noticed, for instance, that there were 17 albums on his 2013 Dean's List that he never caught up with when he moved from MSN to Cuepoint. (My plan is to add stubs in his website database for those records -- presumably all A- or A, but not my place to say. I'm also looking through earlier lists to see if anything else should be stubbed -- thus far I've found three albums, but it's a slow slog to check everything.)
By the way, I am getting closer to doing an update of Christgau's website. I've already uploaded a number of fixes since the ISP's server change ("upgrade") broke some old code, but the long delay demanded by Medium and my own procrastination kept me from doing an update to the CG database. Right now, I have everything from Medium in my local copy, and I'm working through some proofreading (my heroes there are George Allan and Lucas Fagen). Probably later this week, assuming I don't hold it up to do more stub work. (I've long thought that the artist pages should list albums that don't have proper CG reviews but do have significant mentions in lists or ACN, so that's a long-term project.)
New records rated this week:
Recent reissues, compilations, and vault discoveries rated this week:
Old records rated this week:
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Sunday, August 16. 2015
I just saw a tweet by Ben Norton (author of an article linked to below). It consists of two lists: "places bombed by the US" and "places where ISIS is growing." The lists are identical: "Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan." The only chance the US has of breaking that identity would be for the US to bomb more non-Muslim countries.
Some scattered links this week:
Also, a few links for further study:
Monday, August 10. 2015
Music: Current count 25277  rated (+43), 432  unrated (-19).
I hit the bottom of the Spin 1985-2014 list early in the week. Of 300 records, I've not heard/rated 290. That leaves the following (not on Rhapsody, Christgau grades in brackets):
I've been told that most/all of these records are on YouTube, but haven't tried looking them up there. My final grade distribution is at the bottom of the file. Basically: A or A+: 29 (10.0%), A-: 80 (27.5%); B+: 114 (29.3%); B: 45 (15.5%); B- or lower: 22 (7.5%). When the list first came out I was missing 81 of them, so I've heard 71 since mid-May. I don't see a similar grade breakdown in my notebook at the time, but I did note that I had 103 records rated A- or above. That's up to 109 now, so I picked up 6 new A- records (8.4% of the adds, way down from the initial 44.9% A- (or better: i.e., 103/229). I picked up 4 new B- or below albums, which was also down from my initial rate (5.6% vs. 9.9%). The big growth came in B albums, up by 20 (28.1%) vs. 25 initially (11.3%). Records could wind up graded B for lots of reasons, but the most common is uninspired competency. Of course, you may just write this off as my relative indifference to the alt/indie rock that's Spin's bread and butter. Probably some truth to that. But it's not like I hate every alt/indie record. Lots of good ones on the list.
With that project done, I wanted to focus on the books posts, and not think much about what I was listening to. This time I went into the new jazz queue and cleared out a lot of stuff I've been skipping over. No great finds there, although avant fans will enjoy Louie Belogenis' Blue Buddha project, and Stefan Keune's vinyl-only release offers quite a rush. Still, I probably enjoyed Dan Brubeck's tribute to his parents even more -- just didn't give it a second spin, mostly because it's a double but also because brother Chris has also tapped into the family well, with similarly fine results.
Another high HM is the new Miguel album. I played it several times, went back to his debut, and even gave his sophomore album another shot. Tatum tells me it takes time to sink in, but that's not how I work -- and when I do give a record extra time, it's almost always because it's giving me something back. Still, I like the album much more than I do its widely admired predecessor -- don't get that one at all, even though I nudged its grade up a notch. Tatum, by the way, reviews Wildheart in his revived A Downloader's Diary (41). Biggest surprise for me there was the A grade for Young Thug's Barter 6 -- talk about someone who needs time to sink in! I gave it one spin and a B+(**) a while back. That's one I'm not in any hurry to revisit, but maybe Christgau will weigh in? Of course, our biggest grade difference was over Sleater-Kinney, but you know how that goes. Still, a great column. I should get around to archiving it sometime.
Note: I cut the week off a bit short last night, so I didn't pick up today's mail (most notably, new albums by guitarists Liberty Ellman and Garrison Fewell). The Rhapsody Streamnotes draft file is up around 90 albums even though August is less than one-third over, so I should start thinking about posting it up.
Also, the CDR of Howard Riley: 10.11.12 (NoBusiness) didn't have any music on it I could hear. It's one of their vinyl-only releases, probably solo piano, something of intrinsically limited interest to me, but he's a musician I've been wanting to hear more of. I did track down two of his early Columbia releases -- Angle (1969) and The Day Will Come (1970), both A- in my book -- but I've only heard one later record, a B+(*) live solo. According to my records, he has another 21 records which Penguin Guide gave 3.5 or 4 stars to, so a major figure, at least in their book.
New records rated this week:
Recent reissues, compilations, and vault discoveries rated this week:
Old records rated this week:
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Sunday, August 9. 2015
Once again, I skipped Weekend Roundup for more book blurbs. I doubt that's much of a loss, given how last week's news was so dominated by the first Fox Republican Presidential Debate Orgy -- really, if you have nothing more enlightening to talk about than Donald Trump, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, and/or Chris Christie (swap any of a dozen other names into this list if you so desire), you should cancel your news show and slot in a nice golf match or bowling or something. Otherwise you run the risk that the Republicans' insane attacks on the Iran deal might leak through to weak-minded Democrats -- Sen. Chuck Schumer is the latest to disgrace himself (OK, here's a link).
Aside from the Republicans, who'll still be around next week, and certainly won't be any smarter or less disgraceful then, the most common news story this past week was the shooting atrocity, practically an everyday occurrence. (A foreign exchange student was killed just outside his dorm here in Wichita this week.) Those, unlike the Republicans, are terminal events, but no doubt there will be another fresh batch of them next week to.
Meanwhile, back to the books. This is the fourth installment in a little more than a week, and will probably be the last for a while. I just have a handful more entries in my draft file, and a couple of them are for books that aren't scheduled for publication until September-October. My catchup project has involved going through close to a dozen notebooks where I jotted down book names when I was in bookstores or libraries over the last few years. I'm not quite done with that, but have managed to fill up four posts -- 160 books. Some of the notebooks are rather old, mostly yielding books published in 2008-09 (between the lists I've found several Borders discount coupon numbers), but the main one I haven't gotten to was filled out in New Jersey last fall. I'll keep working on that, and maybe it'll yield a fifth post, or maybe it'll just get me started for a post this fall. We'll see.
Stanley Aronowitz: The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Worker's Movement (2014, Verso Books): Unions have taken a beating, especially in the private sector, over the last 30-40 years, dropping from representing more than 30% of American workers to less than 10%. The "death" part is an old story, so what about the "life" part? Or the "new" bit? I read Thomas Geoghegan's Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement (2014, New Press), which has some specific ideas on things that can be done to breathe new life into the labor movement, but I don't see what Aronowitz has up his sleeve. I do recall his early book, False Promises: The Shaping of American Working Class Consciousness (1974), and know that he's been working this issue for most of his life, both as scholar and activist.
Shlomo Avineri: Herzl's Vision: Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State (2014, Blue Bridge): Herzl wasn't the first Zionist, but he headed the World Zionist Organization until his early death (1904) and wrote two books (The Jewish State and The Old New Land, the latter a novel) articulating his vision for what became Israel in 1948. He was notable during his life for appealing to imperial powers to adopt the Zionists as a colonization project, and he painted a much more starry-eyed picture than what actually transpired. But then don't all imperialists start out starry-eyed?
Zygmunt Bauman: Does the Richness of the Few Benefit Us All? (paperback, 2013, Polity): Short (100 pp) essay by a philosophy prof, evidently picks apart various arguments ("finding them one by one to be false, deceitful and misleading") to arrive at "no." I'm not inclined to disagree, especially on the so-called "trickle down" theories (unless that trickling is aided by redistributive tax policies). I don't know whether Bauman considers the argument that the extravagances and idiosyncrasies of the rich may on occasion create something of lasting cultural value -- e.g., the Taj Mahal -- that would never have been created in a more egalitarian society. On the other hand, such arts only attain popular value when they have been opened to the public. (The policy which would promote this would be a confiscatory estate tax, which would encourage the rich to build monuments to their memory while also ensuring public access in due course. It would also limit that aristocracy problem.)
James Bradley: The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia (2015, Little Brown): Americans have been fascinated by China from first encounters, and as Bradley shows contributed to the opium wars, used the "open door policy" to carve out fortunes, developed a fateful alliance with the Kuomintang that continued into exile on Taiwan, fought nasty wars against the "red menace," and invested lavishly when China opened up to foreign capital. All that while, one might argue that those Americans understood nothing, not so much because the Chinese world was impenetrable as because Americans were so blunt and dull. Thomas has written a number of books about the US in East Asia, notably The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War (2009, Little Brown). This seems to be where he tries to sum it all up.
HW Brands: Reagan: The Life (2015, Doubleday): A bid for a comprehensive single-volume biography (816 pp) of the mediocre actor, corporate shill, and demagogic (albeit absent-minded) politician who spent eight years as one of America's most corrupt presidents. Brands is a capable historian who's knocked off biographies on Ben Franklin, Andrew Jackson, and both Roosevelts -- I read his A Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (2008) and recommend it, especially if you don't know much about the man or the era -- as well as some broad-brush books like American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (2010). On the other hand, I already know too much about Reagan, and I'm not likely to enjoy (or benefit from) any author who is not as repulsed by the man and his movement as I already am. I did, after all, live through this travesty. (And I've read Sean Wilentz: The Age of Reagan: A History 1974-2008 , so it's not like I haven't tried.)
Richard Davenport-Hines: Universal Man: The Lives of John Maynard Keynes (2015, Basic Books): A new biography of the great liberal economist, a figure whose relevance has only grown since the 2008 "Great Recession" happened -- although it seems like most political leaders and central bankers have yet to acknowledge the point. Also relatively new (and brief: 136pp): Peter Temin/David Vines: Keynes: Useful Economics for the World Economy (2014, MIT Press).
Alain de Botton: The News: A User's Manual (2014, Pantheon): British philosopher/social critic, originally from Switzerland -- has also written novels and appeared on television -- asks the question: what is our constant preoccupation with news doing to our minds? He picks apart various common story lines -- disasters, celebrity gossip, political scandals -- and tries to put their impacts into the context of everyday life. Previous books include: How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997); The Architecture of Happiness (2006); Relgion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion (2012); How to Think More About Sex (2012).
DW Gibson: Not Working: People Talk About Losing a Job and Finding Their Way in Today's Economy (paperback, 2012, Penguin Books): A collection of interviews, some 480 pp, about just that -- reviewers compare this to Studs Terkel's Working, and to James Agee, high praise indeed. My own view of getting fired is that it's increasingly often like getting shot down by a random sniper -- you have little sense of it coming, it seems to single you out in a way that leaves you very isolated (and often feeling somewhat guilty), and in an instant you lose something you may never be able to put back together again. (In some ways that describes me after I was fired by SCO, although I had more of a safety net than most folks do.) Sure, there are differences: getting fired in America today is not a random act -- some people, including old guys like me, are statistically more likely to get hit -- nor is it an isolated act -- public policies that promote (or simply permit) mergers, union busting, outsourcing or offshoring of jobs, or other forms of corporate predation often result in mass firings.
DW Gibson: The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century (2015, Overlook Press): More interviews, but where the author's previous Not Working traveled around the country to focus on how getting sacked affects a wide range of people, here he focuses on one city (New York City, of course) and a phenomenon that affects people in various ways (although higher rent is one common denominator).
Benjamin Ginsberg: The Worth of War (2014, Prometheus): Most recently wrote The Value of Violence (2013, Prometheus), so this is a sequel as well as a doubling down. His arguments are much like those who delight in the "creative destruction" of capitalism, except with more blood and guts. Still, in both cases, what makes the argument sanitary is that the violence/war he praises is comfortably in the past ("few today would trade our current situation for the alternative had our forefathers not resorted to the violence of the American Revolution and the Civil War"). Maybe he has something more in mind -- he does see that the modern state is rife with implicit violence ("the police, prisons, and the power of the bureaucratic state to coerce and manipulate"), and he's right that we are less free of violence than we'd like to think, but by rationalizing war instead of rejecting it, he's not doing us any favors. He's written many other books, mostly anti-government tracts like The Captive Public: How Mass Opinion Promotes State Power (1986), but also: How the Jews Defeated Hitler: Exploding the Myth of Jewish Passivity in the Face of Nazism (2013, Rowman & Littlefield). I have no idea how he makes the leap from his subtitle to his title, but it's kind of like noting a few worthwhile technical advancements that were developed during a war and concluding that war is a good thing.
Steven K Green: Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding (2015, Oxford University Press): Author has written several books on church-state relations -- The Second Disestablishment: Church and State in Nineteenth-Century America (2010, Oxford University Press); The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash That Shaped Church-State Doctrine (2012, Oxford University Press) -- and returns here to dissect the oft-repeated claim that the founders intended a Christian republic.
Raymond J Haberski Jr: God and War: American Civil Religion Since 1945 (2012, Rutgers University Press): Americans have long been conceited about their uniqueness in the world, and this gradually cohered into the notion of a civil religion -- something which got a huge boost during the Cold War era, as the American brand alternately stood for freedom and capitalism. All nations claim to fight for God, but few have bound them together so unquestionably as the US has done.
Gary A Haugen/Victor Boutros: The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence (2014; paperback, 2015, Oxford University Press). The authors are primarily talking about "common violence like rape, forced labor, illegal detention, land theft, and police abuse" but more organized forms of violence are even more effective at depressing a population and locking them in poverty. One thinks, for instance, of the total inability of the US occupying forces to rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq when faced with even relatively sporadic insurgent violence. Nor does the violence have to be "eruptive" -- the enforcement of economic sanctions depresses economies and pushes people into poverty (e.g., Gaza, or 1991-2003 Iraq, although the latter got worse). The authors argue that ending "common violence" requires effective criminal justice systems. Although you can find worse examples around the world, that doesn't let the US off lightly.
Steve Inskeep: Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab (2015, Penguin Books): In case you ever got queasy about Stalin moving whole nations to the barren margins of Russia, beware that he got the idea from an American, Andrew Jackson, who ordered the Cherokee (and other tribes) uprooted and moved from North Carolina to Oklahoma (then designated "Indian Territory"). The story, retold here with uncommon focus on the Cherokee chief, is commonly known as the "Trail of Tears." Ready why. The author, by the way, was last seen writing about Pakistan: Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi (2011, Penguin Books).
Alyssa Katz: The Influence Machine: The US Chamber of Commerce and the Corporate Capture of American Life (2015, Spiegel & Grau): I don't know how common this is, but in Wichita at least the Chamber of Commerce is extremely Republican and very active in pushing state politics to the extreme right. Evidently this is more widespread: "Through its propaganda, lobbying, and campaign cash, the Chamber has created a right-wing monster that even it struggles to control, a conservative movement that is destabilizing American democracy as never before."
Walter Kempowski: Swansong 1945: A Collective Diary of the Last Days of the Third Reich (2015, WW Norton): History from a thousand scraps of paper -- diaries and letters from ordinary civilians, soldiers and prisoners of both sides, here and there some bigwig, a contemporary picture of the Reich in ruins. Kempowski (1929-2007) assembled ten volumes of diaries like this, as well as writing a number of novels, but this is his first book translated into English.
David M Kotz: The Rise and Fall of Neoliberal Capitalism (2015, Harvard University Press): Economist, "one of the few academic economists to predict it [the great recession in 2008]," rehashes the neoliberal economic policies that led to the crash. Not clear, though, what the "fall" is, sine no matter how hard they got tripped up, the politicians haven't been forced to rethink the standard approaches.
Jonathan Kozol: Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America (2012, Crown): Bernard Goldberg wrote a book a while back listing "101 people screwing up America." Most were good people, but you could sort of see where their political stances ticked off Goldberg (Noam Chomsky, for instance, even though he's almost always right). However, the one thing I couldn't forgive, or even see anything but pure moral rot in, was his picking on Jonathan Kozol, a teacher who's never done anything more than expose how poor children are treated shabbily in our public schools. The only book of his that I've read was his first, Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools (1967), but he's written a dozen others, notably: Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America (1988); Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools (1991); and The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (2005). Here he revists people he knew as children and growing up, over some twenty-five years, a mix of success stories and all-too-common failure.
Mark Kurlansky/Talia Kurlansky: International Night: A Father and Daughter Cook Their Way Around the World (2014, Bloomsbury USA): The elder author has written a number of popular history books with built around food -- Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (1997), which led him to The Basque History of the World (1999); Salt: A World History (2002); The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell (2006); and Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man (2012). The idea here is to spin the globe, land on a country, and fix dinner appropriate to that country. They wrote up a year's worth of meals, including the recipes. The sort of book I might be able to write, although his randomizing approach ventures further than I have. He also wrote two other books I've read (and recommend): 1968: The Year that Rocked the World (2004), and Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea (2006).
James Mahaffey: Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima (2014; paperback, 2015, Pegasus): A survey of an important problem, although the author previously wrote a book proselytizing a brilliant future for the nuclear power industry -- Atomic Awakening: A New Look at the History and Future of Nuclear Power (2009, Pegasus) -- and sometimes he seems a little glib here: e.g., Chapter 3: A Bit of Trouble in the Great White North; Chapter 6: In Nuclear Research Even the Goof-ups are Fascinating; Chapter 8: The Military Almost Never Lost a Nuclear Weapon. Fukushima Daiichi is at least called a tragedy, although you wonder whether he felt that for Japan or for the industry.
Joshua Muravchik: Making David Into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel (2014, Encounter Books): Author notes that as late as 1967 Americans and Europeans overwhelmingly favored Israel in its conflict with the Arabs, but the tide of public opinion in the west has markedly turned against Israel. I doubt the author attributes this shift to the "facts on the ground" Israel has so assiduously constructed -- the occupation, the settlements, the failure to resolve the world's largest and most persistent refugee crisis, the denial of basic civil rights to Palestinians, Israel's periodic bombing of neighboring countries, the growing power of an increasingly racist right-wing. Rather, he looks at the public relations battle, how Israeli Hasbara has been countered in various forums (especially among the democratic left, which he accuses of a new "leftist orthodoxy in which class struggle was supplanted by noble struggles of people of color").
Michael B Oren: Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide (2015, Random House): Author of what is probably the standard military history of the 1967 war (at least from the Israeli side, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East; I can't think of anything remotely comparable from the Arab sides) and a long history of US adventures in the Middle East (Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present), Oren is also a political activist of Israel's right-wing, serving as Israeli ambassador to the US 2009-13. So this is a memoir of his advocacy, which primarily involved beating the war drums against his fantasy view of Iran while avoiding doing anything constructive about the real conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Adding to the surrealism is that Oren was born in the US, citizenship which he only renounced in 2009 -- a background which helps him promote the myth that the two nations should really act as one, with Israel calling the shots.
Timothy H Parsons: The Rule of Empires: Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, and Why They Always Fall (2010; paperback, 2012, Oxford University Press): His examples: Roman Britain, Muslim Spain, Spanish Peru, Napoleonic Italy, British India and Kenya, Vichy France. I imagine you could add your own examples, especially as the dynamics reappear in case after case -- although his cases vary in many respects, such as time (four centuries down to six years), integration of local elites, the religion of the rulers and the degree of conversion, the empires are inevitably driven by exploitation and instinct for survival to make themselves unwelcome. One can also argue that the world's tolerance for empires is declining, even cases which cloak their control as ingeniously as the US does.
Henry M Paulson: Dealing With China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower (2015, Twelve): Head of Goldman Sachs, Treasury Secretary to GW Bush, some insider, close enough much of the book can be done as memoir. There are whole shelves of books on China's economic rise and the threat that implies to American economic supremacy (as if the latter is even a real thing in this age of multinational corporations and unrestricted capital flows).
Richard Reeves: Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment in World War II (2015, Henry Holt): Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the US into WWII, the government began rounding up Japanese-Americans and trucked them off to spend the war in concentration camps -- a story which in the muddled mind of Wesley Clark became a template for a new wave of camps for troubled Muslim youths, but which most Americans with any awareness recall as one of the more shameful episodes in American history. Racism against East Asians has largely faded in recent years, but was rampant well past WWII, and it was at the root of this.
Richard Rhodes: Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospects for a World Without Nuclear Weapons (2010; paperback, 2011, Vintage): No idea how I missed this, having read all three of Rhodes' previous books on the subject: The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986); Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (1995); and Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race (2007). This volume attempts to tie up various loose ends, and spends a lot of time on Iraq, less on securing the former Soviet Union's arsenal, the dismantling of South Africa's bombs, North Korea, and the NPT -- less so on the French and Chinese projects that produced bombs in the 1960s, on Israel-India-Pakistan (the latter developed a bomb by 1990, the former two in the 1970s), the Iran controversy, and various other countries that worked on bombs but abandoned them (he mentions Taiwan and South Korea, both pressured by the US). Probably enough material left over for a fifth book. Doesn't look like he's going to find closure any time soon, although it's likely that Iran will soon be as dormant as Iraq seems now.
James S Robbins: This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive (2010; paperback, 2012, Encounter Books): Put this on a shelf with Lewis Sorley's A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam (1999) as a piece of Monday-morning quarterbacking, an attempt to argue that the United States needn't have lost in Vietnam -- that in fact the troops were winning the war but the American people and their leaders let them down. Part of this view is the notion that the Tet Offensive in 2008, when Vietnamese forces penetrated to the center of most Vietnamese cities, spent so many resources that by the time the offensive was beaten back the Vietnamese were near defeat. But at the time, it didn't look that way: what the Tet Offensive showed, graphically, was that the propaganda coming out of Washington, justifying the war and touting future victory, was plain horseshit. Same for these revisionist ploys: they depend on the same sort of magical thinking that makes all American war planning seen invincible. How rational people can continue to believe this after the actual track record both in Vietnam and later in Afghanistan and Iraq is unfathomable, but the DOD and CIA have plenty of jobs for people who persist in this fantasy. One clue why is the reason I couldn't bring myself to write "NVA" or "VC" above -- I wrote "Vietnamese," because America's enemies there were the Vietnamese people, and the US couldn't claim victory there without killing nearly all of them. The cold fact is that had the Army not thrown in the towel and quit in 1973, had each administration after the other hung tough and kept the killing going, however many Vietnamese are left would still be fighting America today. The revisionists are offering a formula not for peace but for perpetual war, and that war is wrong not just because it can never be won -- it's wrong because it was never right in the first place.
Jan Jarboe Russell: The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II (2015, Scribner): In addition to the mass internment of Japanese-Americans, FDR set up a concentration camp in Texas where the US kept whole families of German and Italian natives (many US citizens), on the theory that they could be traded both Americans trapped behind enemy lines by the outbreak of war -- something called "quiet passage."
Shlomo Sand: How I Stopped Being a Jew (2014, Verso): Short essay (112 pp), from a relentless critic of Israel's system of identity classifications (Jew, etc.), hard-and-fast rules he's argued against in several previous books: The Invention of the Jewish People (2009, Verso); The Invention of the Land of Israel: From Holy Land to Homeland (2012, Verso).
David Satter: It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway (paperback, 2013, Yale University Press): Explores current Russian attitudes to the Soviet Union, including the fact that many Russians "actually mourn the passing of the Soviet regime." Satter previously wrote two of the more important books on recent Russian history: Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union (1996) and Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State (2003). For a different angle on this, see: Peter Pomerantsev: Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia (2014, Public Affairs).
Eric Schlosser: Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (2013; paperback, 2014, Penguin Press): Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, no nation has used nuclear weapons in war. One might chalk that up to the idea, much touted by the very scientists who invented the thing in the first place, that nuclear weapons have made war unthinkable, although you'd also have to concede that it was not for lack of "thinking about the unthinkable" by the world's Dr. Strangeloves (Herman Kahn even wrote a book with that title). It's also the case that no one has accidentally set a nuclear bomb off, the prospect that Schlosser writes about. The "Damascus accident" occurred in 1980 in a Titan missile silo near Damascus, Arkansas (a few miles north of Little Rock): a dropped tool punctured a fuel tank, which caused the missile to explode, but the nuclear warhead on top of the missile didn't detonate (although the explosion did spray radioactive materials hither and yon). Needless to say, this wasn't the only such accident. Schlosser covers a wide range of them, the engineering problems they presented, and the politics on all sides.
Frederick AO Schwarz Jr: Democracy in the Dark: The Seduction of Government Secrecy (2015, New Press): Former chief counsel to the Church Committee on Intelligence -- you know, back in the 1970s, the last time Congress seriously tried to figure out what the CIA had been up to. Much of what we know about the CIA was aptly summed up by Tim Weiner: Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (2007). They've been able to get away with such incompetence and criminality only inasmuch as they've been able to keep what they've done secret. Indeed, secrecy hides rot and degeneracy everywhere it occurs in government.
David K Shipler: Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword (2015, Knopf): Journalist, wrote a basic book, The Working Poor: Invisible in America (2004), has lately turned his attention to threats to fundamental American liberties -- The Rights of the People: How Our Search for Safety Invades Our Liberties (2011), and Rights at Risk: The Limits of Liberty in Modern America (2012). I'd expect this to be the balanced book on freedom of speech issues that Kirsten Powers' The Silencing isn't. I wonder how far this goes into the recent vogue for extending corporate powers under the guise of free speech -- e.g., the "right" to engage in unlimited campaign graft.
Jason Stanley: How Propaganda Works (2015, Princeton University Press): I read a book on sales closes once and it included some helpful advice on how to keep from being sold something you don't want: recognize the close. Like a good close, propaganda needs to sneak up on you to be effective, so if this book does reveal the secrets, it will help you see through them, and take back control over your own mind. Although anyone can construct propaganda for any position, in real life propaganda is very unbalanced. Part of this is that it's expensive, something the rich can afford while the poor cannot. Also, propaganda is needed for positions that cannot be argued by appealing to logic, facts, and the general welfare, and those are overwhelmingly concentrated on the right. For example, one of the better ones was Bush's proposal to allow timber companies to shred public lands: they called this the Health Forests Initiative. Likewise, Stanley's examples are mostly from the right. Stanley previously wrote Know How (paperback, 2013, Oxford University Press).
Bettina Strangneth: Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer (2014, Knopf): Author picks through "more than 1,300 pages of Eichmann's own recently discovered written notes -- as well as seventy-three extensive audio reel recordings of a crowded Nazi salon held weekly during the 1950s in a popular district of Buenos Aires" to construct a portrait of the Nazi war criminal in exile, and concludes that his self-effacing act on trial in Jerusalem in 1961, which led Hannah Arendt to coin the term "balanity of evil" -- was just an act.
Bert Randolph Sugar: The Baseball Maniac's Almanac: The Absolutely, Positively, and Without Question Greatest Book of Facts, Figures, and Astonishing Lists Ever Compiled (3rd edition, paperback, 2010, Skyhorse): Caught my eye because I used to belong to a club called Baseball Maniacs, but pretty sure none of us got any royalties. Basically a trivia book, chock full of statistical lists, some pretty obvious but most involving multiple selection criteria; e.g. "3000 Hits, 500 Home Runs, and a .300 Batting Average, Career": just Hank Aaron and Willie Mays; "Players with 2500 Career Hits, Never Having a 200-Hit Season": 29 players topped by Carl Yastrzemski, Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield, and Cap Anson (who never played a 100-game season until he was 32 and only topped 140 once), and including great hitters who walked a lot, like Rickey Henderson, Mel Ott, Barry Bonds, and Ted Williams. The old players I recognize, like George Gore (a teammate of Anson's with a lifetime .301 BA), still the player born in Maine with the most base hits. Instantly obsolete, of course, the kind of book that's unlikely to be updated in the future -- it would be easy to replace it with a free website. Sugar has several list books like this, but his real interest is boxing.
Elana Maryles Sztokman: The War on Women in Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Women Fighting for Freedom (2014, Sourcebooks): Jewish feminist, has written two other books on Israel's politically established Orthodox Judaism -- The Men's Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World (2011, Brandeis); Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools (2013, Brandeis) -- and their increasing insistence on segregating and bullying women over what they consider immodest dress. She should probably write her next book on Orthodox homophobia -- an Orthodox recently stabbed six people in a Jerusalem Gay Pride parade. Also on the evolution of Israeli Orthodoxy: Marc B Shapiro: Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites It History (2015, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization).
David Vine: Base Nation: How American Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World (2015, Metropolitan Books): Even skipping the better known war zones, there are hundreds of bases, costing on the order of $100 billion per year. Their presence is one reason the US shares blame for the regimes they reside in, and one reason the US is repeatedly dragged into the world's wars -- even ones we're not directly responsible for. Closing those bases is an essential step to extricating the US from war abroad, with all the damage that causes both there and here.
Nikolaus Wachsmann: KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps (2015, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Attempts to provide a complete history of Nazi Germany's concentration camps -- KL for Konzentrationslager -- from the beginning in March 1933 when the target was ostensibly "social deviants -- an ever-expanding definition that came to include everyone who suffered the Fuhrer's ire. Big job, big book (880 pp). Other books continue to come out, most showing that no matter how definitive the big book looks, there's always more misery to uncover: Sarah Helm: Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women (2015, Nan A Talese); Elissa Malländer: Female SS Guards and Workaday Violence: The Majdanek Concentration Camp, 1942-1944 (2015, Michigan State University Press); Dan Stone: The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and Its Aftermath (2015, Yale University Press); Kim Wünschmann: Before Auschwitz: Jewish Prisoners in the Prewar Concentration Camps (2015, Harvard University Press).
Michael Walzer: The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions (2015, Yale University Press): "Many of the successful campaigns for national liberation in the years following World War II were initially based on democratic and secular ideals. Once established, however, the newly independent nations had to deal with entirely unexpected religious fierceness." Examples are: India, Israel, Algeria. Walzer's skill at rationalizing "just wars" is always suspect, but he raises a fair question. I wonder whether he recognizes the role of the US (and other post-colonial powers) in promoting religious reactionaries to undermine socialism? Or that the violence needed to liberate those nations was itself fertile ground for religious reaction?
Especially on the old lists, there were a lot of books that I didn't feel like writing up, mostly because they're no longer timely (or recent), but some just because I didn't have much to say about. So I figured I'd just list them here. In a couple cases I've added a very short explanation, but mostly I'll let the titles/subtitles speak for themselves. I also saved a few of the more recent ones, so this is likely to become a regular feature (given that books worth noting the existence of but not worth spending much time on are likely to be published in the future; in fact, in a couple cases I threw away blurbs that didn't say anything to file the books here).
Wednesday, August 5. 2015
Downbeat sent me a couple pieces of mail asking me to vote in their Readers Poll, but without clear instructions. Google shows the SurveyMonkey URI to be here. (By all means, follow it and vote. I think the deadline is August 12. FYI, Tim Niland also posted his ballot here.) I voted in their Critics Poll back in April. That's a more complex ballot -- main difference is that we were asked to identify Rising Stars in each category -- and I tried to think of that task as a critic. For the Readers Poll, I figure I just have to be a fan. I also figure there are more people voting, and it probably won't do any good to write names in. I also intend to go fast: to look nothing up, to write no comments. The only thing slow I'm doing is to keep the following list. The first one listed is the one I voted for. Others are possible choices I picked out in scanning the list (in alphabetical, not rank, order). "NOB" means not on ballot: I'm not trying to suggest names for the ballot, but sometimes a name occurs to me that I might have voted for but wasn't on the ballot. Since the ballots typically have 30-60 names, such omissions are especially egregious. The alternates fade out past percussion -- it was getting late, and I don't think much about categories like Composer or Arranger (or Blues Album).
Full album ballot breakdowns follow the fold.
Downbeat published their Critics Poll results in their August issue. Good year for the Indian-Americans with Vijay Iyer winning Jazz Artist and Jazz Group and Rudresh Mahanthappa on top of the album chart. (Iyer finished 4th at piano, behind Kenny Barron, Jason Moran, and Fred Hersch, but ahead of guys named Corea, Hancock, and Jarrett. Mahanthappa won at alto sax, ahead of Kenny Garrett and two Colemans.) I'm not a fan of Bird Calls, and voted for neither of them, but they've done a lot of outstanding work, some together and most separately.
Lee Konitz finally won the Hall of Fame vote. He's been in the top 3-4 spots as long as I can recall, but people keep dying and getting a sympathy (or consciousness) bounce ahead of him. I've voted for him every year so far I could. My runner up pick, the late George Russell, is down in 18th, so I despair of him ever getting in. The Veterans Committee added Muddy Waters, which gives you an idea of how poorly populated their blues wing is -- even having recently added Robert Johnson (VC-2013), Dinah Washington (VC-2014), and B.B. King (R-2014). (Among those still missing: Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Memphis Minnie. T-Bone Walker got some VC votes but fell short, as did Eubie Blake and Herbie Nichols.)
The win I least fathom is Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet), big margin over Dave Douglas and Wadada Leo Smith. There used to be a big edge in this poll for artists on major labels, especially Blue Note. You see hints of this elsewhere: Joe Lovano and Charles Lloyd finished 1-2 in tenor sax, but that doesn't raise any eyebrows. Nor does Jason Moran at 2nd in piano (1st was Kenny Barron, on Impulse, a duo album with number 2 bassist Dave Holland). On the other hand, Robert Glasper won keyboard (ok, a weak/wobbly category), Gregory Porter topped male vocalist (with José James 4th), and Brian Blade knocked off Jack DeJohnette in drums. Blue Note did lose top label to ECM (with Iyer, Lloyd until recently, Jarrett, DeJohnette, and a lot of Europeans that American critics never vote for). Given that Blue Note and ECM only send me links, I may not be as appreciative as other critics, but I also suspect there's more to it than the publicist schmoozing. Downbeat's critics do like to stay in a comfortable mainstream: for evidence, let me point to a couple former-Verve artists who have won many polls and still do well: Kenny Garrett (2 in alto saxophone), and Christian McBride (1 in bass).
Downbeat's Rising Star divisions are always problematical in that there's no hard/fast rules for who is eligible vs. who has risen (or established that they haven't). For instance, Khan Jamal came in 3rd as Rising Star in vibraphone: he's older than I am, cut his first album in 1972 (Sounds of Liberation, a terrific album Porter reissued in 2010), and hasn't had a record out since 2009 (on SteepleChase, a Danish label no one gets). I recall being impressed by him on a couple of Matthew Shipp's Blue Series records, but I've never heard any of his own records (Wikipedia lists 18). As I recall, Sam Most was listed as a Rising Star into his 80s, even though he literally invented bebop flute in the 1950s (i.e., before Herbie Mann, or any other jazz musician you've ever heard of playing flute).
Of course, those are categories where you're always scrambling for names. The major categories are more meaningful: Kirk Knuffke won trumpet (Peter Evans 3rd, Taylor Ho Bynum 5th, Amir ElSaffar 7th); Ryan Keberle trombone (Joe Fiedler 5th, Jacob Garchik 6th); Steve Lehman alto sax (Darius Jones 2nd, Matana Roberts 4th, Mike DiRubbo 9th, Dave Rempis 12th); Chris Speed clarinet (Oscar Noriega 2nd); David Virelles piano (Kris Davis 2nd); Tyshawn Sorey drums (Paal Nilssen-Love 10th). Lehman, by the way, also won artist, and his album, Mise En Abime, came in 2nd. On the other hand Concord topped two major categories with artists who haven't impressed me yet: Ben Williams (bass, beating Eric Revis) and Melissa Aldana (tenor sax, ahead of Marcus Strickland). As I've said, it's tough to fill out these ballots.
On the other hand, a few people won whose names have yet to register in my memory (assuming I've run across them at all: Erica von Kleist (flute), Giovanni Hidalgo (percussion), Allan Harris (male vocalist). That happens, especially in the minor categories. I might have added Michael Blum (guitar) to that list, but he sent me his first album (a low B+) with a personal cover letter asking me to vote for him. He's not the only one who ever did that, but somehow he won a 96-69 landslide -- with 5 points max he managed to get at least 20 out of 141 critics to vote for him. (That he bought a full-page ad to congratulate himself couldn't possibly have had any influence?)
The thing is, consider his competition: the top ten guitarists he beat were Lage Lund (5 albums + 2 as OWL Trio), Jakob Bro (10 albums, his latest on ECM), Joel Harrison (16 albums), Liberty Ellman (4 albums, important side credits), Jonathan Kreisberg (10 albums), Paul Bollenback (8 albums), Gilad Hekselman (4 albums), Matthew Stevens (3 albums, Christian Scott), Adam Rogers (8 albums, Chris Potter), Jeff Parker (5 albums, nearly every Chicago avant group since 1994 that needed a guitarist); the next nine include Will Bernard, Brandon Seabrook, Raoul Björkenheim, and Nguyên Lê -- I voted for Björkenheim and two guys who didn't place in the top 20: Samo Salamon and Anders Nilsson, and I noted as candidates: Scott DuBois, Nir Felder, Gordon Grdina, Ross Hammond, Eric Hofbauer, Luis Lopes, Jon Lundbom, Pete McCann, Terrence McManus, Michael Musillami, Miles Okazaki, Mark O'Leary, Kevin O'Neil, Jacob Young, and a bunch of older guys who weren't on either ballot (like Marc Ducret, Dom Minasi, Brad Shepik, Ulf Wakenius, and a dozen more).
Blum, by the way, has a second album out, which I like about as much as the first. I'd say he's roughly on a level with Andy Brown and Joe Cohn -- has some traits of each, and since he sings some on the second album, maybe he aspires to someone like John Pizzarelli (although he's nowhere near the singer). Those are all guys who make albums I rather like, so I don't mean to be insulting, but none of those names made it to the previous paragraph.
Continue reading "Downbeat Readers Poll"
Tuesday, August 4. 2015
I started doing these book blurb "roundups" in April 2007. This is the 57th such column, so I've averaged about 7 per year. I don't recall when I introduced the 40-book limit, but that should add up to a little more than 2000 books over 8 years. (The actual cumulative file has 3319 paragraphs in it, of which a couple hundred are probably redundant blurbs -- most often written for paperback reprints.) This last week I've been trying to catch up with the last 12 months -- a break in my postings, although I had taken notes and written a few entries during that time. That yielded a column on June 17 and two more last week, with this the third. Forty books here leave me with a little more than twenty in the draft file. I'm going to try to round them up to a fourth installment later this week. The main thing that's slowing me down is that I have at least eight notebooks with lists of books I jotted down at various bookstores, and I'm slowly going through them, trying to decipher my atrocious handwriting, and look things up. Some of the books are worth adding, but many more are dated -- in fact, I'm finding a lot from around 2010 (along with notes on Borders coupons; frankly, I haven't been to many bookstores since Borders was shut down). More on that later.
Meanwhile, here's another forty books from the last year or two. My interest in collecting these is to get a sense of the public debate on important political/social/economic issues and their history (although sometimes my interests are a bit wider than that). With very few exceptions, these are not books I've read, or even actually looked at. The information is mostly gathered by browsing through Amazon or (rarely) other websites, so it depends on published summaries, blurbs, occasionally reader comments, and sometimes by looking at the partial preview scans.
Ali Abunimah: The Battle for Justice in Palestine (paperback, 2014, Haymarket Books): Palestinian blogger, previously wrote One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, tries to remain hopeful.
Hisham D Aidi: Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture (paperback, 2014, Vintage): Explores musical subcultures among Muslim youth around the world, primarily hip-hop but also rock, reggae, and more traditional forms like Gnawa. Also seems to know the history where bits of traditional Muslim music worked into blues, jazz, and other genres we don't associate with the Muslim world. I see no mention of metal here, but it's worth noting Mark LeVine: Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (paperback, 2008, Three Rivers Press).
George A Akerlof/Robert J Shiller: Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception (2015, Princeton University Press): Two Nobel Prize economists who built their careers by exploring cases where markets fail, co-authors of Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism (2009). Proper functioning of markets depends on perfect information, but that rarely exists. That leaves a lot of opportunity for profit through fraud, and that's what this is about.
David Bromwich: Moral Imagination: Essays (2014, Princeton University Press): A dozen essays, three in Part Two on Abraham Lincoln. The ones I'd be most interested in reading: "The Meaning of Patriotism in 1789" and "Comments on Perpetual War" with its sections on Cheney, Snowden, and "What 9/11 Makes Us Forget." I read an essay of his on American Exceptionalism that doesn't seem to be here, unless it's the better-titled "The American Psychosis" (or "The Self-Deceptions of Empire").
Paul Buhle/David Berger: Bohemians: A Graphic History (paperback, 2014, Verso): Buhle was editor of Radical America way back when. A historian, he had an interest in comics long before graphic novels became commonplace. This explores the counterculture before the word was coined. Buhle also collaborated on: w/Nicole Schulman: Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World (paperback, 2005, Verso); w/Sharon Rudahl: Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman (paperback, 2007, New Press); w/Howard Zinn/Mike Konopacki: A People's History of American Empire (paperback, 2008, Metropolitan Books); w/Denis Kitchen: The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics (2009, Abrams); w/Harvey Pekar: Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History (paperback, 2009, Hill & Wang); w/Harvey Pekar: The Beats: A Graphic History (2009; paperback, 2010, Hill & Wang); and he's written two "For Beginners" books -- which, by the way, is a good place to start on anything they cover: FDR and the New Deal for Beginners (paperback, 2010, For Beginners); Lincoln for Beginners (paperback, 2015, For Beginners).
Ha-Joon Chang: Economics: The User's Guide (2014, Bloomsbury Press): A basic economics primer from a Korean economist who's been known to cast a critical eye on capitalism and its myths of development strategy; cf. his Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective (2002), Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism (2007) and 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism (2011).
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Between the World and Me (2015, Spiegel & Grau): Short (176 pp) book, a memoir as a letter to a teenage son, life lessons and all that, an Afro-American essayist being compared to James Baldwin but from a different (but not that different) era. Previously wrote The Beautiful Struggle: A Memoir (2009).
Paul Collier: Exodus: How Migration Is Changing Our World (2013; paperback, 2015, Oxford University Press): A more general book on what we narrow-mindedly call immigration, Collier is the author of several books on things that generate migration, including: The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (paperback, 2007, Oxford University Press); Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places (2009, Harper; paperback, 2010, Harper Perennial); and The Plundered Planet: Why We Must -- and How We Can -- Manage Nature for Global Prosperity (2010; paperback, 2011, Oxford University Press). Book's original subtitle (in UK): Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century.
Tom Engelhardt: Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (paperback, 2014, Haymarket Books): Another collections of columns from the author's TomDispatch website, on various aspects of the US security state and its shaky pretensions to empire.
Rory Fanning: Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger's Journey Out of the Military and Across America (paperback, 2014, Haymarket Books): A former Army Ranger, a member of the same unit that killed Pat Tillman in Afghanistan, leaves the military and tries to find the America he once thought he was serving. Turns out his service was not in vain -- it was just suspended for a few years due to his wrong turn into the Army.
Robert A Ferguson: Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment (2014, Harvard University Press): America's criminal justice system is broken, in large part because those who run it seem unable to grasp the notion that punishment should be limited, both for practical reasons (like declining effectiveness) and because it systematizes brutality.
Martin Ford: Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (2015, Basic Books): Written by "a Silicon Valley entrepreneur," argues that with recent and expected advances in automation and artificial intelligence the future will offer ever fewer "good jobs" (or for that matter jobs of any sort). The result will be unprecedented unemployment -- made worse, I'm sure, by the conservative mantra that forces people into ever poorer jobs. By the way, that's also pretty much the point of James K Galbraith: The End of Normal: The Great Crisis and the Future of Growth (2014, Simon & Schuster).
Brandon L Garrett: Too Big to Jail: How Prosecutors Compromise With Corporations (2014, Belknap Press): Although we've lately seen some large fines, none of the people who wrecked the economy in 2008 (except Bernie Madoff, I guess) have been so much as threatened with jail terms -- surprising given the magnitude of fraud in some of the cases.
Jonathan Marc Gribetz: Defining Neighbors: Religion, Race, and Early Zionist-Arab Encounter (2014, Princeton University Press): Explores how Jews and Arabs interacted in the early days of Zionist settlement, especially under Ottoman rule before the British tilted the tables in favor of Zionism. Gribetz argues that at least within this period the two peoples didn't see themselves in nationalist terms, but were separated on other bases (like religion and race). It occurs to me that the Ottomans provided just that framework, one which changed dramatically when the English took over (when Zionists adopted British colonial attitudes and tactics, while both sides realized that nationalism would provide a path to independence).
Tim Harford: The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: How to Run -- or Ruin -- an Economy (2014, Riverhead): Author of a series of book that try to explain economics with everyday examples, attempts to make the leap from micro to macro here. Not sure whether he's up to it, especially given the summaries I've read. I've read one of his book, and don't remember a thing about it.
Andrew Hartman: A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (2015, University of Chicago Press): The phrase "culture war" is brandied about so often that you probably know what Hartman is writing about -- a laundry list of hot-button issues ("abortion, affirmative action, art, censorship, feminism, and homosexuality") that the (mostly religious) right got worked up about since whenever, their hysteria more effective once they aligned with the right-wing Reagan juggernaut. But to call this a "war" posits a skirmish where both sides attack the other: in fact, the attacks almost all come from the right, and what they're attacking is most often an extension of basic civil and human rights contrary to the most cherished prejudices of the right. Note that the list above doesn't include theocracy, which is what most of the huff is really about.
Dale Jamieson: Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed -- and What It Means for Our Future (2014, Oxford University Press): Author, a philosopher, seems to accept the basic science of climate change -- indeed, "in his view, catastrophic ecological damage is a foregone conclusion" -- but has more trouble with why so many people have trouble coming to grips with the issue. One thing he focuses on is lack of agency: the sense that what little we can do as individuals doesn't matter. Not clear that he digs behind this sense of powerlessness to look at the economic interests that benefit -- at least within the narrow confines of their accounting systems -- from filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. Related: George Marshall: Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (2014, Bloomsbury Press).
Mark LeVine/Mathias Mossberg, eds: One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States (paperback, 2014, University of California Press): A collection of essays that attempt to work out how two states, defined not by territory but by their respective citizenship cohorts, might work to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I don't see the term, but this looks like a refinement of the bi-national notion that pops up periodically when prospects for two-states or one-state look especially grim, but never seems more than an idea. This is, indeed, "thinking outside the box" (a chapter title).
John R MacArthur: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America: Or, Why a Progressive Presidency is Impossible (paperback, 2012, Melville House): Written after Obama had nearly finished his first term but before his reelection, it's clear that the author didn't consider his first term progressive -- well, neither did I. Also early enough to include a blurb by George McGovern, who knows a few things about what can happen to a smart and fundamentally decent human being when he dares run for president. And while running is bad enough, one recalls how both Clinton and Obama abandoned issues they ran on almost the instant they entered the White House. MacArthur's previous books include The Selling of "Free Trade": NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Democracy (2000).
Michaelangelo Matos: The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America (2015, Dey Street Books): The one critic I try to follow regularly for his insights into techno or electronica or EDM or whatever you call it -- I still remain blissfully ignorant of the distinctions between the dozen or so subgenres my favorite Detroit-area record store uses. So I grabbed this as soon as it came out, and some day hope to get around to it.
Jane McAlevey: Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement (paperback, 2014, Verso): Trying to revive the American labor movement, from the front lines, by a (relatively) successful labor organizer.
Robert W McChesney: Blowing the Roof Off the Twenty-First Century: Media, Politics, and the Struggle for Post-Capitalist Democracy (2014, Monthly Review Press): Professor of communications, media critic, has a pile of books, mostly on how media in America is perverted by corporate control, and the ill effect that has on democracy.
David Ohana/David Maisel: The Origins of Israeli Mythology: Neither Canaanites Nor Crusaders (paperback, 2014, Cambridge University Press): Attempts to explain Zionism through the symbolic opposition and entanglement of two story lines: one that roots the Israelis unshakably deep in the history of the land, the other that recognizes their conquest from outside but proclaims it divine.
Thomas Piketty: Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty: Summary, Key Ideas and Facts (paperback, 2014, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform): Short (112 pp.) summary of Piketty's bestselling book: the most important book to have appeared recently on increasing inequality, the central political problem of our time.
Thomas Piketty: The Economics of Inequality (2015, Belknap Press): A short (160 pp) general text on inequality, older than last year's monumental Capital in the Twenty-First Century -- most likely a translation (and possibly update) of 2004's L'économie des inégalités.
Katha Pollitt: Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights (2014, Picador): One of the few books I've seen recently that seeks to regain the moral high ground on the issue of reproductive rights, of which access to safe abortions is essential. A longtime feminist flag-waving columnist, her essays were previously collected as Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time (paperback, 2006, Random House).
Jake Rosenfeld: What Unions No Longer Do (2014, Harvard University Press): A history of the decline of labor unions in America, and what we as a nation lose by no longer having unions to advocate for American workers sharing a more equitable stake in the economy. Several more recent books on the decline (and/or hoped for revitalization) of unions: Stanley Aronowitz: The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Worker's Movement (2014, Verso Books); Steve Early: Save Our Unions: Dispatches From a Movement in Distress (paperback, 2013, Monthly Review Press); Raymond L Hogler: The End of American Labor Unions: The Right-to-Work Movement and the Erosion of Collective Bargaining (2015, Praeger). Thomas Geoghegan, in Only One Thing Can Save Us Now: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement (2014, New Press), argues for treating the right to join a union (which is enshrined by law under the Wagner Act but virtually unenforceable) as a civil right, under civil rights law.
Peter Schweizer: Extortion: How Politicians Extract Your Money, Buy Votes, and Line Their Own Pockets (2013, Houghton Mifflin): Would seem like an equal-opportunity politician-hater -- previous book was Throw Them All Out: How Politicians and Their Friends Get Rich Off Insider Stock Tips, Land Deals, and Cronyism That Would Send the Rest of Us to Prison but he's also written tomes flattering conservatives (Makers and Takers: Why Conservatives Work Harder, Feel Happier, Have Closer Families, Take Fewer Drugs, Give More Generously, Value Honesty More, Are Less Materialistic and Envious, Whine Less . . . and Even Hug Their Children More Than Liberals) and slamming government (Architects of Ruin: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation). The fact is that the entire political system is open to corruption, and insiders of both parties are protective of it: indeed, they're pretty much selected for their ability to raise money. Still, there are differences: on the one side there is the party that acknowledges that there is such a thing as the public interest and occasionally considers the desires of people without money, and on the other side there is the celebrates the naked pursuit of self-interest and does everything it can to allow businesses and property owners to rip your off. Obama promised much during his campaign, and one thing promised he did absolutely nothing on was to work to limit the influence of money on politics. Whether he was sincere or not is almost beside the point: as you can see by the alignment of the majority in the Citizens United case, the leading promoters of corruption in politics today are conservatives, in large part because they realize their is to anti-popular that the only way they can win is to bury the issues in expensive propaganda. Still, the likely error here is thinking that politicians are shaking down business (extortion) rather than business corrupting the politicians. To test what's really happening you should weigh the relative economic slices. One thing you'll find is that politicians work pretty cheap.
Richard Seymour: Against Austerity: How We Can Fix the Crisis They Made (paperback, 2014, Pluto Press): Prescribing austerity to cure a recession is much like the mediaeval practice of bleeding patients, and backed by about as much science and logic. British writer, sees austerity as class struggle, as an attack on the working class, as if the recession didn't do damage enough.
Pat Shipman: The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction (2015, Belknap Press): Co-author of The Neandertals: Changing the Image of Mankind (1993, with Erik Trinkaus), also wrote The Animal Connection: A New Perspective on What Makes Us Human (2011). The former book did much to give us a sense of how modern neanderthals were, so the question of their extinction continued to puzzle, advancing speculation (or whatever) here.
Les Standiford: Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles (2015, Ecco): The story of the Los Angeles Water Company and construction of a 233-mile aqueduct to move water from the Sierra Nevada to the desert valley that became Los Angeles -- a story vaguely familiar if you've seen the movie Chinatown, or read Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (1986, revised 1993).
Wolfgang Streeck: Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism (paperback, 2014, Verso): Lectures providing a brief history and critique of neoliberalism since the 1970s, focusing on how the business doctrine interacts with (undermines) democracy.
Richard H Thaler: Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics (2015, WW Norton): One of the first economists to look at irrational behavior in economics (as opposed to the usual math-simplifying assumption of rational actors), became better known when he teamed with political theorist Cass Sunstein for Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Presumably more analysis here, and less of the wonkery they call "libertarian paternalism."
Laurence Tribe/Joshua Matz: Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution (2014, Henry Holt): On the very divided Supreme Court, which seems to tip one way or the other on uncertain whims, sometimes as extreme as the Citizens United ruling which practically turns elections into auctions.
George R Tyler: What Went Wrong: How the 1% Hijacked the American Middle Class . . . and What Other Countries Got Right (2013, BenBella Books): Author has a background in international non-profits, particularly regarding pharmaceuticals, so he not only understands the nuts and bolts of increasing inequality, he knows how more robust safety nets outside the US have cushioned the blow.
Kenneth P Vogel: Big Money: 2.5 Billion Dollars, One Suspicious Vehicle, and a Pimp -- on the Trail of the Ultra-Rich, Hijacking American Politics (2014, Public Affairs): Sort of a "who's who" of the big money players in American politics, some notorious like Sheldon Adelson and the Kochs, others more discreet. American politics has always been highly corruptible, all the more so as the nation's wealth is increasingly captured to a tiny elite.
David Weil: The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can Be Done About It (2014, Harvard University Press): The reason is worker's loss of power/leverage. Weil specifically focuses on outsourcing but that's only one piece, and indeed the threat of outsourcing is often effective at cutting the knees from under workers. Loss of worker power lets companies do other dastardly things, but even if they are less malign, the loss of interest lets all sorts of rot set in. Weil sees better regulations as helping without denying companies "the beneficial aspects of this innovative business strategy." Another approach would be unions.
Tim Weiner: One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon (2015, Henry Holt): Author of two sprawling histories, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (2007) and Enemies: A History of the FBI (2012). As more of Nixon's tapes are opened up more precision is added to the history, not that the general lines weren't adequately revealed at the time. I mentioned this in a long list of recent Nixon books under the entry for Douglas Brinkley/Luke A Nichter: The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972, but felt it was worth singling out. For one thing, this is likely to be the most damning of the non-fringe books, and no one deserves a more jaundiced critical eye than Nixon.
Eric Weisbard: Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music (paperback, 2014, University of Chicago Press): As I recall, pop/rock seemed like a single mass culture in the early 1970s, but even then radio stations were coming up with various genre/formats to attract desired advertising niches, and by the '80s it was all over: one could listen to pop/rock all the time and never come across a top-ten single (excepting Madonna). In retrospect, other genres had split off well before the 1970s, and each makes for its own peculiar view into its own slice of the culture. This book looks back on the main ones, with the last chapter's post-millennial fragmentation the only one I have no sense of.
Darrell M West: Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust (paperback, 2014, Brookings Institution Press): Billionaires are different from mere millionaires. Many of the latter have the sort of economic security that ensures they can survive misfortunes and will never go wanting, but they are still need to do the accounting to keep their fortunes in shape. Billionaires are not just secure. They are so secure they have money they can't think of any conceivable use for other than to remake the world in their own image. US politics has become little more than a plaything for billionaires, much like polo ponies in olden days but far more dangerous.
Monday, August 3. 2015
Music: Current count 25234  rated (+44), 451  unrated (-2).
After wrapping up last week's (month's) Rhapsody Streamnotes on Wednesday, I decided I wanted to work on the long-delayed book posts -- two appeared on Friday and Saturday, and a third will probably appear tomorrow -- so I didn't want to think much about what to listen to while I was working. And nothing could have taken less thought than picking off records from the Spin 1985-2014 list, so that's what I did. A week ago there were 31 records on the list I hadn't heard. Now there are 12 -- 9 not on Rhapsody, 3 more I haven't checked yet (Deftones, Green Day, Total 4), so I'll at least check out the latter. (Several people mentioned that the missing albums are on YouTube, a resource I've never used for music -- probably because I've hated watching music videos since they first became mandatory in the '80s. I have occasionally consulted YouTube for plumbing tips.)
As the grades below attest, the alt/indie rock albums toward the bottom of Spin's list were pretty awful -- most so bad I didn't bother trying to fill in any other albums I had missed. (I did check out Aerosmith's Greatest Hits and Animal Collective's Feels, which beat the recommended albums, and Cursive's Domestica and M83's Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, which didn't.) I did go deeper into 2Pac and Lil Wayne (having only heard the former's posthumous Better Dayz, but I've heard most of the latter's later work -- even some of the numerous mixtapes). Main insight I got into 2Pac was that by the time All Eyez on Me arrived he had become so submerged in the process all those posthumous records shouldn't have been a surprise -- after all, his presence hardly matters. Lil Wayne had little presence in his first albums -- they are really just mixtapes (before their time) -- but he emerged as a star as Tha Carter series started. Dimmed after that stint in jail, of course, but the first three Tha Carters are pretty amazing records. (Good chance Tha Carter II would wind up full-A if I spent more time with it.)
I also checked out Best of Frankie Knuckles but it just gathers up his early 12-inchers and doesn't find its stride until the second half. He might benefit from the sort of career-spanning treatment Rhino gave Larry Levan in Journey Into Paradise: The Larry Levan Story, but thus far at least I've always found Chicago House a bit dull.
As I was going through the Spin list, I noticed new albums by Lil Wayne, Mount Eerie (ex Microphones), and Swervedriver. None turned out to be special. I managed to work a few new jazz CDs into the week, but nothing made much of an impression until Amir ElSaffar. Among other things -- and there are a lot of other things -- this is the first album where he's really made a big splash with his trumpet chops.
I don't make anything resembling a systematic effort to track books on music, but I do note some that strike my personal fancy. But in case some readers glaze over when presented with long lists of politics-economics-history, I thought I'd note the music (more or less) books from this spate of book posts (including a sneak peek at tomorrow's):
I've read Christgau's memoir, and have bought Matos' book -- something I want to learn more about, from someone I have immense respect for. The other one I find tempting is Aidi's Rebel Music, which among other things is likely to cognitively baffle most westerners with their preconceptions about Islamic fundamentalism. (I did read Mark LeVine's Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam, but I'm less fond of metal than hip-hop.) But the fact is that I have other reading priorities, and have long been coasting on the music knowledge-base I accumulated last century. So most of the music books I have bought over the last decade -- Szwed's Sun Ra biography and George Lewis' A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music are two important books that come to mind -- remain unread. Ned Sublette's Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo is the exception (and should be yours).
New records rated this week:
Old records rated this week:
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Saturday, August 1. 2015
As I noted yesterday, I had fallen way behind on my book blurb roundups -- almost a year missing until my June 17 post. (By the way, I blame Amazon for much of this, since their immensely useful website is all but guaranteed to crash my browser within a half-dozen pages. Lately I've been using the Chromebook's browser for Amazon, an awkward workflow but less troublesome.) I picked out most of the top political books for the June 27 post, and added most of the top historical books yesterday. That leaves a wide scattering of other subjects -- all at least nominally non-fiction. I don't generally track music books, but there are a few of those here. Some science too -- the main thing I read back in the 1980s, although I've scarcely had time for it in the last decade-plus (although I have at least tracked most of the climate catastrophe books). Some books lead to lists of related books, where I hope the titles are self-explanatory. And there are more of the usual political and historical books -- perhaps a bit more marginal given I've already picked through them in recent posts. Sometimes I pick out a right-wing book to argue with (Brooks, Gairdner, Powers, and Voegeli fit that bill below). Sometimes I don't have much to say about a left-wing book but want to note it anyway.
Sometimes I jump the gun before deciding that a book is really interesting, and those pieces tend to get stuck in my draft file until I finally flush them out. I have enough left over for at least one more post, so I may do that tomorrow (instead of Weekend Update, the file for which is empty at the moment).
Only one book below I have the cover cached for (i.e., I've already read), although I've also bought a copy of Steele's The Open-Source Everything Manifesto.
Samuel Avery: The Pipeline and the Paradigm: Keystone XL, Tar Sands, and the Battle to Defuse the Carbon Bomb (paperback, 2013, Ruka Press): On Alberta's tar sands and why they represent such a threat to irrevesibly amplify global warming. Also available: Andrew Nikiforuk: Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent (rev ed, paperback, 2010, Greystone Books); William Marsden: Stupid to the Last Drop: How Alberta Is Bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (and Doesn't Seem to Care (2007; paperback, 2008, Vintage). If you want to explore the other side, there's Alastair Sweeny: Black Bonanza: Canada's Oil Sands and the Race to Secure North America's Energy Future (2010, Wiley), and Ezra Levant: Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada's Oil Sands (2007, paperback, 2011, McClelland & Stewart) -- the latter is an anti-Arab rant, and the former plays on that prejudice while declaring everything else squeaky clean.
Robert B Baer: The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins (2014, Blue Rider Press): Ex-CIA agent, wrote about his career in See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism (2002); also Sleeping With the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude (2003), and The Devil We Know: Dealing With the New Iranian Superpower (2008). Not clear how critical and/or complicit he his, but this manual for assassins may try to have it both ways -- as if there are two sides to the story.
Alex Berezow/Hank Campbell: Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left (2014, Public Affairs): It should be clear by now that there is no single omnipresent Left in America, especially given how easily writers can construct strawman examples to kick about. This book picks on ones that the authors at least associate with the left, although from the list I see many (if not all) of the issues focus more on what corporations do with science and what the potential risks may be than on the science itself. Still, I do know people who might be considered left-leaning who understand very little of science and sympathisize with all sorts of nonscientific nonsense, but that's no less true of ignorant right-leaning people. What is different about the right is the number of people who seriously reject not just the policy application but the scientific principles behind climate change and evolution.
John Brockman, ed: What Should We Worried About?: Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up at Night (paperback, 2014, Harper Perennial): One thing that should be clear by now is that people aren't very good at assessing risks, especially ones that are large and/or distant, but also ones that are near and/or familiar. This book promises the clarity of science, but many of the pieces are a bit fuzzy ("Tim O'Reilly forsees a coming Dark Age; Douglas Rushkoff fears humanity is losing its soul" -- those are pieces that actually intrigue me more than meteoric catastrophes or financial black holes). Brockman, by the way, has a whole cottage industry editing books along these lines. Recent ones include (all Harper Perennial paperbacks): What Have You Changed Your Mind About?: Today's Leading Minds Rethink Everything (1/2009); This Will Change Everything: Ideas That Will Shape the Future (12/2009); Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?: The Net's Impact on Our Minds and Future (1/2011); This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking (2/2012); This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works (1/2013); Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction (10/2013).
David Brooks: The Road to Character (2015, Random House): Always one to jump out in front of a fad, this is a timely guide for those who want to blame social, economic, and political failures on those who have lost out, on their intrinsic character -- a lack of the sort of virtues that are assumed to lead to success. Those virtues, of course, are the usual conservative homilies. As a self-help book this might have some value, but Brooks is nothing if not a political hack, so when, say, he praises civil rights leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin for their "reticence and the logic of self-discipline" he really means to dismiss all the others who don't show enough deferrence to the conservative order.
Noam Chomsky/Andre Vltchek: On Western Terrorism: From Hiroshima to Drone Warfare (paperback, 2013, Pluto Press): Chomsky has a tendency to batter you with long list of facts, and one of his favorite lists is the violent, anti-democratic acts of the US and its allies around the world. Unpleasant as the beating is, if you aren't aware of those facts you're likely to fall for the usual sanctimonious explanations that conspire to keep the list growing.
Robert Christgau: Going Into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man (2015, Dey Street Books): Memoir from childhood growing up in Queens through college at Dartmouth and several newspaper jobs through his stretch as music editor at the Village Voice, ending in the early 1980s. Disclosure: he's a friend, and I make a couple brief appearances in the book, plus one in the acknowledgments. More prominent in the book is his wife, Carola Dibbell, who it should be noted has a new novel out, The Only Ones (paperback, 2015, Two Dollar Radio).
Niles Eldredge: Extinction and Evolution: What Fossils Reveal About the History of Life (2014, Firefly): Paleontologist, co-author (with Stephen Jay Gould) of the "punctuated equilibria" theory of evolution, which was suggested by the general lack of transitional finds in the fossil record. Illustrated, almost an art book. For a more technical book, see Eldredge's recent Eternal Ephemera: Adaptation and the Origin of Species From the Nineteenth Century Through Punctuated Equilibria and Beyond (2015, Columbia University Press). Over the years I've read a lot by Eldredge, but hadn't noticed: The Fossil Factory: A Kid's Guide to Digging Up Dinosaurs, Exploring Evolution, and Finding Fossils (with Douglas Eldredge, paperback, 2002, Roberts Reinhart); Why We Do It: Rethinking Sex and the Selfish Gene (paperback, 2005, WW Norton); Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life (2005, WW Norton); and Concrete Jungle: New York City and Our Last Best Hope for a Sustainable Future (with Sidney Horenstein, 2014, University of California Press).
Peter Finn/Petra Couvée: The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book (2014, Pantheon): The book was Boris Pasternak's famous novel, Doctor Zhivago, banned in the Soviet Union -- an opportunity the CIA seized upon by publishing it in Russian as a propaganda coup. The authors managed to get hold of CIA documents on the affair, most likely Russian sources as well.
William D Gairdner: The Great Divide: Why Liberals and Conservatives Will Never, Ever Agree (2015, Encounter Books): Author is Canadian, previously wrote books like The Trouble With Canada and The Trouble With Democracy, and the publisher is right-wing, so I don't expect he comes up with much of an answer. I'd say that polarization reflects increasing inequality, which by definition means we have less in common, and that leads to less respect for one another. In a polarized society, people are less likely to compromise on the self-interest of others (unless they are compelled, so the power to do that is increasingly sought). While some of these traits are even-sided, others are asymmetrical. In particular, the right is much more fond of using force to achieve its ends (war, violence, guns, jail). On the other hand, the left is more likely to recognize the humanity of the right than vice versa: the left's definition of "us" is broadly inclusive, the right's is exclusive. And the goals are fundamentally different: the right seeks to preserve the wealth and privilege of the few, whereas the left prefers to share the wealth among all people. Gairdner may muddy this up a bit by sticking to "conservative" and "liberal" labels.
Atul Gawande: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (2014, Metropolitan Books): Surgeon, has written several eloquent books on his craft, the health care industry, and sometimes how they don't mesh very well. For instance, hospitals often spend a lot of time and effort (for a lot of money) doing fruitless procedures on people who are dying anyway, often causing more suffering than they can alleviate.
Russell Gold: The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World (2014, Simon & Schuster): It's long been known that you can boost oil production by pumping liquids into oil fields to force the oil toward the producing wells. That's been done in Saudi Arabia since the 1940s, but hasn't been cost-effective in the US until recently. Hydraulic fracturing goes a step further, opening up oil- (and gas-) saturated shales that otherwise would be too dense to produce. The US has a lot of gas-shale, and that's the base for the so-called boom. US oil production has been diminishing since its peak in 1969, and we're seeing similar limits and declines all around the world -- a phenomenon that validates the "peak oil" hypothesis. Fracking, therefore, to some observers looks like a reversal of the laws of physics rather than just the next increasingly-expensive recovery methods. My view is that the boom is temporary, and that in the US in particular, where there is so little effort aimed at conserving petroleum resources, it's something that we'll burn through pretty quickly (while depositing all that greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, trapping solar energy and cooking the planet). Other recent books (2014 unless noted): Ezra Levant: Groundswell: The Case for Fracking (Signal); Michael Levi: The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America's Future (2013, Oxford University Press); Alex Prudhomme: Hydrofracking: What Everyone Needs to Know (paperback, 2013, Oxford University Press); George Zuckerman: The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters (2013, Portfolio); but also see: Walter M Brasch: Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster (paperback, Greeley & Stone); and Richard Heinberg: Snake Oil: How Fracking's False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future (paperback, 2013, Post Carbon Institute).
Richard Goldstein: Another Little Piece of My Heart: My Life of Rock and Revolution in the '60s (2015, Bloomsbury USA): A memoir by a good candidate for America's first rock critic, who started writing "Pop Eye" for the Village Voice in 1966. By the time I started reading him he was mostly writing about politics, which was fine with me.
John Michael Greer: Decline and Fall: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America (paperback, 2014, New Society): Prime concern is economic sustainability, which he doesn't find much evidence of in the US. Has a number of doom and gloom works, aside from his interest in organic gardening.
Mohsin Hamid: Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London (2015, Riverhead): Novelist from Pakistan, has lived in those other towns (currently a UK citizen), collects essays on "life, art, politics, and 'the war on terror.'"
Simon Head: Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans (2014, Basic Books): Focuses on Computer Business Systems (CBSs) used to run large businesses, including the supply chains of Walmart and Amazon but also the financial shenanigans of Goldman Sachs. That this sort of technology is used to automate jobs and suppress wages has long been obvious. But who gets dumber as a result?
Bob Herbert: Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America (2014, Doubleday): Former New York Times opinion columnist travels around America and finds much to worry, and complain, about.
Matthew W Hughey/Gregory S Parks: The Wrongs of the Right: Language, Race, and the Republican Party in the Age of Obama (2014, NYU Press): Looks at how Republicans talk about Obama and finds various ways they exploit lingering racism in America.
Kojin Karatani: The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange (paperback, 2014, Duke University Press): Japanese philosopher, has written about Kant and Marx in the past (Transcritique: On Kant and Marx), revisits Marx somewhere between anthopology and globalization.
Edward D Kleinbard: We Are Better Than This: How Government Should Spend Our Money (2014, Oxford University Press): An attempt to reframe government taxation/spending debates not on traditional left-right terms but in terms of return on investments regardless of size. I think this is fundamentally right, although the devil will be in the details. There are many useful and important things that government can do more efficiently and more effectively than the private sector -- indeed, there are some that the private sector will only do if plied with exorbitant bribes. Nice to think we're smart enough we can figure this out, but there's little evidence of that.
Jon Krakauer: Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town (2015, Doubleday): A small city, population nearly 70,000, home of University of Montana so about 15,000 students. Local authorities were notoriously lax investigating rape complaints, so Krakauer investigated and this is what he found out. FWIW, I've read five previous books by Krakauer (out of six).
Daniel J Levitin: The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload (2014, Dutton): Brain book, verging into self-help territory. Author has a couple of books on music: This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession and The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature. Information overload is a real issue, and a reliable method for coping is something one might desire. However, as long as misinformation is profitable that will be a tall order.
Charles Lewis: 935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America's Moral Integrity (2014, Public Affairs): IF Stone used to say, "all governments lie." Still, we'd be better off with fewer lies, which I suppose is the point of this. But getting to the truth is surely a more complex process. Lewis is such a stickler for the certainty of truth that his title refers to a documented count of "lies that led to the war in Iraq." Sure, there were lies, many of them, but some were big and some were small, some flowed automatically from others, most from misperceptions about how the world works and how American force functions in that world. Correcting for lies is a worthwhile step, but understanding why powers lie and being able to detect when they do even if you don't know what the truth is are more important still.
William McDonough/Michael Braungart: The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability, Designing for Abundance (paperback, 2013, North Point Press): An architect and a chemist, previously wrote Cradle to Cradle: Remking the Way We Make Things (2002), an engineering ethic that not only dispenses with planned obsolence but goes much farther.
Kirsten Powers: The Silencing: How the Left Is Killing Free Speech (2015, Regnery): Billed as a "lifelong liberal," worked in the Clinton administration, etc. But note the publisher, that she's a "Fox news contributor," and that her blurb authors are: Charles Krauthammer, Brit Hume, Juan Williams, Eric Metaxas, Ron Fournier, and George F Will. Or just the subtitle: no one on the left actually refers to the left as such, partly because we realize what they call the left we know to be a wide range of often conflicting views with no effective organizational unity. (We can, of course, speak of the right, with their daily talking points endlessly drummed into their marching base via Fox News, although lately even some of them seem to be going off message.) I have no idea what actual examples Powers has come up with -- maybe the old anti-PC rant that people should be able to express themselves as racists without fear of objection or challenge. It's true that occasionally someone says something racist on mainstream media and gets canned for embarrassing the network, but it's not the left that owns those media. For most of my life the right has been the far more serious threat to free speech -- most chillingly during the McCarthy period, but even now there's a concerted right-wing effort to purge universities of left-leaning professors (something David Horowitz, who uses "left" repeatedly in his book titles, is very active at). One can also mention efforts to prosecute (or "hold in contempt") journalists who reveal classified secrets -- James Risen is a prominent recent case. Since Obama's DOJ went after Risen, and Powers' people regard Obama as part of "the left," maybe that made Powers' list? I doubt it, since that's just the sort of thing the right would do given the opportunity. If you want to find out about real threats to free speech, check with the ACLU.
Diana Preston: A Higher Form of Killing: Six Weeks in World War I That Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare (2015, Bloomsbury Press): Historian, has written about the Boxer Rebellion, the Lusitania, and Before the Fallout: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima (2009), and with her husband has written historical fiction pseudonymously as Alex Rutherford. Her six-week window here was April to June 1915, during which the Germans introduced submarine warfare, aerial bombing (from a zeppelin), and poison gas (chlorine) -- innovations which "forever changed the nature of warfare." Her title, by the way, isn't original; see Robert Harris/Jeremy Paxman: A Higher Form of Killing: The Secret History of Chemical and Biological Warfare (paperback, 2002, Random House). Still, the notion that less discriminate forms of killing are "higher" is perplexing.
Arundhati Roy: Capitalism: A Ghost Story (paperback, 2014, Haymarket Books): Short political broadside from the famous Indian novelist, critic, and activist. She has a bunch of these, including: Walking With the Comrades (paperback, 2011, Penguin); Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers (paperback, 2009, Haymarket); An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire (paperback, 2004, South End Press); Public Power in the Age of Empire (paperback, 2004, Seven Stories Press); War Talk (paperback, 2003, South End Press); Power Politics (2nd ed, paperback, 2002, South End Press); The Cost of Living (paperback, 1999, Modern Library).
Asne Seierstad: One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway (2015, Farrar Straus and Giroux): In 2011 Breivik killed eight with a bomb and shot and killed sixty-nine more at a Labour Party youth camp -- crimes he justified with a lengthy racist tract. Seierstad, from Norway, has written well-regarded journalism about Afghanistan (The Bookseller of Kabul, Iraq (One Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal, and Chechnya (Angel of Grozny: Inside Chechnya).
Micah L Sifry: The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn't Transformed Politics (Yet) (paperback, 2014, O/R Books): "This is a book for social and political activists." The Internet promised more democracy. It didn't exactly deliver less, but it wrapped it up in so much noise it made many things harder to sort out, and harder to do. By offering us more connection, it's wound up making us more isolated. I read some of this and see the problems, but only a limited slice is available in the preview: any answers he has seem to be beyond the cut. Ain't that just typical?
Ken Silverstein: The Secret World of Oil (2014, Verso): Focuses more on the corruption of the finance and trading sides of the industry, as opposed to more mundane matters like exploration and production. Needless to say, there is a lot of corruption to report.
Vaclav Smil: Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken From Nature (2012, MIT Press): Rather technical assessment of how much of the Earth's biosphere has been captured by human beings, and how this affects the carrying capacity of the planet. Important info for that population bomb debate.
Robert David Steele: The Open-Source Everything Manifesto: Transparency, Truth, and Trust (paperback, 2012, Evolver Editions): Author started out as a spy, but found that the shroud of secrecy in his business wound up distorting everything. He came up with the idea of Open Source Intelligence as a way of untangling the subversion, then picked up the lessons from Open Source Software and tried to generalize that into Open Source Everything. Needless to say, this sounds right to me -- at least until proven otherwise.
John Paul Stevens: Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution (2014, Little Brown): Brief book by retired Supreme Court justice wants to tinker. The subjects: the "anti-commandeering" rule; political gerrymandering; campaign finance; sovereign immunity; the death penalty; the second amendment (gun control).
John Szwed: Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth (2015, Viking): Biography of the legendary jazz singer, timed to come out 100 years after Holiday's birth. Szwed has written excellent biographies of Sun Ra, Miles Davis, and Alan Lomax, as well as the essential primer, Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz (2000).
Dominic Tierney: The Right Way to Lose a War: America in an Age of Unwinnable Conflicts (2015, Little Brown): Military theoretician, so no chance he'll advise avoiding conflicts let alone wars. But he's aware that the US hasn't won, by any definition, much of anything since WWII, and that the problem lies in the nature of the conflicts (which American thrashing only aggravates). His formula is surge-talk-leave. This assumes there's some tangible goals short of occupation, but that's probably another book/author. (I could imagine that the credible threat of US invasion might cajole some sort of power-sharing agreement -- that's sort of what happened with Bosnia/Serbia -- but that's hardly the American way.) Author previously co-wrote Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics (2006) and wrote FDR and the Spanish Civil War: Neutrality and Commitment in the Struggle That Divided America (2007) and How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War (2010).
William Voegeli: The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion (2014, Broadside Books): A new twist on an old complaint, that liberal programs to help the less fortunate don't work (help the less fortunate) because, well -- fill in the blank. Being an asshole, Voegeli doesn't really care why they don't work, since he rejects the notion that compassion is a good reason to do anything, and he regards people who are compassionate as "unfit to govern" -- most conservatives agree, but try to palm off their mean-spiritedness as something a bit more palatable, like "tough love" (lest they look like assholes). I doubt that Voegeli is really doing his kind any favors here. It strikes me that both conservatives and liberals are more or less equally likely to empathize or be compassionate, but the kind of people conservatives care about is much more limited (to people most like themselves), whereas liberals are less picky about the people they care for. This leads Voegeli to a key misunderstanding: most programs he decries as compassionate (because they benefit people he would regard as pitiable if he wasn't such an asshole) are seen by liberals as self-help -- after all, they help people not unlike oneself.
Janine R Wedel: Unaccountable: How Elite Power Brokers Corrupt our Finances, Freedom, and Security (2014, Pegasus): Any doubt that American policy is primarily driven by the profit motive, both for the elites that control it and the corporations that bankroll them, should be dispelled here. This not only delegitimizes policies, it is more often than not dysfunctional, guaranteeing that the sponsored policies will fail. Wedel initially studied corruption in Poland. Then she came home, to see how it is really done.
Edward O Wilson: The Social Conquest of Earth (paperback, 2013, Liveright): Invented something I never trusted that he calls sociobiology, but he is one of the foremost writers on the impact of human beings on nature, and there is no doubt that humans have conquered earth, for better or worse. Or maybe this book is just about insect societies? -- another of his major topics.
Stephen Witt: How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy (2015, Viking): Business writer focuses on how file sharing works and rose in prominence, undermining the recorded music industry.
James Wolcott: Critical Mass: Four Decades of Essays, Reviews, Hand Grenades, and Hurrahs (2013, Doubleday): Bio doesn't mention Village Voice, where I know him from, but the music reviews go back that far, and are complemented by pieces on film and TV, books, other things a literate raconteur would bump into over the last 30-40 years.