Sunday, April 30. 2017
One-hundred days after Trump became President of the United States, about the best you can say is that he could have done even worse than he did. People make fun of him for only appointing a few dozen of the thousand-plus presidential appointees, but he's hit most of the top positions, including one Supreme Court justice, and he's picked some of the worst nominees imaginable -- in fact, a few way beyond anything rational fears imagined. But one of his worst picks, former General Michael Flynn as National Security Director, has already imploded, and another notorious one, Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, looks like he's been consigned to the dog house.
Despite having Republican congressional majorities, Trump has yet to pass any major legislation -- although he's proposed some, and/or bought into Paul Ryan's even more demented schemes. So thus far the main thing Trump has done has been to sign executive orders -- dozens of the things, nearly all aimed at undoing executive orders Obama had started signing once he realized he wasn't going to get any help from the Republican-controlled Congress. While Trump's orders are truly disturbing, that's not so much what they do -- even the ones that aren't promptly blocked by the courts -- as what they reveal about the administration's mentality (or lack thereof).
Trump has also had a relatively free hand when it comes to foreign policy -- especially the prerogatives that Congress has granted the president to bomb other countries. His first acts were to escalate American involvement in Yemen, although he's followed that up with attacks against America's usual targets in the Middle East: Syria, Iraq, and Libya. But while nothing good ever comes from America flexing its military muscles in the Middle East, a more dangerous scenario is unfolding with North Korea, with both sides threatening pre-emptive attacks in response to the other's alleged provocations. By insisting on an ever-more-constricting regime of sanctions, the US has cornered and wounded North Korea, while North Korea has developed both offensive and defensive weapons to such a point that an American attack would be very costly (especially for our ostensible allies in South Korea).
There are many reasons to worry about Trump's ability to handle this crisis. There's little evidence that he understands the risks, or even the history. On the other hand, he's spent eight years lambasting Obama for being indecisive and weak, so he's come into office wanting to look decisive and strong. Moreover, when he ordered an ineffective cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base he was broadly applauded -- a dangerous precedent for someone so fickle. Maybe he has people who will restrain him from ordering a similar attack on Korea, but he often resembles the "mad man" Nixon only feigned at. Nor does Kim Jong Un inspire much confidence as a well-grounded, rational leader (although see Andrei Lankov: Kim Jong Un Is a Survivor, Not a Madman).
First, some 100-day reviews:
Some more scattered links this week in Trump world:
Also a few links less directly tied to Trump, though sometimes still to America's bout of political insanity:
Started this Saturday afternoon (the intro), and the hits just kept on coming.
Saturday, April 29. 2017
About the same count this time: 115 vs. 114 in March, which compares to 153 in February and 156 in January, back when I was paying more heed to EOY lists. I made a last-minute effort to listen to well-regarded new non-jazz albums, which helped -- new releases are up to 78 from 52, with old music down roughly that much. The old music came from artists I ran into while collating the jazz guides. In a couple cases I checked out musicians I didn't have any rated albums from before (Pete La Roca, Charles Tyler). In some cases (Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard) I pretty much limited myself to their early Blue Note releases. For Horace Tapscott I found a record that I had written a bit about before but hadn't graded.
Most of these are short notes/reviews based on streaming records from Napster (formerly Rhapsody; other sources are noted in brackets). They are snap judgments based on one or two plays, accumulated since my last post along these lines, back on March 31. Past reviews and more information are available here (9514 records).
Kevin Abstract: American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story (2016, Brockhampton): Rapper-crooner Ian Simpson, barely out of his teens, plying beats too suave and fills too orchestral. B+(*)
Actress: AZD (2017, Ninja Tune): British electronica guy, Darren Cunningham, ambient with occasional interruptions, both glitches and more violent eruptions. Last track, "Visa," broke the mold. B+(*)
Antonio Adolfo: Hybrido: From Rio to Wayne Shorter (2016 , AAM): Brazilian pianist, based in US (Florida, I think), has several dozen albums since 1969. Eight Wayne Shorter compositions plus Adolfo's closer, all given a nice samba treatment. B [cd]
Arca: Arca (2017, XL): Alejandro Ghersi, originally from Venezuela, studied in New York, now based in London. The music is surreal and eerie, something that one could find oddly attractive, were it not for the arch and arcane vocals. B
Bardo Pond: Under the Pines (2017, Fire): Rock band from Philadelphia, together and fairly prolific since the early 1990s -- Discogs counts 35 albums plus many EPs, Wikipedia only lists 11 studio albums but mentions 11 side projects. Thick trippy guitars with drone feedback and ethereal moans, they pass for psychedelic these days, but I can't latch onto much beyond their dense ambiance. B
Bill Brovold & Jamie Saft: Serenity Knolls (2016 , Rare Noise): Guitar duets -- Saft is normally a keyboard player but is credited with dobro and lap steel here, so he adds some resonance to the relatively placid lead guitar. B+(*) [cdr]
Chicago/London Underground: A Night Walking Through Mirrors (2016 , Cuneiform): Since 1998 Rob Mazurek (cornet/electronics) and Chad Taylor (drums) have led various Chicago Underground duos, trios, and quartets, with Mazurek later taking his Underground concept to Sao Paulo. Here the Chicago duo visits London, meeting up with Alexander Hawkins (piano) and John Edwards (bass) -- both are very active, bringing a lot of heat and dynamism to the cooler orientation of the Chicagoans. A- [cdr]
Jacob Collier: In My Room (2016, Membran): British jazz singer, first album, title from the Beach Boys song. Belongs to the school that thinks tricking thing up makes them jazzier, but also betrays his background singing Bach chorales. C+
Colorado Jazz Repertory Orchestra: Invitation (2016 , OA2): Big band, produced by alto saxophonist Art Bouton, with baritone saxophonist Wil Swindler doing most of the arranging (and writing the only original piece). Standards from the songbook and major jazz sources like Ellington and Mulligan, done up smartly. B+(**) [cd]
Larry Coryell: Barefoot Man: Sanpaku (2016, Purple Pyramid): Probably the late fusion guitarist's last album, the title referring back to his 1971 album Barefoot Boy like a pair of bookends. And he goes out much like he came in, with a groove. B+(*)
Rodney Crowell: Close Ties (2017, New West): His geography is bracketed by an opener about Houston and a closer on Nashville. He writes substantial, earthy songs, and sings them with a polite drawl, supplemented by duet features for Rosanne Cash and Sheryl Crow. B+(***)
Ernest Dawkins New Horizons Ensemble: Transient Takes (2016 , Malcom): Group's first (2016) album seemed to be credited to Live the Spirit Residency, also on the cover here followed by "Presents # 2" but this is a more sensible credit (of course, I could have followed he cover and added "featuring Vijay Iyer"). Has a rough patch I don't much care for, but coheres more often than not. B+(***)
Tom Dempsey/Tim Ferguson Quartet: Waltz New (2016 , OA2): Guitar and bass, respectively, with several albums together, always interesting postbop. Joel Frahm is very solid at tenor sax, with Eliot Zigmund on drums. B+(**) [cd]
David Feldman: Horizonte (2016 , self-released): Pianist, born in Rio de Janeiro (where he recorded this), has a couple albums, wrote most of the songs here, most with bossa touches -- hard not to with a band that includes Toninho Horta on nylon guitar. B+(*) [cd]
Craig Finn: We All Want the Same Things (2017, Partisan): One of the most distinctive and touching voices in recent rock history (mostly with Hold Steady), a writer with a fine ear for speech and lots of compassion for other people, both down and out and temporarily up -- which seems to be the gamut these days. A-
Gerry Gibbs & Thrasher People: Weather or Not (2016 , Whaling City Sound, 2CD): After several albums with what drummer ("Trasher") Gibbs called his Dream Trio (Kenny Barron and Ron Carter), evidently Hans Glawischnig (bass) and Alex Collins (keyboards) are just people. First disc is "The Music of Weather Report"; second is "The Music of Gerry Gibbs." Upbeat enthusiasm, even some thrashing, but much ado about damn little. [My copy only came with the first disc; I listened to the second on Napster.] B
Rhiannon Giddens: Freedom Highway (2017, Nonesuch): Lead singer for old-timey revival group Carolina Chocolate Drops, also plays banjo, second album on her own. Sounds primal, even when the producer throw in the kitchen sink. B+(**)
Cameron Graves: Planetary Prince (2017, Mack Avenue): Pianist, first album, got a boost as the piano player on saxophonist Kamasi Washington's crossover hit, The Epic. Washington returns the favor here, along with Philip Dizack (trumpet) and Ryan Porter (trombone). Graves pounds the piano hard enough to rock the house, but it all feels stiff and forced to me, except when Dizack tries to light the sky. B-
Iro Haarla: Ante Lucem (2012 , ECM): Second line, same size and darker than the title: "for Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Quintet." From Finland, plays piano and harp, has a handful of albums since 2001. Problem, for me anyhow, is the orchestra (Norrlands Operans Symfoniorkester, conducted by Jukka Iisakkila), although the quintet -- with Hayden Powell (trumpet) and Trygve Seim (soprano/tenor sax) -- is far removed from swing or bop. Still, this achieves much of the beauty and grandeur it aspires to. Just not sure that's a good thing. B+(**)
Mariem Hassan: La Voz Indómita (del Sahara Occidental) (2017, Nubenegra): Sahrawi pop singer, born in what was then called Spanish Sahara and has lately been occupied by Morocco, died at 57 in a refugee camp, but after building a formidable international recording career, and leaving this compilation from her last four years as some kind of testament. Christgau lauds her as "postcolonial Africa's most striking female singer." Maybe, but there's not a lot more to the music, even by Saharan standards. B+(***)
Mariem Hassan/Vadiya Mint El Hanevi: Baila Sahara Baila (2015, Nubenegra): Dance music, so the rhythms pick up, along with what for lack of a better informed context I'll call war whoops. Hanevi makes his mark early on by talking through the dances. While he doesn't have Hassan's legendary voice, the energy he brings makes the difference. A-
Heads of State: Four in One (2017, Smoke Sessions): Mainstream quartet on their second album, with founders Gary Bartz (alto sax), Larry Willis (piano), and Al Foster (drums) -- the bass slot originally filled by Buster Williams goes to David Williams (nickname "Happy") here. Bartz has matured into a lovely ballad player, and of course they swing. B+(**)
Oscar Hernández & Alma Libre: The Art of Latin Jazz (2016 , Origin): Pianist, based in Los Angeles, with sax/flute and "special guest" trumpet (Gilbert Castellanos), bass, congas and drums. All original pieces, pretty much as advertised. B+(**) [cd]
Derrick Hodge: The Second (2016, Blue Note): Bass guitarist, has won a couple Grammys for producing hip-hop/r&b albums, jazz credits include Terence Blanchard and Robert Glasper, this his second album as leader. Mostly multitracked solo, amiable groove, plus a drummer on three tracks, horns on a couple more (not a plus). B
Idles: Brutalism (2017, Bailey): British post-punk group, from Bristol, first album, a little heavy but clear and catchy, one that could grow on you. B+(***)
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra: The Music of John Lewis (2013 , Blue Engine): Lewis was the pianist and main composer for the Modern Jazz Quartet, and was an important figure in the decade's brief (but really still evolving) "third stream" movement. Around 2000, when Gary Giddins started pushing for classical-like jazz repertory orchestras, the first person he turned to for leadership was Lewis. So a trawl through the major compositions of Lewis is just the sort of thing the culture empire uptown would sign up for. Executive producer Wynton Marsalis gets his usual "featuring" credit, along with guest pianist Jon Baptiste. B+(*) [cd]
Billy Jones: 3's a Crowd (2017, Acoustical Concepts): Drummer, don't know anything about him. Concept here is a set of duos, some "east coast," some "west coast," less than half with musicians I've heard of (John Vanore, Gary Meek, Mick Rossi, etc.), about half horns, two pianos, one each vibes and vocals. Versatile, I suppose, or scattered. B [cd]
Khalid: American Teen (2017, Right Hand/RCA): Last name Robinson, b. 1998, grew up on Army bases including six years in Germany, sung in the US Army Band. Doesn't strike me as much of a voice, but his songs are offhandedly catchy and they grow on you. A-
Kneebody: Anti-Hero (2017, Motéma): Brooklyn quintet -- Shane Endsley (trumpet), Ben Wendel (sax), Adam Benjamin (keyboards), Kaveh Rastegar (bass), Nate Wood (drums) -- seventh album since 2005. They took a turn toward IDM last time out with Daedelus, but this year's more conventional fusion is also less interesting. B
Julian Lage: Live in Los Angeles (2016, Mack Avenue, EP): Guitarist from California, several records since 2009 but still under 30. This is billed as an EP, but its five cuts run 35:06. Trio with Scott Colley (bass) and Kenny Wollesen (drums). B
Kendrick Lamar: Damn (2017, Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope): Metacritic score 96 on 29 reviews -- if not a lock to top 2017 EOY lists a very strong favorite. As has always been the case, I'm slow getting him -- can't much relate to the slice of life, and the soft beats and sliding melodies take time to sink in. Still, his chronicle of fear really got to me, and there seems to be much more floating in the ozone. Still, doubt I'll really get there: I grew up thinking that the telos of music is pleasure, not (for lack of a better word) art. A-
Allegra Levy: Cities Between Us (2016 , SteepleChase): Jazz singer, describes herself as "sultry," graduated from New England Conservatory, has one previous album. Nice combo here with Kirk Knuffke (cornet), Stephen Riley (tenor sax), Carmen Staaf (piano), Jay Anderson and Billy Drummond. Mostly original pieces, or words she added to label legends Dexter Gordon and Duke Jordan. B+(***) [cd]
Arto Lindsay: Cuidado Madame (2017, Northern Spy): Part of New York's post-punk "No Wave" movement (his band was DNA), although his experience growing up in Brazil has always tugged him towards Tropicália -- his many albums leaning one way or the other, or in this case both. A-
Mike Longo Trio: Only Time Will Tell (2016 , CAP): Piano trio, with Paul West on bass and Lewis Nash on drums. Pianist goes back to the early 1970s, most recently crafting a tribute to Oscar Peterson. Couple originals here, mostly smart covers, including a couple Monks. B+(**) [cd]
The Magnetic Fields: 50 Song Memoir (2017, Nonesuch, 5CD): Fifty-year-old Stephin Merritt's autobiographical concept album, one song for each year of his life, one half-hour CD per decade -- actually a more modest, if less tiresome, project than his famous 69 Love Songs, which actually did fill three hour-long CDs. Perhaps unfair to judge given that Napster only offers 16 songs, but they look to be a fairly random sample, and I'm not sure more would overcome my annoyance. B-
Laura Marling: Semper Femina (2017, More Alarming): British singer-songwriter, sort of a latter-day Joni Mitchell, which works better some times than others. B+(*)
Robert McCarther: Stranger in Town (2016 , Psalms 149 Music): Has a previous album, wrote one song here, covers include Monk and Mancini and two Bill Withers. Band includes horns, piano, guitar, bass, drums. You know he's a jazz singer because he evinces all the usual stereotypical tics. C+ [cd]
MEM3: Circles (2011 , self-released): Canadian piano trio, pianist is Michael Cabe, and Mark Lau gets a bass solo I never fail to notice, but the only familiar name is drummer Ernesto Cervini. He provides enough rhythmic regularity to push this into EST territory, but while I started thinking they were pushing something with a pop angle, after several plays I gave that notion up. B+(**) [cd]
The Microscopic Septet: Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down to Me: The Micros Play the Blues (2016 , Cuneiform): Group led by Philip Johnston (soprano sax) and Joel Forrester (piano), dates back to 1981 with a break in the 1990s, the addition of tenor saxophonist Michael Hashim the key move to the reunion. Closes with a Joe Liggins song (Dave Sewelson sings), the other dozen tracks split even among the leaders (although Forrester quotes more than the title from "Silent Night" -- nearly a deal breaker for me, until it isn't). Blues, maybe, but the key thing here is swing, which they do not for nostalgia but because it feels right. A- [cdr]
The New Pornographers: Whiteout Conditions (2017, Collected Works/Concord): I lost interest in this Canadian semi-super group shortly after their 2000 debut, while sampling most (but not all) of their later albums just in case I missed something. I have little doubt that this is their best ever -- it's the brightest and catchiest by miles -- but after two plays I'm losing interest again, and wouldn't want to bump it higher just because I'm impressed or surprised. B+(***)
Matt North: Above Ground Fools (2017, self-released): Nashville session drummer writes and (I assume) sings a batch of big beat rock and roll songs, with clear lyrics more than a little sharp. A-
Conor Oberst: Ruminations (2016, Nonesuch): His acoustic album, guitar or piano and harmonica, basically demos of songs written over an Omaha winter, "staying up late every night playing piano and watching the snow pile up outside the window." B+(**)
Conor Oberst: Salutations (2017, Nonesuch): Here he refashions his Ruminations songs (plus a few more) for full band. With his harmonica, I was struck by how accomplished his Dylanisms had become on the demos, but he's got an even better sense of electric Dylan's tricks of the trade. Songs maturing too. A-
One for All: The Third Decade (2015 , Smoke Sessions): Mainstream jazz group, Discogs shows them recording five albums 2001-05 and not much since, but I heard a missing 2006 album, and the labels claims they've recorded 16 albums in 20+ years, making this the start of their third decade. All names you should know: Eric Alexander (tenor sax), Jim Rotondi (trumpet), Steve Davis (trombone), David Hazeltine (piano), John Webber (bass), Joe Farnsworth (drums). B+(**)
Matt Otto With Ensemble Ibérica: Ibérica (2016 , Origin): Tenor saxophonist, has a handful of albums since 2002, teaches at KU. The Ensemble are three guitarists (sometimes oud, cavaquinho, tres, acoustic bass guitar), supplemented by keyboards, bass/cello, and steel guitar -- no drums, so you get that chamber jazz feel, with everything -- especially the sax -- on the pretty side. B+(**) [cd]
Brad Paisley: Love and War (2017, Arista Nashville): Nashville superstar, eleventh studio album since 1999, last eight topped the country charts, has an arena-ready sound which rocks hard but is still recognizably country. Even seems like a nice guy, and not a dumb one. But I've never warmed to any of his albums -- even the three (counting this one) Christgau A-listed. Probably has most to do with that big sound -- I stopped caring for Eric Church, too, when he muscled up -- but there's always a lyric (or two or three) to trip over. First one I caught this time: "let's go to bed early, and stay up all night" -- that's not the worst (certainly not next to "just another day in heaven," or his elegy for vets: "they ship you out to die for us/forget about you when you don't" -- fact is they forget about every one once they can no longer be used). B
The Ed Palermo Big Band: The Great Un-American Songbook: Volumes I & II (2016 , Cuneiform, 2CD): Alto saxophonist way back when, cut his first album in 1982, has led his big band since 1987, recording three or four (maybe more) albums of Frank Zappa music. Here he examines not so much the British Invasion as the prog strain that followed, starting and ending with bits of Sgt. Pepper, navigating through Move, Cream, Procul Harum, Nice, King Crimson, Blodwyn Pig, ELP, Traffic, Jethro Tull, Arthur Brown, plus Radiohead. Vocals by Bruce McDaniel help pin the songs down, and his patter adds an air of nostalgia. "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" followed by "Fire" got to me, too. B+(*) [cdr]
Michael Pedicin: As It Should Be: Ballads 2 (2016 , Groundblue): Tenor/soprano saxophonist, mainstream player, should be a natural for a ballads program, but I find his tone a bit thin. Or it may just be that instead of picking surefire songbook classics he had guitarist Johnny Valentino do most of the writing (8/10 songs). I wouldn't call the Paul Simon cover a plus either, and "Crescent" only reminds me of how truly gorgeous Pharoah Sanders' ballads were. B+(*) [cd]
Ivo Perelman/Matthew Shipp: The Art of Perelman-Shipp, Volume 1: Titan (2016 , Leo): The first of a trove of seven separately issued discs pairing the Brazilian avant saxophonist with the American pianist -- frequent collaborators since 1996's Bendito of Santa Cruz -- with various rhythm sections. Seems like the ideal might be to listen to all of them then start to make whatever marginal distinctions I can find, but for practical purposes all I can do is take them one-by-one and hope I don't get too lost. This one is a trio with William Parker, who in Perelman's 2016 The Art of the Improv Trio lifted Volume 4. He gets this series off to a strong start, too. A- [cd]
Ivo Perelman/Matthew Shipp: The Art of Perelman-Shipp, Volume 2: Tarvos (2016 , Leo): Third member here is veteran drummer Bobby Kapp, who belatedly came to my attention as Shipp's partner on their 2016 duo album, Cactus. The drummer kicks up the energy level here, and the saxophonist responds accordingly. A- [cd]
Ivo Perelman/Matthew Shipp: The Art of Perelman-Shipp, Volume 3: Pandora (2016 , Leo): Quartet here, with William Parker on bass and Whit Dickey on drums, a piano trio that backed David S. Ware back in the early 1990s. This isn't as exciting: Perelman would rather work his way around the edges than channel the Holy Ghost, so the group doesn't push him. Still fascinating to follow. A- [cd]
Ivo Perelman/Matthew Shipp: The Art of Perelman-Shipp, Volume 4: Hyperion (2016 , Leo): Trio, with Michael Bisio -- another frequent Shipp collaborator -- on bass. I was thrown a bit early on by the high notes -- Perelman may play more in the top end of the tenor sax than anyone else -- but they settle down, and midway take a remarkable run. Not sure this counts as a slip, but it doesn't add much. B+(***) [cd]
Ivo Perelman/Matthew Shipp: The Art of Perelman-Shipp, Volume 5: Rhea (2016 , Leo): Quartet with Shipp's usual trio mates Michael Bisio and Whit Dickey. As with the other sessions, the pieces are simply numbered, and it's "Part 6" that puts this over the top with its exhilarating tornado of sound -- everything you could hope for in free jazz. A- [cd]
Ivo Perelman/Matthew Shipp: The Art of Perelman-Shipp, Volume 6: Saturn (2016 , Leo): Just a duo, the only such volume in the series. Gives the pianist the chance for a few solos, something he's done little of so far, but still the focus is on the tenor sax, aiming this time more to woo than to overpower. B+(***) [cd]
Ivo Perelman/Matthew Shipp: The Art of Perelman-Shipp, Volume 7: Dione (2016 , Leo): Trio with Andrew Cyrille on drums, a stellar choice although as always it's the saxophonist who calls the shots and sets the pace. Could be fatigue setting in -- no idea if these were released in the order recorded, as all are listed as October 2016. Or could just be that the reviewer is tiring (although the moment I wrote that the record entered a particularly interesting passage). B+(***) [cd]
Angaleena Presley: Wrangled (2017, Thirty Tigers): Pistol Annies member, cut an excellent debut album in 2014 (American Middle Class), returns for her second. This one takes longer to click, but it ends on a succession of high points, including songs written with rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson and the late Guy Clark and a short meditation on a "Motel Bible." A-
Priests: Nothing Feels Natural (2017, Sister Polygon): DC-based post-punk group, first album (after a couple EPs). Guitar-bass-drums plus singer Katie Alice Greer, who centers them while making them seem special. B+(**) [yt]
Priests: Bodies and Control and Money and Power (2014, Don Giovanni, EP): Seven cuts, 17:24, enough to make an impression. B+(*)
Michael Rabinowitz: Uncharted Waters (2017, Cats Paw): Bassoonist, has been playing jazz (at least) since the 1990s, not many of those, so there's a temptation just to let the unusual tone do the work of differentiating this from every other mainstream artist. That's most obvious on the covers, but he also wrote half of the pieces here, and he does a creditable job of taking a heavy and awkward instrument and keeping it breezy. B+(*) [cd]
Rashad: #LevelUp (2017, Self Made): Rapper, can't find anything about him -- not DJ Rashad, Isaiah Rashad, probably not Rashad Stark or Tony Rashad or @RashadtheGod though they all pop up inconclusively. Sixteen cuts, most catchy or punchy or something. B+(**)
Jason Rigby: One: Detroit-Cleveland Trio (2016 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Tenor saxophonist, long based in New York though I'm guessing he ultimately hails from Cleveland, as his trio mates -- Cameron Brown on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums -- are Detroit natives. He's always struck me as a fancy post-bop guy, but this is very down-to-basics. B+(***) [cd]
Scott Routenberg Trio: Every End Is a Beginning (2017, Summit): Pianist-composer, teaches at Ball State (Muncie, IN), has three previous albums going back to 2000. With Nick Tucker on bass and Cassius Goins III on drums. Original postbop. B+(*) [cd]
Trygve Seim: Rumi Songs (2015 , ECM): Norwegian saxophonist (tenor/soprano), sixth album since 2000 (all on ECM), recasts the poetry of Rumi (1207-1273, from Persia) in English translation as songs, sung by classical mezzo-soprano Tora Augestad. The music builds on accordion (Frode Haitli) and cello (Svante Henryson), with Seim's sax acting as a chorus in response to the singer. I rather prefer the sax, which verges on gorgeous. B [dl]
The Shins: Heartworms (2017, Columbia): James Mercer's former band, carrying on as a "shell corporation" for his/their fifth studio album. High-pitched pop, tempted to call it catchy but can't say as it caught me. I was, however, intrigued by the jangle-free change-of-pace "Mildenhall." B+(*)
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers: Sidelong (2015 , Bloodshot): Band from Chapel Hill, NC, lead singer-guitarist previously fronted Sarah Shook & the Devil. Dates confusion suggests the debut was self-released first then picked up by Chicago's premier outlaw country label. She drinks hard, plays hard, doesn't have a lot of range but does have an impact. B+(***)
Bria Skonberg: Bria (2016, Okeh/Masterworks): From British Columbia, plays trumpet, sings, mostly standards but five (of fourteen) originals. Evan Amtzen's clarinet and tenor sax offer a nice complement flirting with trad jazz, but the rhythm section (Aaron Diehl, Reginald Veal, Ali Jackson) are more tuned to swing, and Stefon Harris accents on vibes. The opener, "Don't Be That Way," is choice. B+(***)
Sleater-Kinney: Live in Paris (2015 , Sub Pop): I've dutifully listened to all of the albums, but never became enough of a fan to be able to place any of the songs in this reunion tour set (other than "No Cities to Love" -- the title of their reunion album). B+(*)
Nate Smith: Kinfolk: Postcards From Everywhere (2017, Ropeadope): Drummer, side credits with Chris Potter and Dave Holland, both with a guest spots on this debut (Potter's on a piece called "Bounce"). Easily the best thing on this broad spread -- Lionel Loueke funk, three singers (Gretchen Parlato the best known), Adam Rogers guitar, scads of strings. B
Spoon: Hot Thoughts (2017, Matador): Alt-indie group, based in Austin, goes back to the 1990s with several notable albums. This one holds up at least half way through, an appealing rough chunkiness, then someone's mind wanders -- maybe my own. B+(***)
Colin Stetson: Sorrow (A Reimagining of Gorecki's 3rd Symphony) (2016, 52Hz): Stetson is a saxophonist who's picked up a substantial rock following (ties to Bon Iver and Bell Orchestre), but moves toward classical here, performing a piece by Polish compuser Henry Gorecki (1933-2010). Group includes saxophonists Dan Bennett and Matt Bauder, violinist Sarah Neufeld, two cellos, two guitars, keyboards, drums, with vocals by Megan Stetson. B-
Colin Stetson: All This I Do for Glory (2017, 52Hz): Saxophonist, plays alto and tenor but specializes in the heavy stuff -- bass sax and contrabass clarinet. Born in Ann Arbor, based in Montreal. Only thing that links him to jazz is his instrument -- otherwise he's basically a post-rock experimentalist (only jazz name I see on his "performed and recorded with dozens of artists" list is Anthony Braxton, but maybe that's the only one comparably famous to Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, or closer to his home Godspeed! You Black Emperor). This is industrial/minimalist fusion, recycling rhythms with the extra resonance of wind instruments and some vocal shadowing. Seems fairly simple, but remains unique. A-
Trio 3: Visiting Texture (2016 , Intakt): Andrew Cyrille (drums), Reggie Workman (bass), Oliver Lake (alto saxophone). Thirteenth album together since 1997, recently adding various guests but this is back to basics, nothing fancy but remarkable craft within the free jazz trade. A-
Trio Heinz Herbert: The Willisau Concert (2016 , Intakt): Swiss group, no one named Heinz or Herbert -- two brothers, Dominic and Ramon Landolt, on guitar and keyboards, both cranked up with "effects," and drummer Mario Hänni. Quieter stretches resemble piano trio, but more often their electronics move them into new and surprising sonic terrains -- though nothing I would call fusion. I wound up spending a lot of time on this, torn between the suspicion that what they're doing is marginal and the certainty that it's unique. A- [cd]
Valerie June: The Order of Time (2017, Concord): Last name Hockett, from Memphis, father promoted gospel and soul singers. Her music is commonly described as "a mixture of folk, blues, gospel, soul, country, Appalachian and bluegrass" -- i.e., she's a singer-songwriter who has yet to distinguish her voice, although she definitely has one. B+(**)
David Virelles: Antenna (2016, ECM, EP): Hot young pianist with three previous albums, credited here with piano, organ, various keyboards, prepared piano, computer and sampler. Released as 10-inch EP, six cuts, 21:43. Joined here by a variety of people on one or two tracks each, including two rap-influenced vocalists and Henry Threadgill (alto sax) -- the only other consistent presence (electronics, sampler, cello) is producer Alexander Overington. Breaks noisy in many directions, hard to pin down. B+(**) [dl]
Daniel Weltlinger: Samoreau: A Tribute to the Fans of Django Reinhardt (2016 , Rectify): Violinist, so you might think he'd be more focused on the unmentioned Stéphane Grappelli, especially with the guitar slot rotating among five players -- three with the surname Reinhardt. With bass and accordion on a couple tracks -- the ones you most notice. B+(**) [cd]
Jim Yanda Trio: Regional Cookin' (1987 , Corner Store Jazz): Guitarist, trio includes Drew Gress (bass) and Phil Haynes (drums), released to accompany a new recording of the same trio 30 years later -- Yanda's first released record appeared in 2013. Nice straight line guitar, sounds fresh but stays within the usual limits. B+(*) [cd]
Jim Yanda Trio: Home Road (2016 , Corner Store Jazz, 2CD): This one is new, same trio as 30 years ago, haven't evolved much but have aged gracefully. B+(*) [cd]
Recent Reissues, Compilations, Vault Discoveries
Abdullah Ibrahim: Ancient Africa (1973 , Delmark/Sackville): South African pianist, a major figure in jazz since the mid-1960s, working until 1977 under the name Dollar Brand -- the name this solo album was originally released under in 1974. Two medleys plus a couple other pieces, some with vocals (liner notes says "spoken word"), the last (previously unreleased) piece played on bamboo flute. His rhythmic rumble was (and remains) unique, but clearer elsewhere. B+(**) [cd]
Jerry Bergonzi: Inside Out (1989 , Red): Tenor saxophonist from Boston, one of the most consistent mainstream figures since he signed with Savant around 2006, but early on he recorded with this Italian label, here a quartet with Salvatore Bonafede on piano, Bruce Gertz on bass, and Salvatore Tranchini on drums. B+(**)
Stanley Cowell: Blues for the Viet Cong (1969 , Arista/Freedom): Pianist, first album, a trio with Steve Novosel on bass and Jimmy Hopps on drums, some quirky electric piano as well as acoustic ranging from free to boogie -- "You Took Advantage of Me" always perks my attention. I knew this record from its 1977 Arista reprint -- I picked up most of Arista's Freedom reprints around then -- but when Black Lion reissued this on CD, they had second thoughts about the title, picking Travellin' Man instead. A-
Stanley Cowell Trio: Departure #2 (1990, SteepleChase): After a frantic decade jumping around labels from avant Strata-East to retro Concord, Cowell found a home with this Danish label, releasing Sienna in 1989 and this follow up. With Bob Cranshaw on bass and Keith Copeland on drums, alternating bright originals with covers ranging from Ellington to Porter to Parker, thoughtful and often flashy. A-
Stanley Cowell Trio: Live at Copenhagen Jazz House (1993 , SteepleChase): With Cheyney Thomas on bass and Wardell Thomas on drums -- not a dazzling rhythm section, so this rises and falls on the piano, catchiest when he picks up Ellington or Monk. B+(**)
Stanley Cowell: Mandara Blossoms (1995 , SteepleChase): Cover says "featuring Ralph Peterson [drums] & Bill Pierce [tenor saxophone]" and "introducing Karen Francis [vocals] & Jeff Halsey [bass]." B+(*)
Stanley Cowell Quartet: Hear Me One (1996, SteepleChase): With Bruce Williams (alto sax), Dwayne Burno (bass), and Keith Copeland (drums). Five Cowell originals, one by Williams, covers of Monk and Parker. Both sax and piano have specular moments, but sometimes make me wonder. B+(**)
Stanley Cowell: Are You Real? (2014, SteepleChase): Piano trio with Jay Anderson and Billy Drummond. Cowell seems to have stopped recording after 1997, only to pick it up again with 2010's Prayer for Peace. Two originals, six masterful covers, ending with a sparkling Monk. B+(***)
Herbie Hancock: Inventions & Dimensions (1963 , Blue Note): The pianist's third studio album (after Takin' Off and My Point of View), the first recorded after he joined the most legendary edition of the Miles Davis Quintet. Trio, with Paul Chambers on bass and Willie Bobo doing his Cuban percussion thing. B+(*)
Herbie Hancock: Cantaloupe Island (1962-65 , Blue Note): Effectively a "greatest hits" from the pianist's most prime period, with two cuts from his debut with Freddie Hubbard and Dexter Gordon, two from his second album with Donald Byrd and Hank Mobley, one each from his peak fourth and fifth albums with Hubbard, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, and George Coleman on the latter. So a bit redundant, especially given that the Byrd cuts you may not have aren't nearly as impressive as the Hubbards you probably do. B+(***)
Herbie Hancock: Speak Like a Child (1968 , Blue Note): Sixth album, following his stellar Maiden Voyage, but aside from the pianist, in nice form, the only carryover is bassist Ron Carter, and the unconventional horn section -- Thad Jones on flugelhorn, plus alto flute and bass trombone -- never grabs you. RVG Edition adds three alternate takes. B+(*)
Herbie Hancock: The Prisoner (1969 , Blue Note): The pianist's last album for Blue Note, produced by Duke Pearson, with numerous musicians dropping in for a track or two, including three flute (counting tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson). Beyond Henderson, regulars are Johnny Coles (flugelhorn), Garnett Brown (trombone), Buster Williams (bass), and Tootie Heath (drums). Sophisticated postbop composition, overly tricked up production. RVG Edition adds two alternate takes. B+(**)
Mariem Hassan: Mariem Hassan Con Leyoad (2002, Nubenegra): Her first album, backed by the Sahrawi group Leyoad. She emerges as a very strong singer backed by a powerful group -- I almost find it too heavy, especially returning after listening to her last albums. B+(***)
Freddie Hubbard: Goin' Up (1960 , Blue Note): Trumpet player, seems like he was suddenly everywhere in 1960, second album under his own name, a classic hard bop quintet with Hank Mobley (tenor sax), McCoy Tyner (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Philly Joe Jones (drums). Feels a bit rushed for me -- maybe the rhythm section wanted to see how hard they could push the kid. He keeps up, and turns in a nice ballad. B+(***)
Freddie Hubbard: Hub Cap (1961, Blue Note): Continuing to make the rounds, this time with Jimmy Heath (tenor sax), Julian Priester (trombone), Cedar Walton (piano), Larry Ridley (bass), and Philly Joe Jones (drums). They tend to switch up too much, but he powers through and blows over them, and the trombone is notably interesting. B+(**)
Freddie Hubbard: The Hub of Hubbard (1969 , MPS): Recorded in Germany, not sure of the conditions but the band is American, probably touring with Hubbard at the time: Eddie Daniels (tenor sax), Roland Hanna (piano), Richard Davis (bass), Louis Hayes (drums). Starts with a blistering "Without a Song," and tears through Porter and Styne plus one original. B+(*)
Abdullah Ibrahim: Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio (1963 , Reprise Archives): The South African pianist changed his name from Dollar Brand to Abdullah Ibrahim around 1977, and later reissues have tended to indulge him -- I'll follow that convention here, although the reissue title remains unchanged. Ibrahim moved to Europe in 1962, and got noticed in Zürich by Ellington, who arranged the trio session for Reprise. Impressive debut, but he was more out to show his command of jazz repertoire than to make his own mark. B+(**)
Dollar Brand/Abdullah Ibrahim Orchestra: African Space Program (1973 , Enja): Big band program, two side-length pieces, the group numbering 12 with 5 saxes and 3 trumpets. Much rougher than necessary. B
Abdullah Ibrahim/Johnny Dyani: Echoes From Africa (1979 , Enja): Piano and bass, both from South Africa, both long in exile, the four songs pointed back home -- even the one dedicated to McCoy Tyner. Both sing, not the calling of either. B+(**)
Abdullah Ibrahim: African Dawn (1982 , Enja): Solo piano, runs through several of his better known pieces, two by Monk, one by Strayhorn, dedications to Coltrane and Monk. B+(**)
Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya: African River (1989, Enja): Group named for his 1986 album, one of his best, with four horns -- John Stubblefield (tenor sax, flute), Horace Alexander Young (alto/soprano sax, piccolo), Robin Eubanks (trombone), and Howard Johnson (tuba, trumpet, baritone sax). Pennywhistle jive beats, looping horns, his favorite formula. B+(***)
Pete La Roca: Basra (1965 , Blue Note): Born Peter Sims, first noticed playing drums for Sonny Rollins (1957-59). This was his first album, the only one he led until 1997's Swing Time. He wrote three (of six) pieces for this young but stellar quartet -- all born between 1937-40, so 25-28 at the time: Steve Swallow (bass), Steve Kuhn (piano), both impressive but Joe Henderson (tenor sax) even more so. A-
Pete La Roca: Turkish Women at the Bath (1967 , Fresh Sound): The drummer's second album, released on a small label I don't recall ever running into but rescued from oblivion by Jordi Pujol's Spanish label. Again, the key is distinctive tenor sax, this time by John Gilmore, but also a pianist who was just starting to get noticed: Chick Corea. (The album was later reissued under Corea's name as Bliss; Sims sued and the album was withdrawn.) A-
Pete (LaRoca) Sims: SwingTime (1997, Blue Note): Partly reverting to his original name, the drummer's third (and last) album. Evidently no table of credits, but Jimmy Owens, Ricky Ford, Dave Liebman, Lance Bryant, George Cables, and Santi Debriano are mentioned in the booklet. More bop than swing, and less hard than playful, making a mess out of "Body and Soul" but still can't salvage "The Candy Man." B
Red Records All Stars [Jerry Bergonzi/Bobby Watson/Victor Lewis/Kenny Barron/Curtis Lundy/David Finck]: Together Again for the First Time (1996 , Red): The saxophonists are not just the front line. They're the stars, and as in most all-star games, they please most when they show off. And the two bass rhythm section keeps pace. B+(***)
Horace Tapscott Quintet: The Giant Is Awakened (1969, Flying Dutchman): Pianist from Los Angeles, first album, as it was for alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe -- the only horn, as the quintet included two bassists plus a drummer, but he does a fine job of wailing over the rumbling rhythm. A-
Gust William Tsilis & Alithea With Arthur Blythe: Pale Fire (1988, Enja): Vibraphonist, from Chicago, moved to LA in 2002 where he mostly does TV/movie music. Presumably Alithea is a band name: Allen Farnham (keyboards), Anthony Cox (bass), Horacee Arnold (drums), Arto Tuncboyaci (percussion). Spotty, although the alto saxophonist can warm things up fast when he gets a chance. [5/6 cuts, missing the 15:35 title piece] B
Charles Tyler Ensemble: Black Mysticism (1966, ESP-Disk): Most sources list this debut's title as Charles Tyler Ensemble. Tyler plays alto sax, backed with "orchestra vibes" (Charles Moffett), cello (Joel Freedman), bass (Henry Grimes), and drums (Ronald [Shannon] Jackson). Avant scratch with some tinkle, but the raw sax keeps gaining stature. B+(***)
Charles Tyler Ensemble: Eastern Man Alone (1967, ESP-Disk): Second album, the group reduced to David Baker on cello and two bassists. The leader's alto sax remains raw and inspired, but Baker's cello plays a much larger role, and its borderline squelch keeps the album on edge. B+(**)
James Blood Ulmer: Revealing (1977 , In+Out): Guitarist, made his initial mark with Ornette Coleman's fusion group, Prime Time. His first album, although it didn't appear until 1990, with George Adams (tenor sax), Cecil McBee (bass), and Doug Hammond (drums). Adams makes the strongest initial impression, but every time he threatens to run off with it the guitar fills in something interesting. A-
James Blood Ulmer: Part Time (1983 , Celluloid): Ulmer peaked with his 1983 album Odyssey, recorded with Charles Burnham (violin) and Warren Benbow (drums) -- a trio which later regrouped several times as Odyssey the Band. This is that same group, recorded live at Montreux Jazz Festival. Repeats half the album (four songs), more frenetic, harder to follow. B+(**)
The James Blood Ulmer Blues Experience: Blues Allnight (1989 , In+Out): Entering full blues crooner mode here, still an idiosyncratic guitarist but the bass-drums-more guitar band would rather be catchy than creative. B+(*)
Blood & Burger: Guitar Music (2002 , Dernière Bande): The principals are James Blood Ulmer and Rodolphe Burger, both guitar and vocals, the latter also keyboards. Burger Burger is French, has a couple dozen albums since 1993, some as Kat Onoma. We get songs from each, notably a rather bent "Are You Glad to Be in America?" plus a slow, gritty cover of the Rolling Stones' "Play With Fire" -- and, of course, a lot of guitar. B+(**)
Bobby Watson: Live in Europe: Perpetual Groove (1983 , Red): Alto saxophonist from Kansas, helped revitalize Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in the late 1970s, cut a few albums for American labels but did his most important work in Italy with this group -- Piero Bassini (piano), Attilio Zanchi (bass), and Giampiero Prina (drums). Mostly standards, fast ones like "Mr. PC," "Cherokee," and "Oleo" served up hot and hearty. B+(***)
Bobby Watson: Appointment in Milano (1985, Red): Same quartet even tighter, Bassini and Zanchi contributing songs, with the alto saxophonist easily soaring over their breakneck rhythm. A-
Bobby Watson & Tailor Made With Tokyo Leaders Big Band: Live at Someday in Tokyo (2000 , Red): Tailor Made was a big band album Watson made in 1993 but only Watson repeats here, backed this time by a crack (if sometimes heavy-handed) Japanese outfit. The alto sax stands out, no surprise. B+(*)
Bobby Watson: The Gates BBQ Suite (2010, Lafiya Music): Big band project, a recurrent theme in Watson's oeuvre, this one built around the UMKC Concert Jazz Orchestra, where his day job of late has been director of jazz studies. Sharp and powerful, but as one title has it, "Heavy on the Sauce." B+(**)
Additional Consumer News:
Previous grades on artists in the old music section.
Everything streamed from Napster (ex Rhapsody), except as noted in brackets following the grade:
Thursday, April 27. 2017
I haven't done a Book Roundup since August 21, 2017, so I should have about six months worth of books saved up. I don't, but managed to quickly bag my limit (40 per post), and I'm far from done, so will likely follow this up with a second (and probably third) part before long. I posted four of these in 2016, five in 2015, three in 2014, five in 2013, four in 2012, six in 2011. The main purpose is to keep myself abreast of what's being published, at least in my main areas of interest -- politics, economics, and history -- although I sometimes stray (albeit almost never to literature, a luxury indulgence I haven't had time for in many years).
This whole series has been plagued by long breaks then sudden flurries of research, usually resulting in clusters of 2-3-4 closely spaced posts. At this point I have about thirty more notes written up, and I'm nowhere near caught up. But perhaps my methodology isn't up to snuff. I usually start with my Amazon recommendations then click on various "related" books, but that approach has lately been yielding diminishing returns. (I wonder if their algorithm's slipped or maybe it's becoming more corrupt -- it is, after all, a form of advertising -- or my own data has gotten confused by buying way too many cookbooks.) In the past I've supplemented this by collecting lists at bookstores and libraries, but I hardly ever frequent them anymore.
The other thing that's undercutting my ability to pull forty notes together is that a while back I started adding uncommented notes at the end of posts. At first I was thinking of books that might be worth knowing about but which I didn't have anything non-obvious to add to. One source of these are public figures like Mikhail Gorbachev, Olivier Blanchard, and Sheldon Whitehouse -- I almost includes Elizabeth Warren but decided instead to make a point on Middle Class. Then there are books that don't seem that promising, and books that would just elicit comments similar to past books (the latest Robert D Kaplan has moved into that category. But almost instantly that gave me an out for books I might have written about but don't feel like digging into at the moment. And, as usual, I've grouped some related books under one I wrote about -- not necessarily the best (how would I know?) but the one that got me going.
I have thirty more books in my scratch file, and will continue to collect them for a few more days, so expect a follow up post sooner rather than later (hopefully with more paperbacks; for some reason they're exceptionally hard to find just using Amazon). Given how long it's been, I'll note that I've read (or at least started) five of these books (Peter Frase, James Galbraith on Greece, Wenonah Hauter, Gail Pellett, and Matt Taibbi), have a couple more on the shelf (Dean Baker, the other Galbraith, Bernie Sanders), and plan on ordering a couple more (JVP, John W Dower, maybe Pankaj Mishra). Also, Laura's played the audio of Shattered, so I've picked up some of that, too. (Should be required reading for anyone who thought the Clinton machine had any credibility left 24 years after the populist promises of 1992 -- or for that matter any mechanical skills. I'm not sure whether I can exempt myself, inasmuch as, despite quite a bit of awareness to the contrary, I never doubted that Hillary could have been elected in 2016, nor that she would helm a much less obnoxious administration than the one we got with Trump.)
Jonathan Allen/Arnie Parnes: Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign (2017, Crown): Purports to offer inside dirt on Clinton's failed presidential campaign. Of course, had she won we'd read this differently: perhaps as a triumph over adversity, or maybe just as a vindication for democracy, showing that the people could still see past the shortcomings of the candidate. On the other hand, the fact that she lost, and lost to so unpopular and despicable a candidate as Donald Trump, turns this into a scab you want to pick at -- in the end she lost because too many people hated her more than they feared him, and while that wasn't wholly her fault, she was far from faultless.
Carol Anderson: White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (2016, Bloomsbury USA): Flips the tables on complaints of "black rage" in response to recent police shootings of unarmed blacks to point out the long history of intemperate rage and resistance of whites at every advance of civil rights since the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery.
Dean Baker: Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer (paperback, 2016, Center for Economic and Policy Research): How various rules and policies increase inequality, and how different rules could reduce the concentration of wealth. Book available free online as a PDF or ebook.
James Brennan: Against Democracy (2016, Princeton University Press): Philosopher, argues that democracy is inefficient and often misguided, mostly because it pretends that people who don't know shit are entitled to make decisions about how everything is run. Brennan argues for a "epistocracy" -- rule by a small number of people who have qualified by taking rigorous tests (developed no doubt by the epistocracy). Sure, maybe those properly qualified could settle their differences by voting, but the process could just as well be narrowed to ever smaller (more qualified) elites until it achieves the ultimate efficiency of dictatorship. Lots of problems with this: one is that rulers quickly develop interests that run counter to public interests, like self-perpetuation. For all its flaws and corruptions, democracy at least gives lip service to the notion that government serves all (or at least most) of the people, and provides remedies when leaders get out of hand. Winston Churchill famously said that democracy was the worst possible form of government, except for the rest. I suspect what he really appreciated about democracy was that it allowed the voters to periodically take leave of him without having to sever his head. Brennan is reportedly writing books Against Politics and cowriting one called Global Justice as Global Freedom: Why Global Libertarianism Is the Humane Solution to World Poverty. Now if only he can come up with a definition of libertarianism that doesn't suspiciously resemble feudalism.
Noam Chomsky: Requiem for the American Dream: 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power (paperback, 2017, Seven Stories Press): Derived from a documentary film made mostly of interviews with Chomsky. Principles (from chapter titles): 1. reduce democracy; 2. shape ideology; 3. redesign the economy; 4. shift the burden; 5. attack solidarity; 6. run the regulators; 7. engineer elections; 8. keep the rabble in line; 9. manufacture consent; 10. marginalize the population. That needs some fleshing out, but this is probably a fairly succinct primer on an important issue.
Tyler Cowen: The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream (2017, St Martin's Press): How much more proof do you need that "the dream is dead" than that this right-wing hack should come along, lecturing how stupid you were to have ever fallen for the idea in the first place? It may help to point out here that what American Dream always meant was the notion that prosperity should be widely shared -- within the grasp of practically everyone (aka the Middle Class, which is to say the condition of sufficient equality where virtually no one is so poor they cannot share in the nation's increasing prosperity). On the other hand, Cowen's resignation to the oligarchy has less to do with insight and vision than with who signs his checks. Books like this must make the rich feel inevitable and invincible.
Katherine J Cramer: The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (paperback, 2016, University of Chicago Press): After 2016, when Wisconsin voted down Russ Feingold's Senate run and went with Trump for president, after three statewide wins for weaselly governor Walker, you have to admit that Republicans have had remarkable success at capturing Wisconsin -- the subject here.
Christopher de Bellaigue: The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times (2017, Liveright): The start date was when Napoleon invaded Egypt, an event more often remembered as the first salvo of European dominance of the Middle East). This deals with the spread of (and reaction to) cultural and intellectual ideas -- what others have called modernism -- from Europe to the intellectual centers of Islam (Cairo, Istanbul, and Tehran).
John W Dower: The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II (paperback, 2017, Haymarket Books): Perhaps our most important historian of Japanese-American relations both during and after WWII, Dower took an interest in Bush's Iraq War schemes when warmongers cited the US occupation of Japan and Germany as successful models for what the Bush administration could do in Iraq. He pointed out many ways in which Iraq was different, but also stressed how the US had changed in ways that made us less fit. I expect a big part of this book to expand on those insights (although possibly not as much as his 2010 book, Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq.)
Peter Frase: Four Futures: Life After Capitalism (paperback, 2016, Verso): Speculative post-capitalist futurology plotting out broad options based on two axes based on distribution of wealth in a world of plenty or scarcity. Frase calls these options communism, rentism, socialism, and exterminism. Written before last year's election, which suddenly tilted the odds toward the later.
James K Galbraith: Inequality: What Everyone Needs to Know (paperback, 2016, Oxford University Press): Galbraith's Inequality and Instability: A Study of the World Economy Just Before the Great Crisis (2012, Oxford University Press), turned out to be a dry compendium of research, meant for specialists, but this primer should be clear and compelling. He did, after all, write two of the most important (and quite accessible) political-economic books of the last decade: The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too (2008), and The End of Normal: The Great Crisis and the Future of Growth (2014).
James K Galbraith: Welcome to the Poisoned Chalice: The Destruction of Greece and the Future of Europe (2016, Yale University Press): America's best economist offers a view of the Euro crisis, informed by having worked as an advisor to the Syriza government in Greece. No nation suffered (or continues to suffer) more than Greece for the inflexibility of the Euro system and its rigid control by German bankers.
Anne Garrels: Putin Country: A Journey Into the Real Russia (2016, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Before jumping to conclusions about Russia's president, perhaps a good idea to look at Russia itself. This focuses on Chelyabinsk, a city deep in Siberia best known as one of the centers of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons program. Garrels is an NPR correspondent who spent several years in occupied Baghdad -- see Naked in Baghdad: The Iraq War and the Aftermath as Seen by NPR's Correspondent Ann Garrels (2003; paperback, 2004, Picador). Other recent books on Russia and/or Putin (aside from Satter, which I treat separately): Charles Clover: Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia's New Nationalism (2016, Yale University Press); Karen Dawiska: Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? (2014; paperback, 2015, Simon & Schuster); Steven Lee Myers: The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin (2015, Knopf; paperback, 2016, Vintage Books); Mikhail Zygar: All the Kremlin's Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin (2016, Public Affairs).
Mark Hannah: The Best "Worst President": What the Right Gets Wrong About Barack Obama (2016, Dey Street Books): As Obama's second term comes to a close, it's tempting to start looking at his legacy, which Hannah views through the peculiar prism of the most ungrounded, counterfactual attacks any president has had to suffer. Still, vilification of political opponents is old hat in America, even if now it seems more unhinged than ever. The other part of the problem with Obama is that he hasn't clearly changed much, but he also has this idea that small incremental changes will have larger long-term consequences, and those are hard, perhaps impossible, to accurately gauge now. I suspect that Hannah is trying to claim those changes now, and I don't know that he's not right to do so. On the other hand, Trump is frantically trying to reverse as much of Obama's legacy as possible -- something Obama's focus on small changes makes all the easier.
Wenonah Hauter: Frackopoly: The Battle for the Future of Energy and the Environment (2016, New Press): US petroleum production had been declining ever since Hubbert's Peak was hit in 1969, but at least in the short term new technologies like hydraulic fracturing has made it possible to recover more oil and to open up substantial amounts of natural gas trapped in shale deposits. On the other hand, all this new production adds to the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and fracking introduces new environmental problems -- so much so that opposition to it has become a potent political movement. Hauter herself heads an organization called Food & Water Watch, and previously wrote Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America (paperback, 2014, New Press).
Chris Hayes: A Colony in a Nation (2017, WW Norton): A look at race relations, keyed off the shooting in Ferguson, MO, expanding on the theme that there remain a managed colony of black people in America, separate and very different from the concept of an egalitarian nation commonly experienced (at least the lip-service) by whites. Hayes previous book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, was one of the most insightful, accessible, and powerful books on increasing inequality.
Richard Heinberg/David Fridley: Our Renewable Future: Laying the Path for One Hundred Percent Clean Energy (paperback, 2016, Island Press): Heinberg has written a number of books on the limits of basing our energy needs on oil, starting with The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies (2003) up to Snake Oil: How Fracking's False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future (2013), and he's generally been a pretty pessimistic sort, one book even titled The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality (2011). On the other hand, the cost of renewable energy sources has been plumeting (especially solar cells), opening up the possibility of transitioning to renewables with relatively little disruption (except, of course, to fossil fuel companies). Related: Lester R Brown: The Great Transition: Shifting From Fossil Fuels to Solar and Wind Energy (paperback, 2015, WW Norton); Gretchen Bakke: The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future (2016, Bloomsbury USA).
Arlie Russell Hochschild: Strangers in Their Own Land (2016, New Press): Sociologist sets out to explore "a stronghold of the conservative right" in Louisiana, finding "lives ripped apart by stagnant wages, a loss of home, an elusive American dream," a context for trying to understand their self-defeating political choices. Made a list of "6 books to understand Trump's win," compiled by people who probably don't understand it themselves. Also on that list: J.D. Vance: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis (2016, Harper).
Jewish Voice for Peace: On Anti-semitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice in Palestine (paperback, 2017, Haymarket Books): Essay collection probing various aspects of the frequent charge that advocating peace and justice in Israel/Palestine is anti-semitic. JVP has been an important group in America in the campaign to end the Occupation precisely because their activism is rooted in common Jewish values, which has put them in a uniquely authoritative position to dispute this canard.
Robert P Jones: The End of White Christian America (2016, Simon & Schuster): Head of something called the Public Religion Research Institute argues that since the 1990s White Christians have both demographically and culturally become a minority in America. Not sure what he does with this insight, but but it does correspond to many Republicans losing grip not just on power but on reality -- as you'd expect, it's a question that only matters to people wrapped up in White Christian identity, especially those nostalgic for an America that honored and privileged their prejudices.
John B Judis: The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics (paperback, 2016, Columbia Global Reports): Short (184 pp) and topical overview of what passes for populism both on the right and the left, both in Europe and America. It takes a peculiar perspective to see all those stances as related. Even shorter: Jan-Werner Müller: What Is Populism? (2016, University of Pennsylvania Press); also: Benjamin Moffitt: The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation (2016, Stanford University Press).
Sarah Leonard/Bhaskar Sunkara, eds: The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century (paperback, 2016, Metropolitan Books): Editors associated with The Nation and Jacobin collect some essays to sketch out "a stirring blueprint for American equality," starting with the recognition that the present system is an oligarchy. They imagine finance without Wall Street, full employment achieved by limiting work hours, and many other things.
Pankaj Mishra: Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Mishra has written several books on how various Asian intellectuals reacted to modernism, especially given how Europeans presented it wrapped up in self-serving imperialism -- a much trickier subject than figuring out why so many westerners are so full of rage as their world of myth slips out of any illusion of their control. Nor would he ever stop at the West, unlike chroniclers of "populism," because he knows anger circles the world, taking all sorts of form.
Cathy O'Neil: Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (2016, Crown): Former Wall Street quant, defected to the Occupy Movement and now writes a blog as mathbabe. The "big data" she writes about is mostly used by businesses to target sales pitches, to qualify mortgages and loans, and other things that effectively discriminate against the poor or statistical analogs, not least by warping their experiences in self-perpetuating ways (she talks about "siloing" people which strikes me as an apt metaphor, especially since in my part of the country silos are often death traps). Of course, government also uses "big data" and while I wouldn't say they're up to no good, they too often aren't doing you any favors with their own siloing. I'm not so sure the math itself is at fault, but we'd have to turn the power relationships around to give it a chance -- e.g., collect data about everything public on the market and give consumers tools to access it in a consistent and even-handed manner. As it is, "big data" is becoming an increasingly effective tool for managing and manipulating people, one that helps those in power exercise more power than ever.
Iain Overton: The Way of the Gun: A Bloody Journey Into the World of Firearms (2016, Harper): Mostly on the US but Overton journeys through twenty-five countries looking into many aspects of gun proliferation -- "meets with ER doctors dealing with gun trauma, SWAT team leaders, gang members, and weapons smugglers." No idea how deep this goes, but it reflects critically enough that Amazon's gun nuts have buried it in negative ratings -- they seem to be even more vigilant than Israel's hasbaraists.
Gail Pellett: Forbidden Fruit: 1980 Beijing, a Memoir (paperback, 2015, VanDam): A new left feminist I knew in St. Louis before she moved on to Boston and New York, working in radio and video (including NPR and Bill Moyers). Along the way she spent a year at Radio Beijing as a "foreign language expert," "polishing" news propaganda. That was 1980, post-Mao, a transitional period as the party regime was starting to stabilize after the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four -- interesting times, as the old Chinese curse put it.
Elizabeth Rosenthal: An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back (2017, Penguin Books): With the health care industry sucking up close to 20% of America's GDP these days -- double from a couple decades ago when the gold rush really accelerated with vulture capitalists snapping up previously non-profit hospitals. This promises a big picture look at how business is organized, how they subvert markets, how they game both supply and demand sides, and how they grapple with public policy which hopes to contain costs but is influenced largely by lobbyist money.
Zachary Roth: The Great Suppression: Voting Rights, Corporate Cash, and the Conservative Assault on Democracy (2016, Crown): The 2010 sweep reinforced for Republicans the idea that all they have to do to win is keep undesirable people from voting. Since then, they've passed dozens of state laws to make it harder for people to vote: this recounts those efforts, looks at the right-wing money behind those campaigns. This is not just an assault on democracy, it's an attempt at negation: it starts with the Republians' assumption that their group is more worthy than others, and follows that anything they can do to increase their power is justified.
Bernie Sanders: Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In (2016, Thomas Dunne): Came out post-election, recognizing that the same platform would be relevant regardless of who won. And while we all supported Hillary figuring she'd be slightly more aware of the problems and slightly more amenable to real solutions, with Trump in the White House and the Republicans controlling Congress (and oh so much more), this looms as the only real way forward for anyone who wants a fairer and less conflict-ridden society (even mainstream Democrats should be supportive of that, given the alternative).
David Satter: The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia's Road to Terror and Dictatorship Under Yeltsin and Putin (2016, Yale University Press): Fourth book on Russia, all harshly critical, so much so that the Russian government expelled him in 2013 as a general nuisance. This new book seems to recapitulate and update his previous ones: Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union (1996), Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State (2003), and It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past (2007). A quote from the second book: "Influenced by decades of mendacious Soviet propaganda, [Russia's reformers] assumed that the initial accumulation of capital in a market economy is almost always criminal, and, as they were resolutely procapitalist, they found it difficult to be strongly anticrime. . . . The combination of social darwinism, economic determinism, and a tolerant attitude toward crime prepared the young reformers to carry out a frontal attack on the structures of the Soviet system without public support or a framework of law." It's hard to overstate how much social and economic damage their "reforms" did, nor to appreciate how popular Putin became as the strong man who ushered in a new era, both by winning back Chechnya and covering up Yeltsin's corruption. Satter returns to the 1999 apartment bombings that gave Putin his excuse for attacking Chechnya -- if true (and I find them credible) a remarkably cruel and cynical turn. While I worry that most anti-Putin fulminations are themselves cynical efforts to relaunch the Cold War -- the lost love of the neocons, Satter has a knack for making them make sense.
Ganesh Sitaraman: The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic (2017, Knopf): Argues first that the US constitution was designed to counteract class inequality -- in no small part because "compared to Europe and the ancient world, America was a society of almost unprecedented equality, and the founding generation saw this equality as essential for the preservation of America's republic." Every expansion of democracy since has been linked to putting the nation on a more equal footing, so it's no surprise that the rise of oligarchy today is so eager to limit the franchise, not to mention burying it under mountains of money.
Timothy Snyder: On Tyrrany: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century (paperback, 2017, Tim Duggan): Historian, I know him mostly from his late collaborations with Tony Judt, but he has two major books on the Nazis and Eastern Europe, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010) and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History Warning (2015). His "warning" from the latter: "our world is closer to Hitler's than we like to admit, and saving it requires us to see the Holocaust as it was." This short (128 pp) post-Trump book draws further ties between the genocidal "tyranny" of the WWI era and our own times: another warning.
Andy Stern: Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream (2016, PublicAffairs): Former president of the SEIU, one of the few unions which has grown in size since 2000, bucking trends that have been driven by technology and politics. He recognizes that technology has entered a phase where it's more likely to destroy jobs than to create new ones (the main theme of James K Galbraith's The End of Normal: The Great Crisis and the Future of Growth), and he recognizes that this has been a major source of the growth of inequality, and consequently an increasingly inequitable society. His basic income scheme counters inequality while making technological trends less disruptive. When I think along these lines, I tend to think of not just recirculating cash into the hands of workers but also of giving workers equity in the companies they work for, ultimately democratizing the workplace. But for as far as it goes, a basic income is a good idea. Other recent books along these lines: Rutger Bregman: Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-Hour Workweek (paperback, 2016, The Correspondent); Philippe Van Parijs/Yannick Vanderborght: Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy (2017, Harvard University Press); and Nick Srnicek/Alex Williams: Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (paperback, 2015, Verso).
Joseph E Stiglitz: The Euro: How a Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe (2016, WW Norton): Probably the definitive book on why the Euro has straitjacketed Europe's economy following the 2008 financial meltdown. The idea behind the Euro was to extend and simplify the Common Market with a common currency, but that market was never integrated politically (like, say, the United States) so the central bank, and effectively the single monetary policy, could be effectively captured by German national interests. In pre-recession years this helped fuel housing bubbles in southern Europe and Ireland, which burst in 2008, but left those nations with particularly severe debt overhangs, denominated in Euros so they couldn't compensate by inflating their own currencies. Greece was hit hardest of all, partly its own government's fault, and when the Greek people resisted by electing a left-wing government, the Germans came down even harder, dictating a crippling austerity regime. Stiglitz reviews all this and offers several sensible ways out. If there's a fault it may be that focuses on what is technocratically possible as opposed to the politics that got us here and keep us from fixing it.
Matt Taibbi: Insane Clown President: Dispatches From the 2016 Circus (2017, Spiegel & Grau): Quickly patched together from reports covering the election -- you know, the one where it was absurd that Trump would win until the day he did, giving the whole affair a certain whiplash. Still, Taibbi was more sensitive to Trump's supporters and conscious of Hillary's faults than most, so he helps even when he's not totally right. But then he's always been sharp, which he proves here by quoting 20+ pages from his book on 2008 and making it seem as timely as ever. By contrast, Maureen Dowd called her campaign journal The Year of Voting Dangeously: The Derangement of American Politics (2016, Twelve) -- borrowing her subtitle from Taibbi, whose 2008 book was The Great Derangement.
Michael Waldman: The Second Amendment: A Biography (2014; paperback, 2015, Simon & Schuster): Two parts: the first a history of the original debate surrounding the framing and adoption of the second amendment ("the right to bear arms"); the second covers the various Supreme Court rulings on the amendment, most recently ones broadening the right of individuals to own firearms. Needless to say, those were different debates and sets of issues. The original, I've long felt, was a way of reserving to the states the option of starting the Civil War, so became obsolete once that happened. Today the key issue has more to do with the acceptability of violence for resolving public disputes. Unfortunately, the federal government's practice of imposing its will abroad through force of arms sets a bad example for everyone under it, leading to all sorts of futile arms races, even much legal ambiguity over when lethal force may or may not be used.
Elizabeth Warren: This Fight Is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America's Middle Class (2017, Metropolitan Books): Originally from Oklahoma, one of the few to clearly recognize what was happening during the 2008 banking meltdown, the principle architect of a major tool for ending the consumer abuses which contributed so much to that debacle, acts which gave her a measure of fame from which she won a US Senate seat from Massachusetts. All that plus her aggressive tone against Trump in 2016 positions her to be a credible presidential candidate in 2020, so figure this to be a position stake-out. That's good enough for me, but I want to quibble about her Middle Class usage. The Middle Class is not an entity that one can care for to the exclusion of rich and poor. Rather, it is the effect you get when the economic system is relatively equal -- when differences between most people (blue collar and white collar, manual laborers and professionals) are inconsequential, when all those people have similar opportunities and intergenerational hopes. To get a Middle Class you need institutions, both public and private (like unions), and policies that equalize differences, primarily by leveling up (you move poor people into the Middle Class by supporting them, and you fold the relatively well-to-do back into the Middle Class by reducing their intrinsic advantages). And that's basically what progressive politicians like Warren mean when they say "Middle Class." But the reason they say "Middle Class" instead of "equal" is that they (and/or their target audience) have bought the right-wing's propaganda that the poor are responsible for their own destitution, usually because lack some essential character trait that the "Middle Class" prides itself on. Secondly, "Middle Class" gives the Upper Class a pass, a green light to keep on doing what they're doing -- such as using government as a tool to keep pulling away from the rabble -- but at least "Middle Class" doesn't challenge them the way old-fashioned Populism did. That comes in handy for politicians who are still dependent on the rich for most of their funding.
J Kael Weston: The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan (2016, Knopf): Former US State Department officer, spent seven years in these wars, writes at great length (606 pp) on the human cost of those wars, though possibly only to the Americans who fought them -- a lot of looking in the mirror here. That may be sufficiently damning, but is far from the whole story. And I have to wonder how critical he can be about American intentions given how long he kept trying to serve them.
James Q Whitman: Hitler's American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (2017, Princeton University Press): Well before Hitler came to power, the US codified the set of racial discrimination laws known as Jim Crow. It's pretty well known that South Africa's Apartheid system was based on the American model, but what about Nazi Germany's Nuremberg Laws? Yes and no: "the ultimate, ugly irony that when Nazis rejected American practices, it was sometimes not because they found them too enlightened, but too harsh." Even so, the slope from discrimination to genocide turned out to be much steeper in Germany, probably due to the extraordinary pressures of fighting a loosing war. While interesting in itself, a more interesting book would examine Nazi views of America's own Lebensraum campaign -- the series of wars that drove Native Americans off the land, making room for white settlers. Indeed, the US was the pioneer for white settler colonies all around the world (most recently Israel).
Other recent books merely noted:
Ryan Avent: The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-First Century (2016, St Martin's Press)
Olivier Blanchard/Raghuram G Rajan/Kenneth S Rogoff/Laurence H Summers, eds: Progress and Confusion: The State of Macroeconomic Policy (2016, MIT Press)
Derek Chollet: The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America's Role in the World (2016, Public Affairs)
Angela Y Davis: Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement (paperback, 2016, Haymarket Books)
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States (paperback, 2015, Beacon Press)
Michael Eric Dyson: Tears We Cannot Stop: A Serman to White America (2017, St Martin's Press)
Mikhail Gorbachev: The New Russia (2016, Polity)
Pamela Haag: The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture (2016, Basic Books)
Jerry Kaplan: Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence (2015, Yale University Press)
Robert D Kaplan: Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America's Role in the World (2017, Random House)
Walter Laqueur: Putinism: Russia and Its Future With the West (2015, Thomas Dunne)
Giles Merritt: Slippery Slope: Europe's Troubled Future (2016, Oxford University Press)
Trevor Noah: Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood (2016, Spiegel & Grau)
Arkady Ostrovsky: The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev's Freedom to Putin's War (2016, Viking)
George Papaconstantinou: Game Over: The Inside Story of the Greek Crisis (paperback, 2016, Create Space)
William J Perry: My Journey at the Nuclear Brink (paperback, 2015, Stanford Security Studies)
Kenneth S Rogoff: The Curse of Cash (2016, Princeton University Press)
Jeffrey D Sachs: The Age of Sustainable Development (paperback, 2015, Columbia University Press)
Chris Smith: The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests (2016, Grand Central Publishing)
Rebecca Solnit: The Mother of All Questions: Further Reports From the Feminist Revolutions (paperback, 2017, Haymarket Books)
Sheldon Whitehouse: Captured: The Corporate Infiltration of American Democracy (2017, New Press)
Jason Zinoman: Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night (2017, Harper)
Selected paperback reprints of books previously noted:
Mark Blyth: Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (2013; paperback, 2015, Oxford University Press)
Steven Brill: America's Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System (2015; paperback, 2015, Random House)
Noam Chomsky: Who Rules the World? (2016; paperback, 2017, Metropolitan Books): Essay collection.
Martin Ford: Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (2015; paperback, 2016, Basic Books)
Theda Skocpol/Vanessa Williamson: The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (2012; updated ed, paperback, 2016, Oxford University Press)
Monday, April 24. 2017
Music: Current count 28064  rated (+31), 397  unrated (-4).
Rated count up this week, probably because I didn't find nearly as many A-list records as last week: the two I came up with got (I think) three plays each, as did a couple of high HMs -- African River came closest, although I wound up deciding it was a slightly uneven follower of several better albums, starting with the band-naming (and hugely recommended) Ekaya, and the Dawkins-Iyer record only had one spot I kept tripping on. I did only give Idles -- currently number three on Chris Monsen's 2017 favorites list -- one spin, finding myself more impressed than interested. I haven't yet found his number two Harriet Tubman -- probably a download link in my mailbox -- and I wasn't that taken with his top-rated Angles 9 album (although I liked their smaller group Live in Coimbra and Live in Ljubljana discs), and I've never rated anything by Martin Küchen less than B+(**). A few more things I haven't heard down the list: Atomic, Lithics, Priests, Led Bib (in the queue but temporarily lost), Cloud Nothings, Necks.
Made a little more progress in the Jazz Guide compilation: 20th Century up to 619 pages, 21st 372, so I'll probably his 1000 pages sometime this week. Since last time I reported, that's up +9 and +34, so at this point (Seamus Blake, 10% into "Jazz 80s") the latter is growing four times as fast. I think I was just starting the file last week, so some quick envelope math suggests I'll finish it in another nine weeks (end of June), with 20th Century growing to 700 pages and the 21st to 778. After that it should be all post-2000 (aside from relatively small files for Latin and pop jazz).
The calendar says I should post April's Streamnotes file later this week. Draft file is currently shorter than usual, especially for new music (58 records, 94 total). So I imagine I'll scrounge around for some scoops, but don't really expect to find much.
I also hope to do a book post sometime this week. I haven't done one since August 21, and a lot has happened since then. I will note that I've started reading Gail Pellett's remarkable memoir of 1980, the year she spent working as a "foreign expert" for Chinese radio. I knew her back in St. Louis in the 1970s, so I'm recognizing some things and I'm learning even more -- not least about her background, which for some reason I never enquired into when I could.
Something else I should (but probably won't) do is to write up some thoughts on Ian Kershaw's Fateful Choices -- ten moves from 1940-41 that dramatically broadened the wars that started in the late 1930s. The book would probably have been better had he started earlier and included more on the earlier decisions that led up to the war: Japan's decision to invade China in 1937, Germany's to carve up Poland in 1939, the German-Russian pact that allowed Germany into Poland, the Anglo-French decision to declare war on Germany but not Russia over Poland. Of course, those in turn should be backtracked: Japan's previous attack on Manchuria in 1929, Italy's attacks on Ethiopia and Albania, the mix of intervention and avowed neutrality over the Spanish Civil War, and the so-called "appeasement policy" toward Germany. Before that, of course, is the detritus of the first World War, and before that you get the relatively late efforts at empire building by Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States.
In many ways the best book on all this is Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke -- at least he brings all these threads together, albeit too schematically. One thing I learned there was how artfully Franklin Roosevelt maneuvered Japan and Germany into attacking, allowing him to enter the war with broad popular support -- something most Americans weren't interested in until it happened. Various other books I've read recently helped fill in details: Kershaw, Ira Katznelson's Fear Itself, and most of all James Bradley's The China Mirage. But Baker still has the most important insight: that the only people who tried to stop this cascade of bad choices were the pacifists, not only because they were the ones who anticipated the disaster to come, but because they were the ones most sensitive to the injustices which preceded it. Well, also the people less adverse to fighting who were later dismissed as "premature antifascists."
New records rated this week:
Recent reissues, compilations, and vault discoveries rated this week:
Old music rated this week:
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Sunday, April 23. 2017
We're approximately 100 days into the Trump administration, which only leaves 1360 more days to go until he's gone -- assuming American voters don't get even stupider along the way. If you've been hiding in a cave somewhere, you might check out David Remnick: A Hundred Days of Trump as a quick way of getting up to speed, although Remnick's piece is long on style and short on substance. If you're really masochistic you can dig up my Weekend Roundups (and occasional Midweek Roundups) since January. Indeed, one could write a whole book on Trump's first 100 days -- probably for the first time since Franklin Roosevelt made that timespan historic (see Adam Cohen's Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America), although in this case the "accomplishments" are all negative, and the real damage Trump has sown in this fertile period has (mostly) yet to play itself out. As Bill McKibben notes, below, things that we do to the environment now will continue to drive changes well into the future. That's also true for society, culture, politics, and the economy.
How much damage Trump ultimately does will depend on how effectively the resistance (not just the Democrats, although they have much to prove here) organizes and how coherently we can explain and make people aware of what's so wrong with the Republican agenda. One thing that has probably helped in this regard is that the false dichotomy between "populist" Trump and "conservative" Republicans has faded away -- Trump is still harshly anti-immigrant in all forms (not just "illegals" but he's also turned against perfectly legal H-1B visa holders), but everywhere else he's fallen into line with orthodox (and often extremist) conservatives. This not only means that Trump and the rest of the Republicans will share blame for everything that breaks bad on their watch, it will force Democrats to refashion their platform into one that counters those disasters. We no longer have to argue what bad things might happen if hawks run wild, if corporate moguls are freed of regulation, if the courts are packed with right-wing ideologues, if any number of previous hypotheticals happen, because we're going to see exactly what happens. In fact, we're seeing it, faster than most of us can really process it.
Some scattered links this week in the Trump World:
Also a few links less directly tied to Trump, though sometimes still to America's bout of political insanity:
Monday, April 17. 2017
Music: Current count 28033  rated (+24), 401  unrated (-3).
Lowest rated count February 27 (20), second lowest this year. About the only excuse I can think of is that the relative bumper crop of A- records took a lot of extra time -- even the ones on Napster were more likely to get three than two spins, and the Perelman-Shipp CDs have proven nearly impossible to rank or even to sort out -- though they've been a constant pleasure to play.
I'll also note that my office space has turned into a horrible mess, where the normally FIFO new jazz queue is now a teetering pile. I need to do a lot of "spring cleaning" -- especially moving trays of CDs to shelves, a fairly hideous task given deterioration of my eyesight. Anyhow, my short-term workaround has been to play old music on the computer, the selections suggested by wherever I'm stuck in compiling my last fifteen years of jazz reviews into two book files.
I'm at the stage where I'm going through the database files and fishing the reviews out of a large text file. I just finished Jazz (1960-70s), so next one up is the even longer Jazz (1980-90s), then the really huge Jazz (2000- ), plus post-2000 vocalists, separate files for Latin and Pop Jazz, and some scattered names I've filed elsewhere (Avant-Garde, Classical, New Age, maybe Africa or Latin or Electronica?). The 20th Century file is growing slowly now -- mostly records that came out before I started writing seriously about jazz, plus some later reissues -- at 610 pages (271k words), but the 21st Century file is picking up speed, with 338 pages (159k words).
Given how long the last database file took, I can't even imagine when I'll be done (in the sense of finishing the compilation phase. (August? October?) And I expect the result then will be terribly redundant and shot full of holes -- certainly not something a real publisher might take any interest in. To come up with something useful I'd have to go back and take each artist in turn, write a short bio and critical summary, and fill in a few holes. I might also need to take less of a kitchen sink approach -- just focus on "notable" (especially "recommended," maybe even "essential") albums to cover up how much of the rest I never managed (or will manage) to get to.
On other fronts, Lee Rice Epstein has a nice piece on the late Arthur Blythe (the star, by the way, of the Horace Tapscott album right/below). I also got notes that Alan Holdsworth and Jay Geils died recently.
I had hopes of driving out to the EMP Pop Conference in Seattle (April 20-23), but it's clear now I'm not going to make it. Would have been a nice way to break out of my winter rut, but I guess I'm stuck.
Not much more to say. Listening to more Stanley Cowell at the moment. By the way, Cowell's debut album is on Napster as Travellin' Man, but I went with the title of the LP I bought back in 1977 (like many old LPs it slipped my mind when I compiled my original rated records list; glad to fill this one in).
New records rated this week:
Old music rated this week:
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Sunday, April 16. 2017
After a long post on Saturday, I need to keep this one short, almost schematic.
Saddened to hear of the death of Amy Durfee, 88, a neighbor of my wife's when she was growing up in Oak Park, Michigan. Amy and Art Durfee remained close friends of the family, people we saw every trip we made to Detroit. I feel fortunate to have known them.
The big story this past week has been the Trump Administration's attempt to show North Korea that when they get into a pissing contest the US will not only stand up the challenges but will take the extra step in showing itself to be more insanely belligerent. As best I recall, even Nixon regarded his infamous "madman" ploy as something of a joke -- a nuance Trump clearly is incapable of fathoming. So far, it's been hard to argue that any of Trump's belligerence has transgressed lines that Hillary Clinton was comfortable with, but in Korea he could easily step out too far. This is probably something to write a long post about. Indeed, I've written about Korea several times, including a passage at the start of my memoir, given that I was born the same week China entered the Korean War and turned an American rout into a bloody stalemate. That was the beginning of the end of America both as a global empire and as a nation that could lay some claim to decent and honorable values. Korea was where Americans learned to become the sore losers who invest so much effort in bullying the world and are so unforgiving of any offense. And here we are, sixty-six years later, still picking at the scab of our past embarrassment.
Some scattered links this week in the Trumpiverse:
Also a few links less directly tied to Trump, though sometimes still to America's bout of political insanity:
Saturday, April 15. 2017
There was an election in south-central Kansas on Tuesday to fill the House of Representatives seat vacated by CIA Director Mike Pompeo. The Republican candidate, Kansas State Treasurer Ron Estes, won with 52.5% of the vote, beating Democrat James Thompson (45.7%) and Libertarian Chris Rockhold (1.7%). In 2016, Pompeo won with 60.67% of the vote, a margin of 30.06% over Democrat Dan Giroux. (Miranda Allen ran as an independent and took 6.91% of the vote. In 2016, Trump carried the district by 27 points. According to 538, only 19% of all Congressional districts are more Republican than this district (KS-4, see: Harry Enten: Why Republicans Are Worried About Kansas).
Thompson ran 20 points better than the Democratic Party national ticket only six months later (about three months into the Trump presidency). That augurs well for a Democratic rebound in 2018, which is likely for several other reasons: the party not in the White House usually gains in mid-term elections, Trump is already very unpopular (uniquely by historical standards), and there is very little reason to expect that Trump's administration will be more popular once its acts and effects have taken their toll. No doubt some Trump voters have already turned against their hero, but nowhere near enough to affect this election.
Rather, I see four differences this time. The first is that all the awful Trump news has energized part of the Democratic base here in Wichita -- specifically the part that gave Bernie Sanders a 70% victory on the 2016 caucuses. The second is that they nominated a relatively charismatic newcomer in Thompson, narrowly over the party establishment's candidates. The third is that the Republican convention nominated their insider guy, a thoroughly lackluster party hack. And fourth: the candidates started out even in money and name recognition (whereas Pompeo, and before him Todd Tiahrt, rarely entered a reëlection with less than a million dollar warchest), and until he last week or two Thompson was able to run competitively by raising samll contributions. (In the last week, the national party and their dark money benefactors tilted the balance, although their ads were so tone-deaf I doubt they helped much.)
Conversely, the Democratic Party (both state and national) took little interest in the race -- a source of much debate and friction; e.g., see John Nichols: Coulda Woulda Shoulda -- Democrats Miss a Huge Opportunity in Kansas, vs. Jim Newell: Democrats Didn't Tank Kansas 4th District. The latter piece, ostensibly defending the Party elites, is pretty embarrassing:
Someone should inform the DCCC that no matter how invisible they try to be, grassroots hatred of the Democratic Party elites will be stoked by Republican ads: the main one that ran this time featured a split screen with Thompson and Nancy Pelosi, even though neither (at least as far as I know) ever even acknowledge the other. Still, what the DCCC's lack of interest suggests to me is not tact, but rather disdain, tinged with self-awareness that the national party doesn't have anything to offer people in states like Kansas. This may have started with the pragmatic idea that given the electoral college there's no point in ever running in right-of-center states, but what really locked it in was basic graft. As political parties became ever more in thrall to big business money -- and really, the thing that made Obama and the Clintons stars in the party wasn't their brains or policy skills and especially wasn't their empathy with Democratic voters. Rather, it was their appeal to big money donors. And in order to deliver to their donors they had to win elections -- something they turned into a narrowly technical set of skills and tricks. In that schema, states like Kansas weren't just lost causes -- efforts to win them were just plain inefficient. And making matters much worse, the Clintons and Obama put their own personal needs way above those of the Party, leaving it hollow and ineffective, and the party's loyal supporters unrepresented.
The rationalizations of the national Democratic Party won them a few elections, but they've driven the states they've written off -- both traditionally Republican ones like Kansas and formerly supportive ones like West Virginia -- ever deeper into Republican clutches. To understand why this happened it helps to look at how democracy has evolved (and recently devolved) in America. The key idea is that democracy provides a general method for arbitrating differences between the various stakeholders. Early on those stakeholders were limited to property owners, notably including owners of slaves. Over time, the franchise expanded, although even today there is much pressure (especially from Republicans) to limit who can vote, and therefore to shift the balance of power. For instance, despite the fact that "no taxation without representation" was a founding principle, the US denies the vote to tax-paying resident aliens.
One result of the initial restriction of the franchise was that all political parties catered to elite interests, a practice which with few exceptions has persisted to this day. Republicans not only seek to restrict the franchise; they also seek to expand the influence and importance of money. The effect of this is to shift the balance of power toward the wealthy, so that government is more responsive to their concerns, and becomes less concerned with the poor or merely less affluent. The Republicans, especially after Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980, have been remarkably successful at this, so Democrats have been left with two largely incompatible choices. One is to organize the vastly greater numbers left out and often hurt by Republican policies. The other is to compete with Republicans for the money and influence of the elites.
The Democratic Party establishment, with Obama and the Clintons among its stars, has mostly done the latter. They've had quite a bit of success courting socially liberal donors in knowledge-intensive industries like high tech, communications, and finance, and have tailored their policy initiatives to their benefit. This has let Obama and Clinton raise more money for the last three presidential campaigns than Republicans were able to, but Republicans have done better down ticket, in large part because they've put their money to more effective use in media and organization, and in developing candidates. Meanwhile, Obama and the Clintons have done much to alienate the voters they depend on: partly because they've let their policies become warped by their donors, but mostly because they've neglected (and often undermined) building up a strong party organization. One can only speculate as to why, but one suspects that they fear an organized Democratic rank and file might upset their ability to serve their sponsors -- a prime example being Bill Clinton's decision to favor NAFTA over the unions which had long provided Democratic votes. (Obama made the same choice with TPP, which so unpopular among Democrats Hillary Clinton was forced to reverse course and oppose it.)
As I mentioned above, there is an alternative to the focus on donors that has been so prevalent among the elites of the Democratic Party, which is to try to build a mass organization. That is what Bernie Sanders tried to do in 2016, and his near success, combined with Hillary Clinton's abject failure to beat Donald Trump -- by all measures the most blatantly flawed candidate either party has run since, well, forever -- points toward the alternative: one that makes stronger promises to the voters the Democratic Party courts (and counts on), and which by building a strong organization can finally deliver on those promises. (The main knock on Sanders in 2016 wasn't that he couldn't win but that he had so little backing among elected Democrats that he couldn't govern and/or couldn't follow through on his platform. Something like this happened to Trump, but he's so lazy and unprincipled he just turned the reins over to mainstream Republicans. Sanders at least cares about his platform and the people who voted for him.)
This is the context that explains the DCCC's snub of Thompson and Kansas. Thompson came out of the Sanders campaign, he built a grass roots organization, and wound up doing much better than anyone expected. It didn't appear to me that he ran an especially radical or populist campaign: he avoided negatives, didn't push a lot of policy positions, just promised to fight for people (building on his personal story). I think he should have slammed the Republicans harder, but given how biased the district was I could be wrong. (By contrast, Estes' ads were extremely negative -- so hateful I would have voted against him without knowing anything else, but there can be little doubt that the Republicans know how to push their voters' buttons.) Thompson's organization was very focused on Wichita, and he wound up carrying Sedgwick County by a couple thousand votes (so Wichita by much more). He came real close to a tie in Harvey County, but he lost the other larger counties about 3-to-2, and the outliers badly, some by 4-to-1 or more.
Thompson says he'll run again in 2018, which will bring him much up the learning curve. The obvious downside is that Estes will enter 2018 with a huge funding advantage (unless he gets burned in a primary -- Susan Wagle is talking about a run, and Todd Tiahrt still thinks he's entitled to reclaim his old seat). Also, turnout will be higher -- this election only got 43.52% as many votes as 2016; 2018 will probably split the difference. Hard to say who that will help. The bigger wild card is how much worse off most Kansans will be in 2018 -- as Brownback finishes his second term, with two years of Trump and Ryan doing their worst.
It's still going to be hard for Democrats to win in KS-4. It's not so much that Republicans have a huge natural advantage as that the Republican Party (and affiliates like the Kochs) have put a lot of work and money into building a grass roots organization, and have hooked into the national right-wing propaganda network (especially, but not exclusively, Fox) to all but automatically win elections. Still, their intentionally divisive strategy runs the risk of backfiring. On the one hand, it often promotes weak and often very flawed candidates. On the other, the lies build up, and it's become ever more obvious that too much Republican power causes more harm than good. Still, they win if nobody runs against them, which has more often than not been the case. And that's why James Thompson's run was important: not only is he an impressive candidate, he's not out to wheedle his way in by trying to meet Republican talking points half way. He represents real change, and only that promise has a chance against the GOP machine.
As you probably know, the first post-election effort to move the national Democratic Party focus toward the voters instead of the donors was Keith Ellison's campaign for DNC chairman. He barely lost to Tom Perez, after the latter made all sorts of conciliatory promises like a return to Howard Dean's "50 state strategy." However, consider this Perez quote from Jamie Peck: The Democratic party is undermining Bernie Sanders-style candidates:
I hope Ossoff wins, but if he does it won't have nearly as much impact as a Thompson win would have had in Kansas. The fact is that Kansans have suffered as much under Republican rule as anyone in the country. Democrats should be able to make their case here as pointedly as anywhere, but they can't unless they try, and they won't as long as they remain dedicated to chasing the donor bucks of the upscale urban liberals they've courted ever since they let the unions go bust and manufacturing jobs move to ever cheaper labor markets abroad. And make no mistake: no matter how much Republicans wanted those changes, Democrats let them happen. Letting districts like KS-4 rot is one way they do that.
Also see Harry Enten's post-election piece, Is Trump or Brownback to Blame for the Surprisingly Close Race in Kansas 4?:
I wouldn't get too excited here, although I'm pretty sure Trump will be even more extensively despised by 2018. The California race is pretty atypical -- it was an open primary, with two Democrats nominated for the runoff, and few (if any) serious Republicans ran. And while anti-Trump feeling motivated some Thompson volunteers, it's too soon for many Trump fans to feel betrayed. (For one thing, they're not exactly "high info" voters.) Georgia-6 next week is probably a better test, and a race in Montana is coming up soon, too -- both have serious candidates, which wasn't exactly a given here in Kansas.
One big hole the Democrats have dug for themselves is that they've lost sight of the notion of a public interest as they've pursued special interest donors. They need people to understand that there are large aggregates of people whose interests are being trampled on in the mad rush to satisfy the big lobbies. Secondly, they need to bring back the notion of countervailing power: the idea that government can level the playing field so that people who don't have power bases (like businesses) can get a fair shake. One can argue that the Republicans have far too much power, so it would be only prudent to tilt back toward Democracy.
Of course, it would be terrific to get rid of the exalted role of money in politics, but as long as the Republicans think that works to their favor, and as long as they have any substantial power, that won't happen. The next best thing is to make people constantly aware of the tinge of political corruption, and that would be an easier task for Democrats if they'd stop indulging in it so conspicuously. (And yes, that means stop nominating Clintons and their cronies.) What Democrats need more than anything is to re-establish a bond of trust among the voters. Republicans do this by exploiting the prejudices and rage of their target audience. Democrats are hard pressed to compete on that level. The only real chance they have to succeed is to become trustworthy. To do this they need to recruit plain-spoken candidates who understand what it means and takes to fight for the underprivileged. James Thompson is just that, and if he can make KS-4 competitive, think what more candidates like him can do all across the nation.
Monday, April 10. 2017
First, a couple more links I missed last night:
I should also note that there will be a special election here in Kansas to pick the successor to Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Koch), who has moved on to become Trump's CIA Director. The favored Republican is Ron Estes, who combines the worst aspects of Pompeo and predecessor Todd Tiahrt (R-Boeing) with a markedly lower IQ -- I wouldn't want to pick on someone just because he looks stupid, but all evidence suggests Estes is the real deal. Republicans have plowed a lot of money into this race, but all they've come up with are smears that attack Democrat James Thompson for supporting "late-term abortion" ("he's too extreme for Kansas") and split screens with Nancy Pelosi. Republicans have held the seat since 1994, usually with big margins, and their base has grown as the district has spread out from Wichita. The Nation finally took note of Thompson: see John Nichols: A Berniecrat Takes on Trump and the Koch Brothers in Kansas. I will add that Thompson hasn't tried to make this a referendum on Trump nor does his advertising cite Bernie Sanders. I think he missed an opportunity there, but he has a strong personal story, and his ads have a lot of guns, so we'll see how that plays out.
There are also special elections to fill House vacancies in Georgia and Montana. See: Charlie May: A blue wave begins? Republicans may be in trouble in Kansas, Montana and Georgia elections.
Music: Current count 28009  rated (+28), 404  unrated (+4).
Round number notice, as I passed 28,000 records rated. At 30/week it takes 8-9 months to accumulate a thousand, so unless I slow down I'll probably hit 29,000 around the end of the year, and 30,000 close to Labor Day 2018. Big assumption. I've certainly slowed down going through the new jazz queue, mostly because this week's four A-listed records on Intakt and Cuneiform got four or more plays each. On the other hand, the records I downloaded or checked out on Napster got much less attention -- usually a single play, which is what kept the week from being a major wipeout.
The old music by Herbie Hancock, Freddy Hubbard, and Pete La Roca was suggested as I was slogging through the database adding entries to the jazz guides (currently 590 + 299 pages, so +5 and +13 over the week -- damn slow progress).For Hancock and Hubbard, I stopped after the Blue Notes ran out (well, I included one Hubbard MPS, which had gotten some Critics Poll reissue votes last year). Both artists declined afterwards, and I figured I had heard enough for now. La Roca had two widely spaced Blue Notes and one outlier, and I wound up most impressed by the latter (John Gilmore is the secret ingredient, as he so often was).
Other recent jazz albums were suggested by the Downbeat Critics Poll album ballot (Cameron Graves, Heads of State, Derrick Hodge, Kneebody, Julian Lage, One for All, Bria Skonberg, Nate Smith -- Trio 3 and JLCO were also on the ballot but unrated in my queue). Can't say as I had missed much, but now I can say I didn't. I took the time to compile my usual notes. The invite from Downbeat's editor claimed that some critics can fill out the 20-page ballot in 25 minutes, but it took me over six hours, and that only because I skimmed through the backstretch, most often repeating last year's picks rather than taking the extra time to rethink everything. Horrible experience.
The non-jazz records were suggested by Robert Chrisgau's latest: obviously, I like the New Pornographers and Shins considerably less, but was pleasantly surprised by Conor Oberst's neo-Dylanisms. I had previously given Old 97's' Graveyard Whistling a B+(***). Still need to check out that Craig Finn record.
New records rated this week:
Old music rated this week:
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Sunday, April 9. 2017
On Thursday, April 6, 2017, Donald Trump ordered the US Navy to fire 59 cruise missiles from ships in the Mediterranean targeting the al-Shayrat airbase in central Syria (near Homs). This was widely reported as the first time US forces had directly attacked forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. My first reaction to write up another Day of Infamy post, like I did the day after March 17, 2003, when Bush launched his invasion and occupation of Iraq with a similar volley of cruise missiles. But since those missiles blew up on or near their target, the US hasn't followed up with an invasion or any notable escalation of war. It's not even much of a precedent, as the US has been bombing Syrian territory held by ISIS for several years, and has stationed "military advisers" ("special forces") well inside Syria's pre-war borders. And the US and its nominal allies have been running guns and munitions to various anti-Assad groups within Syria almost from the very start of Syria's Civil War. Obama had gone on record as insisting that Assad "must go" early in that war -- an extraordinarily arrogant stance coming from the leader of a nation which used to proclaim its belief that each nation has a right to choose its own leaders and political system ("self-determination").
The US has had a checkered relationship with Syria and the Assad dynasty since it seized power in the mid-1960s, sometimes forming alliances against common enemies (like Iraq and al-Qaeda), but one issue has effectively kept Syria on the US enemies list and that is Israel -- especially since 1967 when Isreal seized and annexed a strip of territory it calls the Golan Heights. That issue pushed Syria into becoming a military client of the Soviet Union (later Russia -- in neither case for ideological reasons, but because its opposition to Israel closed off access to American arms), and that alignment only (plus the similar one with Iran) only added to the peculiar combination of antipathy, indifference, opportunism, and intolerance which has characterized America's increasingly violent and fitful intervention in the Middle East.
The immediate rationale for this particular act of war was the use of poisonous gas, allegedly by Assad's forces, in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, in "rebel-held territory" in Idlib Province. Obama had arbitrariy proclaimed a "red line" that would be crossed should Syria use poison gas. When Syria appeared to have used poison gas in 2013, the US prepared a "punitive" attack against Syria, but backed down, partly because Congress was wary of authorizing US intervention in Syria, but also because Russia intervened and negotiated a deal between Assad and Kerry committing Syria to destroy its stocks of chemical weapons. Although few Republicans wanted to intervene in Syria, neocons were critical of Obama for failing to punish Syria, and Trump picked up that theme on the campaign trail. Given a similar provocation, it's hardly surprising that Trump would want to show his toughness by bombing first -- especially given that the US had a long history, dating back to Reagan in Libya, of punitive bombing against Middle Eastern targets. (Clinton did the same in Afghanistan and Sudan, and turned the pummeling of Iraq into a kneejerk response every time he wanted to deflect attention from his own scandals. Trump understood this political tactic well enough to tweet (not sure when): "Now that Obama's poll numbers are in tailspin -- watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran. He is desperate.")
But while Trump's now-signature attack isn't far removed from "business as usual" for the US in the region, it will take some effort to various threads that came together to make Trump's own decision little more than a kneejerk response. One question has to do with the chemical attack cited as the rationale. It's hard to get politically untainted data from the site, but it makes little if any sense that Assad would use chemical weapons after having given them up. As Jason Diltz reports, one possible explanation, promoted by Russia, is "that no such gas attack took place to begin with, and that a Syrian conventional strike hit a rebel warehouse full of chemicals." Russia, having brokered the deal to rid Assad of chemical weapons, isn't a disinterested observer here, but it is likely that chemical weapons caches fell into "rebel" hands early in the war, and there has been reason to suggest that some of the pre-2013 poison gas incidents had been "false flag" operations by "rebels" to goad the US into taking punitive action against Assad.
More generally, Assad has evidently been gaining ground recently, and several countries had come to the conclusion that Assad would continue to play a role in a negotiated post-conflict Syria -- even the US seemed to be moving toward that conclusion, at least as part of Trump's more amicable stance toward Russia. So why would Assad risk all that by doing something practically guaranteed to trigger a belligerent response from Trump? It makes no sense -- which doesn't prove it's untrue but does raise suspicion. If you look at who benefits from the chemical attack, it isn't Assad or his foreign allies; it's the anti-Assad "rebels" and elements within the US security establishment who have long benefited from sowing discord with Russia and Iran; e.g., the very people who applauded Trump loudest. Diltz also reports that the Pentagon is investigating whether Russian planes took part in the chemical attack, and that Rex Tillerson says Russia bears responsibility for Assad's gas attack. Strategic thinkers in and around the Pentagon have long cherished Russia as an enemy.
The key thing in Trump's attack against the Syrian airfield wasn't what he did so much as how quickly he did it. Speed saved Trump from a lot of possible headaches: he never had to explain what he intended to do, and he didn't give anyone the chance to second-guess him, let alone organize opposition. He didn't consult anyone in Congress. Despite Nikki Haley's recent flurry of tantrums, he didn't engage the UN. What he wanted to do was to show that he could act decisively (unlike Obama, or even Bush, but ironically much more like Clinton). He informed the president of China only after the missiles were launched, and only because they were having dinner together and he was too pleased with himself to keep a secret like that. About the only one he did as much as notify before the fact was the Russians, who were given ample time to clear the air base, minimizing damage and casualties. (Press reports stated that the 59 cruise missiles -- at $1.5 million each he liquidated $90 million in inventory in seconds -- had killed nine Syrians.) You'd think that hardcore Trump-Russia conspiracy devotees would be up in arms over such collusion, but most of them are Clinton dead-enders, and by and large they were so elated by the fireworks they let such details pass.
So even if you've forgotten the movie Wag the Dog, it was pretty obvious that the chief objective in bombing Syria had to do with domestic politics. Trump has been struggling in the polls, and he's especially been dogged by charges of underhanded hanky-panky with Vladimir Putin and the Russians -- whose interference in America's notoriously corrupt political system is popularly regarded as nefarious (as opposed to, say, Israel's completely kosher manipulations). So in one stealth blow, Trump shows his independence from Putin as well as his allegiance to the imperial war state, and gets a moment doing the one thing Americans of most political stripes seem to regard as truly "presidential": blowing shit up. And to think that until he did just that, Trump was widely regarded as a dangerous maniac.
Conspicuous among those applauding Trump were not only perennial Republican war-mongers like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, but virtually all of the so-called opposition leadership, starting with Chuck Shumer ("the right thing to do") and Nancy Pelosi. Even former presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton came in from the woods to, just before the fact, demand that Trump step up to the challenge and bomb Syria's airfields. (Anyone who thought that Trump might be less hawkish than Clinton has by now been thoroughly disabused of such fantasies, but thus far Trump still hasn't done anything crazier than Clinton herself promised.) Even John Kerry, who negotiated the chemical weapons deal with Assad and Putin, has turned into one of Trump's loudest cheerleaders.
Still, the speed with which Trump acted belies the likely fact that he actually has no idea how to end the war. When someone like Kerry looks at Trump's escalation, he sees pressure pointed toward a negotiated settlement, and he sees bombing Assad now as a means of bringing his ambitions down a notch or two. He no doubt recalls Bosnia, where a round of American bombing brought the Serbs to an agreement known as the Dayton Accords. But that was a relatively simple and easy conflict, and the US had virtually no history as a nemesis to Serbia (or Yugoslavia) so had a relatively clean track record as an arbiter. Yugoslavia was also a country that could be sliced up into fairly neat regions, so the outlines of a solution were much more obvious. Also there was very little international involvement, so other countries (even the US) had no real stakes in the outcome. Even so, the Dayton Accords were hardly a model of impartial diplomacy: they halted a war, but didn't repair the ruins, and war soon flared up again in Kosovo, which was resolved far less elegantly.
Anyone who gives Syria even a modicum of thought must realize that the only way the war ends there is in an agreement which shares power among all factions. That is especially difficult because there are so many factions, many defined against each other, and many backed by various foreign powers, few (if any) out of any concern for the people who live (or, increasingly, lived) in Syria. The only way to cut through this Gordian Knot is to systematically focus on what would be best for the people, regardless of what it means for the outside parties -- but that is a skill that Americans in particular have great difficulty with. Some aspects of a solution seem fundamental. First, power should be radically decentralized, with each section determined democratically, and much flexibility as to how to organize each section. (This is what should have been done in Aghanistan and Iraq, but wasn't because the US wanted to control local politics through the apparatus of a central state, no matter how alien or unpopular that state became.) This would allow, for instance, some sections to be popularly organized as Islamist statelets, others to be dominated by Sunnis or Alawis or Kurds, and others to favor secular socialism (or even Texas-style crony capitalism, Bush's initial plan for Iraq). Those local sections would need to be demilitarized, and to allow free movement of people to other sections. There would need to be a comprehensive amnesty, and limits on punishment inside sections (some sort of "bill of rights," where mobility was one such right).
Such an agreement could be agreed to or imposed, and indeed a broadly agreed to framework might have to be imposed on recalcitrant factions. If imposed, it should be done by neutral soldiers who have no lasting political interests in Syria, and should involve disarmament. An agreed framework could slowtrack disarmament. The settlement would gradually remove all foreign forces, and provide an international agreement against aggression against Syria (Israel and Turkey are two countries with bad track records here). It would also come with a redevelopment bank that would provide grants and loans for rebuilding and development, and would be subject to policing of corruption.
I don't see how any other solution might work, although I can imagine various half-assed compromises, like leaving Assad in charge of a rump Syrian state that would be prohibited from infringing the basic rights of the Syrian people, with vague promises of future elections, etc. -- you might call this "surrender with dignity." Or if you cannot condone Assad, you might conspire to turn the country over to Al-Qaeda and hope they evolve into Saudi Arabia. Or I suppose the world powers might get Turkey to occupy and annex Syria, although there's no reason to think they'd do a better job than they have in their Kurdish regions. But none of these are remotely good ideas. They're merely better than maintaining Syria as a hot battleground for the cold wars of a dozen regional and international rivals -- i.e., the status quo.
While Kerry might relish the prospect of using the Trump stick to bully Assad and others to a Bosnia-like settlement (or better), it's hard to see Rex Tillerson (let alone Trump) even imagining as much, much less accomplishing it having basically decapitated the State Department (he, of course, in the role of the chicken's disembodied head). Ironically, the only one involved who possesses anything near that sort of imagination is Putin, so wouldn't a plan designed to drive a wedge between Putin and Trump be counterproductive? That's pretty clearly why McCain and Graham, and for that matter Shumer and Pelosi and Clinton and her crew, were so quick to climb on board.
Still, without a plan this will go down in history as just another arbitrary and ultimately pointless American atrocity, like so many before it, and Trump's blip in the polls will dissolve into the hole dug by his nasty incompetence. His day of infamy is likely to quickly be forgotten, until his next one anyway. It's not just that those who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it. Those who respond only to the moment's temptation will never have firm ground to stand on.
One last point I want to make: what disturbs me more than Trump's missile attack has been how easily, how uncritically many Democrats and most of the media have lapped up the rationale behind the attack. OK, whatever rationale suited their prejudices best -- some exalted in American power and Trump's "presidential" resolve, some preferred to play up the vileness of the "enemy," some even believed that the killing and destruction served some humanitarian greater good. But all of them bought into the idea that the US (and the US alone) is entitled to play God and deliver justice. Back in 2008 when Barack Obama said he wants to change the way we think about war, nobody expected that what he meant was that the US should simply become more efficient and precise in its ability to project power across the globe, especially through riskless, remotely controlled long distance weapons. Surely a more reasonable reading would have been that the US should back away from its world policing role in favor of developing international organizations that could keep the peace by putting all nations on an equal footing.
Of course, no one expects the Republicans to understand all that, but shouldn't we demand as much from the Democrats. After all, what kind of practical resistance can they offer against Trump and company without making a commitment to peace, justice, and humanity?
Some more links on Trump's little venture into Syria:
Tweets I've noticed along the way:
A couple of unrelated links, just to note them:
Monday, April 3. 2017
Music: Current count 27981  rated (+30), 400  unrated (+3).
Most of this week's records were rolled up in the March Streamnotes, and for that matter look there for tips on how I found what. As you'll see, one event that set me off searching for albums was the death of alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe. I'm not sure why, but a reader in Australia (chpowell) sent me a letter with a batch of links -- all to AMG, which I'm boycotting at present, but if you're not (my grades where I have them):
As these links suggest, it would be nice to have a more comprehensive Blythe discography. I was unaware of the two Roots albums that showed up on Napster and are listed below. I checked Spotify and they have a couple items I couldn't find on Napster. At some point I need to decide whether to sign up for their "premium" service, but I've never found much there not on Napster (not that searching is any easier). They do, for instance, have the Joey Baron album I've heard, but not the one I haven't.
One grade below will probably prove controversial, if not downright offensive. Pretty much everyone I know likes the Magnetic Fields' 50 Song Memoir -- Christgau, Tatum, Ryan Maffei posted that "50 Song Memoir sampler is an A+." I finally looked it up on Napster and found that they only had 16 songs posted, so I played them. Probably not a sufficient sample to proclaim anything a masterpiece -- rule of thumb is the stuff they leave out isn't as good as what they're pitching you with -- but I disliked it so thoroughly I figure the sample is good enough for a (low) grade. Admittedly, not without its occasional charm, and possibly catchy if you can acclimate yourself to his voice, but it left me with no desire to pursue the matter further. Even made me suspect I've overrated him in the past. (I'm certainly not as fond of 69 Love Songs as my A- grade suggests, though I should also note that my wife, who has impeccable taste in music, adores all of it, and probably enjoyed what she heard of the new one much more than I did.)
Jazz Guide compilation continues sporadically -- haven't touched it for a couple days around Weekend Roundup and this post -- currently at 575 pages (20th century) and 272 pages (21st century). Next artist in the 1960s jazz file is Freddie Hubbard.
Apologies for dragging my feet on new jazz. Pending queue is up to 46 now, and I've mostly been handling it FIFO. I'm reminded of this because Tim Niland is up to Volume 4 of the six Ivo Perelman-Matthew Shipp CDs, and he's broken that series up to review a couple AUM Fidelity releases I wasn't at all aware of (one with Shipp, the other by William Parker).
By the way, if anyone can offer some pointers on converting the Christgau website to a smartphone app, please send them my way. Seems like a reasonable thing to do, but right now I'm at the wrong end of the learning curve.
Recommended music links:
New records rated this week:
Recent reissues, compilations, and vault discoveries rated this week:
Old music rated this week:
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Sunday, April 2. 2017
Let's start with a tweet from Dak Zak, in response to someone asking "Why couldn't they have done this before the election!?!":
As best I can tell (the twitter links are circuitous) the original question refers to the Los Angeles Times' editorial Our Dishonest President (the first of a promised four-part series running through Wednesday, not that I wouldn't be surprised if they find enough new material for a fifth installment by Thursday. Zak's response is pretty much true, but he underestimates the media's failure by an order or magnitude or more. Sure, they warned us to "stop this man," but they were also so thoroughly bemused by him, and enticed by the ratings his campaign offered, that they repeatedly let him slip the hook. But more important, they didn't say "stop this party" -- because ultimately what makes Trump so disastrous is not that he's "a narcissist and a demagogue who used fear and dishonesty to appeal to the worst in American voters" (to quote the LA Times), but that he was swept into power with complete control of Congress ceded to the Republican Party and its agenda to rig politics and the economic and social systems to perpetuate oligarchy. Trump may be especially flagrant (or perhaps just embarrassingly transparent) but the Republican Party has embraced demagoguery and dishonesty as essential political tactics for well over a generation. Trump is more a reflection of the party's propaganda machine than he is a leader. For proof, look how often he gets caught up in obvious contradictions and incoherencies, yet always resolves them by moving in the direction of party orthodoxy.
On the other hand, there is ample evidence that the media is still being bamboozled by the aura of Republican legitimacy, even while individual cases like Trump and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback turn into public embarrassments. For instance, south-central Kansans will go to the polls a week from Tuesday to elect a replacement for Trump's CIA director Mike Pompeo. The Wichita Eagle, which we often think of as a voice for moderation in Kansas, endorsed Republican Ron Estes, a Brownback flunky lacking a single original thought (they like to describe him as "affable"). The Eagle even singled out Estes' vow to repeal Obamacare as one of their reasons -- even without the usual nostrum "and replace," even with the editorial facing a Richard Crowson cartoon slamming Brownback for vetoing a bill passed by Kansas' Republican legislature to expand Medicaid under the ACA. You'd think a public-interested media would easily see through a partisan hack like Estes, especially given that the Democrats have nominated their strongest candidate in decades ( James Thompson -- saw one of his ads tonight and I can't say I was pumped by the gun bits or even the concern for veterans and jobs, but those things have their constituencies; also thought he should have hit Trump harder, but if he wins that'll be the takeaway).
More fallout from the GOP's health care fiasco:
Some scattered links this week in the world of Trump: