Saturday, February 9. 2008
Lawrence Wright: The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006; paperback, 2007, Vintage Books)
Until now, I hadn't bothered reading any books specifically on Al-Qaeda. Wright argues (p. 375) that while the conflict between the US and Arab Islamists was long brewing, only Osama bin Laden had the peculiar skills and vision to make the 9/11 attacks happen. That may be so, but I was more interested in the bigger, more general movements, and al-Qaeda always struck me as a bit player in Islamist politics, its obsession with self-aggrandizement a mistake to indulge. The key book on Islamism is Gilles Kepel's Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam.
But Wright's book is very readable, and covers the basic story in a very useful way. The Islamism he reports on is just one of several threads, concentrating on Ayman al-Zawahiri's experience in Egypt and Osama bin Laden's development from Saudi Arabia to Sudan to Afghanistan to 9/11. He also covers the counterterrorism efforts of the FBI and, to a lesser extent, the CIA, with a bit role to czar Richard Clarke. He cites Kepel in the acknowledgments, and his narrative is consistent with Kepel, although given a tighter focus.
First chapter, "The Martyr," is on Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian Islamist ideologue who reacted radically to his 1948-50 experiences in the US (pp. 11-12):
Qutb had a prudish reaction to sex in America, and the usual complaints about materialism, but what galled him more than anything was America's racial attitudes and policies -- which as a dark-skinned Egyptian he sometimes ran afoul of (pp. 27-28):
Second chapter is on Ayman al-Zawahiri, the well-to-do Egyptian physician who led the Muslim Brotherhood splinter Al-Jihad and eventually became second-in-command of Al-Qaeda (pp. 61-62):
Next two chapters are on Osama bin Laden. The story then moves to geopolitics, with Saudi Arabia's intelligence head Prince Turki al-Faisal (pp. 114-115):
That made Afghanistan a joint Saudi-Pakistani-American operation, which allowed the use of tactics that the Americans might have had second thoughts over, such as the recruitment of Arab jihadists (p. 123):
As the Soviets withdraw from Afghanistan, a Palestinian Islamist named Sheikh Abdullah Azzam enters the picture (pp. 149-150):
A reference back to the 1979 attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca, which is described at some length pp. 101-108; the bin Laden family did the construction work to refurbish the mosque, and helped to suppress the revolt (p. 167):
In 1992 al-Qaeda exploded a bomb in Aden, Yemen, targeting American troops on their way to Somalia; it missed the Americans, but killed two -- a Yemeni hotel worker and an Australian tourist -- raising the question of killing innocent civilians (pp. 198-199):
This is, of course, not an analysis, just a propaganda line, not unlike what the Bush administration told us the Iraqis would do once they witnessed our "shock and awe" attack; since bin Laden came up with this line, it has most successfully been repeated by Americans warning against any hint of retreat, no matter how stupidly or fruitlessly the US had engaged further conflicts (pp. 213-214):
At the time, the US didn't even know that al-Qaeda existed, but later the War on Terror hawks later echoed bin Laden's claims to try to characterize the US withdrawal from Somalia as the sort of retreat that only encourages further attacks, agreeing with bin Laden's critique of the American character, at least as far as Bill Clinton was concerned. What the helicopter downing actually proved was that US forces were lost and clueless in Somalia, that their presence was not only failing to achieve its peacekeeping mission, that it was in fact making matters worse.
I didn't mark any quotes from the section on the years when bin Laden was in Sudan, but it's worth noting that bin Laden invested a lot of money in Sudan and lost virtually all of it when Hassan al-Turabi sent him packing to Afghanistan. Bin Laden may still have been able to raise money in Afghanistan, but he no longer had much in the way of his own resources.
Also note that the Taliban were not yet in power when bin Laden arrived, although they were gaining significant ground. The Taliban at the time were largely beholden to Saudi Arabia, which insisted that bin Laden be kept under control. It was only later that Mullah Omar became bin Laden's protector, at considerable expense first in Saudi support.
In Afghanistan, with the Taliban (pp. 261-262):
In 1997, at the time Peter Arnett interviewed bin Laden for CNN (p. 279):
In November 1997, 58 tourists and 4 Egyptians were killed at Luxor, with the attackers committing suicide after the operation (p. 293):
In 1998, Saudi Prince Turki thought he had a deal to get Mullah Omar to turn over bin Laden (p. 304):
At almost the same time, Al-Qaeda bombed the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; Bill Clinton struck back (or more accurately, struck out) by launching cruise missile attacks against Sudan and Afghanistan (pp. 319-320):
A little historical prelude to Mohammed Atta in Hamburg (p. 346):
On the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbor (pp. 374-375):
A lot of the book deals with FBI counterterrorism agent John O'Neill (p. 383):
The convictions referred to cover the first World Trade Center bombing and other attacks, including the capture of Mohammed al-'Owhali following the Kenya bombing. The story of how the FBI interrogated him is one of the more interesting ones in the book. At the time, al-'Owhali told the FBI: "We need to hit you outside the country in a couple of places so you won't see what is going on inside. The big attack is coming. There's nothing you can do to stop it."
FBI agent Ali Soufan's interrogation of Abu Jandal following 9/11 is another interesting case. Soufan was in Yemen at the time working on the Cole case, and Abu Jandal was coincidentally in jail there "for suspicion" (pp. 410-413):
Note that there was no waterboarding here, no CIA horseshit. The interrogation is calm, methodical; Soufan recognizes that Abu Jandal views himself as a moral person, and works that to his advantage. The CIA comes off very badly in this book, and indeed if you look at Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine, and most likely a dozen other books I haven't gotten to, the judgment could be even worse.
On the other hand, the methodical record that the FBI and DOJ had built up during the 1990s went to hell after 9/11, with Ashcroft going ape shit and managing to convict virtually no one of any importance.
An epilog (p. 415):
Friday, February 8. 2008
I have accumulated a pretty large pile of books I've marked quotes from, and I'm finally starting to work through them. Some are on Iraq and the broader military-imperial landscape. One is on peak oil. I even have a music book. Some items are derived from book reviews rather than the books themselves: in many cases they capture key ideas on the cheap. Especially when I fall behind, I tend to just blow out the quotes. Sometimes I'll add some context and/or a comment. More often the quotes stand on their own.
Given the surfeit of electoral politics this week, I thought I'd start with Matt Taibbi's "Dispatches From a Rotting Empire." It's mostly old news, but thumbing through it I'm staggered by the sheer quantity of misdeeds we've suffered under the Bush administration. In an era when attention span is an endangered species, when we try to reduce everything to fleeting sound bites, it's hard to keep an active memory file of more than a tiny fraction of all the things Bush et al. have done. So here's a brief refresher course, limited as it is to 2005-06. Taibbi has written another book's worth of material since then for Rolling Stone, which will probably be recycled for a presidential campaign book next year, a sequel to his book on the 2004 campaign, Spanking the Monkey: Dispatches From the Dumb Season. If you have anything more than a passing cursory interest in campaigning and its media overgrowth, you'll get more dêjà vu out of Taibbi's book than you'll get new news from 98% of today's newscore. Hope he runs Wimblehack again. That section of the book alone is worth the price, just to have a scorecard for who's feeding you what.
Matt Taibbi: Smells Like Dead Elephants: Dispatches From a Rotting Empire (paperback, 2007, Grove Press)
This is a collection of previously published pieces, mostly from Rolling Stone, which in true rock crit style lets Taibbi wind up before throwing a punch. The pieces and dates are listed below, most with sample quotes.
The book came out too early to include his series on 2008's Republican presidential candidates.
Introduction (pp. xii-xiii):
Jacko on Trial: Inside the greatest show on Earth [April 7, 2005]. OK, I skipped over this chapter.
Four Amendments and a Funeral: A month inside the house of horrors that is Congress [August 25, 2005] (pp. 41-42):
Bush vs. the Mother: On the president's doorstep -- a dead soldier, an aggrieved housewife, and the start of something big [September 8, 2005] (pp. 50-51):
Apocalypse There: A journey into the nightmare of New Orleans [October 6, 2005] (p. 81):
Ms. America: Abu Ghraib irreparably damaged America's reputation, but Lynndie England's trial proved the nation will try to sweep anything under the rug [October 20, 2005] (p. 88):
Darwinian Warfare: In a Pennsylvania courtroom, America can't get the monkey off its back [November 3, 2005]
The End of the Party: In the house, Bush is a liability, the Hammer's been indicted, and the once-united GOP juggernaut stumbles toward an ugly divorce [Demcember 15, 2005] (pp. 101-102):
The Magical Victory Tour: While Iraq burns, the president keeps playing the same old song [December 29, 2005] (p. x):
The Harder They Fall: Republicans are scrambling to clean their House -- but the dirt won't wash off [February 9, 2006] (pp. 120-121):
Generation Enron: In George Bush's America, the only crime is being poor [February 23, 2006] (pp. 127-128):
How to Be a Lobbyist Without Trying: A personal journey into Washington's culture of greed [April 6, 2006]
Meet Mr. Republican: The secret history of the most corrupt man in Washington [April 6, 2006] (pp. 135-136):
How to Steal a Coastline: The Gulf is still in ruins -- but Bush has opened the door for the casinos and carpetbaggers, and now there's a cutthroat race to the high ground [April 20, 2006] (pp. 152-153):
Thank You, Tom DeLay: You were the Hammer -- the most brutal and feared of all Republican leaders -- but only your rank incompetence saved us from your revolution [May 4, 2006] (pp. 164-165):
Fort Apache, Iraq: Travel the bloody roads with GIs , meet the carpetbaggers, go inside Abu Ghraib, and witness the catastrophic nature of the American conquest [July 13, 2006] (p. 203):
Bush's Favorite Democrat: In Connecticut's Democratic primary, Joe Lieberman claims he's facing a leftist "jihad," but there are two words the senator can't duck: "Iraq" and "war" [August 10, 2006] (p. 215):
The Worst Congress Ever: How our national legislature has become a stable of thieves and perverts -- in five easy steps [November 2, 2006] (p. 219):
Thursday, February 7. 2008
Mitt Romney dropping out of the Republian presidential campaign brings to a close one of the most shameful acts in American politics at least within my memory. He did it in typical style, as an act of self-sacrifice to forego dividing the GOP and letting the terrorists (i.e., Obama and/or Clinton) win. More likely his business sense finally kicked in, seeing the increasingly self-funded campaign as a dubious investment. I'm reminded of some pundit who when Giuliani dropped out said he didn't have enough respect for conservatives to lie to them. That, of course, was really a backhand at Romney, who disavowed every plank in his Massachusetts political platform to win the hearts of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. Whether he was lying now or lying then matters little. You can't be that brazenly self-contradictory and expect anyone to ever trust you again.
When I said I expected McCain to offer Huckabee the VP slot, that too was a slap at Romney. Huckabee would provide McCain with a bridge back to the Christian Fascist party base, which he needs to give lip service to if he hopes to, say, do as well as another war-crazed Arizona senator did in 1964. Huckabee is nuts, but at least he's consistent and principled nuts, a trait he shares with McCain even if their conservatism is rooted and expressed differently. Romney, on the other hand, represents nothing but the Republicans's abiding faith in the big lie. In the end, it's no surprise that his last and most adamant supporters were the party's attack dogs, who know better than most that what counts isn't what you believe but what you say and how rabidly you say it.
I've long thought that the Republican money people were pushing Romney and/or Giuliani as sort of a Hail Mary pass to try to hold on to the White House by moving as far to the left from Bush as possible, but that's turned out not to be possible. The primaries have shown us that Bush's legacy and the Republican base cannot be separated. As they've come to realize that, they've reconciled to McCain as their last best hope. McCain has still managed to gather support from Republican moderates and independents, who continue to mistake him for a rational person despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. (Recall, for instance, that most neocons like Wolfowitz preferred McCain over Bush in 2000.) I expect that come November the Democrats should be able to convince even the most naive voters how dangerous McCain is. (Patrick Buchanan has recently offered a pretty quotable soundbite, saying that McCain "will make Cheney look like Gandhi." And who can forget the scene of McCain singing "bomb Iran" to the tune of "Barbara Ann"?) He'd even manage to make Hillary Clinton look antiwar -- hopefully she'll have the good sense to play along.
Meanwhile, McCain has to keep tacking to the right to try to hold down the rank and file party revolt. They don't like him because he has a nuanced position on immigration, because he has shown occasional deviations from the Bush administration line (including occasional qualms about their criminality, although he's never been caught saying as much). The upshot is that in order to prove himself to the Republican base, he has to discredit himself in front of everone else. That's what wiped out Romney, and now it's McCain's turn.
Wednesday, February 6. 2008
We did go to the Democratic Party caucus here in Wichita KS yesterday. I was ambivalent to start, and by the time we spent an hour in sleet turning to snow waiting to get into the building I was pretty damn unhappy too. I had to change my registration from Independent to Democrat to get in, and I was unhappy about that too. Granted, I haven't had any Republicans to vote for since I turned 21 (well, except for anyone who ever ran against Vern Miller), but I never identified with the Democrats. Maybe it was blood: my father's father and his father both had Lincoln in their names; my mother's grandfather fought for the Union from Ohio, moved to Arkansas, and served as a Republican in a Reconstruction government. Or it may have been from thinking about how many kids, friends and neighbors and relatives, LBJ killed. When I studied political history, I naturally tended to think fondly of progressive Republicans while despising reactionary Democrats. Of course, since Wayne Morse left the GOP in 1956 and Strom Thurmond joined in 1964 it's been hard to see any good in the one even if the other is often little better.
I was ambivalent about Obama as well, and when I saw caucus signs for Kucinich and Richardson I had fleeting thoughts of bolting for candidates with stronger stands against the war, but their chairs and tables were empty. Besides, I was caught up in the cattle car rush of humanity, trying to get out of the packed quarters faster than they had managed to get in. The whole process was hopelessly inadequate, with four times as many people showing up as they had expected, and little indication that they had been prepared for even the expected turnout. To change my party affiliation I had to fill out a blank sheet of paper because they had no forms or records. They then ushered most of us into a lobby, Clinton supporters to one side, Obamas to the other, then quickly marked x's on our hands and chicken scratches on a tablet to count our votes. The Obama side outnumbered the Clintons 2-to-1, maybe more, but the Clintons had more printed signs and made more noise. Don't know what that signified. Then we were dumped outside in the snow, and went home to watch the results. Kansas gave Obama 73.3% of the vote, so our sample wasn't atypical. One person figured out how to vote for Richardson. Kucinich got 35 votes, Edwards 53.
I found some results for Wichita. The caucuses were organized by State Senate district. Ours (district 25, downtown, north and west) had 863 votes, 64.7% for Obama. District 29 (near northeast, mostly black) had 1587 votes, 86.5% Obama. District 30 (further east) was 1758 total, 77.9% Obama. District 27 (southwest), 823 total, 62.9% Obama. District 26 (southeast, Derby), 586 total, 56.3% Obama. District 28 (south-southwest, Haysville), 502 total, 52.8% Obama. Clinton won two districts statewide: Parsons 51.8% (471); Paola 50.8% (500). (District 18, Topeka, held two caucuses because it stradles congressional districts. The part in CD 1 gave Clinton 52.2% of 23 votes; the part in CD 2 gave Obama 70.4% of 901 votes.) Obama's best showing was district 4, Kansas City, 93.5% of 2202 votes. District 2 in Lawrence gave Obama 80.3% (1402); District 19 in Topeka 80% (900).
By the time I went to bed last night it looked like Clinton's sizable (10-17 point) wins in the big states (New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California) put her into a slight but probably insurmountable lead. The remaining big states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas) are more similar to the ones Clinton won than to the ones Obama won. And so, I found myself predicting a Clinton-Obama ticket, running against a similar McCain-Huckabee compromise. There are a set of factors which have historically led to such compromises, such as Kennedy-Johnson, Reagan-Bush, and Kerry-Edwards, and those factors are present in spades this year.
Today it looks like I may have been premature. Obama got very nearly the same popular vote as Clinton -- less than 1% separated them -- and may have come up with more delegates (although Clinton still has a super-delegate margin). Also, it looks like Obama has more money going forward, and it's not inconceivable that could make a difference. So I'm wondering now whether Hillary would be mensch enough to take the second slot. Not that she would be my pick, but it would reduce her negatives quite a bit; e.g., it would show some humility few see in her, and it would push her lame duck husband further into the background. (An Obama-Edwards ticket is another possibility, which would work for much the same reasons.)
Basically, there are three reasons for opposing Hillary Clinton. The first is that the dynastic thing has to be buried once and for all, and there's no way to extricate her from it. I won't belabor the point here, but I'm pretty hardcore against nepotism, in favor of confiscatory estate taxes, and downright contemptuous of every facet of aristocracy. She's probably more competent than George Wallace's wife was to be governor of Alabama, but she's still not a marginal case.
The second is the war. No Democrat is ever going to be able to serve their constituency, which is most of the people in the US, unless they can break the war-empire cycle that the US has sunk into. She's got a bad track record, and not just on Iraq. She's developed into a reflexive hawk. Even if it's just to counter the idiot notion that she's not strong enough, either because she's a woman or because she's a Clinton or both, and Republicans and the media know damn good and well how to push her buttons. So even if she knows better about Iraq by now (and that's not all that clear), she doesn't know enough better to stay safe.
The third is that her every instinct is to support business rather than provide a counterweight against corporate excesses. Obama might very well do the same things -- anyone who can raise enough money to run for president has already sold a lot of soul, and he's certainly competitive even if it looks like he may be smarter about it. And realistically, until voters wise up and start voting against the money, nobody's going to be much good in this regard. (I'm not looking for an economics retard like Ralph Nader to stand up to corporations. I'm just looking for someone who can see all sides of a problem, not just the ones the lobbyists point out.)
Obama beats Clinton on 2.5 of these points, so he's an easy choice. (He may be too friendly with his donors, but at least he's never sat on WalMart's board of directors.) He also seems more capable of looking at problems from several different sides, which gives him an intangible edge over politicians who are bred and selected for their kneejerk reactions -- Bush is probably the all-time champ for decisiveness without the slightest shred of understanding, but Bill Clinton wasn't much better.
On the other hand, Hillary might not be the tragic success Bill Clinton was. He had more empathy for everyday Americans than Hillary will ever be able to fake, but she at least doesn't expect everyone to like her (or if she did, she sure knows better by now). His greatest weakness was to compromise not only his principles (which never was a strong suit) but his better judgment to suck up to the powerful, and his reward was getting bitch-slapped by the Republicans for eight full years. He wound up with none of his initial program enacted and his party so lame George Bush was able to steal an election. That lesson can't be lost on Hillary. She knows she'll have to fight back. Good chance she's even brushed up on her Truman and Lincoln. But also the Republicans won't be in the position to rape her that they were with Bill. They've shot their wad and totally disgraced themselves. They'll try to get it up, but most people will see right through them. To carry the analogy one step further, the Republican Noise Machine will be unmasked as the emperor's new dildo. Hillary should have fun with that.
How it turns out will depend on the big primaries to come. Clinton won big states in the East with a strong base of white working class ethnics (like Ohio and Pennsylvania), and California with a lot of Latinos (like Texas). It's not that Obama has to show that a black man can win those votes, but the numbers mean that he must. If he can, he wins. If he can't, he should get a shot at the VP slot because he has proved he can add votes to the ticket, and he should take it because winning will put an end to the question of whether he can win. Hopefully, he'll drive a hard bargain, and become a Cheney-weight VP, not another John Nance Garner. That kind of deal would be good for Clinton as well, not least by changing the chemistry of her crony-machine.
Whoever wins will have to do a much better job than Clinton or Carter did, because there will be rough times ahead.
Tuesday, February 5. 2008
This is the last of four sets of short notes/reviews I made while checking out highly regarded 2007 releases using Rhapsody. These are snap judgments, based on one or two plays. Some records, of course, would benefit from extra exposure, although some might wear worse. I wound up checking out all of the Pazz & Jop top finishers I could find -- see below for a list of exceptions -- down to Queens of the Stone Age (72: Era Vulgaris) and Bat for Lashes (80: Fur and Gold), beyond which little looked apetizing let alone important. I also checked out almost all of Christgau's honorable mentions (Rufus Wainwright was an exception I remember), plus a few odds and ends that struck my fancy. Aside from the Fats Domino tribute, I didn't get into the various artists compilations, and I didn't do much jazz -- either could have impacted my regular writings, and I didn't feel up to thinking about that. Before this exercise I had always been reluctant to review downloads. I still have mixed feelings about it, but I think it's been useful to get the broad overview this exercise has offered. Certainly saves me the temptation to hunt down stuff I wind up not caring much for, as well as the ensuing storage problems.
Shantel: Disko Partizani (2007, Crammed Disc): German electronica producer, full name Stefan Hantel, draws on Eastern Europe and North Africa, Gypsies, Jews, and Arabs, without pushing any particular line to excess. What sounds at first like restraint morphs into eclecticism. B+(*)
LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver (2006 , DFA/Capitol): I handicapped this at #4, but it won the Village Voice's critics poll in a close three-way race and easily won among Idolator's somewhat more techno-friendly critics. I may have underestimated this because of a quirk in my methodology. A few months ago I found a copy at the library. Checked it out, gave it a couple of spins, thought it was pretty good, jotted down a high B+(***), and forgot about it. With a grade in hand, it wasn't a priority to stream, but after the Voice poll came out I figured it was time. A couple of plays later I can hear why it's winning without getting excited about it. It has four or five cuts that are bouncy enough to lift the rather drab vocals, and the off-speed bit about New York that seems off at first starts to get comfy. It is, in short, the sort of record that if you lived with regularly you'd get to like, maybe a lot. If that doesn't excite me, maybe I'm just too promiscuous to settle down. A-
Holy Fuck: LP (2007, Young Turks): Canadian duo, specializes in live improv electronica, on their second album. Mostly keybs and drums, all instrumental, big pumping riffs, something of a kraut rock influence. This jumped out of the speakers from the start, something called "Super Inuit," and the subsequent variations just added to the impact. Pace LCD Soundsystem, this only took one play. A-
Yeasayer: All Hour Cymbals (2007, We Are Free): Brooklyn group. Christgau described this as "tribal neo-psychedelia as spirit food for the grim times ahead." The multiple voices push the tribal concept, and the hodgepodge of references could pass as psychedelia. I'm a little short on details, but one song is called "No Need to Worry." That sounds like something to worry over. B+(*)
No Age: Weirdo Rippers (2007, Fat Cat): LA-based lo-fi drum/guitar duo, putting a lot of fuzz into a mix more/less reminiscent of Jesus and Mary Chain, perhaps a bit grungier. Don't have much to say about them, but I like the sound and the dingy album cover, which leaves a lot to the imagination. B+(***)
The Twilight Sad: Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters (2007, Fat Cat): Indie rock group lays the Scottish on thick, the accent of course, but also storms of background noise resembling bagpipes and martial drums. It's almost shtick, but they play it straight and keep the excesses in check. In the end all they have to do is lay out a bit of shimmering guitar riff for something to play off against. B+(*)
Daft Punk: Alive 2007 (2007, Virgin): French techno outfit, been around since the mid-1990s, has never impressed me much before, but they're a brand name group in a relatively anonymous genre. Playing live cuts against the genre grain. Evidently they're big enough to get the full arena sound treatment -- cavernous echoes, mass audience noise. It suits their rudimentary kraut rock especially well. A-
Dälek: Abandoned Language (2007, Ipecac): New Jersey underground rap group, including an MC of same name, which leads to various degrees of confusion. Music is built from dreary industrial drones, with deadpan raps that sometimes signify. B+(*)
Dan Deacon: Spiderman of the Rings (2007, Carpark): Electronica impresario, loves those funny cartoonish sounds that are stock-in-trade clichés with synthesizers. E.g., first piece is called "Woody Woodpecker," a rehash of the cartoon theme song with all sorts of extra blips. Various pieces are more/less funny. Ends with an abortive attempt to tell a joke. B
Matthew Dear: Asa Breed (2007, Ghostly): Ann Arbor techno producer, comes up with fairly minimal beats, which at least here are formed into seductive little songs with more/less awkward vocals. B+(*)
The-Dream: Love/Hate (2007, Def Jam): R&B singer-songwriter, born Terius Youngdell Nash. Wrote Rihanna's hit "Umbrella," which won Idolator's singles poll, and had some sort of hit called "Shawty Is a Ten," which reappears here as "Shawty Is Da Sh*!" -- something about the vernacular there I don't understand, and it's not helped by the falsetto or the repeated references to "Shawty" as in "Nikki," who he's bedding in lieu of, or in spite of, Shawty, whoever she/that is. Also not sure what I think about the Nelly-like "heys" punctuating several songs. Thing is, he's pretty effective on a straighter song like "Fast Car" where he's not bogged down in the bogus horseshtick. Several discographical nuissances: not sure what the hyphen means; e.g., do we sort under 'T' or 'D'? Title on cover looks like Love Me All Summer, Hate Me All Winter, but most authorities list it as Love/Hate. Seems like a nice kid with a lot of talent who's trying hard to be polarizing. B+(*)
Low: Drums and Guns (2007, Sub Pop): Three-piece band from Duluth MN, with husband/wife vocalists Alan Sparhawk (guitar) and Mimi Parker (drums) and bassist John Nichols. They call what they do "slowcore": the music is slow, dank, industrial, not an inappropriate representation of their frozen rust belt town. (I spent a couple of days there a few years ago -- in July, thankfully -- and it's a fascinating place.) They've recorded steadily since 1994, and have a steady following. They always seemed like an interesting concept, but the few times I have sampled their music have left me dazed and dull. This isn't an exception, although a song about the Beatles and Stones is at least clear. They have a career, and will probably last as long as the Fall. B
Black Lips: Good Bad Not Evil (2007, Vice): Atlanta-based rock band. AMG lists them as Garage Punk and Garage Rock Revival. Half a dozen albums since 2003. Based on a pretty scandalous live rep, I expected more frenzy in a punk band -- maybe that was an early phase they've grown out of. Nothing terribly fast or hard, but there are traces of 1960s garage bands like Sir Douglas, the organ thinned with guitar, a certain wryness in the twanged accents. Not much here, but I like the basic sound. B+(*)
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Baby 81 (2007, RCA): Another garage band, from San Francisco, named for Marlon Brando's motorcycle gang in The Wild One. This is their fourth album, first I've heard. Most sources place their roots in 1990s Brit bands, especially Jesus and Mary Chain. That sound isn't obvious at first, but is increasingly pervasive. AMG's review complains that "BRMC has no personality to fall back on." That may be true, but in a conventional rock band with good skills and pop sense that isn't such a liability. I'm not sure I'd notice anyway. (PS: One problem here is getting the label straight. AMG lists: Sony, RCA, Island, Universal/Island, which covers two incompatible megacorps. I've also seen Red Int., Red Ink, and RCA/Red Ink. Rhapsody says RCA, which is my fallback position, but without having an actual record it's impossible to know.) B+(**)
Brother Reade: Rap Music (2007, Record Collection): White rap duo from Los Angeles, or maybe Winston-Salem NC, where James Joliff (Jimmy "Jael" Jamz or Major Jamz) and Erin Garcia (Bobby Evans) got their start in a punk band. Beats are soft, loosey, with a lot of undertow. Rhymes are smart enough but not exactly intellectual, and above or beyond partying -- just enough to make "Like Duh" sting. A-
Aesop Rock: None Shall Pass (2007, Definitive Jux): Ian Bavitz piles his beats up like an endless series of car wrecks -- he loves crashing electronic drones, and keeps them coming in ways that defy physics. He keeps the words coming too, but I'm having more trouble than ever catching any as they flash by. In that this sounds typical, just not as much fun as it used to be. B
Air: Pocket Symphony (2007, Astralwerks): French electronica group (Nicolas Godin, Jean-Benoit Dunckel), on the ambient side. The instrumental music here is measured, stately, elegant and comfortable, a little short of beat, but quite lovely. The vocals come far too frequently, and they mostly dull or blur the effect without destroying it. B+(*)
Joni Mitchell: Shine (2007, Hear Music): Returning from retirement to smell the coffee, she starts with an instrumental laced with Bob Sheppard sax, then unveils a series of ecology-friendly save-the-world songs, including a reprise of "Big Yellow Taxi" (the "paved paradise and put up a parking lot" song). I've always reacted out of sync to her, tuning into her early self-centered folkie act only through it reverberated through other people I knew, finding her jazz jones alternately aggravating and enchanting, yet enjoying much of her widely disparaged, other-centered late work. This is a mixed bag, but I like its pieced-together musicality and don't mind the apocalyptic. They have, after all, done worse things than build parking lots. B+(*)
Yoko Ono: Yes, I'm a Witch (2007, Astralwerks): She's recorded off and on for a third of a century, trading on her celebrity, connections, and interesting if not always good taste, but she has nothing distinct in style or sound, which makes her suspect as a musical artist. Her eclecticism is all the more exposed on an album of collaborations with artists who often rip her to shreds. Old songs, too, at least the few I recognize. B
Deborah Harry: Necessary Evil (2007, Eleven Seven): Several times this threatens to break loose but never sustains the interest song to song -- even the last three songs, which Christgau raved over, don't flow. They do at least break out of the mild pop rut of the groupthink on the first 14 songs -- AMG credits those to three or more writers each, whereas Chris Stein appears with two of the last three. B
Joe Henry: Civilians (2007, Anti-): Got some press early on for being married to Madonna Ciccone's sister, but with 10 albums in 21 years plus a lately blossoming roster of production credits, he has a pretty substantial resume by now. Born in North Carolina, raised in Michigan, he fits the midwest singer-songwriter niche (cf. John Hiatt, John Mellencamp), not countryish but at least direct and uncomplicated. B+(**)
Deerhunter: Cryptograms (2007, Kranky): Atlanta band, self-described as ambient punk, which seems a good enough label for their guitar-dominant pattern abstractions -- I'm reminded of the Feelies and Cabaret Voltaire, but on record at least they seem more constrained, less given to pop fancy. That seems at odds with their reputation, which takes punk more as a license to offend. This leans more toward ambience, but has enough edge to maintain an interest level. B+(***)
Deerhoof: Friend Opportunity (2007, Kill Rock Stars): Just for the record, I didn't actually listen to all of this. Sometimes Rhapsody skips over tracks, and I caught this happening at least three times here. I've seen it happen before, and sometimes went back, but here at least I've heard enough. San Francisco group, with a female vocalist, Satomi Matsuzaki, whose presence no doubt tempts them to Japanese tunings. Her voice, too. But they'd likely to be into ornate eclecicism in any case. I find the affectations annoying; before long that reaction also spreads to the sweeping pop riffs and sporadic guitar noise. Ninth album since 1997. C+
Grinderman (2007, Anti-): It would be hard to call Nick Cave a project given how steadfastly I've ignored him. He's been cranking out records since the late 1970s, but this is the first I've heard all the way through. I credit my lack of interest to Christgau, who occasionally entertains arguments whether Richie Havens, Nick Cave, or the Smashing Pumpkins are the worst live act of all time. (Laura witnessed the Havens concert and swears there can be no contest.) Actually, I have heard bits and pieces over the years, and he's usually struck me as a competent rocker, a little derivative and pompous, but listenable. This isn't bad, but it's charms are limited. E.g., he takes an overly obvious Bob Dylan melody and perverts it into "No Pussy Blues." Good guitar on the closer, "Love Bomb"; still, if you recall Flipper's "Sex Bomb," you might argue he merely unperverted it. B+(*)
The Ponys: Turn the Lights Out (2007, Matador): A pretty good indie rock band from Chicago, their third album. Seems like more of a guitar album than the first two, heavier anyway. In doing so, they've sunk into their own competency, going through the motions offering little of interest. B
Patty Griffin: Children Running Through (2007, ATO): Singer-songwriter, originally from Maine. I have her filed under folk, perhaps just my tendency to confuse her with Patty Larkin, who fits the role better. Hearing this had me thinking her marketing niche is adult contemporary, even before noticing the strings on the anthems. Still, her best best is the roots toolkit. She can be deadly dull without it. B-
Josh Ritter: The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter (2007, RCA Victor): Singer-songwriter from Idaho. Can do some fairly minimal roots pieces, but also has a sense of how to hook a pop tune, and can reel off a credible ballad. I'm impressed, especially by "Right Moves," which should qualify as one of the most irresistible pop singles of the year if I was keeping track. B+(**)
Paul McCartney: Memory Almost Full (2007, Hear Music): Sometimes you can hear the knack he once had, but more often his vacillation between the grand gesture and the trivial sentiment is just annoying. By all indication, he worked harder this time. The result is that this lacks the lightness, not to mention the silliness, that has become his trademark. C-
Ian Hunter: Shrunken Heads (2007, Yep Roc): A surprisingly robust album from the former Mott the Hoople frontman, qualifying as something of a comeback even though his 30+ year solo career never really submerged even if he was often out of mind. More than ever, this parallels Mott, but comes off weaker, the soul, the glamour, the boisterous boyishness all faded. Closes with a ballad called "Read 'Em 'N' Weep" -- fits nicely, almost transcendent. B
Kings of Leon: Because of the Times (2007, RCA): Tennessee group, a cousin and three brothers sired by someone named Leon. Third album. They strike me as lightweight but unpretentious, and I rather like them. B+(*)
Thurston Moore: Trees Outside the Academy (2007, Ecstatic Peace): AMG lists recording date as "1971-2007," suggesting that some of this is old scrapbook material. (Moore would have been 13 in 1971.) A slightly lighter, more laconic Sonic Youth, minus Kim Gordon's vocals, which often make the difference. B+(**)
Blonde Redhead: 23 (2007, 4AD): Alt-rock band, formed by a couple of Italians who grew up in Montreal and met a couple of Japanese in New York. This happened back in the early 1990s. Their early music is invariably compared to Sonic Youth, and Kazu Makino voice is typically described as high and eerie. If that's all true, this qualifies as a relatively mature, moderate, and engaging work. B+(**)
The Avett Brothers: Emotionalism (2007, Ramseur): Country brother act from North Carolina, touted for their "high spirits," "flat-out kickass songs," "Appalachian-style string-band music with punk-rock abandon." Reminds me of the Statler Brothers, but even that's unfair. You always knew that the Statlers got pussy, even if they resorted to praying for it. These smarmy creeps you have to worry about. But at least they don't pray. How they get by without Jesus is a mystery to me. C
Akron/Family: Love Is Simple (2007, Young God): Brooklyn group, quartet (more or less), fourth album. Everyone sings, mostly in unison for a folkie singalong aspect. Reported to have invented their own religion, which is probably more useful than Magma inventing their own language. Sounds like they might not be bad but probably aren't worth the trouble. B
Goin' Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino (, Vanguard, 2CD): Thirty-song tribute, almost as many artists. Don't have dates. Most cuts are probably recent, but John Lennon's "Ain't That a Shame" probably dates from 1975. One thing Allen Toussaint shows is that if you really want to nail a classic song it pays to have a near-match voice, not to mention a near-match piano. But if those are the standards, we can (and should) stick to the originals, peerless as they are. On the other hand, a small percentage of these covers stand alongside them (Randy Newman's "Blue Monday," Willie Nelson's "I Hear You Knockin'"), and some even add something (Toots' "Let the Four Winds Blow"). B+(**)
Sa-Ra: The Hollywood Recordings (2007, Babygrande): Also known as Sa-Ra Creative Partners, consisting of three R&B technicians with a long list of production credits (Ice-T, Heavy D, Jay-Z, P Diddy, Common, Coolio, just to pick some names from AMG's list). The principals are named: Taz Arnold, Shafiq Husayn, and Om'Mas Keith. I suppose part of the charm of such a group is that there's little of the usual compulsion to establish an identity -- the brand itself is intently anonymous. Mix of vocals and raps, lots of blippy little beats, skanky little grooves, in-jokes that could be funnier. Nothing yet suggests they're geniuses. B+(**)
Alicia Keys: As I Am (2007, J): Third studio album, settling into her mature level: good singer, thoughtful songs, nice production, some spots for her above-average piano. B+(**)
Chrisette Michele: I Am (2007, Def Jam): Another young R&B singer, good voice, good manners, has a convincingly self-defining song called "Good Girl." I liked it, and liked "Be OK" even better -- a survivor song that doesn't overstate the case. Then she jacks off "Mr. Radio" and tosses off gospel ululations on the senseless "Golden" before recovering a bit. Elsewhere she talks about studying Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Natalie Cole. I suppose it's all part of her business plan. Goes by first and middle name; last name is Payne. Not sure how to sort a name like that. B+(*)
James Luther Dickinson: Killers From Space (2007, Memphis International): Also known as Jim Dickinson -- that's how Wikipedia lists him, while AMG has separate entries under both names. Got his start as a session man (played the piano on the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses"; Aretha Franklin's Spirit in the Dark, Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind) and producer (Ry Cooder's Into the Purple Valley, the Flamin' Groovies' Teenage Head, Big Star's Third, the Replacements' Pleased to Meet Me, more recently Amy LaVere's Anchors & Anvils). Cut his own album in 1972, another in 1979, a few more since the late 1990s. Only wrote one of the songs; don't recall hearing any of the others, a mixed bag that he brings a lot of history and feel to. B+(*)
Taylor Swift (2006 , Big Machine): Teenage country singer, born 1989. Doesn't sound like jailbait, especially on songs like "Picture to Burn" and "Should've Said No" where she shows some evidence of experience. Leads off with one called "Tim McGraw"; as someone who never thinks of Tim McGraw (Tug, maybe, but very rarely), I figured she was selling herself short, but I didn't know she was 16 at the time. Got her a gig opening for McGraw and his good looking, no talent wife. Originally out in late 2006, then redone in a "Deluxe Edition" with bonus cuts and a DVD. Rhapsody only has the "Deluxe Edition," less the DVD. B+(*)
Carrie Underwood: Carnival Ride (2007, Arista Nashville): I've never watched American Idol, and have been militant enough about it that I resented a Jon Caramanica piece that taunted its readers with a "you know you watch it." I suppose that it's true that some significant artists have emerged in talent contests, although off the top of my head I can't think of any since Ella Fitzgerald, which has been a while. Even so, the spectacle of American Idol runs against almost every corollary of artistic distinction in rock, pop, or almost any specialization thereof. Listening to this Idol winner, it occurs to me that the main trait the show selects for is volume. My God, she's loud. Also pretty vapid, but that happens when Nashville can't find some irony to wrap around its clichés. C
Trisha Yearwood: Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love (2007, Big Machine): She has a dozen or so albums going back to 1991, when she started with a neotrad sound and a sense for songs that lately has atrophied. That she frontloads the crap here may mean that she's getting bad business advice. B-
Pam Tillis: Rhinestoned (2007, Stellar Cat): Like Yearwood, she's recorded steadily since 1991, although she's 7 years older, and steadier. Doesn't have an overpowering voice, but uses it well. Songs are sensible and smart. B+(**)
Zu & Nobukazu Takemura: Identification With the Enemy: A Key to the Underworld (2007, Atavistic): First album since I started doing this exercise that hasn't shown up on a single known year-end list. Zu is an Italian avant-jazz group I like a lot: Luca Mai on alto/baritone sax, Massimo Pupillo on bass, Jacopo Battaglia on drums. They've done a number of collaborations, including albums on Atavistic with Spaceways Inc. (Ken Vandermark) and Mats Gustaffson. Takemura is an electronica producer, based in Kyoto, with a long list of records, many on Chicago-based Thrill Jockey. However, this doesn't do much, the stasis coming mostly from the electronic drones that are presumably Takemura's contribution. B
Some things I looked for but couldn't get:
It's possible that some of these existed but I couldn't find them. There were several records that took several tries to find. I'm not sure what the status of the mixtapes are. Battles is the biggest surprise, finishing very high in the polls, but electronica seems to be especially spotty. I would like to have had more specialized year-end lists. I still haven't seen Cadence's poll results, which would break out of the semi-major label glut on the major jazz polls. I found a couple of country lists, but not much world, no folk or blues, not nearly enough hip-hop. Electronica appeared in more polls, but was relatively hard to find.
Monday, February 4. 2008
Jazz Consumer Guide is scheduled for Feb. 13. Don't have edit, and don't know about layout cuts yet. I spent the early part of last week streaming 2007 records from Rhapsody, with diminishing returns. I only turned to Jazz Prospecting on Friday, so this week is short, but I did at least get started. More next week.
I've occasionally been working on year-end comments, one part of which is a statistical review of my year-end list. One thing I was especially struck by -- actually, surprised by -- is how consistent my jazz grading has been. The raw numbers are:
The only difference one can point to there is a slight drift from low-B+ to B (down 8, up 11, about 10%) with smaller shifts from B to B- and B- to C+. (The C- grade, by the way, includes a Mark Murphy record that actually got a D.) I suppose one could conclude that I'm becoming a slightly harsher grader. I have noticed myself becoming more critical of competent records that don't much interest me, and that's close to the point where the slip has occurred. Of course, it's possible that the sample has changed. I don't conclude anything from the drop from 10 to 3 C-or-worse records. (I checked the list to see if there was a sudden drop in pop jazz, but I don't see one. In both cases most of the dreck are vocals.)
Cachao: Descargas: The Havana Sessions (1957-61 , Yemaya, 2CD): The best known, or at least the best nicknamed, of a family of legendary Cuban bassists, Israel Lopez wrote hundreds or thousands of songs, ranging from an early role in the invention of the mambo to two volumes of Grammy-winning Master Sessions in 1993. But he's most famous for his descargas, or jam sessions. A-
Grupo Los Santos: Lo Que Somos Lo Que Sea (2007, Deep Tone): A New York quartet not obviously connected to Cuban, let alone Brazilian, music, either by name or instrument: Paul Carlon on tenor sax, Pete Smith on guitar, David Ambrosio on bass, William "Beaver" Bausch on drums. I've been playing this opposite Cachao for, well, a ridiculous number of times, and it's lacking the extra percussion, the choruses, and Chocolate Armenteros' trumpet from the classic stuff, but it holds up awfully well. I've been impressed by Carlon before, but Smith is a revelation, and not just on the two Brazilian pieces (a choro and a samba). Bausch writes about half of the pieces, and may have more up his sleeve than is obvious. There is a bit of extra percussion on two tracks, which credit Max Pollak with "Rumba Tap" -- I think that's tap dancing to a rumba beat. Sounds like it, anyway. A-
Tomas Ulrich/Elliott Sharp/Carlos Zingaro/Ken Filiano: T.E.C.K. String Quartet (2007, Clean Feed): Group name comes from first initials. Ulrich, a cellist, comes first because he wrote all the pieces. Not your usual string quartet: Zingaro is the only violin; no viola; Filiano plays bass, and Sharp plays some kind of guitar ("well, two: one with steel strings, and the othera heavy, shining steel guitar"). String sounds do predominate, as much plucked as bowed. Interesting sonically, but abstract, impenetrable. B+(*)
Bill Easley: Business Man's Bounce (2007, 18th & Vine): Saxophonist, mostly plays tenor here, but claims a clarinet solo, and may work some flute in as well. Born in Olean NY (1946?), moved to NYC in 1964, but went to college at Memphis State, and got his first record credits with Rufus Thomas and Isaac Hayes. Credits include a lot of Jimmy McGriff, soul singers, Jazz at Lincoln Center. He's got a robust, gutbucket R&B tone, and can bop a little. Starts with "Straighten Up and Fly Right," which he describes as "Hip Hop for senior citizens and their parents." Frank Wess joins on "Mentor"; Warren Vaché on "Memphis Blues," where Easley dusts off his clarinet. B+(***)
David "Fathead" Newman: Diamondhead (2007, High Note): Pretty good band here, with Peter Washington on bass, Yoron Israel on drums, Cedar Walton on piano, and Curtis Fuller smearing some noise on trombone. Fathead, however, sounds thin and wasted, and spends much too much time on flute. B-
Larry Willis: The Offering (2007 , High Note): Piano trio on 5 of 8 tracks, nice postbop stuff, much as you'd expect with Eddie Gomez and Bily Drummond in tow. The other 3 tracks add mainstream tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander. He's a fair match for Willis, and does pretty much what you'd expect, fast or slow, up or down. On the other hand, so much as expected gets ordinary fast. B
NYNDK: Nordic Disruption (2007 , Jazzheads): Group name stands for: NY (New York: trombonist Chris Washburne), N (Norway: saxophonist Ole Mathisen and bassist Per Mathisen), DK (Denmark: pianist Soren Moller). Also on this record "special guest" drummer Scott Neumann. Second group album, the first with guests Tony Moreno on drums and Ray Vega on trumpet. Postbop, a little harder and more aggressive with the horns than usual -- trombone helps. B+(*)
Piers Lawrence Quartet: Stolen Moments (2007 , JazzNet Media): Guitarist, born New York, raised San Francisco, studied in Switzerland, now back in New York. First album. Quartet is filled out with Chuk Fowler on piano, Jim Hankins on bass, Sir Earl Grice on drums, all unknowns to me. Three originals, plus covers from Sonny Rollins, Oliver Nelson, Charlie Parker, Sammy Fain/Paul Francis, Jaco Pastorius. Lawrence has a nice sound on elegant lines that work well with the piano. Very pleasant album. B+(**) [Mar. 1]
The Willie Williams Trio: Comet Ride (2007, Miles High): Common name: Wikipedia has six entries, none of which work. This Willie Williams was born in Philadelphia in 1958, plays tenor and soprano sax, has four albums under his own name (first in 1988, last before this in 1993). Studied with Marshall Taylor, did a turn with Arthur Taylor's Wailers, worked in Odean Pope's sax choir and Clifford Jordan's big band. Wrote all the pieces here except for "Caravan" and the Eddie Harris-Jimmy Heath collage he arranged as "Freedom Suite." Basically a hard bop player with more grit than usual. [B+(**)]
Loren Stillman: Blind Date (2006 , Pirouet): Alto saxophonist, b. 1980 in England, studied with Dave Liebman and Lee Konitz. Has 8 records since 1998, mostly since 2003. Quartet with Gary Versace on piano, Drew Gress on bass, Joey Baron on drums. Stillman has a scrawny, delicate sound, and most of this plays like chamber music. I suspect there's more to it, but don't feel much motivation to dig it out. B
Tony Wilson 6Tet: Pearls Before Swine (2007, Drip Audio): Another common name. AMG lists 15, including a few Anthonys. The best known is probably the English record producer and Factory Records founder. My favorite is the Hot Chocolate bassist, especially for his 1976 solo album I Like Your Style. Among jazz guitarists, Gerald Wilson's son Anthony is much better known. This Tony Wilson comes from Vancouver and also plays guitar. The 6Tet adds trumpet, sax, violin, bass, and drums, with some electronics mixed in, for a full-bodied sound that maps closest to fusion, sometimes fevered approaching avant, sometimes not. I go up and down on it. B
Tony Wilson/Peggy Lee/Jon Bentley: Escondido Dreams (2007, Drip Audio): This is both more interesting and less satisfying than the 6Tet album. Where the 6Tet tends to go over the top hoping to sweep you away, this is pretty minimal, which puts it more clearly in avant territory. Bentley plays tenor, soprano, and C melody sax, but tends to follow rather than lead, adding color to the abstract frameworks. Lee's cello is more central, setting the pace and tone for the others. Wilson plays kalimba and charango as well as guitar, and they emerge more fully than in the 6Tet. B+(*)
Fond of Tigers: Release the Saviours (2007, Drip Audio): Seven-piece instrumental group from Vancouver, classified by AMG as rock but really more of a fusion band, with an insistent pulse and a bit of avant edge. Credits listed alphabetically, from bassist Shanto Bhattacharya down to violinist Jesse Zubot. No song credits. Zubot gets an extra credit as producer, but his violin isn't all that prominent. Nor, for that matter, is the only horn, JP Carter's trumpet. B+(*)
Mike Ellis: Chicago Spontaneous Combustion Suite (2000 , Alpha Pocket): Ellis plays saxophones, listing sopranino, soprano, and baritone in that order. Don't know much about him: his website bio starts (or actually, working backwards ends) in 1977 with him studying at Berklee with Billy Pierce. Further studies with Ernie Wilkins, Clifford Jordan, and Steve Lacy. Work with Alan Silva. A group called M.E.T.A. Later got involved with Brazilian music. This is a single 19-part suite, with a quintet, two trumpets (Jeff Beer, Ryan Shultz), bass, drums, constructed is a lean, spare avant vein -- nothing much happens, but the meandering holds your interest anyway. B+(**)
Speak in Tones: Subaro (2003-04 , Alpha Pocket, 2CD): Nominally a collaboration between saxophonist Mike Ellis and percussionist Daniel Moreno, this employs 16 musicians and stretches out to 155 minutes. I take it there's an Afro-Brazil focus, but the sessions were recorded in New York with a group that included Malians Lansine Kouyate and Cheick Tidiane Seck, some notable jazz names (Antoine Roney, Jerry Gonzalez, Graham Haynes, Jean-Paul Bourelly, Adam Rudolph), and scattered others. The long groove pieces are seductive, and it helps that the horns have some sharp edges. B+(**)
Mike Ellis: Bahia Band (2005 , Alpha Pocket): Recorded in Salvador, Brazil, with a mostly Brazilian band, picking up a Professor of African Percussion at the Music Academy of Bahia named Dou Dou Coumba Rose, a Jamaican vocalist from Guyana named Ricky Husbands, a guitarist named Munir Hossn who claims Barcelona, Paris, and Senegal among his homes but was born in Brazil. Mostly guitar (Mou Brasil as well as Hossn) and percussion, setting up a complex, rumbling riddim, which the horns -- Gileno Santana on trumpet, Marcio Tobias on alto sax, Ellis on soprano -- ride along with, although Ellis in particular remains sharp enough to cut the grease. More elemental than Speak in Tones, and better for it. A-
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
The Nels Cline Singers: Draw Breath (2007, Cryptogramophone): Looking at the year-end lists, it's clear that Cline has started getting some attention from outside the jazz world, no doubt due to his employment by Wilco. Their latest album has a guitar dimension they've never had before, but ultimately it takes a back seat to the singer and the songs. Here, in this non-vocal group, guitar is king. I go back and forth on the album. The long "Mixed Message" is as impressive a piece of power trio fusion as I've heard in a long time, at least when it's cranking. But the atmospheric stuff doesn't do much for me one way or another. B+(**)
Ari Roland: And So I Lived in Old New York . . . (2007, Smalls): A matching bookend to Chris Byars' Photos in Black, White and Gray, as it should be, given that the quartets are the same (except for the drummers, Andy Watson instead of Phil Stewart) and the two writers have long worked in the same milieu. More bass solos here. A- [advance]
Stephen Gauci's Basso Continuo: Nididhyasana (2007, Clean Feed): Two basses provide the drive and drone, the phat sonic middle, while two horns -- Gauci's tenor sax, Nat Wooley's trumpet -- work harder at blending in than at standing out. No drums, although now and then you do hear some percussion, probably tapping on the heavy, hollow bass bellies. B+(***)
Sunday, February 3. 2008
Anthony Deutsch: Disgraced and vilified, Suharto dies aged 86. Indonesia's dictator from 1965 to 1998, when his corruption was exposed in the wake of the East Asian currency crisis. He was one of the most murderous rulers of the 20th century, most intensively in the late-1960s when he led an anti-left purge killing at least 500,000, probably a million. He led invasions of Papua New Guinea and East Timor, the latter turning particularly bloody. Throughout his rule he was reliably supported by the US, with the CIA providing him with hit lists of alleged communists in the 1960s. Two American diplomats noted for their work with Indonesia are Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Holbrooke.
Michael Klare: Barreling into Recession. One small point caught my eye here:
This is one of those my-God-what-were-they-thinking? moments. From 2001 through 2004 the US economy was in a prolonged slump, if not a flat-out recession. The number of jobs created was way below population growth, and for much of the time was negative. Real wages lost ground to inflation, and may even have been negative. Working people were besieged from all corners. The nation as a whole was sinking ever deeper in debt. The dollar was collapsing. (Most of those things are still true today.) So there was absolutely no rational basis for consumer confidence that would raise real estate prices, let alone pump them up by 50%. So why did this happen? And why didn't anyone stand up and say this is crazy?
It's pretty clear now that what caused this was the glut of credit that opened up to fight the recession. That credit had to go somewhere, and much of it went into real estate, which looked like a reasonably safe way to sweep it under the carpet. Part of the idea is that real estate always appreciates, which makes it a safe investment. But also business didn't need more plant, especially after productivity gains and shrinking wages in the 1990s. And credit for consumer spending was already damn near maxed out. Still, all we got from force-fed real estate credit was the illusion of appreciation, because in the end it wasn't tied to real growth. It boosted the economy very little, but it did effectively benefit those who could sell high and those who picked up fees in the process. That, of course, was a very Republican thing to do.
But it happened not because the Republicans wanted it, but because Bush needed it. Otherwise, he was presiding over an economy that was tanking, partly from his wars, partly from his policies, including tax cuts, that shifted huge amounts of wealth from working people to the very rich. You'd think that watchdogs would have been alert to these distortions, but for all practical purposes they were in on the scam. One piece of proof that it worked is that Bush managed to win in 2004 -- even with the worst economic record since Herbert Hoover, the phony appreciation of real estate assets gave enough people enough comfort to disregard his lousy economic numbers. Only now is it sinking in how fraudulent the whole scam was.
The other eye-opening tidbit in Klare's piece is:
As Klare notes, this isn't just the US consuming more oil while producing less. It mostly reflects increases in the price of oil, which are largely attributable to Bush invading Iraq and pursuing sanctions against Iran, taking a critical share of oil off the world market. (China gets blamed too: the nerve of some countries taking the dollars accumulated from our vast trade deficits to go out and bid up the price of oil.) I think Klare is wrong when he argues that rising oil prices led to the downturn that popped the real estate bubble. No doubt oil prices add to consumer pain, but they're marginal compared to sinking real estate values, a problem (like so many others) caused mostly by the short-term deceits of the Bush administration and its business allies/clients.
Parag Khanna: Waving Goodbye to Hegemony. The New York Times Magazine ran this excerpt from Khanna's book, The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order. I would personally be more inclined to emphasize the breakdown of great power prerogatives rather than their mere reordering, but Khanna's map can be read my way as well. A couple of quotes:
America's military power turns out to be worse than worthless. Not only does it represent huge economic costs, it has the effect of isolating us.
Of course, rising oil prices only add to US weakness:
Article ends with a set of recommendations that don't make a lot of sense to me; "Taken together, all these moves could renew American competitiveness in the geopolitical marketplace -- and maybe even prove our exceptionalism."
What is clear is that any American attempts to dominate the other major powers, or for that matter Khanna's "Second World" powers, will be resisted, and almost always successfully, especially in the long run. The obvious conclusion there is that the only workable approach would be to seek common objectives, as opposed to the special advantages that the US is accustomed to pursuing. It seems likely to me that this will be difficult or maybe impossible as long as the US political system is seen as an arena for furthering special interest groups, above all multinational corporations and the defense industries. Changing that will require some serious rethinking, something we don't seem to be very good at.
Saturday, February 2. 2008
This is the third batch of short notes/reviews based on streaming records from Rhapsody. They are snap judgments based on one or two plays, unfair to records that repay close attention, possibly too generous to ones that don't. I spent pretty much all of January pouring over year-end lists and picking out things that were well regarded and/or seemed interesting. I shut down the exercise as of Jan. 31, based on the calendar, diminishing returns, and the need to get back to real records, which in my case means jazz. By the time I posted my first two sets I figured I'd do one more. The first two netted 64 records. I now have 70 more. Seems like I should split them in two, so I'll post half now and the other half next week, possibly with some conclusions.
Porter Wagoner: Wagonmaster (2007, Anti-): Never really a great country singer, but for many years his TV show was the quintessential representation of everything I grew up loving and hating about country music. This last shot before he died is in many ways typical of his albums -- the songs are a little weird and out of place, his singing is weathered but not too battered. That they hold together so well is another irony. He rarely did that at album length, so I figure whoever produced helped out. B+(***)
John Anderson: Easy Money (2007, Warner Bros.): His rich, leathery voice hasn't lost a thing. He's got a few better than average songs as well, but "A Woman Knows" doesn't fit his voice, and "Funky Country" is pretty empty as anthems go. Still, he is a pretty funky country singer. And it don't hurt to have Willie Nelson pitch in on the closer. B+(*)
Merle Haggard: The Bluegrass Sessions (2007, McCoury): The label is presumably associated with Del McCoury, but I don't see any credits to McCoury or his band. The name guests are Marty Stuart and Alison Krauss. Most of Haggard's songs are old standbys, including three with "Momma"/"Mama" in the title and a typical political lament "What Happened." Nothing here he couldn't do in his sleep. B+(*)
Antsy McClain and the Trailer Park Troubadours: Trailercana (2007, DPR): AMG classifies this as comedy, but I'll file it under country, which is close enough. He's not an intrinsically funny singer, so the words have to work extra hard. Sometimes they do ("I Was Just Flipped Off by a Silver Haird Old Lady With a 'Honk If You Love Jesus' Sticker on the Bumper of Her Car"), sometimes his observations amount to something ("Joan of Arkansas"), and once he gets an anthem worth savoring ("Living in Aluminum"). B+(*)
Levon Helm: Dirt Farmer (2007, Vanguard): Haven't heard any of his scattered solo albums, but the voice remains recognizable, despite the years and throat cancer. Four of the first five songs are by Traditional, the other by Steve Earle. "False Hearted Lover Blues" is surefire; "Poor Old Dirt Farmer" is more of a stretch. No originals, but not a cover album either. More like a way of staking out that he's still around. B+(**)
Jason Isbell: Sirens of the Ditch (2007, New West): Solo debut from a former member of the Drive-By Truckers. Never bothered to figure out who's who there, but I vaguely recall at least one other solo spinoff [Patterson Hood], while the band carries on and I've seen some reports of a pretty good album out soon [Brighter Than Creation's Dark]. Countryish, but the music stretches out more, to let the writing unfold gradually. B+(*)
Ryan Adams: Easy Tiger (2007, Lost Highway): Prolific singer-songwriter, with something like 9 albums since 2000. Has the tools to do convincing alt-country, but has a tendency toward pointless rock bombast -- "Halloweenhead" is an extreme example. A couple of songs work nicely, but even so you wish he was smarter or funnier or had a better eye or ear. C+
Andrew Bird: Armchair Apocrypha (2007, Fat Possum): Came in 28th in the Idolator poll, 3rd highest of those I didn't anticipate. I hadn't noticed him until a 2005 record made a run on the polls, didn't hear that one, didn't recall the special pleading in Christgau's dismissive review of it, and misunderestimated him. The first few cuts are enchanting. Bird is a singer-songwriter with an arty flair for arranging, a trend I don't particularly care for, except when it really works. Bird comes close. This drags a bit when he gets orchestral -- his first instrument is violin, so he may get some comfort there -- but it is consistently listenable. He's smart enough he never pushes an idea too far. B+(**)
Beirut: The Flying Club Cup (2007, Ba Da Bing!): Vehicle for a young singer-songwriter named Zach Condon, who plies a bit of gypsy accordion for rolling, lilting melodies that sound vaguely European without getting too specific. I understand his previous album had more brass. This one is pleasantly nondescript. B
Björk: Volta (2007, Atlantic): I suppose she's an SFFR, a project I'm not at all anxious to get into. Before this, I've heard two albums: Homogenic (1997) and Vespertine (2001), which got B and C- respectively. I don't remember either, but it's safe to say they left me confused as much as anything else. I'm confused here too, but at least I can credit two songs I want to hear again. They both have hard, angular beats and repeat their titles extensively: "Earth Intruders" and, better still, "Declare Independence." Not sure what to do with the rest of it, but I've heard worse. B+(**)
Caribou: Andorra (2007, Merge): An alias for Canadian singer-songwriter Dan Snaith, previously known as Manitoba until Handsome Dick took offense. AMG classifies as electronica with shoegaze influences, but also refers to it as dream pop, which sounds about right. The idea here is that high-pitched sounds are intrinsically pretty. That may be, but they wear thin after a while. B
Dizzee Rascal: Maths + English (2007, XL): Foreign language rap is all the more dependent on the beats, which here are hard and grimey, without a lot of texture. Not really a foreign language here, just a tough accent to follow -- first song that I figure I get is called "Suk My Dick," and I take it to be funny as well as outrageous. There's more like that, mostly a shade subtler. You get used to it after a while. B+(**)
Bloc Party: A Weekend in the City (2007, Vice/Atlantic): English rock group. I liked their 2005 album Silent Alarm, which had a more electronic feel plus a bit of politics, both missing in this more conventional follow-up. Still sounds agreeably crisp, and I can't swear there isn't more substance to it. B
3 Tenors of Soul: All the Way From Philadelphia (2007, Shanachie): The lead singers aren't household names. In fact, I barely recognize the groups they led: Russell Thompkins Jr. (Stylistics), Ted Mills (Blue Magic), William Hart (Delfonics). Not sure of their claim as tenors either -- their real specialty is falsetto. I'm not sure they appear on every track either: Rhapsody credits Bilal, Average White Band, and Hall & Oates, while AMG lists them as guest spots. In any case, this is a remarkable slice of classic Philly soul. Biggest caveat I have is that "Fantasy" merely recalls the EW&F original. B+(***)
Von Südenfed: Tromatic Reflexxions (2007, Domino): This sounded familiar, but it took me a while to get past Public Image Ltd., which AMG cites as an influence, and zero in on the Fall. Shouldn't have taken so long, given that the vocalist is the Fall's own Mark E. Smith, working with a couple of Mouse on Mars guys: Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner. Have heard of but don't know the latter group. Quasi-industrial electronica, with a punk background but a more measured pulse. Some lyrics in German -- for me that just helps frame the joke. Trails off a bit toward the end, which may just require further study. One thing that is worth noting is that this has fared better in the polls than the Fall's own new and quite good record. That's probably because the label hustles more to get their records out to reviewers. That's always a subtext in year end polls. B+(***)
Marnie Stern: In Advance of the Broken Arm (2006 , Kill Rock Stars): I half like this annoying singer-guitarist and/or her eponymous group. Thrash noise, loud, garish, cartoonish. Reportedly she was inspired by Sleater-Kinney, which explains everything and nothing. B
Kevin Drew: Spirit If . . . (2005-07 , Arts & Crafts): Solo spinoff from the group Broken Social Scene, which is enough of a draw that the cover touts "Broken Social Scene Presents:" above Drew's name. Soft-voiced singer-songwriter, although some pieces are band-framed -- I only vaguely recall BSS, thinking they're some kind of punk/political. Can't follow the words here -- probably my fault, something I'm never much good at -- but it's likely he has something to say. "Frightening Lives" is a choice cut. B+(**)
1990s: Cookies (2007, Rough Trade): Pop-punk trio from Glasgow, related to a hadn't heard of called Yummy Fur. They sound much like the Strokes and their various progenitors, with a mischievous streak. First three cuts blow me away, and most that follows is solidly enjoyable. Could finish higher with a few more plays. B+(***)
Brakes: The Beatific Visions (2007, Rough Trade): This sometimes gets attributed to "brakesbrakesbrakes" -- one of those cover tics that causes all sorts of confusion. Presumably this is the same group that recorded the countryish Give Blood in 2005, which I liked but haven't played since I filed it. This one doesn't sound countryish. More of a singer-songwriter album with something to say and an easy way of putting it over. Several lines caught my ear, like the one about the politics of fear. B+(***)
The Cribs: Men's Needs, Women's Needs, Whatever (2007, Warner Brothers): Yorkshire Brit group, three brothers, guitar hooks, some smarts. I'm most impressed by the odd song out, a political talkie over steady riffs called "Be Safe." Otherwise, they are formidably rockish. Includes songs named "Men's Needs" and "Women's Needs," but no "Whatever" -- must be the rest. B+(**)
Electrelane: No Shouts No Calls (2006 , Too Pure): British band, from Brighton, mostly (or all) female. Has an agreeably light, relaxed, jangly keyb/guitar sound that sails past you without demanding much in the way of attention. B+(*)
Peter Evans: The Peter Evans Quartet (2007, Firehouse 12): I haven't really reconciled myself to using Rhapsody to make up for the jazz records I don't get, but crusing through the year-end data I noticed this, typed it into the search box, and found the record. Evans came to my attention in Mostly Other People Do the Killing, a leading candidate for Jazz CG pick hit slot. The quartet includes Kevin Shea on drums (also in MOPDTK), Brandon Seabrook on guitar (also in Alex Kontorovich's quartet, with another A- record), and Tom Blancarte on bass. A lot of quick flutter in the trumpet here, as if Evans is trying to simulate a fuzzy logic approximation or dislocation of standard changes. B+(***)
DJ Spooky: Creation Rebel (2007, Trojan/Sanctuary): Here Paul Miller gets his shot at remixing Trojan's reggae catalog, and has a lot of fun with it. Some items are noteworthy in their own right, like Mutabaruka's "Dis Poem"; some definitely pick up on the extra swoosh Spooky delivers. One cut didn't show up on Rhapsody: someone named Bob Marley. B+(***)
Nublu Orchestra Conducted by Butch Morris (2006 , Nublu): Don't know enough about group/record, but as far as I can make out, Nublu is a club on Avenue C in New York and a label which has at least this one record out. The group includes "band-members from Brazilian Girls, Wax Poetic, Kudu, Forro in the Dark, I Led Three Lives, and Love Trio and regular Nublu guests Graham Haynes and Eddie Henderson"; evidently, they get together and Butch Morris points his baton and conducts their improvisations. I haven't spent the time to digest the Morris oeuvre -- above all the 10-CD Testament: A Conduction Collection -- but any doubts I had about his skill at taking large groups of musicians and getting them to play in tightly measured cycles were put to rest with Billy Bang's Vietnam recordings. This only furthers his case. Small bits of vocals add to the multicultural cross-genre milieu, but most of this consists of long groove pieces with a bit of avant noise. If I were jazz prospecting I'd bracket the grade until I let this settle in more, but I don't have much in the way of caveats. I'll try to look into this further. A-
Liars (2007, Mute): Rock band, hard and dense but not all that metalic. I've seen them listed as dance-punk or art-punk, neither making much sense, except perhaps for their elemental sense of melody. First album was called They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top. Fourth album suggests they've run out of titles, and maybe ideas as well. B-
New Pornographers: Challengers (2007, Matador): Semi-supergroup, not that the independent members have ever done all that much on their own. Together they have four albums now. I never got any of them, and have long since ceased to care. This one strikes me as lighter but more belabored. People who care might find it appealing. B
Tegan and Sara: The Con (2007, Vapor): Twin sisters from Canada, on their fourth album. They may have been folkier early on because folk music requires so little capital, but by now they're accomplished popsmiths, writing catchy tunes with mature smarts. B+(**)
Bonde do Rolê: With Lasers (2007, Domino): A Brazilian baile funk group, cleaned up for American audiences by DJ Diplo. This takes a while to get all the gears meshing -- if the lead off "Dança do Zumbi" translates as dance of the zombies the awkwardness may be cartoonishly deliberate, but around midway "Marina Gasolina" combusta and then we're into "Caminhao de Gas," which probably doesn't translate as cooking with gas, not that it matters. B+(**)
Amy Winehouse: Frank (2003 , Universal): First album, came out in UK when she was 20, but she sounds much older with her odd jazz stylings -- scat on the opener, a few extended vamps, a bit of classic vocalese ("Moody's Mood for Love"). But the jazz is more like an affectation, not something she feels like sustaining. Inconsistent song selection plagued her breakthrough Back to Black as well, but there it seemed more like the classic singles/filler problem. Here it's a way of life. B+(*)
Wiley: Playtime Is Over (2007, Big Dada): English grime rapper, not as splashy beatwise as Dizzee Rascal, but similar, if anything faster with the words. Besides, aren't grime beats supposed to be sort of minimalist? B+(*)
Talib Kweli: Eardrum (2007, Blacksmith/Warner Brothers): He combines underground consciousness and/or smarts with mainstream connections, and he's steady enough that he's able to bridge guest stars from Kanye West to UGK to KRS-One while keeping on top of his album, maintaining a consistency that may be his real weakness. Some good stuff here. I like a refrain that goes: "it's bad here on earth but if we don't get to heaven it's hell." One called "More or Less" advocates more peace and less war, also "more Beyoncé, less Britney." B+(***)
Mac Lethal: 11:11 (2007, Rhymesayers Entertainment): White rapper, from Kansas City, KS. I'm not sure why Christgau thinks that, as oppposed to KC MO, makes a difference, other than that KC KS is blacker (somewhat) and poorer (a lot), but I'll grant that it makes a difference he's not from Overland Park, let alone Leawood or Olathe. I was sucked in when he decided to keep his KS accent, and when he said he wouldn't go to church until the Chiefs win the Super Bowl. (I didn't even go then, but he wasn't born yet.) His beats and rhymes remind me a bit of Buck 65 -- less intellectual, coarser, more KS. Has a touching song about growing old. Sounds like he's gonna stick around. A-
Sage Francis: Human the Death Dance (2007, Epitaph): Another white rapper, from Miami, one of Non-Prophets, which had a pretty good record out in 2003. Has a couple of previous albums. Smart, witty, gives a damn, given to poetics, but also inclined to get theoretical. Beats deft but unlikely to move you. B+(**)
Lifesavas: Gutterfly (2007, Quannum Projects): Portland underground rap duo, known individually as Vursatyl and Jumbo the Garbageman -- although looks like three guys on the cover. Good first album, Spirit in Stone (2003). This one is a soundtrack to an unfinished blaxploitation movie. A bit narrow beatwise and complicated plotwise. B+(*)
Devin the Dude: Waitin' to Inhale (2007, Rap-A-Lot): Houston rapper, originally from Florida, takes it slow and doesn't miss a lick. Sample line: "seems like everything on her body is melted together." I suppose the coughs on "Nothin' to Roll With" are meant to be responsible, but it's basically a blues. B+(**)
T-Pain: Epiphany (2007, Jive): Tallahassee rapper, second album, has a couple of singles peaks ("Church") but runs thin, or long, or both -- "Reggae Night" is especially sloppy. Before hip-hop he'd be a soul singer, just not an especially good one. B
Chuck D & the Slamjamz Artist Revue: Tribb to JB (2007, Slamjamz): Christgau attributed this to The Peeps of Soulfunk, which looks plausible enough, at least from the front cover. Might as well file it under Chuck D, although James Brown is sampled enough to claim a credit as well as the cover. Awesome much of the time, but no match for the original, nor for what D can do on his own. Chuck D does toss some well-aimed grenades, such as: "that's the Bush for you/always chasing the dollar." B+(**)
Friday, February 1. 2008
From the Wichita Eagle today:
It's just that there aren't a lot of potential donors for a candidate who's already withdrawn from the race. On the one hand, I'm struck by how little Brownback sold out for. On the other hand, it's not like his endorsement was really worth much.
In the long run, Brownback's endorsement was probably worth less than Pat Robertson's, or Joe Lieberman's. Someone should take a look at who's bankrolling McCain, and where else their money is going. Arnold Schwarzenegger just signed up for some of that.
Still, some right-wingers haven't gotten their checks yet. Ann Coulter recently said that if McCain is nominated she's campaign for Hillary Clinton. Coulter's a poison pill anyway, but such a backhanded endorsement provides a curious perspective on Clinton's lesser-evil appeal. (Coulter's supporting Romney, so you might want to factor that in.)
Tom DeLay's opposition to McCain is more straightforward, and in his own way more principled. McCain's campaign slogan can be reduced to simple terms: more war, but less graft. DeLay is the Pied Piper of Republican graft, so of course he'd be opposed to McCain. DeLay, like Bush (or at least Cheney and Rove), understand that war and graft are symbiotic, that each furthers the other in a self-perpetuating frenzy. McCain's recent political gains seem to spring from the vain hope many Republicans have that their wars would fare better if only they were managed by a more scrupulous commander in chief.
On the other hand, the serendipitous bailout of ex-candidate Brownback reminds us that McCain's hands aren't so squeaky clean. He's gotten away with the perception that he's different because the press hasn't held him to account yet. But that's likely to change, especially if he gets the nomination and we finally have to come to grips with the question of whether we really want a worse warmonger than Bush to get his finger on the trigger.