November 2002 Notebook
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Saturday, November 30, 2002

Movie: 8 Mile. Eminem's "tour de force" is actually pretty understated: aside from his bare raps, he is mostly sullen, while a grim and fanciful world spins all around. But notions of a Rocky-like triumph over elements and adversity are more in the imagination of the viewer. The story here is remarkably compressed -- a few days it feels like, buried deep in 1995 -- and the triumph is less his ability to out-dis a gangsta wannabe than his realization that his only redemption can be in getting his own shit together. B+

Friday, November 29, 2002

Yesterday's near-simultaneous attacks on an Israeli aircraft and an Israeli hotel in Kenya are worth noting. For one thing, both that the attacks were coordinated and that they took place in Kenya suggest that they were implemented by Al Qaeda, which is still kicking after more than an year of intensive suppression. But more significantly, these seem to be the first Al Qaeda attacks aimed at Israel. This may, of course, be seen as an act of desperation -- Israel's occupation of Arab Palestine is one of the few issues that resonates throughout the Arab world, so much so that as cynical an operator as Saddam Hussein tried to cover up his invasion of Kuwait with an attack on Israel. But it also underscores the extent to which Israel and the U.S. have come to be thought of as one, not only because the U.S.'s oft-stated criticisms of Israel's occupation have been shown to be toothless, but more importantly because Israel's policies of assassination, vengeful destruction of civilian property, and the doctrine of "preventitive war" have finally become American policy.

What makes this bad news is not just the death toll, nor the expansion of the theatre of war to poor Kenya (which paid more lives than Israel, just as it paid more lives than America when the U.S. embassy was bombed a while back), but that it represents a convergence of interests between previously distinct terrorist initiatives. Al Qaeda's rigid Sunni fundamentalism has hitherto been estranged from Hezbullah's Shiites, but as their enemies have converged, so have their interests. Secular Iraq has long been hated by both, but Bush et al. are determined to drive all evil-doers into the same corner, where their survival will turn on their ability to join together. And while Iraq's much touted "weapons of mass destruction" is probably just myth, that corner is already occupied by the otherwise completely unrelated North Koreans, whose nuclear weapons and missile technology is much more substantial. Casey Stengel used to say that the key to managing was to keep the people who hate you away from the people who aren't sure. The attacks in Kenya are further evidence that Stengel's advice hasn't been heeded.

Sunday, November 24, 2002

Music:

  • The Andrews Sisters: Capitol Collectors Series (1956-58, Capitol). They're among the most indelible voices of popular music in the 1940s. But this collection comes too late -- remakes of old hits and more contemporary material, which starts strong with "Crazy Arms" but trails off severely toward the end. B
  • Jean-Paul Bourelly: Trance Atlantic (Boom Bop II) (2002, Challenge). A Chicago-based Haitian guitarist who digs Hendrix more than he digs Charlie Christian, his keyboard programming brother, and a Senegalese griot who'll never be described as subtle, augmented by some real jazz guys like Henry Threadgill and Joseph Bowie, this turns out to be a tougher and stranger all-world fusion romp than David Murray's Yonn-De. A-
  • The Byrds: Turn! Turn! Turn! (1966, Columbia/Legacy). The title cut is why there's a Greatest Hits album in the catalog; the Dylan is second rate, and "Oh Susannah" is uninspired filler. B
  • Karl Denson: Dance Lesson #2 (2001, Blue Note). Can this be the future of soul jazz? Funky organ, spiffy guitar, Denson's post-Grover saxophone, toss in turntablist DJ Logic. Thirty-plus years after the fact the much deprecated easy listening soul jazz of the '60s sounds like it has soul; this doesn't, yet. B
  • Dixie Chicks: Home (2002, Open Wide/Monument). Their fans should be happy -- their strings are meant to play roots music, and when they manage to work up a little conviction they really sound great. Yet you get the nagging suspicion that they don't really want to push their demographic too hard, that the only real conviction they have is the bottom line. Near miss, too bad. B+
  • John Forté: I, John (2002, Transparent). The first piece, based on a Dinah Washington sample, is wonderful, and for a while it seems like he might sustain it. He doesn't, but not uninterestingly. B+
  • Joe Harriott: Free Form (1960, Redial). Harriott was a little-known alto saxophonist from Jamaica whose early '60s free jazz albums were often compared to Ornette Coleman. This is a very interesting album. A-
  • John Hicks Quartet: Naima's Love Song (1988, DIW). Featuring Bobby Watson, the brilliant alto saxophonist who sets the tone for these six pieces, but Hicks plays exceptionally well as well. A-
  • John Hicks: Music in the Key of Clark (2002, HighNote). A thoughtful reworking of Sonny Clark's pieces, something which Hicks is very much attuned to. B+
  • The Hives: Veni Vidi Vicious (2002, Sire/Burning Heart/Epitaph). It seems like I listen to so few hard rock (or even punk rock) albums these days that it's getting hard to judge what works and what doesn't. On the plus side, I still love the crunch; on the minus side my ears aren't fond of the volume. So this one has been sitting on the line for quite a while now. One thing that nudges it above the line is that it starts and ends strong; another thing is that while I can't follow anything else in between, the Impressions cover is the most distinctive piece of recycled soul/pop this year. A-
  • Thomas Mapfumo & the Blacks Unlimited: Chimurenga '98 (1998, Anonymous Web). The two English language song, the World Cup synopsis "The Lions of Soccer" and the self-explanatory "Set the People Free" close strongly, but on the whole this is one of Mapfumo's most consistent outings, tuneful, churning, lots of mbira. A-
  • Moby: Songs 1993-1998 (Elektra). This was thrown together to cash in on Play, and has an inescapably scattered feel to it. I haven't gone back to check the albums it draws on, but it seems probable that at least some of them (Everything Is Wrong? Animal Rights?) are more cohesive. But as a random sampling of mood music this is fine. And sometimes it makes you wonder why Eno's been so lazy for so long? B+
  • Bob Nell: Why I Like Coffee (1991, New World/Countercurrents). A pianist from Montana, this seems to be the only thing in his catalog, and was no doubt made possible by the presence of fellow Montanan Jack Walrath and Ray Anderson. Sounds good, especially when the front line brass kicks about, but the pianist is fine too. B+
  • The Rough Guide to the Music of Nigeria and Ghana (2002, World Music Network). This cherry-picks 13 cuts from half as many styles over 30 years of some of the world's richest musical veins, including several that even I've heard before (no complaint: E.T. Mensah's "Day by Day" is always welcome in my house). A
  • Dr. Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys: Live at McCabe's Guitar Shop (2002, DCN). Sort of a kitchen sink deal, with a lot of intros for not a lot of Stanley -- who when he does take center stage is as awesome as ever. B
  • Ali Farka Toure: Radio Mali (1999, World Circuit/Nonesuch). About as minimal as the oft-dubbed John Lee Hooker of Mali can get. B
  • Straight Lines: Ken Vandermark's Joe Harriott Project (1999, Atavistic). Vandermark's Joe Harriott project was triggered by the reissue of Harriott's albums in the UK. A-

Sunday, November 17, 2002

Music:

  • Joe Arroyo: La Noche (1999, World Music Network/Riverboat). A big name in Colombian music, although offhand this sounds more like salsa than cumbia: big bands, horns, congas, choruses, all played with a full head of steam. Don't know anything else by Arroyo, so I have no idea how to place this, and the lack of discographical information in a 16-page booklet is at least a misdemeanor. But almost everything here is impressive, and it's probably unfair to accuse him of doing it to death. I mean, that's not a problem when we're talking about James Brown, or Franco. I'm not ready to put Arroyo in that league, but this cooks. A-
  • DJ/Rupture: Minesweeper Suite (2002, Tigerbeat). This segues from a barrage of industrial snatch to the Roberta Flack "Killing Me Softly" sample, overlayed with a bit of electronica framing Djivan Gasparyan, then dissolving into a nice piece of mood music -- just when you think he's lost his marbles, he pulls the rabbit from the hat. Very eclectic. B
  • Dave Douglas: The Infinite (2002, RCA). Interesting record: I've been undecided about how to grade it for months now -- indeed that is a common problem with Douglas, who's a brilliant trumpet player with a lot of options to work with. This is a fairly straightforward quintet, with Chris Potter alongside Douglas up front, and the estimable Uri Caine on piano. But while this is rich and varied, it never quite moves me -- it's more clever than it needs to be, and more calculated. B+
  • Luna: Close Cover Before Striking (2002, Jetset). Seven-cut EP, with a couple of videos thrown in, but don't expect me to watch. While the Rolling Stones cover is better hooked, the other six cuts are light and sinuous alt-rock, simple and pleasurable. I've missed most of Luna's recent albums, but I'm glad to have this one. A-
  • Northern State: Dying in Stereo (2002, Northern State). Not quite a full album, but at 8 cuts more than a taste. Sounds vintage, three-part raps served fast, with their own cadence that relates only incidentally to the beats, just like in the '80s. Think Beastie Girls, then up the IQ, since "there's a lot you can learn from the opposite sex." A-
  • The Harry Partch Collection, Volume 1 (1949-55, CRI). I used to have a Columbia LP called The World of Harry Partch, which would no doubt be the place to start if Columbia just had the good sense to keep it in print. Partch was one of those great American weirdos -- take a little Frank Lloyd Wright, add a lot of Rube Goldberg, and transpose to music. He didn't just invent his own system of notation: he invented his own notes, and the instruments to play them. Most of those instruments were turned percussion, which sometimes combined with the strings to sound Chinese. The great piece here is "Castor & Pollux" -- something everyone should hear, once anyway. Trouble comes when he adds voice, which is best kept spoken. B+
  • The Harry Partch Collection, Volume 2 (1958-82, CRI). The usual interesting percussion, but too much libretto. B
  • The Harry Partch Collection, Volume 3 (1958-72, CRI). The usual interesting percussion, but way too much libretto. B-
  • Q-Tip: Amplified (1999, Arista). The lead guy from A Tribe Called Quest goes out on a lark, the results less uniform than the group concept ever allowed. Not sure what I think of it, except that it's pretty good. A-
  • Pete Seeger: Darling Corey and Goofing Off Suite (1950-55, Smithsonian/Folkways). Nothing particularly political here -- just a bunch of short banjo works on trad material from all over the map (a bunch of those B-guys get credits, you know, Bach, Beethoven, Berlin). B+
  • Nina Simone: Pastel Blues / Let It All Out (1964-65, Mercury). An impressive singer, with at least a handful of astonishing songs to her credit (including "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" here), I've yet to find an album that lives up to her talent. This one, at least, acquits itself well -- no terrible clunkers or embarrassing gaffes, consistent, solid. The search goes on. B+
  • South African Rhythm Riot: The Indestructible Beat of Soweto Volume 6 (1999, Sterns/Earthworks). No problems here -- it's likely that there's so much to pick and choose from that almost anyone could throw together a top-notch anthology of South African pop every couple of years; certainly by now we know that Trevor Herman can. A-
  • Rachid Taha: Diwan (1998, Polydor). Impressed with Medina, I figured I should dig this out. Can't say how it stacks up as a tourbook of past rai hits, but it does kick up an impressive groove. A-
  • Rachid Taha: Made in Medina (2001, Ark 21). I've been playing this daily since I broke down and bought it new, and it surprises me with its toughness and the persistence of its groove. It fact, it sounds more like one of those Czech Pulnoc records than the usual Arabic fare. A
  • Danny Thompson: Whatever (1988, Hannibal). Upright bass player, makes his bread and butter playing English folk or folk-rock, but he's a fabulous bassist, and with Tony Roberts on reeds this is one snazzy jazz album. And when you can spare the concentration, dig that bass player. A-

Thursday, November 14, 2002

I've come to revise my take on the elections. It's still not a mandate, and it's pretty clear that Bush will be Bush whether he's got a mandate or just a "Get out of Jail" pass. But rather than talk about how sharp Karl Rove was in tailoring his election package and in leveraging his constituencies, the real story here is that the big amorphuous blob of swing voters just don't get it -- they don't hold Bush responsible, and they're not afraid of him or the administration he fronts. On the other hand, this creates a huge breach between the people who do see and who are alarmed and this blob. Indeed, the blob is so fearful of confrontation that it found the anguish and recommitment following Senator Wellstone's death more threatening than the Administration's salafist-jihadists.

I'm not sure what all this means. In particular, I'm not sure whether it's possible to reason with the blob. America more and more seems to be splitting into Eloi and Morlocks, with the blob in effect being the people who think they're Eloi even if they're not. Still, the analogy is, more than ever, rife with faults -- there's always been a middle group, the servants of the Eloi who in turn repress the Morlocks, but these servants are in effect the people who actually run things. The Bush gang may in fact view themselves this way -- they certainly know how to manipulate the blob, they try their best to suppress the unnecessary poor, and they still find time to steal everything that isn't nailed down. It's pretty obvious, to me at least, that their program is headed for catastrophe, but less clear just how that might manifest itself. The marginalization and exclusion of the poor will certainly cause irritation. The "war on terrorism" is itself a pretty convincing advertisement for might-be terrorists, of which there will be an endless supply. The withdrawal of the U.S. from civilized discourse with the rest of the world runs the risk of turning whole nations against us -- and not just in the delegitimizing form of promoting terrorism: America's economy has been rotting for over twenty years, propped up foreign capitalists who thus far see us as a safe haven. Or it could come from ecological devastation, which Bush is greedily moving us towards. Or it could be infrastructural wreckage, as the Republicans dismantle federal government down to the minimum of a police/military state. Or it could be by torturing the dollar through tax breaks and deficits. None of these programs are sustainable, and it's hard to see how anyone with their eyes open can think otherwise. Which, of couse, leaves us with the blob.

Sunday, November 10, 2002

Music: Let's start running these things for a week at a time. Week starts with Sunday (conventional, if nothing else). Also, given that I'm feeling both way behind and jammed trying to get the Writer's Website Code even working a bit, I may not have much to write come grade time. Maybe I'll catch up on the writing later.

Also, note that I already have 42 A records listed in the "Music Year 2002" list, which may mean that I'm getting to be an easy grader, but may also mean that I've worked harder this year, and maybe even that it's a pretty good year . . . music-wise, anyway.

  • Big Lazy: New Everything (2002, Tasankee). Very nice instrumental album, which isn't obviously country-rock nor obviously anything else. I don't really know what to do with it. B+
  • Leroy Carr: Sloppy Drunk (1928-35, Catfish, 2CD). A-
  • Perry Como: All-Time Greatest Hits (1945-70, RCA). A TV fixture from my childhood, little remembered: even before listening to this I'd venture that he was not as hip as Frank Sinatra, nor as square as Lawrence Welk. But while it shouldn't be hard to hit that mark, by this evidence he's very square indeed. He's also an amazingly smooth, assured singer, regardless of whether he's dabbling in mambo or stretching out on what sounds to me like opera. Of course, there's too much of the latter, the orchestras are awful, and the choruses worse. B+
  • Electric Highlife: Sessions From the Bokoor Studios (2002, Naxos World). Cuts from the early '70s, which is beginning to look like the golden age along the old gold coast. A
  • Sue Foley: Where the Action Is . . . (2002, Shanachie). Nothing if not consistent, the difference between her A- and B+ records is pretty small, depending as much as anything on whether you're willing to buy this batch. She's getting older . . . and raunchier. B+
  • Jean Grae: Attack of the Attacking Things: The Dirty Mixes (2002, Third Earth). A-
  • Hank Jones/Cheick-Tidiene Seck: Sarala (1996, Verve). Pretty good griot meets pretty good piano player. B+
  • Leadbelly: Where Did You Sleep Last Night (Leadbelly Legacy, Vol. 1) (1941-47, Smithsonian/Folkways). He's been a project: not really a blues singer, which is how he's usually pigeonholed, nor much of a folk singer, which is all Alan Lomax ever asked for. He doesn't swing, and he doesn't rock. In fact, he's exceptionally plain, but somehow he wrote a few classic songs, and he sings them with a supple muscularity that isn't obvious at first. Maybe I'm just getting used to him, but this is the first of five comps I've heard that I actually like. A-
  • Arto Lindsay: Invoke (2002, Righteous Babe). Yet another blue-eyed samba album. Par for the course. B+
  • The War Is Over: The Best of Phil Ochs (1967-70, A&M). Without reference to Ochs' early albums, you'd never know from this that Ochs once had something to say. Rather, you'd find a very confused aesthete clumsily trying to make unfashionably arty music. C-
  • The Rough Guide to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (2002, World Music Network). A-
  • Baobab: N'Wolof (1998, Dakar Sound). A-
  • Orchestra Baobab: Specialist in All Styles (2002, Nonesuch). A
  • Red Hot + Riot (2002, MCA). Fela tribute: it fails to capture his sound or his experience, but recycles fragments to good effect -- rappers and Africans, with much to talk about. A-
  • Roswell Rudd: Broad Strokes (1999-2000, Knitting Factory). Eclectic, it sez here. Big groups, small groups, too many vocals (pretty awful ones at that), some great trombone. A mishmash. B
  • The Luis Russell Story 1929-1934 (Retrieval, 2CD). Both discs are jiggered to end with "On Revival Day." Not sure how this interesects with Red Allen's comps, but either way this was a major group. A-
  • Pete Seeger: If I Had a Hammer: Songs of Hope and Struggle (1955-98, Smithsonian/Folkways). Seeger's taste in songs has always shown more feel for politics than for music, and the biggest struggle here is to keep from squirming during the union songs. But his "We Shall Overcome" is surprisingly affecting, and the collection has a whole is probably as good as we're likely to find from him. B+
  • Fats Waller: I'm Gonna Sit Right Down: The Early Years, Part 2 (1935-36, RCA, 2CD). First disc is as good a side of Waller as I've heard; second slips a little. A-
  • Kelly Willis: Easy (2002, Rykodisc). After ten years of trying, she's lost her ambitions and just taking it . . . B

Friday, November 08, 2002

I've been reading Stephen Kinzer's Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds, which is a little softly thought-out, but at least the sympathy cuts down on the temptation to ideologize. One thing I'm struck by are the stories of how Turkey's military leaders, despite immense, deeply ingrained distrust of the Muslim clergy [probably not the right word] have time and again fed the Islamist movement whenever they feel threatened by the left. Of course, this is an old story -- old enough to recall that fascism itself was born of the same kneejerk anti-leftism, and the usual tactic in combatting leftism in the Arab world. But it's even more striking in Turkey, where orthodoxy is so vigilantly secular.

Of course, it's obvious now that almost all threats to civilization are coming from the right (at least if civilization is defined as having anything to do with freedom, opportunity, and civility -- which in itself demands secularism).

Thursday, November 07, 2002

A couple of things are clear about the elections. The first is that, even though Bush put a lot of effort into rallying his party, the elections were in no way a referendum on Bush nor on the changes that have affected America during his tenure. Bush's contribution to this outcome was in doing little other than beating the war drums over Iraq. I guess this made him look to be above politics, when in fact its primary effect was to deflect attention from the economy and the long list of ills that derive from his program and performance. But more importantly, it froze the Democrats, who have proven astonishingly inept at attacking Bush.

Wednesday, November 06, 2002

Music:

  • Kahil El'Zabar Trio: Love Outside of Dreams (2002, Delmark). While El'Zabar is always interesting, the real attraction here is David Murray, who blows his ass off. Makes up for underplaying on Yonn-De. A-
  • Van Morrison/Lonnie Donegan/Chris Barber: The Skiffle Sessions: Live in Belfast (2000, Point Blank). Morrison is slumming, but having fun, and it's great to hear Donegan again. A-
  • David Murray & the Gwo-Ka Masters: Yonn-De (2002, Justin Time). Back to Martinique, sans flutes. The rush here is the percussion and chants, which are harder to track than Creole's exuberance, and there's also a shortage of Murray. Yet when Murray does play, he electrifies the joint. And the percussion and chants finally hold up. A-
  • Art Pepper: The Hollywood All-Star Sessions (1979-82, Galaxy, 5CD). When I asked the guy at the store, the only word he had for this was "gorgeous" -- then he went onto a disquisition that, with all due respect for Bird, concluded that Art Pepper was the one alto saxophonist he most enjoyed listening to. With all due respect for Jeep, he was pretty much preaching to the choir. But unlike Pepper's Village Vanguard box or most of the Complete Galaxy monster, Pepper has a lot of company for these sessions. That they work so well just serves to remind you that Pepper has never had trouble navigating heavy traffic. At least three of the discs are indeed non-stop gorgeous. Glad I asked. A-
  • Yohimbe Brothers: Front End Lifter (2002, Ropeadope). As befits a Vernon Reid project, the guitar is suitably metallic. However, thanks to DJ Logic there's a lot more going on: dense textures, gaudy colors, skits more than raps. Doubt that it will really cure stupidity; more likely it'll just repel it. A-


Oct 2002 Dec 2002