April 2004 Notebook
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Friday, April 30, 2004

The Eagle headline today is "Iraqi force will replace besieged U.S. in Fallujah." No wonder the U.S. is having problems in Iraq. Not only can't they communicate in Arabic; their command of English is severely impaired as well. U.S. forces are not "besieged" in Fallujah. In fact, they've surrounded the city, control the airspace, and have overwhelming firepower which they use liberally to demolish buildings, kill women and children, and inflict punishment on "insurgents" -- the codeword for any Iraqi who fights back against foreign occupation. The only siege in Fallujah is being laid by the U.S.

This particular choice of words does two things: 1) It hides the fundamental fact that the U.S. does not control Fallujah -- the whole idea of a siege is to attack the other side's control of a position. You can't be besieged unless you're in control, and the U.S. can't bear to concede that they have no effective control anywhere in Iraq. (Even though their control is very tenuous even in relatively peaceful areas.) 2) It makes the Americans out to be the victims, even though the U.S. provoked this immediate confrontation by moving massive military forces into the area in order to punish Fallujah for an isolated act of mutillating four American mercenaries (Bush has been quoted ordering that "heads must roll"). Not to mention that the act would never have happened had the U.S. not invaded and occupied Iraq in the first place.

The events in Iraq this month have been astonishing. They show that over the last year many Iraqis have been quietly organizing for self control, even if only a few have been actively making life miserable for the occupiers. As April began the U.S. made two aggressive moves to counter the perception that they were losing control: they started to move against Muqtada al-Sadr's rhetoric and militia, and they moved en masse to Fallujah to roll those heads. Both moves backfired spectacularly, as the U.S. found itself no longer in any semblance of control in Fallujah, Najaf, and several other cities in previously tranquil, predominantly Shi'a southern Iraq. The U.S. also lost control of many roads, and parts of Baghdad, and the U.S. has spent the whole month of April trying to regain control, incurring record high casualties, to very little real effect. The fighting in the cities has toned down a bit, but only as the U.S. backed off from its most brutal threats, and that has happened only because the U.S. political position in Iraq has largely delaminated. Coalition partners are fleeing. U.S. support in the Arab world has utterly collapsed; even the quislings on the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council have started to turn on their masters. Iraq's newfound army and police units have shown no desire to kill their fellow Iraqis just to cover up for the Americans.

What this month has shown is not that the U.S. occupation of Iraq will eventually fail; it's shown that it will fail soon. It's shown that no amount of American violence and mayhem will turn the course into anything the neocon architects of this war had hoped for. (Which has, by the way, opened a new front in the war, this one between the neocons in Washington and more pragmatic parties in the military, the administration, and no doubt in the re-election campaign. A good example of this is Negroponte's testimony in his Senate confirmation hearings that the much-vaunted "transfer of sovereignty" won't amount to any diminution of American power in Iraq. Another is how hawks like Fouad Ajami have come out to attack the U.N. ambassador whom Bush is depending on to provide a fig leaf of legitimacy to hide the fact that all that's happened in the past year in Iraq, aside from enormous destruction, was to replace one militarist dictatorship with another -- a foreign one, even less accountable to the Iraqi people.) The latest Fallujah "solution" is for the Americans to withdraw in favor of a newly reconstituted Iraqi militia under one of Saddam Hussein's rehabilitated generals. The likelihood that this new force will do what the Americans have failed to do is nil; their success depends on not fighting, on keeping the "insurgents" separated from the Americans. Since time is on the side of the Iraqis, that may be an acceptable solution. On the other hand, if the U.S. does press the new unit to rout out the "insurgents," it is very possible that the U.S. will discover that it has merely reinforced them.

The situation in Najaf and elsewhere is no more favorable to the U.S. Imperialists have long believed that it is better to be feared than to be liked, but the Coalition is so outnumbered in Iraq (the raw numbers are 200-to-1), and the Iraqis are so organized and so well armed that any provocation could easily blow up. And sooner or later it will, very possibly on a level as escalated beyond April as April was beyond its preceding months. The only chance that the U.S. has here is to embrace its own facetious rhetoric and assure Iraq that the U.S. will leave as soon as a democratic Iraq tells it to, and back that up by ceasing all offensive operations -- by offering Iraq a true ceasefire while their government organizes. That won't halt the resistance, but it reduce its violence by making it less urgent, and presenting a smaller target. Moreover, any reduction in violence will help Iraq recover by reducing the trauma. If the U.S. backs into a defensive shell, they can show good faith by drawing down troop levels. And Bush can come out and try to claim that this is all he wanted in the first place: to get rid of evil Saddam Hussein and let Iraq govern itself.

That's so simple you'd think that someone would've thought of it already. Indeed, that may be the inevitable results of the sort of negotiations that have been taking place over Fallujah and Najaf. And that's probably why the neocons are working overtime to fan the flames of chaos. And that's why words matter so much. This is, after all, a war for hearts and minds -- and not so much Iraqi hearts and minds, since those are lost causes for the neocons, but for American hearts and minds. For Bush, that spells re-election, and four more years of plunder. But for the neocons the stakes are the very future of the arrogant, overextended American Empire. Iraq was to be their moment of triumph, and now it is their debacle. I expect them to go down hard.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

Movie: The Barbarian Invasions. A French Canadian movie from the always interesting Denys Arcand. The setup is that a burly, gregarious, philandering, fifty-something leftist intellectual has terminal cancer and is being cared for in an overburdened Montreal hospital. He has two estranged children: a daughter off on a boat somewhere in the South Pacific, a son who's an uptight, filthy rich financier (of some sort) in London. The son is summoned home. He tries to convince the father to go to the U.S. for treatment -- money is no object here -- which the father refuses. So the son uses his money and contacts to arrange for an illegal private room, to coax friends (including several ex-mistresses) to visit. He even hires a junkie to score and administer heroin -- a more effective painkiller than the morphine the doctors can prescribe. The payoff is a reconciliation. We are impressed both by the father's robust love of life, and by the son's effective use of his wealth. There's no reason to think that anyone moves far from their initial position, but everyone moves a bit. (Typical is a Catholic who administers communion to hospital patients and bears the brunt of the father's arguments against a long legacy of criminal acts by the church, who is clearly touched both by the logic and the humanity of the father, yet remains unflinching in her faith.) What is less clear is the import of the title -- several times there are references to "barbarian invasions," most dramatically in shocking 9/11 footage, but also in comments by a narc about the inevitability of the heroin trade. The implication seems to be that no matter how completely secure any of our worlds may seem there's this mass of outsiders out there somewhere, some waiting, some attacking. A-

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Music: Initial count 9097 rated (+15), 908 unrated (+11). Until this week the unrated count had been going down slowly, but I've started to get jazz records in such quantities that it's going up sharply (949 as of 28 April). So I think it's time to start doing this a little differently. In particular, I'm going to collect notes on Jazz CG records offline (at least not here), and I'll only drop them in here when they're graded. Same thing for the Vandermark survey, but for now at least the reissue columns will still be done here.

  • The Carla Bley Big Band: Looking for America (2002 [2003], Watt). Featuring Gary Valente, Lew Soloff, Andy Sheppard and Wolfgang Pushnig. The back cover of the booklet warns, "The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the musicians or the record company." That set me looking for controversy, but all I see inside are many pictures of the musicians, and a few pictures of American tourist spots, like Mount Rushmore. The long first piece is called "The National Anthem," which quickly distinguishes itself for pungent trumpet (presumably Soloff) and a rough rolling rhythm (Billy Drummond on drums). The 21:49 piece has five movements (I guess that's what you call them), and includes brief quotes from "The Star Spangled Banner" and "O Canada," then longer quotes, especially in the pumped up "Keep It Spangled." The most striking of the following pieces are "Los Cocineros" and "Tijuana Traffic," both brightened up by their Latin themes. But throughout this record one is repeatedly struck by how sharp and forceful the brass sections are. Bley has done quite a bit of work with big bands by now, but this is the first one that really strikes me as together. A-
  • Down in the Basement: Joe Bussard's Treasure Trove of Vintage 78s (1926-37 [2003], Old Hat). Lavish package. Obscure old-time music, selected from Bussard's huge treasure trove of 78s as much for rarity as for musical value, but the collection is so huge that these 24 cuts can dependenbly deliver both. A
  • Kenny Drew Jr. Sextet: Crystal River (1995 [1998], TCB). First rate group: Michael Philip Mossmann (trumpet, flugelhorn), Ravi Coltrane (tenor/soprano sax), Steve Nelson (vibes), Lynn Seaton (bass), Tony Reedus (drums). Panned by the Penguin Guide ("less than the sum of its parts . . . Mossman and Coltrane Jr are slightly anonymous as soloists . . . of all Drew's albums, this is the least kindly recorded . . . disappointing"), their only comment that I can hear is "the pianist carries the day." I suppose the horns could be more distinct -- some of Mal Waldron's sextets are that completely impressive. B+
  • Bob Dylan: Live 1964: The Bootleg Series Vol. 6 ([2004], Columbia/Legacy). B+
  • Bob Dylan: Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964 [2003], Columbia). When Columbia reissued 15 Dylan albums last fall, they rationed them out to critics. I was allotted three, and went with the ones I didn't have, rather than the ones I knew to be major. In retrospect, I should have picked Blonde on Blonde, which has been reconsituted into 2 CDs. This one I must have had back in LP days, or at least heard, but it's been a long time. This was Dylan's fourth album, following the half-genius, half-awful The Times They Are A-Changin'. This is still staunchly folkie, his rock breakthrough still a year away. Some famous songs ("All I Really Want to Do," "It Ain't Me Babe," "My Back Pages," above all the resplendent "Chimes of Freedom"), a touching love song ("To Ramona"), some engagingly talkie pieces ("I Shall Be Free -- No. 10"). I like "I Don't Believe You," but I'm bored with "Ballad in Plain D." Not as inconsistent as its predecessor; nowhere near as great as the following sequence of albums, but a unique voice. Intersects heavily with the new Live 1964, which for the most part sounds better. But this one doesn't have Joan Baez. A-
  • Bob Dylan: Slow Train Coming (1979 [2003], Columbia). The only Dylan I owned as a teenager was a 45 of "Rainy Day Women," which I loved from first listen. By the time I got to his '60s albums my intrinsic skepticism was being rubbed the wrong way by his devoted fans. (Being on the left side of the political spectrum, I inevitably ran into the worst of them.) When I did I much preferred Dylan the rocker to Dylan the poet, let alone Dylan the folksinger, but most of his '60s albums (plus 1970's New Morning) kicked in, even The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. But I passed up an opportunity to see Dylan and the Band in the tour that left us Before the Flood, and I soured badly on Blood on the Tracks -- I'm the only person I know who loathes that album. So when Dylan settled into his long rut of making albums that not even his longtime fans cared a whit about, I was just relieved. I didn't listen to anything he did after Desire (1976) until Under the Red Sky (1990), or Volume One by the Travelling Wilburys (1988), if you want to count it that way. In the '90s he got better: I liked the unpretentious covers album Good as I Been to You, and his next three studio albums got better and better. Like Lou Reed, his second wind came from renewed pleasure in playing his guitar. During the 15 year stretch when I wasn't paying attention, I understand that this (Slow Train Coming) was the best album he put out. I don't (and probably never will) know about that, but "Gotta Serve Somebody" is one of the very few songs (are there any others?) from this period that he still plays. I also understand that the secret here is that Mark Knopfler plays the guitar, and I can hear that: it's precise, fluid, nuanced, rich. After "Gotta Serve Somebody" (a point we'll have to agree to disagree on) comes "Precious Angel," which is even stronger. B+
  • Bob Dylan: Oh Mercy (1989 [2003], Columbia). Jerry Wexler produced Slow Train Coming. Daniel Lanois produced this one. Don Was produced the next one, Under the Red Sky. I don't know who produced any of his other records during his wilderness years (only Empire Burlesque has any positive reputation, and AMG doesn't cite a producer for it), but it seems possible that all he never needed was a responsible producer to keep his bullshit in check -- at least after his heyday when even his bullshit was spectacular. Lanois isn't a producer I'm very fond of, but competency does seem to be one thing you can count on with him. "Political World" is punchy. "Everything Is Broken" is punchy, too. "Ring Dem Bells" packs a punch, too: a simple religious plaint. "What Was It You Wanted" is another good piece -- a submerged beat, darkly atmospheric, powerful. Don't know what the words say, let alone mean -- that's never been my thing anyway. B+
  • Bob Dylan: Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Review: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5 (1975 [2002], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD). Recorded more/less around the time Dylan released the single "Hurricane" and the album Desire, this particular tour was widely regarded as a circus, turning more than a few people off. I missed this tour too, but this was a time when my response to Dylan was in free fall. (The only time I've seen Dylan was in 2001 just before he dropped Love and Theft, which partly due to bad acoustics I couldn't make any sense out of.) The band here includes: Bob Neuwirth (guitar), Mick Ronson (guitar), Scarlet Rivera (violin), Rob Stoner (bass), Steve Soles (guitar), David Mansfield (dobro, mandolin, violin, steel guitar), Luther Rix (percussion, drums), Howie Wyeth (piano, drums), Roger McGuinn (guitar), and Joan Baez. They are loud and sloppy. One good thing about that is that it minimizes the damage Baez can do. (She's only on three songs, anyway.) Sometimes it works, as on the finale "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." Sometimes the sheer strength of the songs survives the mauling that the band gives them. Sometimes they don't. B
  • Bob Dylan: Planet Waves (1974, Columbia). What the hell, let's clear the shelves. (I swear this is the last unrated Dylan on my shelf.) Originally cut for Asylum, his one and only non-Columbia album, although Columbia probably went to great pains to reunite it with the rest of the catalog. I think this was also his only proper studio album with The Band in tow -- no sooner than I write that line and I hear the faintest echoes of Garth Hudson organ in the background, and a little guitar as distinctive as "Up on Cripple Creek." Still, methinks they're too much for him. He has to struggle to sing over them, and that does a number on his enunciation. At least until "Forever Young" strikes -- unlike lightning, twice. The first is the one you already hate; the second is tighter and more tolerable. "Dirge" sounds mistitled -- first thing here where Dylan keeps The Band in check. His enunciation is better on "You Angel You," but the words aren't worth it. Closes stronger and clearer; "Wedding Song" has some meat on it. I've played this several times, and never got a clear feeling about it. I have two theories as to how it might develop. Someone who spent a lot of time with it might even get both to pay off. But I'm just guessing. B+
  • Kurt Elling: Live in Chicago (1999 [2000], Blue Note). Morton & Cook claim he's the finest jazz singer of his generation, and they're not alone. But he's not the sort of singer that appeals to me: a hipster, a slinger, a jiveass wise guy. Still, this isn't without charms. Kahil El'Zabar shows up for a set of disjointed world rhythms. Von Freeman, Eddie Johnson, and Ed Peterson blow some credible sax. His slow, steamy strut through "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" impresses me, and a couple of other pieces aren't bad. But then Jon Hendricks also guests. B
  • The Gift of Gab: Fourth Dimensional Rocketships Going Up (2004, Quannum Projects). Tim Parker's solo album sounds like a side project: long on words (he's the rapper, Chief X-Cel's the missing DJ), the minimal music built on skinny little riffs with scarcely a change. Yet in the end it's the simple music that stays with you, while the rapid-fire words melt into the matrix. I could have used a lyric sheet: much of this passes too fast to follow, but nothing exactly sticks to the ribs either. B+
  • Winard Harper Sextet: A Time for the Soul (2003, Savant). One of the Harper Brothers, a jazz-funk fusion group that I only vaguely remember, but also worked with Betty Carter (always a plus on a resume; even if you don't like her singing she always ran a very tight band), Fathead Newman, Houston Person, and Wycliffe Gordon. Plays drums. Has put out six albums starting in 1994. Not familiar with the rest of the group here: Patrick Rickman (trumpet), Brian Horton (soprano and tenor sax), Jeb Patton (piano), Ameen Saleem (bass), Kevin Jones (percussion). Initially, this struck me as good, melodic, easy flowing hard bop. "Dat Dere" stood out because it's so familiar. "All Praise to G-d" stood out because the rhythm is so insinuating -- best thing here, by a big margin. "Alone Together" gives the pianist some. B+
  • The Last Poets (1970 [2002], Fuel 2000). A rap record cut a good ten years before there were any rap records, or twenty years before any hip-hop came close to getting this deep under black skin. At the time, this was black power poetizing over primitive hand drums -- raw, scathing, taunting. Analysis, too: "Niggers Are Scared of Revolution." I've been running into some of these pieces, particularly from Trikont's Black & Proud: The Soul of the Black Panther Era comps. This makes even me nervous, but that's beside the point. They don't give a shit about me; they got their own shit to get together. A-
  • Bobby McFerrin: Simple Pleasures (1988, EMI-Manhattan). This leads off with his hit, "Don't Worry, Be Happy." I've never hated the song, but there isn't a lot to it. Aside from five originals, this is thickly larded with covers, including "Drive My Car," "Good Lovin'," "Suzie Q," and "Sunshine of Your Love." Sounds like it's just overdubbed vocals, which leaves it feeling scrawny -- the Mills Brothers had more voices, not to mention a guitar. So simple's no lie. Pleasure is another story: "Drive My Car" is the only one of the covers which is such a surefire joke that the reduction here comes off as corny. That's worth a smile, but that's about it. C
  • Modern Jazz Quartet: Topsy: This One's for Basie (1985 [2002], Pablo/OJC). When Norman Granz launched his Pablo label, he recruited heavily among the by-then-old acts who worked with him on his earlier labels (Verve, Norgran, etc.). Chief among those was Count Basie, who showed that there was an afterlife beyond his old and new testament bands. Basie cut a couple of delightful albums with Milt Jackson, so when Granz coaxed the Modern Jazz Quartet out of their retirement, they may have had Basie on their minds. This is still John Lewis' group -- he wrote most of the songs, and his dapper piano dominates. But the whole group plays even lighter and more nimbly than usual, as if thinking of Basie compells them to dance. B+
  • The Modern Jazz Quartet With Laurindo Almeida: Collaboration (1964 [2001], Label M). The problem with Brazilian music is that's it's too nice. So what happens when you match the nicest guitarist in Brazil (probably the world) with the most polite and proper jazz group in the U.S.? For starters, you can barely hear anything going on. On close examination, John Lewis has a lot to say, and this starts to develop a sinuous coherence. But I still find it too nice, too subtle; just not enough there. B-
  • Willie Nelson & Ray Price: Run That By Me One More Time (2003, Lost Highway). Way back in 1982-85 Willie Nelson did a series of duet albums with (mostly) the older generation of country stars (Webb Pierce, Ray Price, Faron Young, Hank Snow, Roger Miller). Other duets date from the same period (Leon Russell, Merle Haggard, George Jones, not to mention all the junk on Half Nelson; the first Waylon Jennings duets came earlier, and the Highwaymen set out to mug in 1985). The duet albums were easy-going stop-gaps, but some of them are wonderful (the Hank Snow stands out among the first five, but all are very good). Nelson's recent Stars & Guitars was chock full of duetting guest stars -- most, well, here's the list, you fill in the expletive: Sheryl Crow, Toby Keith, Lee Ann Womack, Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora, Hank Williams III, Norah Jones, Aaron Neville, Brian McKnight, Patty Griffin, Matchbox Twenty, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Ryan Adams. Some weren't awful, but most were torture. The exception was Ray Price -- they did "Night Life," and that was a dud album's choice cut. It must've felt good, since it prompted this reunion. They stick to easy, old songs, played loosely with a lot of steel guitar. Nelson's high-pitched voice cuts the schmaltz inherent in Price's ripe baritone, but Price adds a richness that Nelson lacks. "Soft Rain" is exceptionally lovely. A-
  • Nickel Creek: This Side (2002, Sugar Hill). AMG files them under bluegrass. The trio plays guitar, violin, and mandolin/banjo, which is sort of right; the Sugar Hill label does specialize in bluegrass, and producer Allison Krauss has her bona fides. I vaguely remembered this as some sort of big hit, which isn't exactly a bona fide sign as far as bluegrass goes, but nothing prepared me for just how awful this record is. The vocals are plaintive and shrill. The instrumental work has little rhythm or swing or soul. I noticed one song that sounded like it might have some redeeming merit, but don't have the stomach to go back and find it again. C-
  • Porky's Revenge (1985 [2004], Columbia/Legacy). Forget the movie, but Dave Edmunds produced the soundtrack, and kicks in five of fourteen tracks here, including "Porky's Revenge," an instrumental. Another highlight is Willie Nelson doing "Love Me Tender" as a slow, tender ballad. Everything else rocks agreeably, including two Carl Perkins classics, as well as such trivia as the Fabulous Thunderbirds doing "Stagger Lee" and Clarence Clemons tackling the "Peter Gunn Theme." B+
  • The Rolling Stones: Singles 1963-1965 ([2004], Abkco, 12CD). 33 songs on 12 CDs, each corresponding to a single or EP, from a time when those media were still key to breaking a rock 'n' roll band. The U.S. breakthrough for the Stones was really "Satisfaction," which was the next single after the 9 singles and 3 EPs here. The singles are all available on the first CD of The Original Singles Collection. Of the EPs, Five by Five EP is a subset of 12 x 5, and Got Live If You Want It! is a sliver of the album. The other one, The Rolling Stones EP, doesn't show up in any other form that I can find, although the best song (Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On" is on December's Children and Through the Past Darkly). The good thing about the packaging is that it makes you focus step-by-step on the early evolution of a truly great band. On their first single, they know that "Come On" is a great song, but they can't really get a handle on it. (They do better on the flip, "I Want to Be Loved" -- a Willie Dixon blues.) On the second single, "I Wanna Be Your Man," they play second fiddle to the Beatles, but rough the song up enough to be distinctive, and flip it with a jazzy vamp called "Stoned" that they didn't so much write as let slither out. Their first, mostly lost, EP packed three overly obvious covers with one from leftfield which was their best song to date: Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On." And they got better and better: the covers becoming ever more distinctive from "Not Fade Away" and "It's All Over Now" to "Time Is on My Side" and "Little Red Rooster"; the originals including good imitations like "What a Shame" and a couple of great songs ("Tell Me," "The Last Time," "Play With Fire"). Not very cost-effective: the first disc of The Original Singles Collection leaves out the EPs to sail further down the road, while their albums from the period expand on these singles (less the first and last EPs) in slightly different but equally valid ways. Personally, I wouldn't buy a package like this, but it does have some distinct value. A-
  • Gary Stewart: Best of the Hightone Years (1988-93 [2002], Hightone). He cut three albums for Hightone, which represented something of a comeback. I have two of them, both pegged at B+; the one I passed on was called I'm a Texan, and the reason is that I know damn well that he hails from Florida. Hightone also reissued 1975's Out of Hand, which is as close to an A+ album as any country singer has come since Lefty Frizzell passed away, and they put out an excellent comp called Gary's Greatest that combined the best of both. This one only has three dupes from Gary's Greatest -- superb non-dupes include "Nothin' but a Woman," "Make It a Double," "There's Nothing Cheap About a Cheap Affair," "Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor." A-
  • Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot (1897-1925 (2003), Archeophone). Starts with a march recorded by Thomas Edison as a proof of concept. Ends with Eva Taylor singing "Cake Walking Babies From Home," in a Clarence Williams group that included Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong. The emphasis is on stomping and swerving, the musical drive and direction leading to the hot jazz that made the '20s roar. Mostly of historical interest, for sure, but only 2-4 cuts near the end are things that even well versed fans might have wandered across. The booklet is indispensible. There is also a whole book, which I haven't seen and feel benighted for that. But it's not just historical. The world has changed enormously in the 100+ years since recording started, but most of this still strikes a familiar chord. A-
  • The Cecil Taylor Unit (1978, New World). With Jimmy Lyons (alto sax), Raphé Malik (trumpet), Ramsey Ameen (violin), Sirone (bass), Ronald Shannon Jackson (drums). Three pieces: two around the 14-minute mark, one at 29:41. This is a powerful group, the music often descending into what sounds like a sonic brawl, although it helps to focus on one thread and listen to the others respond to that. And it doesn't much matter which thread, although Lyons is probably key. As with much Taylor, it's hard to keep this shit straight, and the larger the group the tougher the task. These sessions also generated 3 Phasis. I give this one a slight edge, but damned if I can tell you why. B+
  • Thievery Corporation: Sounds From the Thievery Hi-Fi (1996, ESL Music). AMG describes this as "abstract, instrumental, midtempo dance music somewhere between trip-hop and acid jazz." I hear the trip-hop more, but not the characteristic bum-out, just the beguiling low-key buzz. Never quite sure what to make of records like this: they sound so easy to make -- is it that real artists just insist on making life difficult? Could grow on me even more than it has. B+
  • Caetano Veloso: A Foreign Sound (2004, Nonesuch). 22 Yankee standards (of sorts), done simply with a slight tropicalia twist. Half or so come from ye olde great American songbook -- "Love for Sale," "The Man I Love," "Body and Soul," "Blue Skies," like that; some are pop hits from the early rock 'n' roll period -- "Diana," "Love Me Tender"; pieces from Dylan, Kurt Cobain, and David Byrne are more surprising -- Byrne's "(Nothing But) Flower" stands out. This doesn't have that air of detached irony that Bryan Ferry used to bring to such fare (haven't heard his more recent stabs at this, so I'm hedging), but that may also be lost in the translation. The title is a two-edged sword. As you should know by now, Veloso is a political as well as a cultural force in Brazil. He is one of the world's great singers, one of the world's great musicians, and within Brazil is a towering presence -- you'd have to forge Sinatra and Dylan into a single titanic personnage to get some idea of his scale translated to the U.S. Yet America is such an overwhelming cultural and economic power that Veloso has spent many years knocking on our door. His music doesn't translate well -- his delicate poetry is, after all, written in Portuguese, and his penchant for sinuous but overly subtle melodies can't crack our attention span. So he's made a number of U.S.-oriented albums, more sharply rhythmic ('cause we like it like that), mostly in English ('cause that's all we respond to), and now in this case with our own songs. And because it still sounds foreign, he has the forthrightness to advertise it as such. As in so much these days, we don't deserve such solicitous, deferential treatment. But we're fortunate. A-
  • Kanye West: The College Dropout (2004, Roc-A-Fella). Almost four full months into the new year, and this seems easily to be the best new record I've landed thus far. I don't expect it to rule the roost come year-end, but it flows fine, and is good for a giggle. I don't buy the dropout argument: "You know what college does for you? It makes you really smart man!" I think Randy Newman was on top of it when he described "good old boys from LSU/went in dumb, come out dumb too." His problem is that college doesn't even make you smart -- if you don't have it coming in, you won't have it going out. Another problem is that the money that he measures life with isn't all it's cracked up to be either. But he's smart enough, and savvy enough, that he's going to push it for what he can get. And he's good enough to make the project worth watching. A-
  • Whistle Bait! 25 Rockabilly Rave-Ups (1955-59 [2000], Columbia/Epic/Legacy). Title cut comes from Larry Collins of the Collins Kids -- possibly the most important white rocker(s) from the '50s that I'd never heard before. (Or possibly not. It's hard to judge what you haven't heard.) It sounds like Roy Loney cranked up on meth and glue. Second cut is Lefty Frizzell's "You're Humbuggin' Me" -- about as up as Lefty ever got, only a couple of notches below Collins. Those are the parameters of this comp: solidly established honky tonkers kicking up their heels (Johnny Horton, Rose Maddox, Little Jimmy Dickens, Marty Robbins), and young, obscure rockabillies (Ronnie Self, Freddie Hart, Jaycee Hill, Link Wray). Oh, also some post-Sun work from Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Nothing spectacular here, but lots of fast ones, lots of twang, lots of little-known but quite enjoyable songs. Hell, even Marty Robbins does good. A-

Saturday, April 24, 2004

I took a break from reading Noam Chomsky's dissection of the New American Empire to quickly read Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. I didn't have any political or philosophical purpose in doing so: I've read his three other books (I'm a sucker for mountain climbing books), think he is a terrific writer, and seized the opportunity when I found this one in the library. Also I figured I could use a break -- I've been reading heavy for nearly three years now, trying to focus my own thoughts for the book that I figure has to come out some day.

Still, this book is not irrelevant to my studies. It is a book of American history, about the birth and struggle of a peculiarly American religion, and about how faith in that religion can go terribly wrong. In the case of this particular book, the religion is Mormonism, and the tragedy centers around the murders of a woman and her infant daughter in 1984, at the hands of two Mormon heretics who claimed that they were directed by God to kill. Krakauer starts with this crime, and returns to it periodically, but in between he traces out the often violent history of the Latter Day Saints, especially the doctrines of plural marriage and blood atonement that figure so prominently in its fundamentalism.

I don't know much about Mormons. I know, respect, even admire, some Mormons, and in general I'm impressed by their earnestness, industriousness, social conscience, and social cohesion. I don't think much of their religion or their devotion to it, but then I could say the same about any other religion. As for the tendency of people of profound faith to commit atrocities, that's hardly a peculiarly Mormon trait. While faith only rarely leads to such horrors, such horrors are very often accompanied by such faith. It is certainly easy to form casual correlations between what Krakauer writes about Mormons and what I understand about some Muslims. Indeed, that is to be expected, given that both religions are relatively recent constructions built on common roots.

Krakauer does tiptoe into contemporary politics at one point, where he writes (p. 294-295):

This, after all, is a country led by a born-again Christian, President George W. Bush, who believes he is an instrument of God and characterizes international relations as a biblical clash between forces of good and evil. The highest law officer in the land, Attorney General John Ashcroft, is a dyed-in-the-wool follower of a fundamentalist Christian sect -- the Pentecostal Assemblies of God -- who begins each day at the Justice Department with a devotional prayer meeting for his staff, periodically has himself anointed with sacred oil, and subscribes to a vividly apocalyptic worldview that has much in common with key millenarian beliefs held by the Lafferty brothers and the residents of Colorado City. The president, the attorney general, and other national leaders frequently implore the American people to have faith in the power of prayer, and to trust in God's will. Which is precisely what they were doing, say both Dan and Ron Lafferty, when so much blood was spilled in American Fork on July 24, 1984.

I'm reluctant to go into this aspect of Bush and Ashcroft because it inevitably seems like an attack on their religion, whereas the real problem isn't what they believe, but how they use their religion to excuse policies and acts that are unconscionable. There are, after all, many people who share with Bush and Ashcroft the rough outlines of their religion, but who don't invade foreign countries or obsess over executing people. Just as there are many Mormons who never have and never will believe that God might tell them to kill someone, as Ron Lafferty claims to believe. Still, the parallel is clearly there: the difference betwen Ron Lafferty and George W. Bush is mostly one of scale. It's hard not to think of Lafferty's life and acts as pathetic; Bush, on the other hand, having sent thousands of people to their deaths, really does have a claim to be "the one mighty and strong." Whether, like Lafferty, Bush believes that his role is to usher in the "end of days" is something that Bob Woodward has yet to disclose. But given how little concern Bush shows for the future of America and/or the World even 5, 10, 20 years hence that's a theory that can't be disproven.

The interesting thing is that hardly anybody even discusses the prospect. It's easier to think that Bush merely wants to dominate the world. It's easier to think that he's just in it for the money, or that he's just a shill for others who are just in it for the money. It's easier to think that he's a nitwit. Yet the evidence strongly attests that he is a man of deep conviction, and that he is exceptionally resolute. And we can clearly see what the fruits of his convictions bear: the world today is being torn asunder by his acts, and the prospects for healing while he remains in power are nil.

Or so it seems to me, a person who learned the hard way that trust in the wisdom, integrity, and benevolence of America's leaders -- in politics, in business, in the press, in the academy, in religion -- is misplaced. I recall that R.D. Laing wrote an essay on "The Obvious," the point of which is that everyone has their own sense of the obvious. I'm tempted to generalize this point even further. It's more like we each live in parallel universes: not independent, and certainly not under our own control, but each conceived and understood on its own quasi-independent track. Each such universe starts ignorant, and its central actor makes sense of it the best he or she can. The cumulative interaction of events with our cognitive skills drives each of those universes forward: usually independently, as when we think private thoughts, or whistle in the dark, but as we each act within the shell of our own universes those universes also clash, rarely to any sort of dramatic effect. This creates the paradox that while our acts seem very important to us, they are almost always inconsequential to the other universes out there.

Of course, this model is just a cognitive device. Perhaps worse still, it's just my cognitive device. It derives, perhaps, from having spent a lot of time thinking about epistemology, and perhaps from reading too much science (more or less) fiction. But, for me at least (your mileage may vary), this helps explain a lot of apparent behavior that otherwise doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense. For instance, why are deeply irrational beliefs and phobias so rarely selected against? The answer is that they almost never penetrate significantly into other people's personal universes. And why is that? Three reasons occur to me: 1) preoccupation: each person's universe is primarily concerned with that person, not anyone else; 2) threat rejection: we tend instinctively to dismiss discomfiting news, lest it overwhelm us; 3) attenuation: each penetration requires more energy, and many are needed before anything becomes significant.

Another problem is why is it so difficult to reason with people? Again, preoccupation and attenuation are part of this, but reason faces its own obstacles: the persistence of myths, insufficient common understanding, different perceptions of interests and allegiances, even an instinctive distrust of the process. There are domains were reason fares well, such as science and mathematics, and those are precisely domains where the obstacles listed above are weakest. However, in domains like politics the obstacles are strong enough that practical politicians rarely resort to reason. Instead, they tend to make emotional appeals to myths, symbols, and allegiances, often calculated to give them viable factional power rather than consensus. In political discourse, the effect of this is to disenfranchise reason.

More generally, disenfranchisement results from another aspect of our parallel universes: the management of shared experiences. While each individual's reaction to a common experience is unique to that individual, in most cases it is for practical purposes possible to aggregate reactions statistically. That is, given an experience that large numbers of people share, some reactions will predominate over others -- probably because of previous shared experiences, although the limitation of practical options is also significant (e.g., to vote for one of a small number of candidates -- in the U.S., the number is typically two). The effect of this statistical analysis is to disenfranchise anyone who doesn't fit into a viable scheme. In a democratic political game we see this happening all the time. For instance, there are large numbers of atheists in the U.S., but nobody thinks that they can build a viable political block (a majority) around atheism, so nobody tries. This not only disenfranchises atheists, it cedes disproportionate political power to the conspicuously religious, reinforcing them through the legitimation inferred by political patronage. In U.S. politics this leads to the "no candidates" phenomenon, which by increasing the indifference of prospective voters further narrows the domain of political discourse, and limits our options for solving all-too-real problems.

One of my more/less constant themes has been how we've become prisoners of our rhetoric. What I've tried to do above is to sketch out the conceptual model of how this has happened. We live in a world where we as individuals are profoundly powerless, even in the cases where we are mostly free to direct our own personal lives. Such freedom usually depends on the tacit accepteance of powerlessness: people are free to mind their own business, because it doesn't make any real difference to others, least of all the elites (who are at most relatively powerful, by virtue of their ability to manipulate symbols that are broadly acquiesced to -- religion, patriotism, material wealth, ideologies like capitalism, abstract concepts like freedom and democracy, tyranny and terrorism, mere character traits like toughness, resolve, fortitude). And such freedom is for most people quite satisfying, as is the sense of belonging to a well-ordered society. But some people are unsatisfied with the status quo: they want to test the limits of their freedom, they start to question the ordering of society. Most such people were driven to want to change the world by perceived wrongs done them. But some are driven more by an exaggerated sense of their own self-importance: Ron and Dan Lafferty, believing that they were chosen by God to do his work, are simple and pathetic examples.

Where George W. Bush differs from the Laffertys is not so much in his self-conception as in his support network. Bush is a rare example of a self-possessed activist, a fanatic, raised to a position of extraordinary political power. Yet his possession of that power -- one built on the wealth of his political backers, on the cadres of the Republican party, on the institutional power of the U.S. presidency, on the symbols of American military might -- in no way changes the fact that he dwells within the limits of his personal universe. He can't see beyond those limits, which leaves him mostly at the mercy of his own mental baggage -- a world haunted by a God who metes out violence, and by a Karl Rove who vouchsafes that it is politically safe. With his support network, and with our acquiescence (or more likely out powerlessness), his mental paroxysms have can have immense impact. Never in American history has such a dangerous person been put into such a dangerous position.

Even with my own preference for atheism -- the only sure antidote -- I believe that the real problem posed by Krakauer's "Story of Violent Faith" is violence, not faith. I suspect that religion is merely a shorthand form for a much larger conception of how we manage our personal universes, and as such is essential for those who aren't able or willing to work the whole thing out. Someone may eventually work out a religion that works to support a fair and just, stable and viable society; one that eschews violence without depending on fear and intimidation, and on the all-pervasive ignorance that religion usually compensates for. However, in the short run some of the worst threats we face are from people who frame their violent fantasies in words allegedly handed down from God. Bush is one, Bin Laden is another, and there are more. In this climate it helps to be very skeptical.


A good example of these points appears in this TomDispatch quote:

We can see the results of this in an unnerving survey just conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland (www.pipa.org) and discussed this week by Jim Lobe of Inter Press News (Bush's believe it or not). Not only, he reports, does "a majority of the public still believe Iraq was closely tied to the al-Qaeda terrorist group and had WMD stocks or programs before US troops invaded the country 13 months ago," but a significant majority believe that Saddam's Iraq was in some way involved in the 9/11 attacks and believe that "experts" back them on all these points. They believe as well that global opinion favored our going to war with Iraq or at least was "evenly balanced" on the subject -- and most of these figures vary at best only slightly from prewar polling figures (even as dissatisfaction over presidential "handling" of post-war Iraq policy has risen dramatically). Holding such misperceptions is, in turn, closely correlated with the urge to reelect George Bush in November.

The ability to reason out a course of action depends heavily on agreement on facts and on motivations or goals. Yet what this quote shows is that many people (committed to Bush) still dispute facts that have been broadly established. For those people a willingness to reject facts is their first defense of their commitment to Bush. How is it then possible to reason with such people? I can imagine patiently turning a few of them around on the facts, but the only thing that will turn many of them around would be if their faith in Bush is shattered. Hard to imagine what would do that, much as it is hard to imagine what drove those people in such a shell of know-nothingness.

Conversely, those who do see through Bush are unlikely to ever put their heads back in the sand, leaving the country with such deep-seated divisions as have not existed since the Civil War. Knowing how that story turned out it's hard not to worry about our future.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

I haven't been paying enough attention to John Kerry to know for sure just where he stands on anything, so my impression that he's backpedalled so far that he's to the right of Robert McNamara on Vietnam as well as Iraq may not be exactly on the mark. But the position that he's staked out on Israel is unambiguously wrong. The only comfort we can take from such a position is that he isn't in power at the moment, but that's not much comfort when we're talking about the only person other than George W. Bush with a chance of being U.S. President next year.

The question of what a new President might do about what the current President has done in Iraq is possibly complex: the simplest viable formulation is just get the hell out and let the chips fall where they may, but if we did have a smarter, humbler, more humane administration we might start to do some things that might lead to a more satisfactory overall result. Kerry might think he promises such an administration, but he hasn't staked out a position that suggests that he understands how to do that. I'd submit that it is an easy case to make: attack Bush for only talking about democracy and freedom in Iraq, while not delivering any -- where are the elections? where is freedom of the press? freedom of assembly to redress grievances? Surely the NRA's favorite President can't be worried just because Iraq's citizens are armed -- I mean, the right to bear arms is fundamental to a free society, isn't it? Make it clear that the U.S. doesn't intend to keep its military stationed in a free, peaceable, democratic Iraq. Make it clear that Iraq's oil and businesses are only subject to the policies freely established by the Iraqi people. It was called Operation Iraqi Freedom, wasn't it? Why can't Kerry strangle Bush with his own words? Why can't Kerry make the simple point that the sine qua non of a successful U.S. foreign policy is that we have to start treating people right?

Well, one reason is that Kerry can't think straight about Israel. Until Israel came around the U.S. was widely esteemed among Arabs, because the U.S. had always stood up for the rights of Arabs against European imperialists. That didn't really change until 1967, when the Israel became an occupier of predominantly Arab lands, and the U.S. switched horses. The U.S. did this blindly following ruts of cold war logic and domestic politics, and the hostility generated as more and more Arabs came to associate the U.S. with Israeli imperialism just deepened both ruts. Now they're so deep that politicians like Kerry and Bush just can't see out of them: both no doubt figure that they can't do any good unless they can get elected, and they can't get elected unless they play to the home crowds. Of course, that doesn't bother Bush, for the simple (if not so bright) reason that good doesn't interest him: like most tyrants, he figures it is better to be feared than to be liked. But the net effect for Bush is approaching catastrophe: with Iraq boiling he has never needed Arab support more, yet he is making that impossible. He may comfort himself thinking that the worst case scenario is just more anti-U.S. terrorism, which tends to politically help the most beligerent badass alpha male in the race (presumably himself).

Yet the basic fact is that just as America has to become pro-Iraqi in order to keep from being humiliated in Iraq, America has to become pro-Palestinian in order to get right with the rest of the world. There are some pretty simple ways to do this: first of all, the U.S. needs to counter Sharon on his many obvious violations of human rights and international law -- and note that this can be done without attacking the idea of Israel, the security and well-being of Jews in Israel, and without giving comfort to terrorism. And while it's true that many Israelis are no better than Sharon, he is a uniquely powerful symbol of Israeli militarism, and one who has very little real popularity in the U.S. On the other hand, it's worth emphasizing that the peace camps both in Israel and in Palestine have been moving remarkably close to one another, especially in the Geneva Accords. If, say, the U.S. and the world community were to get behind the Geneva Accords, which come out of a straight path from the Oslo Peace Process (i.e., which are consistent with nominal U.S. policy before Bush took office), why wouldn't that work? Admittedly, it wouldn't happen until Israel voted Sharon out of office, and for that matter wouldn't happen until the U.S. voted Bush out too. But why should that be a problem for Kerry? Doesn't Kerry want peace in Israel/Palestine? Doesn't Kerry want Bush voted out of office? What's stopping him from doing the right thing here?

There's three possibilities here. One is that the political ruts in U.S. electoral discourse just appear to be too overwhelming for Kerry to try to challenge them. (And note that the biggest bugaboo here is the whole concept of "war on terror," with its assumption that terror is an overwhelming problem [by the way, it's not] and the implication that it can only be kept at bay by being resolutely tough [again wrong: it's prevention that matters most].) The second one is that Kerry's as rotten as the political system that he works in, and has worked rather successfully. The third is that he's not bright enough to figure it out. I don't which reason, or which combination of them, drives Kerry to be such a marginal alternative to Bush, but it must be in there somewhere.

In any case, it's painful to watch. I personally think that it's necessary that Bush be defeated -- that even if his opponent is theoretically worse than he is it's just unacceptable to let someone get away with the shit Bush has pulled. So in this sense it doesn't even matter to me what positions Kerry takes during the campaign, I'm committed to vote for him anyway. On the other hand, since voting for him doesn't in any obvious way advance any reasonable solutions to the myriad problems that we as a nation and as a civilization are facing, I see no reason to shut up about them, either. When, say, Kerry defeats Bush, the shoe will be on the other foot. Then Kerry will have to face the real problems of the real world, not the fevered imaginations of the campaign trail. And then it will matter to have well considered analyses and viable solutions worked out, which is all we can strive to do. That's my plan.

On the other hand, if I did think that it matters what Kerry says during the campaign, I'd propose putting together a website to track and correct him. I'd suggest calling such a website www.bugger-kerry.org, because I want to make it clear first of all that we're standing behind Kerry, and second that we don't mind making him a little uncomfortable. That's likely to be all that comes of the effort. But maybe, just maybe, he'll relax a bit, and start to enjoy it.

Monday, April 19, 2004

Movie: Kill Bill, Volume 2. Went to the Warren Oldtown Theater to see this. First time there, so that's where the weirdness starts. Theater had the widest screen I've ever seen, with about 8-9 long, widely spaced rows of huge, comfortable seats, in a steep stadium layout. Nice facility, but no concession stands. Instead, there was a red button on each seat to page a waiter, who would take orders and serve a pretty extensive menu of goodstuffs, even while the movie was running. The food sounded decent (didn't try any); beer was cheaper than the soda. It takes the old saw about movie theaters being primarily in the overpriced food business to a new level. The second major weirdness was the 6-7 trailers they showed, all for staggeringly violent films -- half in the horror genre, the rest more conventionally military (except for a new dancing, flying kung fu thing). I suppose that to a very first approximation, Kill Bill earns that association, but Tarrantino's violence has never felt the same as anyone else's. Adorno once said "the bourgeoisie likes its art lush and life ascetic; the other way around would be better." The common denominator there is the disjunction between art and life. Realists (socialist and otherwise) hate this -- they want art to imitate life; others, less dreary and more dangerous, want the opposite. But Tarrantino knows that life and art are two different things, and he keeps them so cleanly distinct that each remains safe from the other, even without the usual armor of irony. I remember seeing Reservoir Dogs at a time when I was especially prickly about on-screen violence, and coming away feeling as clean and innocent as a newborn. If Kill Bill doesn't quite achieve that level of purity, it's because we're getting used to him. And also because he's pushing his art so broadly that he gets a bit wreckless. Volume 2 gives us what Volume 1 lacked: a center, a storyline, a sense of direction. I don't like, let alone buy, the PC plot-turn around the Bride's pregnancy, but that's the closest thing I have to a complaint. Michael Madsen's turn as Bill's brother Bud was the single most astonishing thing in the movie, but everyone else came damn close. Critics are smacking their lips in anticipation over a future DVD that puts the two parts together. I don't doubt that there's more to be gleaned from further study, but I'm satisfied with what I've seen. A

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Music: Initial count 9082 rated (+11), 897 unrated (+4). Rough week. Presumably I'm on the mend. Trying to round up new jazz records for a Jazz Consumer Guide, to be published every few months by the Voice. Still a lot of backlog. Need to do updates for Rolling Stone Album Guide this week. Finish long-delayed Recycled Goods. Spend some time with Jimmy Lyons. Like I said, lot of backlog.

  • Lizzy Mercier Descloux: Press Color (1979 [2003], ZE). French singer who washed up in New York as one half of Rosa Yemen, then fell in with ZE for a couple of albums that I didn't notice at the time. "Fire" is far leftwing disco (I read that it's the Arthur Brown song; he's one of the few legends I never hard), the beat splayed with congas and fringed with sax. "Torso Corso" is something else, and more typical: a minimal postpunk beat with art-chant lyrics. "Mission Impossible" is perhaps the common denominator: the TV theme played minimally, with congas added. "Tumour" is a slight reworking of "Fever" ("you give me tumour"). The Rosa Yemen EP is tacked on as a bonus. Mostly it consists of primitivist guitar themes, with her declaiming in French or nonsense or, most likely, nonsense French. It's sequenced to devolve, and all pretty archival, but it can be wonderful in small doses (e.g., "Hard-Boiled Babe"), and unlike most no wave it never gets annoying. All I have is an advance with no doc, so I have no idea who's doing what. B+
  • Lizzy Mercier Descloux: Mambo Nassau (1981-82 [2003], ZE). AMG likes this album better than Press Color. They see this as tacking in the direction of Talking Heads. This has a full band, a lot of bass and keyb, mostly deployed for funk purposes (one cover is "Funky Stuff"). Again, this is an advance, with no real doc. I gather that the outtakes are mostly from 1982, and that the Bob Marley cover near the end is from 1995. Yeah, it's kind of like Talking Heads, just not as good. B
  • Ani DiFranco: Educated Guess (2004, Righteous Babe). Ostensibly a back-to-roots move -- maybe she thinks she's been getting too much crap about the horn charts? Compared to 1990 she gets terrific presence out of her guitar, and a sharp sound overall; she has undimmed skill rhyming, and may even be better with her spoken rhythm. Problem is: the words don't signify much, the music don't fit the words, her vocals get stretched awkwardly around cadences that bear no relationship to her words, and her penchant for overdubbing herself turns most of this into twitty, squeaky torment. I count two political songs, neither as sharp as "Serpentine" let alone "Self-Evident." The best things here are her spoken poems, more for their rhythm than their words, and her unaccompanied guitar. She hit her peak back when she had a really good drummer. This is the bottom. B-
  • From Small Things: The Best of Dave Edmunds (1970-2002 [2004], Columbia/Legacy). Technically, this has a couple of things from before Edmunds peak period (from Get It through Repeat When Necessary or Seconds of Pleasure, which is only 3-4 albums, and a couple of things that came after (including the powerhouse "Information," which is not an especially good song), but those exceptions just reiterate the core concept here, which is to let Edmunds rock out. In this regard it's actually better than Swan Song's The Best of Dave Edmunds, which slows down for a couple of countryish things from Twangin'. Edmunds sounded so classic that he gave retro rock and roll a second lease on life. Others followed, but the only one more notable was Marshall Crenshaw. Maybe not as good history as it could be, but one helluva rock and roll record. A
  • The Best of Marianne Faithfull (20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection) (1979-95 [2003], Island). Her breakthrough came in 1979 with Broken English, which transformed her definitively from cute bird to tough broad. This starts out with the three most obvious songs from that album, followed by a throwaway "Sister Morphine" from the b-side of a 1982 single release of "Broken English." The remaining albums up to A Secret Life (the Angelo Baldamenti thing) get one cut each, not counting an extra Jagger-Richard from Strange Weather. The source records that I know about there (i.e., not the live Trouble in Mind, and not the Baldamenti) are all good records, so the selection here should be a no-brainer. Still, I'm not sure that this does what a best-of should do, which is to redeem key tracks from minor albums while placing them in the context of representative tracks from major albums. B+
  • The Holy Modal Rounders: Bird Song: Live 1971 (1971 [2004], Water). Another data point, following Live in 1965, a point when the Rounders were just Stampfel & Weber, still only a somewhat odd-sounding folk duo. In the late '60s, both with and without the Fugs, they drifted toward becoming a bad rock band. With 1971's Good Taste Is Timeless they started drifting back toward folk music -- not just odd-sounding, but a little bit deranged. But this particular date rocks harder than the album. They're a 7-piece band, including bass-drums-keybs and even a sax (Teddy Deane). "Catch Me" is bad rock; "Smokey Joe's Cafe" is great rock done badly. But "Pink Underwear" is an inspired fiddle tune with a lot of banging, and "Low Down Dog" is a Rounders classic. As is "Bird Song" ("If You Want to Be a Bird" on the album.) So, in a way, is "Boobs a Lot" -- medleyed here with "Willie and the Hand Jive," for reasons I haven't tried to discern. Stampfel contributes new liner notes. This is crap, of course, but it's crap that hasn't stood the test of time -- it's ripened to full fragrance. Love the sax on "Give Me Your Money." B+
  • Jon Langford: All the Fame of Lofty Deeds (2004, Bloodshot). As countryish as the Mekons' Whiskey and Sin, as political as the Waco Brothers' To the Last Dead Cowboy. Part of the edge may come from the fact that Langford has so many options he can get whatever sound he wants. Part of it is just that he's pissed off. Wish I had a lyric sheet -- "Over the Cliff" has lines like "sick of feeling powerless and weak" and "success on someone else's terms don't mean a fucking thing," and those aren't even the best. Closes with "Trouble in Mind," then tacks on a very short extra bit about "the destruction of the welfare state." Rather short, at 29:32. A-
  • The Essential Cyndi Lauper (1983-96 [2003], Epic/Legacy). The real essential Cyndi Lauper is her 1983 album, She's So Unusual, a one-shot that was dominated the radio for a whole year. This pulls six cuts from that album, and the rest doesn't match up against the rest they left out. B+
  • Little Richard: Get Down With It: The Okeh Sessions (1966 [2004], Epic/Legacy). After he supernovaed in the mid-'50s he faded but didn't really go away. AMG shows a steady outpouring of albums up to 1976, but none of them had much impact. Anyone who remembers his performance in the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills knows that he still had chops and charisma, so why did he never settle into a second act like, say, Jerry Lee Lewis -- the only other '50s rocker who could hold a candle to him? Maybe because Nashville was more formally defined than any of Richard's options: gospel, soul, blues? He had no knack for blues, and gospel just kept him bottled up. As for soul, he couldn't do slick, and he never had the knack for self-pity that Jerry Lee cultivated, so he sang gritty and tended to rock out, like he does here. Closes with a "Hound Dog" that you always figured he had in him. B+
  • The Pine Valley Cosmonauts: The Executioner's Last Songs, Volume 2 & 3 (2003, Bloodshot, 2CD). Less consistent than Volume 1, with most of the shortfall on the Volume 2 disc. Repeats several songs on Volume 3, including a dead-on "Green Green Grass of Home" by Dave Alvin. Volume 3 has two more higlights: Jon Rauhouse's take on Roger Miller's "Pardon This Coffin," and Kevin Coyne's hard-hitting "Saviour." Haven't heard Coyne in a long while, but I'd love to hear more like this. B+
  • Lou Reed: Animal Serenade (2004, Sire/Reprise, 2CD). Recorded live in Los Angeles in June 24, 2003. Starts off with chords from "Sweet Jane," which Reed turns into something called "Advice": how to make a career out of three chords. The songs have individual musician credits, but it boils down to: Reed (guitar), Mike Rathke (guitar, guitar synth, ztar -- anything that sounds like a piano), Fernando Saunders (bass, piccolo bass, "Roland"), Jane Scarpantoni (cello), Antony (vocals, including the lead on "Candy Says"). Reed interrupts "Smalltown" (from the Warhol album, Songs for Drella) to spotlight Rathke's "guitar that sounds like a piano." The songs here are weighted a bit toward Berlin and The Raven, including his emphatic declamation of the latter album's title poem, plus five Velvet Underground pieces, only one expected (the closer, "Heroin"; by now a standard, and certainly a crowd favorite). The use of synths gives him a lot of flexibility in molding the sound. The lack of a drummer undermines the temptation to rock out. As such, the tempo shifts a lot, screeches sometimes. The cello gets a bang-up solo in "Venus in Furs" -- shades of Cale, but different. Two songs are sung by others, plus some significant backing parts -- both Antony and Fernando Saunders have eunuch-like falsetto voices that contrast sharply with Reed's voice. It's like he wants to tease out the maximum possible drama from these songs, and they were likely picked for just that purpose. Reed is clearly thinking about his legacy; he's also thinking clearly about it. Both NYC Man and this album delve deep into his songbook, highlighting unusual nooks and crannies. (Interestingly, both revolve around "Street Hassle," as well as concentrating on Berlin.) For people who don't know him as, well, I know him, this may seem arch. I have my doubts too, but after 35 years (and who expected that?) he's not just entitled, he's got a lot to draw from. Plus he's rarely been more satisfied just to perform. A-
  • Rockpile: Seconds of Pleasure (1980 [2004], Columbia/Legacy). New wave's great old wave supergroup, with Dave Edmunds, Billy Bremner, Nick Lowe, and Terry Williams. Includes the original album, the 4-song Every Brothers EP, and finishes with three roaring live cuts. It seemed a bit of a disappointment at the time, but there wasn't really anything wrong with it -- it just wasn't as good as we all expected. Today it sounds pretty great, and the extras do too -- even the Everlys, which was their mushy side at the time. A-
  • Candi Staton (1969-73 [2004], Honest Jons). She's got the gospel background, and that's where she wound up once the r&b string ran out. But in 1969 she found herself in Muscle Shoals recording an album for Rick Hall at Fame Recording Studios, I'm Just a Prisoner. Up to 1973, she recorded two more albums there, one for Capitol and the other for United Artists. Those albums are evidently tremendous rarities now. (One indication is that none of the three show up in Robert Christgau's reviews, nor for that matter does any of Staton's subsequent work, excepting a Warner Brothers best-of from 1996.) Later Staton had some disco hits, and later still went back into gospel. But the cuts here sound like a point about half way between Ann Peebles and Aretha Franklin, with may be a little Etta James (whom Hall also recorded) thrown in for grit. A
  • The Journey: The Very Best of Donna Summer (1975-2003, UTV/Mercury, 2CD). First CD is a 20-cut best-of, which means is sticks to the short versions. The first 12 cuts (up through "On the Radio") are automatic, aside from the usual reservations about "Macarthur Park." The next six hits (if #79 pop qualifies) are iffier, aside from "She Works Hard for the Money" (although "This Time I Know It's for Real" is a keeper). The desire to balance a career that only produced one good album after 1980 is the bane of most Summer comps. Then come two new songs -- these days she's more likely to introduce a new song on a comp than in a new album. "That's the Way" is pretty good -- welcome back, Giorgio Moroder. "Dream-a-Lot's Theme (I Will Live for Love)" may even be better: a torch lead-in breaks into disco madness. Good enough, but she's run through so many comps by now that it's hard not to nitpick all of them. This one comes with a "bonus disc" -- not described in the booklet, or hinted at on the back cover (don't know whether there's a sticker, or indeed whether this is part of all units; there's some reason to think not). The bonus remixes are of minor interest -- one of the new songs is remixed, plus two newer songs and two warhorses. The best-of disc matches Endless Summer pretty closely: two songs are replaced (one good early song with a better one, one weak late song with a weaker one); two are trimmed a bit; and the two new songs are added. The match is so close I might as well grade it the same. Obviously you don't need both. Obviously I don't need 12 CDs with "Hot Stuff" on them. A-
  • Was (Not Was): Out Come the Freaks (1981-83 [2003], ZE). I have a promo on this -- just a sleeve. The front cover matches their first album, the eponymous Was (Not Was). The back cover says "OUT COMES THE FREAKS"; the website says "Out Come the Freaks." I'm going with the website. Also, the date on the sleeve says 2003, but the website says Jan. 2004. In any case, this is significantly expanded, with a long version of "Wheel Me Out" to start, and a bunch of remixes to end. Sound seems juiced up, too. The first two songs make for an impressive debut: "Wheel Me Out" comes very close to Material's "Bust Me Loose" -- both words fit the melody. "Out Come the Freaks" is a funk riot. Beyond that it gets sloppier, slicker, a bit sickening. "Carry Me Back to Old Morocco" is one of the better cuts, a rap on a sloop with some skronky sax. B
  • Was (Not Was): (The Woodwork) Squeaks (1980-83 [2003], ZE). Evidently this originally came out in 1984, collecting six remixes dating from 1980-82 -- my end-date of 1983 above is just a hedge, since I don't have discographical info on this advance. This new edition drops "Where Did Your Heart Go?" in favor of a second "Tell Me That I'm Dreaming," a rap titled "White People Can Dance" (previously released on Zetrospective as "White People Can't Dance," a title that tracks the lyrics more closely), and a whole bunch of "Out Come the Freaks" versions -- five, by my count. B+

Saturday, April 17, 2004

Movie: The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. At this point Charlie Kaufman is working on a level that possibly no other writer in Hollywood can even conceive of. The delicately balanced love story, maybe -- the characters played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett are flawed enough to appreciate each other, at least often enough to want to put the relationship back together again. But how the story plays out? Not a chance. There are two major story lines here. One is a struggle between heartbreak and memory, and it is astonishing how well this film captures the dynamics of memory in a medium that is purely visual. The other has to do with the ethics (or lack thereof) of privatized science: the people who control the process of eradicating other people's memories, and how such power warps them. A


The mantra in Washington is still "stay the course," but the politicos and pundits are too busy chanting to ponder what course really means here. It should be obvious by now that the course requires that the US leaves and Iraqis take charge of Iraq. The reasons are complex, but two are paramount: 1) a lot of Iraqis don't want the US there, and many of them hold this view so intensely that they cannot be ignored; and 2) the US doesn't have the wherewithal to impose its will on Iraq indefinitely into the future. These two points should have been obvious from the very start of the US invasion, but the events of the first half of this month have made them urgent and inescapable. It should also be obvious that the two are linked: the more Iraqis oppose US occupation, the more expensive it is for the US to impress its will, the more strained US resources become.

This interrelationship has always been there, but it took a catastrophic leap early this month. The only chance that the US ever stood of success in Iraq depended on the US being able to deliver a real, tangible improvement in the way of life lived by a significant majority of Iraqis. This means the sense of living in a just, lawful, secure society, and it means economic improvements, broadly distributed. The odds of such success never looked good: the US had established a poor track, which made its intentions immediately suspect; the US lacked essential skills (e.g., Arabic speakers) and adequate resources; and this was simply not the intent that the Bush administration brought to the problem. The destruction of the invasion added to the US handicap, as did the failure to secure and stabilize the occupied territory. Moreover, the US critically failed to get any sort of legitimate Iraqi participation in the government of Iraq, showing that all of the propaganda about freedom and democracy was just crooked talk. These handicaps were in turn multiplied by each act of resistance.

As the first anniversary of the US invasion approached, the US had failed to reconstruct Iraq, and US power was waning -- all the while Iraqi civil and paramilitary groups were gathering strength. Then the US panicked: after intensive US punishment in Fallujah, when four US mercenaries were mutilated the only thing that the US could think of doing was to attack the entire city; when Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr challenged US authority, the US banned his newspaper and started to arrest his aides, leading to a Shi'a revolt in previously quiet cities. The result of the panic was to expose the fundamental weakness of the US position in Iraq, while intensifying opposition to the US occupation. While the US is able to kill large numbers of Iraqis, the ultimate political costs of such bloodshed is already immense. The only alternative was to back off, which the US has partially done -- knowing full well that to do so is to concede weakness.

It is at this point impossible for the US to recover. What was an unpopular occupation is now seen as much worse. Everyone in the occupation now has greater reason to fear for their security than ever before. Meaningful reconstruction of an insecure Iraq is impossible. It is only a matter of time before the course runs out -- before the US leaves and Iraqis rule themselves. This is not a course that can altered by US will, however resolute it may be. The die is set. The only question is how long the US will foolishly try to prolong the course -- how long they will try to deny its inevitable endpoint.

A sensible approach for the US at this point would be: 1) to cease fire; 2) to generate as much Iraqi participation in government as quickly as possible, with a clear understanding that it is solely up to the Iraqis how long the US stays in Iraq; 3) if the transition to full Iraqi control doesn't happen fast enough, leave anyway. But the Bush administration is not sensible. We are, after all, talking about people who respond to such widespread revolt in Iraq by hugging Ariel Sharon.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

When Ariel Sharon was praising George W. Bush yesterday, I half expected him to proclaim Bush "a man of peace." However, he gave us no such irony. Instead, Bush not only gave his assent to Sharon's plan to unilaterally remove Israel's settlements in Gaza. Bush went farther, agreeing that Israel need never repatriate any refugees created by its expansionist wars, and that Israel has no obligation to evacuate major settlement blocks in the West Bank. And it was Bush (not Sharon) who talked most about the survival of Israel as a Jewish State. This sort of public agreement just reflects de facto US policy going back before Bush took office, but it is shocking nonetheless -- much as it was shocking how the US defended Sharon's assassination of Sheikh Yassin, much as it was shocking how the US defended Sharon's bombing raid into Syria. The US has always before tried to acknowledge international law even while it actually did nothing to pressure Israel into recognizing such law. Sure, this was hypocrisy, but it at least offered the hope that someday, somehow, the US might do something to give force to its words, and on those meager hopes rested much of the prospect for peace in the region.

There are many repercussions to this deal -- not merely that now the US as well as Israel stand brazenly outside the framework of international law. It is most significant that the only parties to this deal were Israel and the US. This means, for instance, that the US has unilaterally torn up the "Quartet Roadmap," leaving the EU, Russia, and the UN holding an empty bag. Given that the Roadmap was a precondition for the UK and Spain to join Bush's crusade in Iraq, this also means that the US now leads a Coalition of the Double-Crossed.

But most importantly, Sharon's plan is unilateral: it in no way depends on agreement with any Palestinians; it doesn't acknowledge the Palestinians; it doesn't provide any framework for Palestine to go about the business of rebuilding and healing. The future status of Gaza is what? It is effectively separated from Israel, separated from the West Bank, separated from the Palestinian Authority, but in no way does it become an independent entity. In its assassinations of Sheikh Yassin and many others, Israel has shown that it has no qualms about firing at will. Will this in any way change? Without recognition and agreement, without a plan and process to turn Gaza into a viable, self-sustaining territory, Gaza will continue to be a security threat to Israel, and Israel will continue to treat Gaza as a mob-infested shooting gallery. All that Israel's removal of its outposts there does is to remove the weak spots in the containment and isolation, the strangulation, of Gaza. This is an eery reminder of the myth that Israel propagated to explain the refugee flight of 1947-49: that the Arabs had told the Palestinians to leave Israeli territory so that when the Arabs marched through an anihilated the Israelis, they wouldn't be caught in the crossfire. This is hard to conceive of, but the presence of Israeli settlers in Gaza has at least been one significant inhibition against Israel attacking Gaza with genocidal weapons.

The fact is that Israel's occupation of Gaza has been an utter failure: 7500 settlers, stuck in the midst of over one million Palestinians, almost all refugees. Gaza's natural economical resources can't begin to support that population; at least not without extensive contacts and trading relationships with the outside world, which are and will be impossible under Israeli containment. The same is true of the West Bank: Israel has failed in its efforts to demographically dominate the West Bank, it has failed in its efforts to pacify the West Bank, it has failed in its efforts (if indeed there were any) to integrate the West Bank into its economy and society, even to the limited extent that predominantly Palestinian areas within pre-1967 Israel have been integrated. However, Sharon still has designs on carving up the West Bank, of attaching strategic settlement blocks to Israel, leaving the masses of Palestinians trapped behind his "security fence" -- walled off as effectively as Israel has already walled off Gaza. The result there, too, will be an unviable economy, a poisoned society, another even larger Israeli shooting range.

A few years back Baruch Kimmerling coined the term "politicide" to describe Sharon's plan for the Palestinians: the intention is to kill off the Palestinians not person-by-person but as an entire political entity. The term has always had a bit of grandstanding to it, but the day is coming when it turns into a proper noun, and the die is cast. Sharon's plan is to isolate the Palestinians so severely that they cease to exist in our eyes: kill their leaders, choke off their economy, bury them behind walls. The US under Bush has made this possible, by fomenting blind fear and hatred of anyone who can be tarred as terrorist. With that trap in mind, Sharon has deftly moved the entire Palestinian people into oblivion. There, out of sight and out of mind, anything can happen.

As far back as the 1930s Israelis have dreamed of the day when they could "transfer" reticent Palestinians out of their Jewish State. The idea of formenting a mass stampede sort of worked in 1947-49. Subsequent wars and repression added to the refugee count, but nowhere near enough to counter the "natural" growth of the Palestinian population. Most sensible observers have ruled out the possibility of Israel ever implementing transfer, but the desire still lingers in the hearts of many Israelis -- notably members of Sharon's government. But Sharon has never been what you'd call a sensible person -- he's not just a criminal, he's a major innovator in the design and implementation of crimes. One thing he's learned over the years is that land is less important than the ability to project force over that land. The Zionist legacy is one of redeeming the land, and that has had an almost mythic aura for Israelis of Sharon's generation -- so much so that it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that Sharon's own thinking is stuck in that rut. But just as the Palestinians have been conditioned to cling tenaciously to their land, Sharon is now saying that they can have the land (some of it, anyway), but they cannot have any power, not even recognition of their existence. This is Sharon's solution of the transfer problem: if he can't move the people (and he can't), he'll move the land that they cling to. While this may look like a step back for Israel, all that they are conceding is land that they cannot control anyway. Settlement has failed. Martial law has failed. Genocide is out of the question.

But politicide just might work. In George W. Bush, Sharon has found the perfect patsy for his scheme. Bush himself is floundering in an Iraqi Intifada that looks like Palestine on steroids and crack. (The big difference is the amount of firepower that Iraqis have access to, although the ineptness and corruption of the CPA is taking a considerable toll as well -- neither of which enter much in to US thinking. Indeed, nothing much enteres into US thinking beyond the traps of its own political rhetoric.) In this situation Bush is desperate for any allies he can get -- so desperate that he's forgotten that when his father first tackled Iraq, Israel was sensibly regarded as political poison. Only the very desperate or the very stupid would drink that poison, and Bush qualifies on both accounts. To him, Israel looks like a paragon of antiterrorist efficiency: compared to the CPA, Israel is -- but only if you buy the propaganda that Israel and the US have long spouted to obscure and diffuse the bottom line fact that Israel's post-1967 occupation has been an utter failure. After all, Israel has sustained its delusion over 37 years. Bush will be happy if he can stretch his out another 8 months.


Added a comment (17-Apr-2004):

One day after I wrote this piece Israel fired rockets at a car in Gaza, killing Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi. It's worth noting that when Rantisi assumed leadership of Hamas, in the wake of Israel's assassination of Sheikh Yassin, it was Rantisi who overruled initial threats that Hamas, holding the US complicit in the killing, would start to take action against US as well as Israeli targets. It is doubtful that Sharon discussed this attack with Bush during this week's visit. Sharon knows by now that the US will back virtually any Israeli act that he claims to be "self defense," and if not the consequences won't be onerous. But to the rest of the world the US could hardly look more complicit. And, of course, Bush's people have already come to Sharon's defense.

The great fear at this point is not the likelihood of Hamas exacting revenge on Israel: the die is already cast there, and in any case the promised "gates of hell," at least thus far, haven't amounted to much. The fear is that this is just one more step in the degeneration of Israel and the US toward exclusively violent policies of confrontation with a world that has serious and quite understandable grievances with Israel and the US. The net result of this degeneration is that people of good will anywhere in the world can no longer trust Israel or the US to ever do the right thing. Moreover, it means that the wrong thing has become all the more naturalized -- something we've grown to expect. (If anything, Bush's real position on such killings is jealousy: why, oh why, can't his goons manage to kill his enemies so efficiently? On the other hand, it's worth noting that while the "gates of hell" didn't open in post-Yassin Israel, they did in Iraq -- precisely when the US tried harder to run its occupation like Israel does.)

The only hope at this point is that these policies are so totally identified with Bush and Sharon that removing them from office will leave us one more chance to set things right.

Monday, April 12, 2004

I was reading James Risen's New York Times Book Review of Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies and Steve Coll's Ghost Wars, and was struck by Risen's description of "the mush that was the Clinton administration's counterterrorism policy." I've been reading Coll's book, and while "mush" might be a word to sum up the results of Clinton's policies, it is also misleading. It suggests that Clinton was soft on al Qaeda. But the evidence is pretty clear that Clinton was as fanatical as his successor. The difference was that Clinton had people to call his bluster, so he wound up pulling his punches. (Excepting the cruise missile attack on the Sudan, which played badly all over the world, and taught Clinton a lesson.) Consider the following quote, from Coll (page 498):

Clinton pleaded with [General Hugh] Shelton [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] after a Cabinet meeting for even a symbolic raid: "You know," the president told the general, "it would scare the shit out of al Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp. It would get us enormous deterrence and show these guys we're not afraid." But when Shelton returned with an options briefing, his plans all outlined large deployments and cautioned that there would be scant probability of success.

Shelton felt the pressure from Richard Clarke especially. Clarke pressed the Pentagon relentlessly for smaller, stealthier plans to attack bin Laden. Shelton saw the White House counterterrorism chief as "a rabid dog." He conceded that "you need that in government--you need somebody who won't take no for an answer." Still, Shelton and the generals felt Clarke and other White House civilians had "some dumb-ass ideas, not militarily feasible. They read something in a Tom Clancy novel and thought you can ignore distances, you can ignore the time-distance factors."

Shelton's comment reflected the rather pedestrian fact that the U.S. had no place to base helicopters close enough that they could fly into Afghanistan without refueling. But it seems to me that the jihadists would cut the ninjas to pieces before they landed -- unless they were laughing too hard, which I wouldn't count on with such sourpusses.

Throughout this whole section of the book the working assumption is that all one had to do was kill Bin Laden to vanquish the Al Qaeda threat. That seems dubious. Coll gives two examples of what we might call freelance terrorism from the early '90s: Mir Amal Kasi and Ramzi Yousef. The former shot people at CIA headquarters; the latter blew up the World Trade Center, and had numerous imaginative plans, including the idea of hijacking an airliner and smashing it into a building (the CIA headquarters). Bin Laden's big claim to fame was mostly to organize a think tank and systematize training for freelance terrorists, and to publicize it. But the thinking and training was already going on, and once Bin Laden became famous his real work was done. Beyond that, his longevity taunted the Americans, provoking them to do stupid things. Clinton tried, but mostly came up short. Of Clinton's cruise missile strikes against Afghanistan and Sudan, Coll writes (p. 412):

Bin Laden's reputation in the Islamic world had been enhanced. He had been shot at by a high-tech superpower and the superpower missed. Two instant celebratory biographies of bin Laden appeared in Pakistani stores. Without seeming to work very hard at it, bin Laden had crafted one of the era's most successful terrorist media strategies. The missile strikes were his biggest publicity payoff to date.

Bush tried, too. And unfortunately Bush was surrounded by people who didn't throttle his fantasies: if anything, they egged him on. In the wake of 9/11 Bush got everything that Clinton dreamed of: bases in central Asia and Pakistan, full Pakistani support, war on the Taliban. And even with all that Bush couldn't kill Bin Laden, let alone Al Qaeda. For all the effort, all the disruption, all the out-of-commission bodies locked away in Cuba, there have been far more Al Qaeda-linked terrorism acts/deaths since 9/11 than before.

You may be tempted to say that that's just because we didn't kill him when we had the chance. But had we ever? That doesn't seem very likely given what Coll reports. And would it have made a difference? That doesn't seem very likely either. The idea that all you have to do to fix a deep-rooted, longstanding problem is to go out and kill someone is very hard to prove -- in large part because it doesn't make much sense. Even in the best case you still have a deep-rooted, longstanding problem; you're just creating an opportunity for someone else to exploit it. Just today General Sanchez was talking about how the "Coalition" is going to kill Muqtada al-Sadr, to put an end to the Shi'a rebellion in Iraq. Like that's all it will take to put the idea of rebellion back in the bottle. Bring on the ninjas.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Music: Initial count 9071 rated (+20), 893 unrated (-12). Was on my way to a fairly good week, until something real scary happened Friday night. But as Hank Williams might've said, "I'm still alive." Still, the weekend was shot to shit. Long-delayed Recycled Goods is almost done -- maybe the reason it took so long is that it's so full of B records. The Voice has asked me to do a Jazz CG, so I need to start tracking new jazz much better than I have been.

  • Marty Ehrlich, Peter Erskine, Michael Formanek: Relativity (1998, Enja). Starts slow, never quite comes together, but often enough it shows what these three very talented guys can do. B+
  • The Complete Capitol Recordings of Duke Ellington (1953-55, Mosaic, 5CD). These were the latter half of the years when Ellington was deprived of Johnny Hodges' services. The orchestra still had notable talents (Clark Terry, Cat Anderson, Willie Cook, and Ray Nance on trumpet; Quentin Jackson, Britt Woodman, and Juan Tizol on trombone; Russell Procope, Rick Henderson, Paul Gonsalves, Jimmy Hamilton, and Harry Carney on reeds; Ellington on piano; Wendell Marshall on bass; Butch Ballard or Dave Black on drums), and the initial take of "Satin Doll" is fine. Then comes a Jimmy Grissom vocal, and Grissom returns periodically -- a full-bodied, overly starched baritone, yet another subpar Ellington vocalist. When "Basin Street Blues" came on I was taken aback by the sudden appearance of some dynamics in the vocal -- sure enough, Ray Nance sang that one. (Although Grissom does get in a good take on "I'm Just a Luck So and So.") Straddling the first and second CDs is a set of Ellington piano trio -- most of which is separately available as Piano Reflections -- long treasured as one of the few isolated examples of Ellington's piano work. Second disc closes with an upbeat Dec. 1953 session which includes a real "Rockin' in Rhythm," with the trombones really crankin' and Cat Anderson (who else?) bouncing off the ceiling -- and Anderson is even more stratospheric in the second take of "Flying Home" on the third disc. The fifth disc generates the most interest: the big band seems friskier, working their way through trickier movements. On the last two cuts even Grissom's singing starts to impress. This period in Ellington's discography is frequently disparaged, but like the mid-'30s it's all relative. Ellington Uptown came out in 1952; Such Sweet Thunder and Ellington at Newport in 1956. Nothing here compares to those points, and the size, bulk, and expense of this set are daunting. B+
  • Grant Green: Goin' West (1962 [2004], Blue Note). Quartet: Green (guitar), Herbie Hancock (piano), Reggie Workman (bass), Billy Higgins (drums). Five songs, all c&w more/less: "On Top of Old Smokey," "I Can't Stop Loving You," "Wagon Wheels," "Red River Valley," "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." This isn't a tremendous showcase for Green's improvisational skills, but the melodies are amusing, and a few things happen. Hancock mostly comps behind Green, but gets in some licks playing off Green's leads in "Red River Valley." But the best thing is "Tumbling Tumbleweeds": Higgins has a lot of fun with clomping, galloping sticks, and Green's tone is delicious. B+
  • Umar Bin Hassan: Be Bop or Be Dead (1993, Axiom). He's a rapper left over from the Last Poets, which is fairly obvious from the lead track, "Niggers Are Scared of Revolution." I've only heard the Last Poets in limited doses over the last few decades, and in very limited doses the unconventionality of their message can make up for their lack of chops, but over the long run the stilted flow makes you suspect that the politics, too, are bullshit. The extra selling point here is Bill Laswell's production, and the musicians here are first rate: Bernie Worrell, Bootsy Collins, Amina Claudine Myers, Aiyb Dieng, Foday Musa Suso, Anton Fier, Buddy Myers, Laswell, some others. The beats are deft enough, although the closing "metal mix" of "This Is Madness" is too much of a bad thing. Lead cut holds up pretty good, but he wears thin before he's done. B-
  • D.D. Jackson: So Far (1999, RCA Victor). Solo piano. Most of the pieces are dedications (Michel Camilo, Ornette Coleman, Claude Debussy, Vladimir Horowitz, John Hicks, Jaki Byard, Don Pullen, Bud Powell), a couple covers (Ellington, Monk, Mingus), nine luscious minutes of "Suite New York," and a couple of other pieces, including the Pullen-esque "Sweet Beginnings." The kid can play, but I'm less sure that I can follow what he's up to. B
  • Jose Alfredo Jiminez: Las 100 Clásicas, Vol. 1 (1961-72 [2000], BMG, 2CD). Just the first 50 songs -- not sure how they were picked. Jiminez is a Mexican singer, given perhaps a bit to operatic grandiosity, but his rich, vibrant voice is extraordinary. Some of this reminds me of post-Caruso Italian pop -- the easy swaying rhythm can be quite infectious -- but with mariachi horns. It's all too much for me to really get behind, but it's hard not to be impressed. B+
  • Oregon: Winter Light (1974, Vanguard). Interesting group: everyone doubles up on instruments, giving them a wide pallette of sounds, and various options for percussion without a real drummer. Wind instruments tend to be soft (oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, French horn), while the strings (Collin Walcott: tabla, sitar, dulcimer; Glen Moore: bass; Ralph Towner: guitar) fill out. B+
  • Duke Pearson: Sweet Honey Bee (1966 [2004], Blue Note). With Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), James Spaulding (alto sax, flute), Joe Henderson (tenor sax), Ron Carter (bass), Mickey Roker (drums). Hard bop, sweet soul, standout trumpet, pretty good sax, articulate piano. B+
  • Johnny Rivers: Anthology 1964-1977 ([1991], Rhino, 2CD). With good looks and his Italian name disguised, Rivers had some success as a covers artist. Superficially he evolved from rockabilly to white soul to songwriterly goop. Best known for his hit TV theme, "Secret Agent Man" -- probably because all of the other hits that he had are best known by other people. If that makes him sound like Pat Boone, that just shows how few exemplars we have had of his career path. Two CDs is too much, but so is one. I doubt that anyone could pick out a 12-song comp that would grade out above B. That this doesn't do much worse is a tribute to his talent. B-
  • Nina Simone: Anthology (1957-93 [2003], RCA/BMG Heritage, 2CD). Allegedly the first cross-label anthology of her work. Let's see: Bethlehem (1957: 2); Colpix (1959-60: 4); Philips (1964-65: 8); RCA (1966-71: 15); CTI (1978: 1); Elektra (1993: 1). She's hugely admired by friends of mine, but while I'm impressed by some pieces I've never been happy with her compilations. I have, for example, The Best of the Colpix Years at B, Ultimate Nina Simone (Verve, which handles the Philips years) at B, Nina Simone's Finest Hour (Verve) at B-, and The Essential Nina Simone (RCA) at B-. The first disc here strikes me as relatively good. Take her "Trouble in Mind": the band arrangement sounds like classic Ray Charles, her piano stands out, the melody keeps her voice afloat, and at its best her voice is amazing. It's followed by an emphatic live "Mississippi Goddamn." A-

Monday, April 05, 2004

Got a request from Christian Hoard to update my Rolling Stone Album Guide entries to reflect the year that has ellapsed since their original deadline.

  • Blackalicious:
    • Gift of Gab: Fourth Dimensional Rocketships Going Up (Quannum Projects): new
  • Buck 65:
    • Talkin' Honky Blues (WEA Canada): new (have)
  • John Cale:
    • HoboSapiens (EMI): new
  • Ani DiFranco:
    • Educated Guess (Righteous Babe): new
  • James Carter:
    • Gardenias for Lady Day (Columbia): new (have)
    • Live at Baker's Keyboard Lounge (Warner Bros.): new, label has been sitting on it for a while
  • Dave Edmunds:
    • From Small Things: The Best of Dave Edmunds (Columbia/Legacy): comp
  • Holy Modal Rounders:
    • Bird Song: Live 1971 (Water): old but previously unreleased
  • George Jones:
    • The Gospel Collection (BNA): new (don't have, but have heard and reviewed in notebook)
    • Country Standards (EMI): don't know
    • Live Recordings From the Louisiana Hayride (Scena): old stuff, possibly unreleased
    • Jones by George (Proper Pairs): comp
    • George Jones & Tammy Wynette: Love Songs: comp
    • some other dubious looking compilations
  • Fela Anikulapo Kuti:
  • Nick Lowe:
  • Willie Nelson:
    • Willie Nelson & Ray Price: Run That By Me One More Time (Lost Highway): new
    • Live at Billy Bob's Texas (Smith Music): new
    • It's Been Rough and Rocky Travelin' (Bear Family): 3 CD comp, 1954-1963 (pre-RCA)
    • To Lefty From Willie (Columbia/Legacy): reissue + bonus tracks, old release reviewed
    • Willie and Family Live (Columbia/Legacy): reissue + bonus tracks, old release reviewed
    • Honeysuckle Rose (Columbia/Legacy): reissue + bonus tracks
    • Willie Nelson & Ray Price: San Antonio Rose (Columbia/Legacy): reissue + bonus tracks, old release reviewed
    • Always on My Mind (Columbia/Legacy): reissue + bonus tracks, old release reviewed
    • Greatest Hits (& Some That Will Be) (Columbia/Legacy): reissue + bonus tracks, old release reviewed
    • Tougher Than Leather (Columbia/Legacy): reissue + bonus tracks
    • more minor label/dubious compilations
  • Pet Shop Boys:
    • PopArt (EMI): 2 CD comp
  • Pink Floyd:
  • Lou Reed:
    • NYC Man: The Ultimate Lou Reed Collection (BMG): 2 CD comp (have)
    • Animal Serenade (Warner Bros.): new live
    • Platinum & Gold Collection (RCA): comp
  • Matthew Shipp:
      Andrew Barker/Matthew Shipp/Charles Waters: Apostolic Polyphony (Drimala): new (have)
    • Blue Series Continuum: The GoodandEvil Sessions (Thirsty Ear): new (have)
    • Blue Series Continuum: The Sorcerer Sessions (Thirsty Ear): new (have)
    • DJ Wally: Nothing Stays the Same (Thirsty Ear): new
    • El-P/Blue Series Continuum: High Water (Thirsty Ear): new (have advance)
  • St Germain:
    • St Germain/en-Laye: Mezzotinto (F Communications): new
  • Donna Summer:
    • Bad Girls (Deluxe Edition) (Casablanca): reissue + bonus disc (have)
    • Journey: The Very Best of Donna Summer (UTV): comp + two new cuts
  • Hank Thompson:
    • nobody lists this, but he's got a comp of old Capitol cuts with Merle Travis that he sells at his shows; don't have it, but I've heard it and it's pretty great
  • Tougher Than Tough:
  • Waco Brothers:
    • Pine Valley Cosmonauts: The Executioner's Last Songs, Vols. 2 & 3 (Bloodshot): new (have half of this; don't ask me how dumb that is)
    • Jon Langford: All the Fame of Lofty Deeds (Bloodshot): new
  • Bunny Wailer:
  • Loudon Wainwright III:
    • So Damn Happy (Sanctuary): new (have)
  • When the Sun Goes Down:
    • Vol. 6: Poor Man's Heaven (Bluebird): comp (have)
    • also in the series are several single artist comps: Leadbelly, Blind Willie McTell, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Sonny Boy Williamson (the original)
  • Hank Williams:

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Music: Initial count 9051 rated (+9), 905 unrated (-9). As far as writing about music is concerned, last week was very nearly a total miss. Same for writing about anything else, for that matter. Busy with things that made it just about impossible to sit down and write. When I did get a minute here and there I stuffed old notebook entries into my blog at notesoneverydaylife.com. This week should be better.

  • Cannonball Adderley Quintet: Cannonball in Japan (1966, Capitol). With brother Nat (cornet), Joe Zawinul (piano), Victor Gaskin (bass), Roy McCurdy (drums). Loose, luscious, soulful hard bop in six generous servings. Scott Yanow panned this on AMG saying "strangely uninspired . . . just going through the motions. Perhaps they were already tired of this material or maybe it was jet lag." Huh? Nothing special, sure, but I find it hard to complain about such a good natured groove. B+
  • Benny Carter: Sax Ala Carter (1960 [2004], Capitol Jazz). A quartet with Jimmy Rowles, Leroy Vinnegar, and Mel Lewis, perfect support for the great swing saxophonist. Few have matched the sheer beauty of Carter's tone, and not even Johnny Hodges could string together a solo with the elegance and precision that Carter invariably possessed. At this point Carter was easing himself out of his Hollywood day job, moving into the most graceful old age in human history. But that may be unfair at this point: he did, after all, still have Further Definitions ahead of him. And was 30+ years away from Harlem Renaissance, which makes this exquisite set practically his prime. A-
  • Stefano Di Battista (2000, Blue Note). Plays alto and soprano sax, in a quartet with Rosario Bonaccorso (bass), Jacky Terrasson (piano), and Elvin Jones (drums). Bright, lively, rambunctious, often thrilling, yet he can take a sublime ballad turn (and give the drummer some credit, too). A-
  • Duke Ellington: The 1952 Seattle Concert (1952 [1995], Bluebird). The Willie Smith (i.e., not Johnny Hodges) era band, trying to put on a brave face. Ellington introduces features for his orchestra stars, singling out Smith and Britt Woodman and Clark Terry and calling out other names. The first cut is "Skin Deep" -- drummer Louis Bellson's signature piece, which also led off the Uptown album. Then come a series of older standards -- "Sultry Serenade," "Sophisticated Lady," "Perdido," "Caravan" -- and a 15:17 "Harlem Suite." A medley helps clean up the must-play list ("Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "In a Sentimental Mood," "Mood Indigo," "I'm Beginning to See the Light," "Prelude to a Kiss," "It Don't Mean a Thing, if It Ain't Got That Swing," "Solitude," "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart"), and it closes with "Jam With Sam." Evidently this was released as an LP in the early '50s ("the first legitimate issue of a live performance by the Ellington band"). Smith's feature is beautiful, but the other spotlights are less than spectacular, and the callouts on "Jam With Sam" are clichéd. It seems that nothing by Ellington is without merit, but this one's merits are minor, and everything here has been done better elsewhere. B
  • Bill Evans: Moonbeams (1962 [1990], Riverside OJC). With Chuck Israels (in place of the late, great Scott LaFaro) and Paul Motian, this is one of his many quiet, careful, introspective piano trios. I've never felt like I understood Evans, and this one doesn't help in that regard. I barely have a sense of how to rate his work, or rather how to sort out what little I've heard (about 10 CDs, out of 60 or so). This was recorded at the same time as How My Heart Sings! (which I haven't heard), with the ballads concentrated in this one. As such it is very delicate work -- the least ambient noise is distracting, and even the rhythm section is subdued. Which just goes to make it harder than usual, but when you can hear it this sounds strikingly beautiful. B+
  • Eddie Gale's Ghetto Music (1968 [2003], Water). Gale is a trumpet player. He studied with Kenny Dorham, and played mostly with hard boppers before he surfaced on two farther out 1966 albums: Larry Young's Of Love and Peace and Cecil Taylor's Unit Structures. He hasn't recorded much since -- some Sun Ra in 1965 and 1978-79, a 1992 album with pianist Larry Willis called A Minute With Miles, and a few things that he's selling on his website. This was the first of the two Blue Notes, recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, produced by Francis Wolf, forgotten by EMI until it was recused by Water (a small label devoted to '60s obscurities ranging from Albert Ayler to Pearls Before Swine to the Holy Modal Rounders). He's assembled a group of musicians with Russell Lyle on tenor sax and flute, two bassists, and two drummers -- a group that can swing hard. And he's also put together a choir of 11 singers, most likely church-trained. Joann Gale takes the lead on the first cut ("The Rain"), and Elaine Beiner leads elsewhere, but mostly they sing in unison, an ensemble that rocks the house. A
  • Eddie Gale: Black Rhythm Happening (1969 [2003], Water). The second of the Blue Notes. Same basic group, the core stripped of its extra bass/drums, but with some guests added, most famously Elvin Jones. (There's an alto sax credit for Jamie Lyons. AMG lists Jamie Lyons as a member of the Music Explosion, mostly a bubblegum group, but they had a hit in 1967, "Little Bit O'Soul"; AMG credits Lyons with playing guitar, trombone, maracas. However, a more likely candidate would be Jimmy Lyons, who played alto sax with Gale on Cecil Taylor's Unit Structures.) Again with the chorus. First thing here is the title track, which is more of a chant against an awesome funk backdrop. A-
  • Freddie Hubbard: Ready for Freddie (1962 [2004], Blue Note). Hubbard burst onto the scene in 1960, and over the next couple of years he ripped off a series of breathtaking albums for Blue Note. He fit very smoothly into the Miles Davis orbit, but he also played superbly in more avant contexts, working with Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman, and would later work with Andrew Hill and Bobby Hutcherson. This one has long been out of print, but it's a superb showcase and quite a group: Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Art Davis, Elvin Jones, and Bernard McKinney (euphonium, a tuba tuned more like a trombone). A-
  • René Marie: Live at Jazz Standard (2002 [2003], MaxJazz). She started singing well into her 40s, and now has three albums on MaxJazz. This one was cut live with piano-bass-drums, a competent group I'm utterly unfamiliar with (John Toomey, Elias Bailey, T. Howard Curtis III). This starts off impressively with a spry, sassy "'Deed I Do," and she unloads a respectable scat solo there. Her "Where or When" is touching, and "It Might as Well Be Spring" swings nicely, with another load of scat. Only on Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" does her reach exceed her grasp -- her trade is in nuance, and the song doesn't give her anything to work with. Two originals, including a torchy tango, "Paris on Ponce," which is one of the most interesting things here. B+
  • Dolly Parton: RCA Country Legends (1967-84 [2002], RCA/BMG Heritage). See below for context. Only 16 cuts compared to 20 for The Ultimate Dolly Parton, but the following made this one and not the later one: "False Eyelashes" (1967), "Evening Shade" (1969), "Mule Skinner Blues" (1970), "Daddy's Moonshine Still" (1971), "All I Can Do" (1976), "Shattered Image" (1976). The booklet cites her 1999 comeback bluegrass album as having "surprised many of her fans," so it promotes the younger Parton, including a lovely cover photo of her in a denim jacket that leaves her bra size undetermined. Still, its picks among the early-middle hits are often quite bland. B+
  • Ultimate Dolly Parton (1970-88 [2003], RCA Nashville/BMG Heritage). One of the mysteries of life is why RCA's numerous Dolly Parton best-ofs keep getting worse. This can't just be one of those cases where a fresh and intriguing singer gets familiar and received as she ages, although that dynamic is certainly part of Parton's story. (In that case, the decline should have stopped after Parton left RCA in 1986.) Rather, it seems to do with the public's changing perception of her. The latest compilation is (ignoring second volumes) something like RCA's 10th. I haven't heard them all, so I'm extrapolating a bit, but it seems like each release loses more of her roots, and plays more to her vanity. RCA's 1970 The Best of Dolly Parton had 11 songs -- a stretch for a career that started c. 1967, but that just meant that her astonishingly matter-of-fact originals (including "My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy," "In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)," and "Just Because I'm a Woman") were padded out with the likes of "Mule Skinner Blues" and "How Great Thou Art". None of those songs made it here. Robert Christgau gave the 1970 comp an A. In 1975, RCA released another Best of Dolly Parton, which Christgau graded A+. This one had 10 cuts, none duplicated from the 1970 comp. Five appear here ("Jolene," "The Bargain Store," "I Will Always Love You," "Love Is Like a Butterfly," "Coat of Many Colors") -- four of them were also album titles, so the compilers didn't have to look hard to find them. The first seven cuts here include these five, "Joshua" (also an album title), and a duet with Porter Wagoner. In 1982 RCA released a new comp called Greatest Hits -- down to nine cuts to keep the time under 30 minutes, with one duplicate from the earlier work ("I Will Always Love You"). By this point she had gone Hollywood -- the lead cut was the title song from "9 to 5," and two more cuts came from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas -- a long ways from her "Kentucky Mountain Home." More tellingly, the artist name on the front cover was just "Dolly," and her picture this time was from the waist up, with her hands behind her curly perm, and a tight, bulging red sweater. (The two previous best-of covers just showed her head.) Seven of those nine songs made it here ("I Will Always Love You," "Here You Come Again," "It's All Wrong, But It's All Right," "Old Flames Can't Hold a Candle to You," "9 to 5," "But You Know I Love You," "Islands in the Stream" -- the latter a hideous duet with Kenny Rogers; missing are "Two Doors Down" and "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind" -- two Parton originals; most of the rest were written by others). In 1993 RCA released a 2CD, 30 cut box called The RCA Years 1967-1986, which reshuffled the best-ofs, adding "The Letter" (a cautiously optimistic spoken letter to her mom on leaving home for show business) at the front and "Tennessee Homesick Blues" (also on the new one) at the end: the first disc near classic, the second verring toward crap). In 1995-96 RCA did two volumes of The Essential Dolly Parton, the songs almost randomly distributed. In 2002, they released RCA Country Legends, meant to cash in on her bluegrass move, a slight improvement -- the two closing movie songs were "9 to 5" and "Tennessee Homesick Blues," leaving Kenny Rogers on the shelf. Ultimate just tacks two more songs onto this legacy: Phil Spector's narcissistic "To Know Him Is to Love Him" (done with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, purely for harmony), and "Why'd You Come in Here Lookin' Like That," a country #1 cross-licensed from Columbia. B
  • Elvis Presley: Close Up (1957-72 [2003], RCA/BMG Heritage). A four disc box set, the back cover proclaiming "all selections previously unreleased." So how do they do that? Mostly they package broken takes on records that were released.
    CD 1: Unreleased Stereo Masters From the '50s: Actually from 1957, and not really stereo. These sessions were actually recorded on two tape recorders -- one was intended as a backup, but by combining them they get a binaural recording, which is sort of like stereo. Stereo (as we know it) wasn't standardized until 1958.
    CD 2: Unreleased Movie Gems: From 1960-61, from the movies G.I. Blues, Flaming Star, Wild in the Country, and Blue Hawaii. These are all alternate takes: all but "Steppin' Out of Line" were on the original soundtracks, and it shows up on a 1997 reissue of Blue Hawaii. The best stuff is from G.I. Blues; the Hawaiian shit is exceptionally bad. "Can't Help Falling in Love" has two false starts, the humor of which doesn't come through.
    CD 3: The Magic of Nashville: Recorded at various points from 1960-68. Again, these are mostly alternate takes of things that were released elsewhere.
    CD 4: Live in Texas 1972: Starts with a bit from "Also Sprach Zarathustra," aka the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then he does "See See Rider" and "Proud Mary," songs firmly associated with . . . other people (lots of them).
    B
  • Elvis Presley: 2nd to None (1954-76 [2003], RCA). 30 cuts, including Paul Oakenfold's remix of "Rubberneckin'"; freed from the #1 chart straightjacket it should be easy to pick equally worthy songs, but spreading them evenly over a frontloaded career is harder. Late-period Elvis could be magnificent, but more commonly was just bloated. The early stuff is pretty great, the mid interesting, and the Paul Oakenfold remix a bonus. B+
  • Julian Priester/Sam Rivers: Hints on Light and Shadow (1996, Postcards). The third name here is Tucker Martine, who did the electronics that percolate subtly in the background. Priester is a veteran trombonist who started in R&B bands and played with Sun Ra in the '50s. He doesn't have much under his own name. Rivers, of course, is a tenor saxophonist with a similar history -- a bit older, although he didn't manage to record until 1964. Parts of this work well -- Rivers in particular is cogent -- but sometimes the sparseness leaves you a bit short. B
  • Sun Ra and His Solar Arkestra: Visits Planet Earth / Interstellar Low Ways (1956-60 [1992], Evidence). First half from 1956-58, second from 1960. The big band music is similar to other efforts from this period, although the space concepts are more prominent here, including a couple of chant-based vocals to drive the point home (or into the ground). B+
  • Ned Rothenberg Double Band: Real and Imagined Time (1993, Moers). Sextet organized as two trios, each bass-drums-sax (or sometimes flute). The horns belong to Rothenberg and Thomas Chapin, a remarkable player in his own right. The basses (Jerome Harris, Chris Wood) are electric, with Harris switching off to guitar. And two drummers (Jim Black, Billy Martin). The electric basses make the difference here, giving this a muscular rhythmic pulse that sometimes comes close to funk, freeing the drums and horns to play with their own fantasies. What fun! A-
  • The Essential Earl Scruggs (1946-84 [2004], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD). The sticker on the front says "For a Limited Time Only! Celebrate Earl's 80th Birthday." And most importantly: "Highlights Earl's Banjo Work On Tracks From 1946-1984." Scruggs was the most famous banjo player in bluegrass -- probably in all of American music -- but he was a celebrated sideman for most of his career. This starts with three 1946-47 cuts from the band that gave bluegrass its name, Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys. Monroe's band not only included Scruggs -- equally important was guitarist and sometime vocalist Lester Flatt. They left Monroe in 1948, signed with Mercury, and cut some legendary tracks (five included here, including "Rolling in My Sweet Baby's Arms" and "Salty Dog Blues"). Monroe left Columbia for Decca in 1950, and Flatt & Scruggs headed back to Columbia in 1951, where they stayed until Flatt retired in 1967. This period is undestandably the bulk of the set: the last 12 cuts on the first disc, 8 of the first 9 on the second disc. The rest of the second disc slips into eminence gris (or aged superstar) mode, with his sons filling in, and various guests hanging on. Released for his 80th birthday, this is meant as a tribute, and it's a well deserved one. The first disc is all the bluegrass banjo anyone ever needs. The second disc could pass for sentimental, although it's hard not to be touched by the tribute laid out by Johnny Cash. A-
  • Frank Strozier Sextet: Remember Me (1976 [1994], Steeplechase). Strozier plays alto sax and flute. He is joined here by Danny Moore (flugelhorn), Howard Johnson (tuba), Harold Mabern (piano), Lisle Atkinson (bass), and Michael Carvin (drums). Good, sharp but smooth flowing session, with smart players all around, but almost a little too easy. Produced by Nils Winther. Not real long at 44:17. I've played it a number of times, always enjoying it, never knocked out. Ergo: B+
  • Television: Marquee Moon (1977 [2003], Elektra/Rhino). A
  • Television: Adventure (1978 [2003], Elektra/Rhino). A-
  • Television: Live at the Old Waldorf (1978 [2003], Rhino Handmade). Live rock albums while a group is working are usually filler, if not fraudulent, but 25 years later this group is entitled. Nothing really revelatory, but they do rock out as you'd expect. This is the only one of the big four CBGB bands that I never saw live, and I missed the ROIR cassette too. Glad to have caught this one. Note, however, that the sticker price is obscene. A-
  • Bob Thompson: Ev'ry Time I Feel the Spirit (1996, Ichiban). Pianist. AMG lists his Styles as: Lounge, Instrumental Pop, Post-Bop. He has a dozen albums, but doesn't seem to get much respect. The songs here are mostly gospel -- "Deep River," "Wade in the Water," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," like that; the arrangements are luxurious: with rich, fluid piano; bright alto sax; extra latin percussion above and beyond the drums. It's a little too slick -- I guess that's why the "instrumental pop" label sticks. And the 7:43 "Study War No More" is stretched out so far you forget what it's about. B

Saturday, April 03, 2004

Adam Shapiro, of the International Solidarity Movement, has been in Wichita two days. He gave a lecture at Wichita State University Friday evening, attended by 70+; a second lecture at Bethel College in Newton KS Saturday evening, attended by 30+. In between we had a lunch Q&A session, with about 30 people attending. At both lectures he showed a 15-minute trailer from a documentary film that he's been working on, About Baghdad (beware of Flash). The film was shot in July 2003 in Baghdad, after the U.S. occupation had been established but before events like the bombing of the U.N. building marked an escalation of the resistance.

But the talks were primarily about how the ISM came into being, and the movement's experiences during the second Intifada. As you should recall, the Intifada started in the wake of the failure of the "Peace Process" to achieve a final status agreement at Camp David, further catalyzed by Ariel Sharon's provocative "visit" to the Temple Mount (Al Aqsa Mosque). These events were countered by Palestinian demonstrations, which were met by overwhelming displays of lethal force -- the hard-liners in the Israeli government, most notably Shaul Moffaz (IDF Chief of Staff; now Sharon's Minister of Defense), seem to have believed that the repression of the first Intifada failed because it wasn't forceful enough, and vowed not to make that "mistake" again. One effect of this repression was to drive some Palestinians to violent resistance -- the current wave of suicide bombings started several months after the initial events. Another was to mute the prospects for nonviolent resistance. The ISM was based on the idea that even where Israel had no restraints against shooting at or harrassing Palestinians (who have no legal rights or legal status under occupation) they would be inhibited from taking violent action against "internationals" (foreigners who were in Israel/Palestine at the time), so the internationals could be a resource to help protect nonviolent Palestinian resistance. The actual record is somewhat mixed: in many cases this worked as intended, although Israel has killed two ISM members (Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall), and has jailed and/or exiled others (including Shapiro).

One thing that's striking about the talks is how calm, broadly informed, reasonable, and patient Shapiro is, especially compared to the demonizing press that he's gotten.


I've gotten my Notes on Everyday Life website up and running, and I've copied almost all of the politically oriented notebook pieces that I've written since late 2000 (the pre-notebook post-election notes). I built this site using Drupal, and thus far I'm not very happy with it. In particular, the blog module just changes the permissions model from the story module, leaving us with a bunch of short boxes for each entry, which then need to be individually clicked to get to the entry proper. Moreover, the entries themselves aren't threaded. Keeping the entries distinct in the database is useful, but when one reads a blog, the time continuity is important, and that is lost here. Could look at another toolkit, or could start hacking. Probably the latter. It's even tempting to strip it down in extremis and fork from there.

Also running is the Peace and Social Justice Center of South Central Kansas website, also based on Drupal. This is a better fit for now, as it mostly depends on the events and story modules.


Mar 2004 May 2004