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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Village Voice's Jazz Supplement is out now. The theme is how various institutions affect the practice of jazz these days. There are essays by Francis Davis, Nate Chinen, Larry Blumenfeld, D.D. Jackson, and yours truly. Mine is on labels, the companies that produce and sell recorded jazz.

The main part of the jazz labels piece is a list of very short notes on jazz labels -- 47 in the web version, fewer in the print version. Only finite space and time kept me from including many more. I have a notes file that lists more than 800 jazz labels, still missing most of the single-artist labels for self-released records, and I have more notes squirrelled away elsewhere. It's possible that I can add more to the web version on the Voice site. It's also likely that this will get twisted around and reused on my own websites. (The long-awaited redesign of the Terminal Zone website will have a slot for notes on labels.)

Jazz labels have a rather arbitrary effect on what gets recorded and why. It's not unusual to find musicians with chopped-up recording careers, where they hook up with favorable labels for a spell, then drop out, then sometimes hook up again. It's not unusual to find major artists who shift direction as they change labels. I started thinking about how Norman Granz used his labels to create extended bodies of work where none might have existed otherwise: Art Tatum's group masterpieces, Ella Fitzgerald's songbooks, Count Basie's Pablo period. Also how some labels -- Palmetto, Sharp Nine, Fresh Sound were ones I had in mind -- maintain a consistent sound even with artists who vary much more elsewhere. But I also found many other business models. The article surveys these, but doesn't draw much in the way of conclusions. Maybe once it sinks in further I'll do more about that.

I asked various people about sales levels, but didn't write much about this. Small labels, especially single-artist and/or avant-garde (where they're all small), typically run 1000 copies and count themselves lucky if they sell out. Small label bestsellers may creep up toward the 5000 mark -- especially European labels, where the market seems to be larger. In the U.S., labels sort out pretty clearly by distributors. Several labels that employ professional publicists and distributors like Rykodisc can approach the 30,000 level, which seems to be some sort of ceiling. (I can usually find these records in Borders, but not in Best Buy -- which are basically the options in Wichita these days.) Majors (which for the most part includes ECM) can go beyond that, but I don't have a good feel for how much, at least for straight jazz releases -- the four million figure for Keith Jarrett is way off the scale, and I'm real doubtful that anything comes close. Smooth jazz is a tighter market, with 30k as a bare minimum, 80k as a big hit, and higher numbers as flukes. Smooth jazz gets better radio support -- not more radio stations, but much tighter playlists than straight jazz -- and broader distribution. Vocal records tend to do better than straight instrumentals, and have more crossover potential. The Ray Charles duets album was never even marketed as jazz, although it's nothing if not a big band production album. Madeleine Peyroux, who is marketed as jazz although on a non-jazz label (Rounder), has hit 500k.

My first draft for the introduction sketched out an unconventional economic theory. I discarded it (the draft, not the theory) after my editor didn't understand it, but I hope to go back to it someday. I regard businesses as important and vital, but I'm not an ideological capitalist. I'm struck by the arbitrariness and inefficiency of most businesses, and those same traits are in play here. But a couple of things make jazz labels different from most widgetmakers: one is that there's not a lot of money in the market, so there's not a lot to be gained by being greedy; another is that success is mostly a matter of survival -- it's more important not to lose a lot than to make a lot when you can; a third is that most of the capitalists are in awe of their labor; finally, in many cases the music is its own reward. By and large, this sort of capitalism has served recorded jazz well. Other businesses might learn something from their example.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Music: Current count 10646 [10618] rated (+28), 943 [942] unrated (+1). Recycled Goods (20) done, with a new section called "In Series" which this month groups together Atavistic's Unheard Music Series. Jazz labels piece will come out in Voice Tuesday. Jazz CG won't come out until July, and it's done and edited. But not laid out, so some cuts are likely. No music writing projects overdue right now, but I don't have a lot of RG or JCG backlog written up. May also look to just move some old backlog. Or may work on some neglected non-music projects. Last month has been very stressful.

  • Aesop Rock: Fast Cars, Danger, Fire and Knives (2005, Definitive Jux). New packaging gimmick: comes with a booklet containing lyrics for all five albums to date. Booklet is potentially useful given how fast the words fly past. How useful I haven't figured out -- I'm mostly into the beats anyway. I figure if the lyrics are good enough they'll come and get me. Doesn't happen here, but the beats are fine. This is considered an EP, but I don't know why. B+
  • Aesop Rock: Bazooka Tooth (2003, Definitive Jux). Lots of words, sometimes piling up and cascading over, making their own rhythm. Package has two discs. Not sure what the second is. The first is plenty. B+
  • Han Bennink: Nerve Beats (1973 [2000], Atavistic). An amazing drummer, as the cymbal thrash on "Spooky Drums" more than points out; the title piece moves into a nother realm with a primitive drum machine serving as backdrop for Bennink's free association on trombone, clarinet, whatever, before he returns to form, banging on anything he can reach. B+
  • The Best Tango Album in the World . . . Ever! (1982-2000 [2003], Capitol, 2CD). Hardly, but in trying to tuck tango back into the realm of classical music it doesn't intersect with anyone I've noticed -- well, one Piazzolla, one Tango Project. But as classical music goes, it has quite some rhythm, and makes for amusing background music to clean house to. B
  • The Blind Boys of Alabama: Atom Bomb (2005, RealWorld). anyone who thinks "Jesus hits like the atom bomb" don't know shit about atom bombs, let alone Jesus; I realize these guys are old and set in their ways, but we really need to get past the days of slavery and apartheid and grasp that there are better responses to "suffering here below" than "let's keep talking about Jesus, especially given how much of "this world of trouble" is caused by folks with Jesus on their tongues; I have no such complaints about "Presence of the Lord," and note that the music improves too. B-
  • This Right Here Is Buck 65 (2005, V2). When Warners' Canadian subsidiary signed Nova Scotian dj/rapper Richard Terfly they started by releasing his whole back catalog of clever rhymes and deft beats. They're all worth picking up on your next drug run up north -- not least his first exploits on Weirdo Magnet. When a U.S. label finally gets serious they should do the same thing. Meanwhile, V2 has stuck one toe in the water with this new album of older pieces recut with a band. The remakes are toughened up, Buck 65's voice all grit and gravel, the beats honed to sharp points -- maybe he figures menace is as American as apple pie? Three new songs, one from Woody Guthrie bathed in pedal steel. The rhymes astonish less the second time around, and the band distracts from his search for the perfect sample. But they rock. A-
  • The Everly Brothers: It's Everly Time! (1960 [2005], Collectors' Choice). The hits -- "Bye Bye Love," "Wake Up Little Susie," "All I Have to Do Is Dream," "Bird Dog" -- didn't end when they left Cadence for Warners but they tailed off, partly because that's the way it usually works. The real career damage happened a couple of years later when they were drafted and wasted by a U.S. Army that was powerless to fend off the British Invasion. But for their first Warners album they were confident enough to hold back "Cathy's Clown" -- their first Warners single and last number one hit. Or too chintzy. Collectors' Choice has reissued fifteen Warners Everlys albums in their original form, which means short (time: 27:09) and mostly filler. This one gets by on their close harmonies, but the songs aren't often up to the singers. B+
  • A Date With the Everly Brothers (1961 [2005], Collectors' Choice). Second album on Warners, with their first Warners hit single, for lack of anything better. The songwriting improves, especially their own, but obvious covers from Jimmy Reed and Little Richard make them seem nervous. Future hit for someone else: "Love Hurts." B+
  • The Everly Brothers Sing Great Country Hits (1963 [2005], Collectors' Choice). Sing great, anyway. The country hits are long on weepers, which is fine as long as they're plugged into Don Gibson's irony or gems like "Born to Lose," but the only change of pace that works is "I Walk the Line." B+
  • The Everly Brothers: Roots (1968 [2005], Collectors' Choice). They always meant to go Nashville, but rootswise note that Merle Haggard is the same age as Don and didn't exactly get an early start on his career, and Randy Newman's younger than Phil; framed by snippets from a 1952 radio shot when the teenage Brothers were still part of the Everly Family. B
  • The Ultimate Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: The Early Years, Vol. 1 (1978-82, Narada, 2CD). Qawwali is sufi devotional music from Pakistan, a narrowly circumscribed tradition going back hundreds of years, but for the last twenty years dominated by one of the world's great musical forces, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. From the 1970s to his death in 1997 Khan recorded a hundred or more albums -- mostly cassettes, but he emerged as a world music icon in 1990 when RealWorld introduced him through a westernized experiment called Mustt Mustt. Since then those awed by his vocal powers have wondered about the real qawwali and its classical roots. It is no doubt impossible for outsiders to sort out his works: they start with an inevitable sameness, then grow on you such that one suspects that his ratings merely reflect how many times one has played a record. As a case in point, this one sounds better every time I play it, but then so do many others. These early pieces, typically long from 12 to 29 minutes each, seem a bit more constained than later work -- the rhythm fixed and plodding, the vocals entwined in the group context. That may mean that more authentic, or may mean he was only starting to find his way. Still, if this was all we had to choose from, we'd play it enough to be amazed. But this is only the beginning. B+
  • The Ultimate Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: The Early Years, Vol. 2 (1983-84, Narada, 2CD). I'm finding this collection to be a bit clearer than the previous one -- the arrangements are a bit simpler, and the vocals are more individual and less choral (piled together). A-
  • Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: Mustt Mustt (1990, RealWorld). The first U.S. album for the qawwali legend, considered an experiment in his effort to reach out to westerners with no clue where he was coming from or going. Michael Brook produced and adds guitar, and Massive Attack closes with a remix. Still, the singer is the one you remember. But coming to this album late, I'm torn between what I might have thought had I heard this first and where subsequent familiarity with his more traditional, or just more Pakistani, records has taken me. Sometimes the western beats do help. And sometimes the focus on Khan as opposed to his group impresses. But in the end this isn't the configuration I want to hear him in. B
  • Bill Laswell: Carlos Santana: Divine Light (1973-74 [2001], Columbia/Legacy). Not sure how to file this, but Laswell got the nod, because that's what I did with his similar Miles Davis mix (Panthalassa). This one works from two 1973-74 albums, Love Devotion Surrender (jointly credited to John McLaughlin, who comes first) and Illuminations (jointly credited to Alice Coltrane, who comes second). The inspirations for both were primarily Indian, something his collaborators were more deeply into -- perhaps too deeply for their own good. The predominant motif is a shimmering sound, probably from Coltrane's harp, although the guitars mean to reinforce it. Sounds like pseudo-eastern mystical hooey to me, but then I was tipped off by the personnel, otherwise it might sound like new age gone to seed. B-
  • Lyrics Born: Same !@#$ Different Day (2005, Quannum Projects). After taking eons to release his breakthrough album (Later That Day), Tom Shimura comes back fast with eons worth of remixed experiments -- eight recycled from the album -- trading in conceptual clarity for standalone funk and effervescent flow. A-
  • Joe McPhee Quartet: Underground Railroad (1968-69 [2001], Atavistic, 2CD). His first album, limited to 500 copies on CJR Records, here greatly expanded with the earlier but previously unreleased "Live at Holy Cross Monastery." The album, inspired by the previous century's escape from slavery, tingles with excitement, especially when McPhee switches from tenor sax to piercing trumpet. The live tape, with two extra players, sounds fainter and takes longer to come together, which it does in a smashing drum solo. A-
  • Joe McPhee: Trinity (1971 [2000], Atavistic). Moving on, the song titles depict space themes, like they have Sun Ra on the mind. Indeed, Mike Kull's electric piano on "Astral Spirits" is appropriately spacey, although in a kind of toy Buck Rodgers way. B+
  • The Best of Blind Willie McTell (1927-35 [2004], Yazoo). He plays and sings with such offhand grace and subtlety that he can easily slip past you, and numerous overlapping comps make it all the more difficult to settle on one. This one is 23 songs long, spanning the RCAs and Columbias, and it sounds impeccable. A-
  • The Definitive Blind Willie McTell (1929-33 [1994], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD). The Okeh and Columbia recordings, but not the Bluebird recordings. Document's 1927-35 complete McTell runs three discs, so add these two to Bluebird's one and that's about it. That makes this an arbitrary subset of completism. Sound isn't as good as the more recent Bluebird and Yazoo collections. Songs aren't as good either -- at least not as consistently good -- but the loss is marginal. He's a steady talent, not a major one. B+
  • Charlie Patton: Primeval Blues, Rags and Gospel Songs (1929-34 [2005], Yazoo). The remastering is still far from ideal, the surface noise still a nuissance, at least until the raw power of the blues kicks in, as it still does. The song selection is split between two older Yazoo comps, adding two or three bait cuts while leaving out much more, and not quite packing the punch of either: an odd choice, given that recent Patton scholarship has turned toward completism -- cf. the extravagant Revenant and economical JSP boxes. Documentation doesn't help much either -- the dates I've had to infer from other sources. B+
  • The Rough Guide to Astor Piazzolla (1957-88 [2005], World Music Network). It's proper to regard the Argentine tango master as a composer -- indeed there are whole operas in his oeuvre -- but I prefer to think of him as a performer, more specifically an improviser on his ever present bandoneon. He rarely strayed from tango, but he turned it out in a vast assortment of ways, like a brilliant chef might turn out a panoply of ducks. The one early piece here is the odd one out, still feeling much like he wishes to dignify tango as a classical music, but when we jump into the '70s he's found a powerful groove, and in that his own distinct voice and mission. As an intro this is instructive and wide-ranging. A
  • You Ain't Talking to Me: Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music (1902-40 [2005], Columbia/Legacy, 3CD). Poole's group, the North Carolina Ramblers, arranged old tunes for banjo, fiddle and guitar -- creating the classic string band sound of what we now like to call old-timey music. Poole's banjo was the group's engine, and he had a knack for tweaking songs to freshen them up -- never wrote one, but renamed many, skipped a few verses and swapped a lot of words. But more importantly, he had the first great voice in country music: a deep but clear twang with a wry twist, the prototype for everyone from from Hank Williams to Peter Stampfel. His first record in 1925 was his biggest hit, "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down." He recorded 110 songs up through 1930, but as the depression settled in he headed back to the Carolina mills and his always heavy drinking, and died in 1931 after a prolonged bender. He's not exactly unknown -- I've long treasured the three discs of his work on County, but haven't heard the recent nearly complete 4-CD set on JSP -- but Columbia, owner of most of his originals, ignored him until coming up with this odd box. What's odd about it? Well, the packaging is a faux cigar box, mostly air. Moreover, the second and third discs are only half Poole. The other half are older versions of songs Poole covered, going back as far as Arthur Collins in 1902 and a few more recent versions -- the idea being to provide a context showing how Poole worked and how country music evolved through him. Hank Spoznik's booklet sorts out some of these details, but the rest is home study. This should only be of interest to musicologists, but surprisingly enough, the real obscurities that Poole's fame rescues here are listenable and interesting in their own right, even though it's Poole's versions that stand out. A
  • Starship Beer: Nut Music: As Free as the Squirrels (1976-88 [2001], Atavistic). Kevin Whitehead's clarinet solo on "Criminal Girlfriend" is free jazz weird, but a curve after they started off with post-Stooges verbal chop suey, something about Black/White or vice versa; not easy to classify, but just when you think improvised hardcore comes close they scat or break out the whistles or sing c&w through a defective CB. B-
  • The Best of Frank Stokes (1927-29 [2005], Yazoo). Born in 1878, Stokes was nearly 40 before he recorded, although he had played on the Memphis streets since his early teens. He recorded duets with Dan Sane as the Beale Street Sheiks (six songs here also on Document's BSS comp). B+

Friday, May 27, 2005

After writing entries five straight days in the first week of May, I haven't written a word in this blog for nearly three weeks. Been busy working on music writing, which will produce results in the next few weeks. By not writing, I've probably blown my future as a blogger, while not advancing much as a music writer. It's been a rough stretch of time personally, and the uncertainty doesn't help. It's also not quite over: I still have to finish June's Recycled Goods today, so this entry must be short.

I haven't followed news closely during this stretch, but here are the main things I remember:

  • The biggest story in Wichita, which should be one of the biggest stories in the country, is the Onex takeover of Boeing's commercial aircraft plant here. (Boeing is retaining part of the plant for their military business, which will presumably be enough to keep Kansas' politicians in their pocket -- not that any of them could find their way out in any case.) Onex is a holding company based in Canada, and it's likely that one would find a lot of interesting dirt about how global capital works these days by scrutinizing them. They've hit town like a ton of bricks, and the rubble is everywhere now. Most importantly, they made their purchase contingent on renegotiating labor contracts with Boeing's unions, and their tactics have been nothing short of brutal. The Machinists union was given an ultimatum contract to vote on Monday, after Onex excluded 800 workers from the vote by not extending them job offers (i.e., by firing them), while letting non-union workers (KS is a "right to work" state) sign up just for the vote. The contract called for a 10% pay cut, killing the pension plan and post-retirement medical insurance, big cuts in benefits, loss of seniority rights, major changes to work rules, loss of those 800 jobs and probably more. The union voted them down, effectively telling Onex to shove it. This is all happening at a time when Boeing Wichita is overflowing with work, when many are working overtime. Boeing's only competitor is Airbus, which pays Euro wages to workers with strong unions, so the argument that Boeing has to slash its workers' livelihoods in order to compete is laughable. There's nothing to this whole scheme beyond greed and abuse of power, and in this regard Boeing-Onex Wichita could and should become a pivotal battleground: one last chance for American workers to stand up for a right to a decent living and share of their work. If I were a serious labor or political activist, I'd move here and work these issues. If I were a serious journalist, I'd report them. If I were Thomas Frank, I'd write my next book about this -- if we won, he'd have to call it What's Right About Kansas.

    Meanwhile, the Sedgwick County Commissioners have approved $1B (that's Billion) in industrial development bonds for Onex plus a ten-year exemption from property taxes. Supposedly that's to help with investments Onex says they're going to make in the Wichita plant, but right off it basically covers their deal with Boeing. Those politicians are Republican party hacks, but they're still politicians, and Boeing's workers are the sort of people they pretend to pander to, so this is an opportunity to drive a wedge between the political class and the working class, and expose more clearly than ever what Frank has claimed: that support for the backlash demagoguery hurts economically. For all the Red State blather, one thing people forget is that Wichita is the most completely unionized unit Boeing had -- that is a big part of the reason they were so anxious to sell. That Onex are foreigners and Boeing are crooks just adds fuel to the fire. (A journalist might also take a close look at the role of Onex labor consultant Richard Gephardt in all this.)

  • The Democrats caved in on Bush's activist judges. From day one the Bush administration has sought to exempt itself from the rule of law -- first attacking convenient international targets like the World Court and treaties restricting their ability to proliferate weapons of mass destruction, then moving on to the PATRIOT ACT while trying to pack the court system with political cronies. There's a word commonly used to describe people who try so hard to evade the rule of law: criminals. However, in their demagogic slander campaign against "activist judges" -- most of whom meet any reasonable definition of conservative -- they're moving beyond mere criminality. We need a fresher word for this, but anyone who can recall history as far back as the 1920s will know what I mean by the old-fashioned term: fascists.

  • The John Bolton U.N. nomination rolls along. The issue here is no longer that he's an utterly horrible choice. The problem is that Bush hasn't backed down from fielding such an embarrassing nomination. I can't think of any past President who wouldn't have withdrawn such a nomination, but for Bush this, like the fascist judges, is a matter of asserting the White House's power, and forcing the Senate to cower before him.

  • Iraq: Most of what I have to say about Iraq was said by Juan Cole in his May 25, 2005 blog entry, Sometimes You Are Just Screwed. The other piece to read is Tom Engelhardt's The Return of the Body Count. Early into the war I recall someone describing Iraq as "Vietnam on crack cocaine." That may well serve as the ultimate one-liner about Iraq, at least from America's viewpoint. Before I got so distracted, I put aside a copy of a spectacularly stupid New York Times article by James Bennet called "The Mystery of the Insurgency," where he argues that the Iraqi resistance is doomed because, unlike Vietnam, they seem to be uninterested in courting an Iraqi majority, and therefore they are failing that all important "hearts and minds" thing. One thing Bennet fails to factor in is the incredible myopia and incompetence of the American occupiers. Just to take one example, consider the unnecessary inflation of enemies: in the beginning, Bush targeted Saddam Hussein and his sons -- those three were the ultimatum conditions; then came the card deck of 52; then the enemies list grew to include most of the Ba'ath party; now it's four million Sunni arabs; anyone else with secular and/or nationalist views is likely to join that list. The resistance doesn't have to court an Iraqi majority -- the U.S. is delivering them. Meanwhile, the collateral damage is so immense that not only is Iraq never going to be seen as a model for progress in the middle east -- before long the Rwandans will thank God that the U.S. didn't try to rescue them.

  • Read two good books recently: Anton Lieven's America Right or Wrong and Andrew Bacevich's The New American Militarism. They cover the same ground, but from different viewpoints: Lieven as a cosmpolitan European takes an outside view, often referring back to Europe's disastrous affair with nationalism -- what Arnold Mayer refers to as "the thirty years war of the 20th century." Bacevich has more of an inside view, as a career soldier with a sharp sense of how the military's own objectives differ from that of their politician-fans. Put them together with Chalmers Johnson's The Sorrows of Empire and you'll get a very thorough crash course in America's dangerous and frightful withdrawal from and war with the rest of the world.

Don't have time to go into anything else right now.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Music: Current count 10618 [10603] rated (+15), 942 [928] unrated (+14). Jazz labels piece done and edited, although I still have one day to get some additional label notes in for the web version. Jazz CG done; should be edited soon. Time to think about Recycled Goods again. Not a very productive week -- combination of letting up after the stress of the last week plus not feeling well. Ratings should go up doing RG, which is usually much easier than JCG.

  • Dizzy Gillespie: Odyssey: 1945-1952 ([2002], Savoy Jazz, 3CD). The completism exacts a toll, as this drags a bit in the middle when Dizzy meets the strings of Johnny Richards' orchestra. But the first disc with landmarks like "Salt Peanuts" and "Shaw Nuff" and Sarah Vaughan's "Lover Man" is much more than history. A-
  • Lama Gyurme & Jean-Philippe Rykiel: The Lama's Chants: Songs of Awakening/Roads of Blessings (1994-2001 [2005], Narada, 2CD). The Tibetan lama's voice is unmusical, hoarse and awkward, and no amount of repetition dispells that impression, although the repetition does help. So does Rykiel's minimally gratifying music. B+
  • The Rough Guide to Native American Music (1951-99 [1999], World Music Network). Many chants, some cacophonic dances like you'd expect from a Hollywood western. And some instrumental pieces that sound deep and calm and serene (Burning Sky, Bill Miller). Like most such guides, it tries hard to be catholic and succeeds at being a mixed bag. B
  • The Rough Guide to the Music of China ([2003], World Music Network). Speak of "mixed bags"! China is responsible for one-fifth of the world's population, growing out of a civilization that looks back over two thousand years, but it has almost no presence in what we think of as world music. Given the overload we critics face, it's been something of a blessing to be able to ignore China, but that's unlikely to continue. Much as China is emerging as a major part of the world's economy -- something that we in the U.S. notice mostly at the gas pump and in WalMart -- its cultural presence is sure to follow. And not just from the mainland: China's diaspora is likely to be a large factor, although it's not as concentrated as, say, India in the U.K. This spreads a wide net, and most of the pieces it catches are intriguing. B+
  • Britney Spears: In the Zone (2003, Jive). What a pro! They front-loaded the hot ones so thick that by the time the Neptunes-y "Showdown" finished I was wondering whether I'd wind up A-listing her on an album that I've never heard a kind word about. The kiddie porn of "Breathe on Me" didn't break the spell, but the ballads on the ass end did. But to leave you horny, she tacks on a remix of the first song, coyly labelled a bonus. Leaves me thinking she does know the difference between her booty and her pablum, and that she don't care. What a cunt! B

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

This seems like an opportune time to change my method for my weekly music entries. I used to set one up each Sunday with an initial count, followed by a comment about the previous week, then an initially empty list (except for carry-overs). Then I'd post the notebook. Then I'd add record notes throughout the week. Then start a new music entry and post the updates. One thing this meant was that a dated entry would change from one post to another. Another was that the comment had nothing to do with the following list.

The new method is that after I update, I'll open a new music entry dated for the following Sunday, and collect notes through the week. Then when the week is done, I'll update current totals and add a comment about the week -- the same week the record notes were written in. Then the entry will be complete and coherent, and I'll post it to make it public. Should have thought of this before.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Music: Initial count 10603 [10600] rated (+3), 928 [884] unrated (+44). Worked on jazz labels piece except for three days out cooking for a party following my sister-in-law's college graduation -- something I was roped into by her grown kids. Had about 40 people show up. Average critique on the food was "awesome" -- lot of barbecue, jerk chicken, corn salad, cole slaw, potato salad with smoked salmon, baked beans, grilled veggies, homemade ice cream (vanilla, cinnamon, orange-date, rum raisin). Matt & Carrie Blakablak did much of the work. Listened to a lot of things for first impressions, but didn't try to rate/review. Got to get these big pieces done first. Both JCG and jazz labels have been real slow coming, which makes them real late. RG is around the corner. Haven't written any blog entries all week either, which is a shame because it's been an exceptionally ripe/disgusting week. But there'll more, I'm sure.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Music: Initial count 10600 [10578] rated (+22), 884 [892] unrated (-8). Jazz CG done, almost anyway: got some trimming and cleanup, but the key pieces are done, and plenty of bulk. Jazz labels piece has fallen behind schedule, and will be major push this week. Also have a big commitment to host/cater a family occasion, which will take a big chunk of time.

  • Run the Road (2005, Vice). Anglo hip hop on garage beats. Sounds like Dizzee Rascal, especially when it is. A-

Friday, May 06, 2005

David Remnick has a long New Yorker piece on Tony Blair's reëlection ordeal -- what he calls the masochism campaign. One thing you get out of the piece is a sense of how different the U.K. and the U.S. are in terms of everyday politics at the top of the pecking order. The relative modesty of 10 Downing St. vs. the White House is one indication, but both buildings can still be measured in the same units. The bit where Blair catches a train on the way back from a campaign stop and ordinary Brits indifferently wander in and out of the car has no analog in the life of any recent U.S. President. Let alone Bush, whose paranoia and isolation are off the scale. Blair, by comparison, is an ordinary guy -- although by any other measure Remnick's portrait paints Blair as well out of the ordinary. He is, if anything, very similar to Bush, the differences having more to do with the two countries than with the men.

Blair, like Bush, is a well-heeled professional politician. He may be more of his own man: he did, after all, choose the party of the left even though he has little feel for or commitment to it. Like Bush, he seems to be preoccupied with religion -- like most religious people he has learned that faith reinforces conviction, which foolish people take as credibility -- even to the point of developing a fervid sense of morality that doesn't shy away from spilling blood. It seems likely that the two of them found common ground in their self-righteousness, although it also helped that Blair was the one willing to beg, roll over, and play dead. In doing so, Blair has gotten nothing meaningful for his obeisance. Britain's second invasion of Iraq recapitulates the first, except this time he's a mere backseat driver and the ejection timetable is much shorter.

On the other hand, Blair's reëlection campaign, masochistic as it may be, is much more straightforward. By joining the party of the left, he surrounded himself with relatively competent people with far fewer criminal tendencies, so he's managed to run a much more competent government. Consequently, his campaign can face up to reality instead of having to convince the voters to embrace his fantasies. (Of course, it helps that Britain's experience of the Iraq war is far more benign than Bush's, mostly because the U.S. has managed to draw almost all of the fire.) From where I stand it would have served him right to lose, but in this world where democracy is defined by lesser-evilism he seems to have had little trouble in convincing the voters that whatever the right answer was it certainly wasn't the Tories. So he's come through the deal more or less intact, but a bit worse for wear.

Sometime back Michael Ignatief tried to argue that Blair wasn't just following Bush into Iraq; it was actually the other way around. Ignatief's argument then was that Iraq was a liberal war for liberal principles, not a neoconservative one. The big problem with that was that even if Bush personally signed up for Blair's liberal cause, the Americans that Bush employed to do the dirty work had other goals and interests, and those have prevailed to such an extent that liberal hawks have nothing left but their guilty commitments. The election gives Blair another chance to carry on, but it hardly rewards him for remaining steadfast. If anything, it is as a note of caution: the Labor party risked everything by following Blair to the extreme right of the American political spectrum -- a political universe far removed from British reality. Rational people won't want to take that risk again. While Blair's right-centrism may have helped to move Labor back into power, the election proves that he is less essential than ever, so presumably will be weaker.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Here's a quote from Tom Engelhardt: "We all know that the United States has staggering amounts of staggeringly advanced military power, enough theoretically to crush any of its enemies many times over. But as it happened, that was a formula which only remained self-evident as long as it remained a threat. Since 2001, use has destroyed that illusion. As we now know, two wars -- one against a near-medieval force of warriors in Afghanistan and the other against a desperately weakened, third-rate regional power in Iraq, followed by a fierce insurgency by a rag-tag set of Iraqi rebels and an exceedingly low-level guerrilla war in Afghanistan, have tied down the U.S. military in unexpected ways."

I think this was completely predictable back in 2001, but our neocon warriors were so convinced that America's vulnerability to terrorism had been caused by a failure to aggressively use all that awesome military power in the past. And nobody legitimate had the guts to argue that the U.S. military, as configured then and now, would turn out to be useless and/or counterproductive against terrorism. The easy rhetoric said that we were attacked so if we didn't strike back they'd never respect us. But the easy rhetoric also said what's the use of having this monster military if we weren't going to use it. The result is that we've used it, and mostly made matters worse. So do they respect (or fear) us now? Well, the dead are dead and don't matter, and those enemies who survived survived and mostly figure they can keep doing what they've been doing. Deterrence was never meant to be used; its very use is proof positive of failure. Every now and then you hear the cliché that war is diplomacy by other means. It's much more accurate to say that war is failure, not just of diplomacy but of moral sense as well. In practice, war is much more likely to happen to nations who falsely believe themselves strong than to those who merely appear weak.

Ever since Bush blundered into war in 2001 politicans have argued that "because failure is not an option." Their argument is based on the idea that failure will show the world that we are weak and that weakness will invite further attacks. But do they really think that Al Qaeda attacked us because we were weak? But the pundits are right that failure is not an option: options are things we can choose or not, but failure is something that happens regardless -- especially when the resources are inadequate for the task, which is always the case when the task is unattainable.


Elizabeth Kolbert's series of New Yorker provides a lot of useful information about anthropogenic climate change (more popularly known as global warming). The first piece focused on warming in the polar regions, reporting on research from Alaska to Greenland. The second one focuses on paleoclimatology to try to use the long-term record of climate variability to provide some framework as to what climate models might mean when they predict increases of 4-8 degrees over coming decades. Here's a key quote: "Different climate models offer very different predictions about future water availability; in the paper, Rind applied the criteria used in the Palmer index to GISS's model and also to a model operated by NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. He found that as carbon-dioxide levels rose the world began to experience more and more serious water shortages, starting near the equator and then spreading toward the poles. When he applied the index to the GISS model for doubled CO2, it showed most of the continental United States to be suffering under severe drought conditions. When he applied the index to the G.F.D.I. model, the results were even more dire. Rind created two maps to illustrate these findings. Yellow represented a forty-to-sixty-per-cent chance of summertime drought, ochre a sixty-to-eighty-per-cent chance, and brown an eighty-to-a-hundred-per-cent chance. In the first map, showing the GISS results, the Northeast was yellow, the Midwest was ochre, and the Rocky Mountain states and California were brown. In the second, showing the G.F.D.L. results, brown covered practically the entire country."

I live in a state (Kansas) which is currently very susceptible to drought. Average rainfall declines by about 50% from the east border to the west border, and farmers plant accordingly. The rainfall bands are tight enough that farmers pay dearly when they guess wrong. Even now, except where irrigated western Kansas isn't used for much more than grazing land. The central part of the state is the wheat belt, and corn can be grown in the east. A drought any one year hurts, but thus far we rarely see multiyear droughts. If, say, western Kansas climate migrates to Indiana or Ohio we will have lost a huge amount of agricultural productivity, and it will take more than ingenuity to compensate for that -- if indeed compensate is a viable word.

These articles provoke many thoughts. One is that the "forcings" that have already been fed into the climate have yet to attain their full effect (i.e., to settle into a new equilibrium), so it may be too late to avoid the impacts of climate change by changing policy now, even radically (even if we could). Consequently, it may be more important to work on improving our responsiveness to future climate changes than to work on undoing our contribution to those changes. Much can be said about this, but the most important point is that stress and crisis amplifies iniquity and injustice; the less people feel victimized by injustice, the easier it will be to ride out this storm.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

I took a look at a book Peter Huber and Mark Mills tonight, called The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy. It seems to be one of those books that presents as mythical one set of stereotypical arguments, then counters them with another set of counterarguments that smell even fishier. But it doesn't make the argument the cover implies: that the supply of oil is infinite. It says that it won't matter if we run out of oil (not that they expect that to happen anytime soon) because what matters is energy, and there's energy everywhere -- we just have to keep figuring out better ways to harness it. The parts that strike me as most likely are that there are going to be more viable fuel reserves than we're aware of now, that conservation in itself won't reduce demand, that renewable energy sources aren't likely to be significant for quite a while, and that an artificial energy diet would slow down the economy. Of course, their statement of these points is far more sweeping, but I'm interested less in them than in what parts of their arguments might be right. I didn't dig into the parts on new technology, and didn't follow whatever they were trying to say about entropy and waste, but I noticed one argument that is intriguing: that despite its extravagant use of fossil fuels, the U.S. is actually a net carbon sink. If this is correct (or even close) it is an argument for revamping the Kyoto formulas, but to do so someone needs to validate the assertion and build a better model of how nations or regions actually impact the carbon cycle. Among other things, this needs to explain where the measured carbon dioxide increase in the atmosphere worldwide comes from, and how policies beyond fuel limits actually affect the carbon cycle. (The authors argue that a net increase in forest cover in the U.S. acts as a sink. The implication is that deforestation in the third world may be a larger contributor to carbon concentration than increased fossil fuel use.) I'm skeptical on these points, but doubt that we really understand how the carbon cycle works any way near adequately.

Back in the '60s Paul Ehrlich wrote a book called The Population Bomb which made many alarmist assertions about how global increase in human population will soon lead to various disasters, including a collapse of the food supply. John Simon wrote a rejoinder, attacking all of Ehrlich's claims with well-founded skepticism and an even more astonishing blind faith in the ability of growing populations to find whatever technological solutions they would need to sustain population growth indefinitely. Ehrlich's book was a bit like Marx's prognostics for the end of capitalism: rigorous given limited assumptions that history did not adhere to. The effect was to give Ehrlich a bad name, even though there can be no doubt that there are limits such as he described out there somewhere in the future. In view of this I think we have to be cautious about our doomsaying, and search out options within the system that allow us to mitigate and possibly avoid likely disasters. In particular, we need to be wary of proposing political programs that we don't adequately understand as solutions to problems we don't adequately understand. (And this includes much of what Democratic politicians like John Kerry and Al Gore Jr. have proposed, especially in terms of alternative energy sources and self-sufficiency.)

On the other hand, Huber and Mills veer toward Simonesque rhapsody, and in doing so they miss things. The most obvious one is economics. As they point out, one way to reduce fuel consumption is to arbitrarily make it more expensive, such as by levying taxes on it. They don't like this option -- in their argument it leads not to conservation but to lethargy. This ignores the fact that most of the efficiencies that the authors tout were motivated or accelerated by rising fuel prices. But increased lethargy is an interesting economic concept -- one that I suspect has a future. In part that's because I think that limits on exploitable resources will force us to adapt to more moderate ways of living; in part because slowing down a bit seems like a pretty good idea. The big problem with slowing the economy down is that at present so many people fare so poorly in it that it promises to lock them into a permanent dungeon of poverty. But why isn't that another problem for human ingenuity? We think we can engineer everything in the world except human relationships.


Another book I've noticed but haven't read is Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Economists often say weird things about ordinary behaviors -- often the fault there is that the simplifying assumptions that economists inevitably make (e.g., the pursuit of self-interest) are often not made by ordinary people. But this book has gotten a reputation for Levitt's argument that the main cause of the drop in crime rates during the '90s was the advent of legal access to abortion in the '70s. One thing the abortion option means is that women can keep from bearing children that they're unprepared or unwilling to raise; as such there are fewer unwanted children, who are in turn more likely to resort to crime. Makes sense to me, although I wouldn't throw out the other factors.


Speaking of books I haven't read, have you looked at the cover of Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat? It depicts an old joke, where the ocean at the edge of a flat world cascades into the void, taking floundering ships with it. This seems to be at cross purposes with the book itself, which as I understand it is another paean to the glories of globalization. But didn't the cover artist understand that flat is just a metaphor? And why suggest disaster? But more importantly, why did Friedman let this cover happen? Doesn't he understand what the cover implies? Or is there a darker message in the book? I'm not about to read it to find out.


My wife talked me into watching the TV show 24 this year. She's into shows like that, while I almost never watch TV. I figured a fantasy show about terrorism might be worth a comment or two, but I've been holding out to see how the plot twisted. However, after last night's show, with its climactic and rather disastrous kidnap at a Chinese consulate, I had two quick thoughts:

  1. The plot turn seems to be toward a superpower confrontation, but in real life don't Americans kill Chinese diplomats all the time and get away with it. What makes this any different?

  2. Why didn't this President Palmer guy ask to interview the terror suspect at the Chinese consulate, with the Chinese present, instead of insisting that the Chinese turn him over? That would have been a reasonable request given the circumstances, and would have been a positive trust-building step with China, especially given that the current theory was that the suspect wasn't working for China. The obvious reason was that the U.S. wanted to torture the suspect, but the kidnapping also goes to show that in times of crisis the U.S. goes it alone.

At the end of the episode, superman Jack Bauer shows us he can do math, letting one die to possibly save many, but the stress is finally getting to him. Or perhaps the doubt, as this seems to be his first big mistake? Or maybe he's just so clever, setting the foundation for reconciling with his girlfriend after he's killed her husband right in front of her?

Monday, May 02, 2005

I finally got around to reading Thomas Frank's "What's the Matter With Liberals" in The New York Review of Books after Molly Ivins gave it a plug in her column. The article points out numerous ways that John Kerry was vulnerable to what Frank like to call the Backlash: rich, Ivy League, coiffed hair, speaks French, blah blah blah. Like much of what Frank writes, it's more right than wrong, but not right enough to satisfy me. For one thing, Frank's formulation of the Backlash implies that it was provoked by deep troubles that its protagonists feel but can't articulate properly -- mostly economics, a subject liberal politicians don't deal with well. But really, most of the Backlashers I run into out here in Kansas don't act like they're hurting much. I mean, these are people who drive SUVs and monster pickups, who gamble in casinos and/or bankroll suburban megachurches -- sure signs of disposable income. Frank's Backlash isn't something they could invent by analyzing their lives. It's something that is packaged and sold to them by political hucksters, and they most likely buy it because it gives them a sense of identity that justifies their lifestyle and reinforces their sense of right and wrong, including their own entitlements, without demanding that they do much or understand the worlds they don't live in.

The really horrible thing about this Backlash is how all-consuming and inexhaustible it seems to be. Frank's main insight into this is in detailing how the Republicans' Backlash-based victories never quite deliver their promises: no matter how much they win they never manage to stamp out abortion or homosexuality or pornography or godlessness or dope fiends or do-gooders or, well, the list of evils is pretty long. These are what the Republicans call matters of "moral clarity," and they present the Democrats with a conundrum: either defend evil, or doubt virtue. Most Democrat pols instinctively pile on, which leaves them with nothing: no glory of the attack, nor guts for defense -- and note that these issues are meant to attack individual freedoms, specifically things individuals do in private. Frank draws plenty of examples of this from the Kerry campaign. I don't quite consider that fair -- not because I don't think Kerry made mistakes, but because we never got a chance to see the anti-Dean, anti-Edwards, anti-Clark, etc., Republican smears in full operation. But the real question is how can the Republicans get away with this, while the Democrats can't even get into the same game?

I could throw a few partial answers out, but the bottom line is that a lot of people have been conditioned to believe the Republicans and to disbelieve the Democrats, no matter what either says -- even when they say the same thing, that just confirms that the Republicans were right and the Democrats are opportunistic. The Democrats need to reverse that credibility: they need to convince people that the Republicans are just scheming, lying, crooked sacks of shit. But in order to do that they need to find their own integrity, which has often been sorely lacking, and a few viable working principles. If they draw any lesson from 2004, it should be that merely promising to implement the other guys' agenda more efficiently isn't a credible promise.


A good example of the Democrats' credibility problem is the New York Times, which seems to be changing from its tired image as the conceited, elitist pillar of the "liberal media" to a scurrilous spout of new right propaganda. I rarely read it, and find it increasingly scary when I do, as when I thumbed through last Sunday's edition. The worst was Stephen J. Morris' op-ed piece, "The War We Could Have Won," with its highlighted quote, "Even Russia was surprised when we lost in Vietnam." Morris evidently has access to previously secret Russian documents, which basically show what we should have known all along: that Russia didn't have a clue what was going on in Vietnam, any more than we did when we figured they were behind it all. The piece is stupid and vile, but what makes it dangerous is the word that shows up nowhere: "Iraq." In claiming that Vietnamization (with heavy U.S. air support) was working, Morris implies that Iraqization (with heavy U.S. air support) will do the same, and that it is only a failure of political will that leads to defeat.

While his evidence may convince you that defeat might have been avoided had we the will to keep fighting, that hardly adds up to victory, and what victory it might represent doesn't necessarily add up to a better world. Had Vietnam not fallen in 1975, the only thing that is certain is that the war would have ground on -- perhaps to this day, certainly a long time with immense destruction. But it would also have meant that the U.S. would have been continuously at war, for decades, compounding all the damage to our society and our economy as well as America's standing in the world. For anyone who grew up during the war years, the period of relative calm and peace from 1975 to 1990 or 2001 was a blessing. Had we "won" in Vietnam, we wouldn't have had that respite. The shame is not that we "lost"; it's that we didn't lose sooner -- especially before we wrecked Cambodia and brought Pol Pot to power. The same lessons bear in Iraq: the sooner we "lose" the better, because the longer we hold out the longer we prolong the war, which damages Iraq more than we can possibly heal, and reflects horribly on us. And to what end do we do this -- to "win"?

In case Morris' article wasn't explicit enough, the Times Magazine had a cover article called "The Salvadorization of Iraq?" profiling a U.S.-sponsored Iraqi death squad and how they're making progress against those terrorist evil-doers. What makes us think this approach will work? Well, it's led by a Baathist hench man, one of the guys who made it work for Saddam Hussein. Talk about "meet the new boss, same as the old boss." The Backlash should be delighted: you can't win unless you have the guts to do what it takes, harsh as it may be, and even the New York Times agrees.


Recycled Goods #19 was posted by Static Multimedia today. We've settled some periodic confusion about scheduling, agreeing that I'll get my copy in before the end of each month, and that Static will post it at the beginning of each month. Therefore, the "monthly" schedule that has slipped occasionally in the past should be back in force. I have a bad tendency to hold back until I get some particular mix of records in the column -- a problem which also holds the Jazz Consumer Guide back. Working within a strict schedule means that the columns may come out short but shouldn't come out late.

My original idea for Recycled Goods was to cover four broad musical spectra roughly equally: jazz, rock/pop, country/blues/folk, and world. As it turns out, I tend to have a surplus of jazz and deficits everywhere else, but for once world is slightly above its quota (14 of 51). I've been working on rounding up more world titles, and looking at the backlog this level seems likely to continue. But I'm still missing a lot of potentially interesting titles there. On the other hand, I doubt that the country/blues/folk (aka "roots") quadrant will ever again fill up. Blues reissues have tailed off considerably since the official "year of the blues" expired, classic country only goes so far, and more recent country/folk is pretty hit-and-miss. But in the pipeline is a marvelous Charlie Poole box. Plus look for a whole lot of obscure avant-jazz over the next few months.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Music: Initial count 10578 [10560] rated (+18), 892 [882] unrated (+10). This has been an exceptionally lousy week. The focus was to be on getting the next Jazz CG done: I had rated a number of records without writing up proper entries, so I needed to go back and knock out the entries. That at least was the plan, and I expected the rated count to slip (much as it did). However, I made no real progress in writing, so this coming week will, at best, be what this past week was supposed to be. Ugh.

  • Simon Keep: Interview With the Eggs (2005, Sub Rosa). An album of "sound installations," where "the audio has been extracted from Hokkaido's volcanic snow-covered landscape." For the first 4-5 pieces (out of 24), the dominant sound is none -- perhaps there is some discernible detail if you take the trouble of using headphones, but that's more dedication than I can muster. As for the stuff later on that one can hear, it bears no relationship to music as generally recognized: drones, maybe gongs, some clanging. D-
  • The Mountain Goats: Sunset Tree (2005, 4AD). It says something that John Darnielle's songs are even more riveting when the music is stripped down to practically nothing than when he cranks it up. It says that he's a helluva songwriter. This is mostly on the spare side: the idea that Goats are plural isn't given much support. I doubt that this is better than the previous two, but if anything it cuts quicker. And it's hardly worse. A-
  • New Order: Waiting for the Sirens' Call (2005, Warner Bros.). Nothing here hits the stratosphere quite like their classic hits, but their technique (or formula) is so sureshot that all songs fly high and some come close to breaking. The odd one out sounds like a Pet Shop Boys outtake, but it's also one of the best. A-


Apr 2005 Jun 2005