Q and A

These are questions submitted by readers, and answered by Tom Hull.

To ask your own question, please use this form.

October 31, 2022

[Q] I came across your extremely impressive (exhaustive!) website and blog while beginning my annual search for new Christmas/holiday jazz, which -- this year -- is unusually bereft of new releases. I realize it's still a bit early, but labels obviously must know what's upcoming for the fourth-quarter.

Do you have any insight or suggestions? Or am I correct, and 2022 is indeed an unexpectedly thin year? -- Derrick Bang [2022-10-05]

[A] Strange question for me, as I'm on record approximately 100% of the time the subject has come up as declaring that I hate/despise/can't stand Christmas music. I've probably graded 100 of the things, as I try to review everything concrete publicists send me (downloads are a different story), but most of the reviews start with such a declaration, and the grades drive home the point.

That said, I haven't received any Christmas music promos so far this year, which is probably the first year in the last 20. Perhaps that means that publicists are wising up to me, or perhaps it's a side-effect of the decline of promo budgets, or perhaps you're right. My first thought was to check Discogs, but they don't offer Christmas music as a genre or style. So I tried searching for "christmas music," then narrowed the search by decade and year. Just eyeballing a table of numbers, it looks like there's been a fairly steady decline from 1029 in 2014 to 860 in 2020. That continues to 737 in 2021 and 229 in 2022, but I suspect those numbers (especially 2022) reflect the delay in adding entries to the system. I consult Discogs often for new jazz releases, and a 2-3 month delay isn't uncommon. From 2000 to 2014, the lowest year is 940 (2012), and the max is 1273 (2003), with the average about 1100. I didn't table up the 1990s, but the average is comparable to the 2000s (1148 vs. 1130).

I can think of a half-dozen reasons for this long-term decline -- if, indeed, that's what it is, as I can also think of reasons the statistics might be skewed (e.g., maybe Discogs editors are becoming less vigilant?). I'll leave that to you, because I really don't care.

[Q] I listened to Keith Jarrett's Sun Bear Concerts (1978, ECM) recently and liked it very much. Couldn't find it in your grade list. Have you listened to it? Would you like to? -- Siddhartha Kanungo, CA [2022-08-14]

[A] I was aware of it when released, but I've never been that much into Jarrett's solo piano albums, and it seemed prohibitive at the time (I remembered long, but 10-LP is really over the top; I see it's now out in 6-CD, totaling 6:37:46). I did buy the 2-LP version of The Köln Concert, but never got into it until I bought a CD and was able to hear it straight through (66:07), at which point I was impressed enough to give it an A-. There are at least 20 solo Jarrett titles out, maybe more like 30. I've listened to a bunch of them, including 1971's Facing You. Aside from Köln, they're all various shades of B+: he's a really great pianist, even when I don't feel like listening to piano, which almost always happens before they're over.

There's probably some early Jarrett I'd like to catch up with, but I would deprioritize anything solo, and I don't think I could keep it together long enough to do justice to Sunbear. I'm starting to realize that my patience and inquisitiveness has limits, and this is probably one of them.

[Q] Comment on Speaking of Which: re: US as a spent force

Peter Zeihan's new book, The End of the World Is Just Beginning, makes the point that the US is no longer willing/able to maintain globalization like it has since WWII e.g. keeping shipping lanes mostly trouble free. While North America can be more self-sufficient, this may [be] devastating for other countries, especially in the context of de-population. -- Robert Gable, Menlo Park, CA [2022-07-25]

[A] I noticed Zeihan's book, but didn't look very closely at it. He has a previous book with several red flags in the title -- The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder (2014) -- and he runs a consulting firm, so he's not just in the business of diagnosing problems but also of peddling solutions. To describe the U.S. as an "accidental superpower" requires that one ignore a lot of evidence to the contrary (Stephen Wertheim: Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of US Global Supremacy is a recent example, although there are many more, including the Kolko books). Even before Pearl Harbor, there were prominent Americans angling to get into WWII and come out on top. Of course, it wasn't as easy as they imagined, but as long as the U.S. was willing to pay for alliances, most other countries were happy to follow.

Trump, with his insistence that NATO pay not just its own way but tribute, threatened to end that game, but America's will as well as its means has long been in decline, at least as far back as Nixon-Kissinger's gambits to prop up Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan as proxy powers (in short order, I might add, losing control of each; in Trump's day, the first two are tails wagging the dog, the others flaunting their independence and flirting with China).

Zeihan's new book is his fourth, following and recapitulating The Absent Superpower: The Shale Revolution and a World Without America (2017) and Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World (2020). The argument seems to be that with global order collapsing (because the U.S. can't sustain it, and no one else can step up) trade will decline and self-sufficiency and -defense will become more critical, which should be advantageous for Americans, if not for the rest of the world. And, of course, in the turbulence such changes create, it helps to have a global strategist to consult.

I can see some value in this analysis -- I think it's more accurate to start from the impossibility of world governance than to see world order as a contest for would-be superpowers -- but I also suspect there's quite a bit of bullshit, and an ulterior motive I don't much like. No doubt the devil's in the details. For instance, clearing shipping lanes isn't a big deal, unless you also want to use that power to limit a supposed enemy like Russia (or China), in which case it turns into something both difficult and dangerous. I have no idea where the line about "de-population" comes from, or why it matters, but it's the sort of thing a "global strategist" might drop into a PowerPoint slide.

By the way, the "shale revolution" of the 2nd book subtitle refers to how shale oil and gas allowed the U.S. to reach "energy independence" in recent years. The idea that once established that will remain the case is plainly ridiculous. At most, it buys you a stretch of time in which to replace oil and gas with renewable energy sources, so that as reserves are exhausted you won't need to find more.

June 28, 2022

[Q] The biggest driver of inflation now is skyrocketing energy prices*, which lie directly at the feet of Clueless Joe Biden, whose sanctions on RUS have blown up spectacularly in his face, and, in those of the world.

We didn't vote for WWIII

FFS, why doesn't any of the Anglo media take him to task on the above?

* not supply chain disruptions -- Crocodile Chuck, Sydney, Australia [2022-06-26]

[A] Well, energy prices are baked into everything manufactured, grown, and/or processed, as well as transportation, and oil and gas are still the largest source of energy, so sure, that's an easy explanation. And Biden's sanctions against Russia are meant to take one of the big three oil producers off the market, so they are the most obvious reason for supply falling short of demand, and that spells higher prices. But how effective have they really been? China and India are still buying lots of Russian oil, and the flow of gas to Europe never really stopped. Sure, there was a price bump when the war started, when speculators were encouraged to run up prices, but that has largely returned to normal. Then there's the problem that prices were already rising before Russia invaded Ukraine and the sanctions kicked in. During the pandemic, demand fell, so suppliers cut back on production -- something that happened all across the board, contributing to the supply chain problems we've seen as the economy has snapped back toward pre-pandemic levels. This rapid sequence of contraction then expansion created the perfect breeding ground for inflation everywhere. One notable example is rent, which has no direct relationship to energy prices. Rents were suppressed during the pandemic, creating a pent-up pressure to raise them as soon as demand increased.

And that's basically what's been happening. Companies aren't obligated to increase supply when demand increases. They only do so when they see an opportunity to profit more by making more, but as long as supply shortages are rewarded with higher prices (and profits), they really have little incentive to do anything else. (In this, OPEC is acting much as a company would.) We like to think markets are self-correcting, but they don't react all that quickly, especially when competition has been limited -- and if you've been following the renewed interest in antitrust lately (Barry C. Lynn's 2010 book Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction is a good place to start; a more recent book is David Dayen's Monopolized: Life in the Age of Corporate Power, from 2020), this will be obvious. We've created a perverse system where capitalists easily fail upwards.

But what does "Clueless Joe Biden" have to do with this? Mostly, the pandemic relief and post-pandemic stimulus programs left many people with increased savings (and staved off disaster for many more people), and that created a good deal of post-pandemic demand, which has been driving prices upwards. The programs also helped strengthen the labor market, which helped bolster wages (probably more than any time since 1980, which I'd count as a good thing even if it does contribute a bit to inflation). Some sort of recovery would have happened without Biden -- just one more skewed toward the rich, and consequently less robust, but given the framework I noted above, any recovery would have allowed prices to rise.

Where Biden is more culpable was in the run up to Putin's attack on Ukraine. I've argued elsewhere that the whole string of US presidents going back to Clinton have made sport of degrading and provoking Russia, and Biden probably looked worse than any of them because he hoped to rebuild US commitments to Europe that Trump had hadn't actually abandoned but had made a confused mess of. Chances are, Biden's closer embrace of Ukraine encouraged Zelensky to be more recalcitrant and ambitious over Donbas and Crimea, and Putin reacted as he did. The sanctions were a foregone response that any US president (even Trump) would have signed off on. The military aid was less certain, but once Russia's offensive stalled, the temptation was hard to resist. As a long-time critic of American foreign policy, this is not a course of policy I'm in favor of, but within the practical limits of our existing two-party system, I don't want to single Biden out for special condemnation -- although I have broken party ranks with LBJ over Vietnam, with Clinton over Iraq, and with Obama over Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria). The one thing I do fault Biden on is not stressing enough the need for a cease fire and conflict-ending agreement, although as far as I can tell, he's not personally on the more hawkish side of his administration.

Of course, I'm also critical of Biden for continuing his predecessors' hostile policies toward Iran and Venezuela -- perhaps least importantly because they've increased oil prices for American and allied consumers, although at the moment if one did want to flood the market quickly, the easiest (and perhaps only) way would be to suspend their sanctions (and/or end the war with Russia). The "tax holiday" scheme is too little, and not likely to help customers. Even worse are schemes to incentivize companies to increase drilling and refining -- a long-term solution counter to needs on climate change. It would be better to just give people more money to help out on inflation (e.g, you could advance the COLA on Social Security).

I've long been skeptical about the efficacy as well as the politics and morality of US sanctions, so I'm not surprised that they seem to be hurting us and our friends as much or more than they're influencing Russia. The best you can say for them is that they let us feel like we're doing something short of direct military engagement. Still, the notion that you can overcome their shortcomings by making them harsher and more resolute is a natural delusion. The longer the war drags on, the more likely both sides are to do really stupid things.

I don't know what you mean by "Anglo media." The American media is pretty relentlessly critical of Biden, especially on inflation, where he is damned for not anticipating it, damned doubly for not fixing it, and blamed for all sorts of imaginary causes and consequences (well, except for the war, which the media are typically unquestioning of). One favorite Republican talking point is to blame high gas prices on "Biden's Green New Deal," which never got passed, and wasn't Biden's in the first place. (Although note that while electricity prices are up, that's only about half as much as natural gas, thanks to all of the renewable capacity installed over the last 10-20 years.) But aside from Fox, it doesn't even seem that the media picking on Biden is ideological. They just like to watch him squirm.

One more point while we're at it. I'm seeing a lot of articles that purport to "fact check" or otherwise refute the charge that high gas prices are due to corporate greed. They're so common I suspect that industry PR flacks are orchestrating them. (Given the state of the media, that's not what you'd call unlikely.) The usual answer is to offer some other explanation -- many, like sanctions against Russia, aren't untrue -- as if greed only works as an answer once every other explanation is ruled out. But isn't it more like this: greed ensures that every possible excuse to raise profits will be jumped on? The way capitalism works is that every company is as greedy as possible. If a company's management isn't greedy enough, shareholders will rise up and replace those managers with greedier bastards. Still, it's kind of touching they feel the need to lie and obfuscate about such an obvious point. Perhaps it doesn't mean that they're ashamed, but suspect that they should be. And that they don't trust ordinary consumers to salute as they're being fucked over.

June 22, 2022

[Q] Buck 65 has a new record on bandcamp titled 'King of Drums'. Just a heads up. -- Regular Reader, NG [2022-06-10]

[A] I reviewed it here. I had seen a couple other notices, but I wasn't aware that I'd find five more albums I hadn't reviewed (same link).

[Q] As you are likely aware my leanings are more right than left. (My brother and brothers-in law feel I'm too liberal but..) I tend to read your writings on politics with great interest. I may not agree all the time but always learn something. But I note in today's piece you use the term "equitable society" which seems to have come into vogue over the last year or so. WHY? Isn't the goal of government (our government) "equality" not "equity"? Don't feel it is unreasonable to strive for a level of equity but that is removed from human nature and certainly outside the purview of a democratic government. Why the shift in language? -- Cliff Ocheltree, NOLA [2022-06-05]

[A] My first thought was that I'm probably playing fast and loose with language, trying to mix it up a bit. But "equal" and "equitable" are mostly synonyms: the first definition of the latter is "fairness; impartiality; justice," which in a social or political context is about all you can hope for from equality. True, "equal" has a more precise meaning in mathematics and logic, where it is closer to identical than "equivalent." That use risks suggesting that an "equal society" is much more precisely balanced that seems actually possible. "Equitable" suggests a fair and reasonable distribution of resources and rights, which is a more practicable aim. "Equity" also has a second meaning tied to property (stock shares, net assets) and that suggests a way to achieve a more equitable society: through a more equal distribution of assets. One of my pet ideas is that all companies, at least beyond the initial founders shares, should be owned by their employees.

Needless to say, I think inequality is a very big problem in America today, and throughout the world. I'd go so far as to say that a lot of problems are rooted in inequality, and are worsened as inequality increases (as has been nearly constant since 1980 -- a convenient political marker, but while Republicans have done most to increase inequality, Democrats have often helped them, and rarely done anything to lessen much less reverse the trend). All I want to add here is that there are two approaches to more equality: one is to reduce the disparity in wealth and income; the other is to reduce the impact of inequality, especially by carving out areas (like health care and education) where everyone has the same rights for equal treatment.

As for the wording, I did a quick scan through my notebook so far this year, and found that I used "equitable" 3 times (once in "equitable society" and twice in "equitable and generous country"; in 2021, I used "equitable" twice, neither with "society," both qualified by "more"). "Equity" appears once (in quotes), and "inequities" twice. On the other hand, "equality" appears 8 times, "equal" 9 (with "rights" 5 times, and once each with "claims," "opportunity," "prices," and "vote"). "Inequality" appears 17 times, "inequal" (with "societies") once. I'm not surprised that I talk more about what's wrong than what would be right: the wrong is both more obvious and more urgent. However, I doubt that "equitable society" is a new term. Sometimes we need a word for where we want to go. But most likely I'll keep qualifying it with "more," as long as the direction matters more than the destination.

[Q] Hallo Tom, maybe you would like to review an album of interest . . . Kobe Van Cauwenberghe's Ghost Trance Septet Plays Anthony Braxton -- roge verstraete, gent, oost-vlaanderen,belgium [2022-06-01]

[A] Sure, but Bandcamp only has 1 track (of 4) available, and I'm at a stage in my life (old and retired) when I no longer buy albums on spec. I should note that while I've listened to a fair amount of Braxton and written about him at some length, thus far I've missed out on his "Ghost Trance Music" (at least the 2001 4-CD on Rastascan, the 2003 2x2-CD on Leo, the 2006 4-CD on Important, the 2007 9-CD on Firehouse 12, and the 2017 12-CD on New Braxton House, and I'm sure there are more -- I've counted 6 more CDs, not including the GTM (Iridium) 2007 sets, which look like New Braxton House reissues of the Firehouse 12 box). The sheer numbers are daunting, especially glommed together as they are when streaming. [PS: Got a download code, so it's in the queue.]

April 24, 2022

[Q] 15,000 words & you omit completely any mention of the US State Dept f _ cking around in UKR for the last two decades, the billions of $ of weapons the US has poured into the country and the depredations of Victoria Nuland.

Aside from the total cr _ p Agitprop in the US media, this is the most feeble thing I've read on the topic.

Look at a map. UKR is a buffer state. Rule No. 1 of buffer states: to placate its larger neighbours. Zelensky is an abject failure at this.

A solid 'F'. -- Crocodile Chuck [2022-04-22]

[A] This is sad, especially the notion that smaller states should roll over and play dead to appease or amuse their bullying neighbors. No doubt it happens more often than not, as it's easier to notice the exceptions than the rule: Cuba defying the US since 1959, or Vietnam turning China back in 1979. Ukraine is paying a high price for defying Russia, but those who submit to more powerful neighbors pay a price too. Belarus is an example: a country which defers to Russia, run by a compatible kleptocrat. Of course, you could substitute a bunch of examples in Latin America.

Zelensky is open to second guessing on a number of counts, but he was only elected after Russia had taken a couple bites out of Ukraine, and was threatening more. It would have been prudent to negotiate a partition with Russia, but it's not clear that Putin would have accepted such a deal. So he set about trying to line up some leverage, appealing to the US and EU in terms that further agitated Russia. Still, in the final days before the invasion, it was not Zelensky who was taunting Putin; it was the US, with its leaked intelligence reports, and threats of sanctions (but no armed resistance, which Putin could have misread as an invite).

In great power rivalries, it's not unusual for local proxies to go rogue, to provoke atroities and sabotage efforts at negotiation -- a lesson we should recall from Vietnam and Afghanistan. Zelensky is less obviously a stooge, but he's been so effective at rallying American and European support that his backers have let him run the show. It isn't clear how he'll handle negotiations, and won't be until Putin is ready. In the long run, we may wind up judging him more harshly for letting the war happens and not ending it sooner, but for now his ability to stand up against Russia's imperial conceits is simply admirable.

I don't know a lot about covert US interference in Ukraine politics, but I've hardly neglected more general anti-Russian propaganda since 1991. Even if it wasn't official policy, the US security apparatus was purged of benign internationalists in the late 1940s, and restocked with ardent cold warriors, many of them with deep backgrounds full of anti-Russian loathing (e.g., Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezenski, and Madeline Albright, but there have been many more). These people never had any qualms about kicking Russia when it was down, and they rarely failed to seize upon opportunities to flip a country against Russia. The 2004 and 2014 "revolutions" in Ukraine are examples. I have no idea how much the CIA did to foment those events, but I don't doubt for a minute that they fed and nurtured them, and celebrated in their success. On the other hand, I suspect that there were other outside resources, coming from the EU, from the private sector, even from "philanthropists" like Soros. In particular, various NGOs that purport to promote democracy have, at least historically, been staged as political fronts. Conversely, I have no doubt that there is an extensive network of Russian agents operating in Ukraine, and that they played an outsized role in the separatist movements of 2014. But it's hard to tell how much of each external influence there was, and how effective it was, so I preferred not to dwell on it. But also, it makes sense to me that Ukraine should harbor both pro- and anti-Russian constituencies, and that the shifts toward Europe or Russia reflect popular wishes, as one would expect in a democracy.

It's true that I didn't mention Victoria Nuland in my pieces. She is a prominent neocon, with Ukrainian ancestry and a degree in Russia studies. She rose to prominence in the GW Bush administration, continued with Obama, skipped Trump but was hired back by Biden (Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs) -- a clear signal that Biden intended to push arms into Ukraine as soon as he took office. She is best known for a leaked phone conversation where she seemed to be picking/vetoing possible Ukrainian office holders. Wikipedia has a picture of her and Kerry meeting with "Ukrainian opposition leaders" before Yanukovych was impeached, and before her preferred candidate, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, became prime minister. This tape is often cited as "smoking gun" proof that the US was running Ukraine and using it as a wedge against Russia. That interpretation would be consistent with her history. Also worth noting that her husband is Robert Kagan, a co-founder of Project for the New American Century (PNAC), which started scheming for the Iraq War back in 1997. He was appointed to the State Department Foreign Affairs Policy Board in 2011. His father, Donald Kagan, was born in Lithuania, and has long been a promiment warmonger. Both left the Republican Party to support Hillary Clinton in 2016, and they supported Biden in 2020.

I suspect that the more we learn about the rapport between the Biden administration and Zelensky from Inauguration 2021 all the way to the invasion, the more evident it will become that Russia was being pushed into a corner with no respectable exit. As far as I'm concerned, none of that excuses Putin's invasion, or makes me at all sympathetic to his predicament. But it does show that many of the basic assumptions Washington makes about security and foreign policy are deeply and dangerously flawed.

I've written tons and tons over the years about the malign influence of neocon warmongers and their "humanitarian interventionist" helpers, so I'm surprised that someone who has read me regularly for such a long time wouldn't have noticed that thread in my Ukraine writings.

[Q] I may have missed it in your 23 theses -- eyes are a limiting factor. Sorry if I did in fact pass it over. If not, how do you see the (for USSR) disastrous and certainly motivated "delay" in the invasion of Western Europe as Stalin begged and 5 million(?) Russians died while the west waited to see if the Germans and Russians might neutralize themselves? Individual and Jungian memories of the Great Patriotic War/.. -- Barry Layton, Cleveland [2022-04-20]

[A] I don't know the answer to this, but I'm skeptical that Americans in a position to do something about it failed to see the importance of helping Russia defeat Germany. Sure, Stalin wanted the US/UK to open up a second front in Western Europe earlier than they did, but even after D-Day the overwhelming majority of German forces was aimed at Russia. At least, the US started providing Lend-Lease aid to the USSR even before the US declared war on Germany in December, 1941, which was probably a bigger help than an earlier second front would have been. I'm not sure why Eisenhower waited on D-Day as long as he did, but I doubt any of the major US policy makers were intent on sabotaging Russia. Not that there weren't Americans who hated Communism enough to propose allying with Germany against Russia -- there just weren't many of them. What did happen was that after the war, as the US no longer needed Russia to do the heavy fighting, the alliance fractured and anti-Communists became increasingly prominent, with the US doing all sorts of things Russians would grow to resent. Slighting or forgetting Russia's primary role in defeating Germany was a big one. But as I noted, Russia had a long history of feeling slighted by the West, and the Cold War added thousands of tiny cuts. Perhaps worse, it didn't end there.

[Q] Interesting point. I hadn't thought about that. I would say that both Napoleon and Hitler took the war to Russian soil. They just couldn't sustain it and lost. Would Ukraine even have the capability to actually attack in Russian or are they fundamentally just a small, defensive force? -- Robert Gable, Menlo Park, CA [2022-04-18]

[A] My point was that Russia cannot be invaded and occupied -- even by arguably superior forces, as proven by Napoleon and Hitler. No one thinks that Ukraine could even begin to mount a counter-invasion. There probably are people who think that if Ukraine can continue to inflict serious losses on Russia, confidence in Putin may fade, leading to some kind of coup. That was how Germany defeated Russia in WWI, but the odds of that happening now are very small, for a long list of reasons. The only way out is a negotiated settlement.

It is, of course, possible for Ukraine to attack points in Russia over the border, as has happened at least once so far (an attack on a fuel depot). Doing so could provoke Russia into escalating the war further, and certainly would stiffen Russian morale while making Ukraine look bad. The only way out of that quandry is to negotiate a resolution. The sooner the better.

January 09, 2022

[Q] I notice a few discrepancies in the grades for some albums; for instance, in the "Grade List Search" under Sonic Youth, I find

Sonic Youth: Battery Park, NYC, July 4th 2008 (2008 [2019], Matador) B+(***)

whereas, in the "Rhapsody Streamnotes" I find

Sonic Youth: Battery Park, NYC, July 4th 2008 (2008 [2019], Matador) A−

In this case, the album was originally graded B+(***) and later revised to A-. Somehow, the later change is not reflected in the "Grade List Search" section. -- Siddhartha Kanungo [2021-12-27]

[A] I've noticed a few such discrepancies myself, and don't doubt that there are more lurking unnoticed. It's the result of poor design -- I have multiple places where the same grade is stored separately -- and sloppy execution. Computer science has a process called normalization, where redundant copies of data are replaced by calls to a single source. It's a good idea, but it requires a lot of forethought to implement, and is usually more work to maintain -- unless you count up all the time finding and repairing all the slip-ups.

As it is, when I change a grade, I should have to change it in 4-8 places: the review file, the notebook backup, the year file, the year tracking file, the "md" (music database) file, previous review/notebook files, the indexes (year and artist) to the review files, possibly an EOY file and a metacritic/aggregate file. Of those the review file is the most accurate, but the "md" file is the only one you can readily look up. Unfortunately, the "md" file is usually the one I forget. Some of the others I consider obsolete and rarely bother with. It's messy, but at this point the work to redo it is even more daunting.

When you do find discrepancies like this (i.e., between the Streamnotes grade and the music database), please report them to me.

[Q] Do you still listen to vinyl?

I just started collecting recently, and the experience + sound + physical format is a revelation! -- Piotr, O-side [2021-11-11]

[A] Not if I can help it. I moved all of my vinyl from Boston to New Jersey when I had a job change that paid for it, but most of it remained in boxes in the basement, and a lot of it got water-damaged. I salvaged what I could from that, but when I contemplated moving to Wichita on my own dime, I decided to unload most of what I had. This was 1999, and I got damn little for it, but I saved at least $1000 in moving costs. I think I kept about 300 pieces, and have them nicely shelved, but I hardly ever play any of them. My beloved B&O turntable died after we got here, and I reverted to an even older (and much cheaper) Technics that my wife had before she met me (about 35 years ago), so it's not what you'd call a quality setup. A couple times a year I get vinyl promos, so it works for that.

I've never been much of an audiophile, although my now ancient speakers were pretty good when I bought them, as were my components, but recent replacements (mostly CD changers and computer speakers) are nothing special. I don't doubt that I'd be dazzled by better quality sound, but this setup works fine for what I do (especially given I play everything at low volume, which thankfully my ears can still detect).

[Q] I was getting caught up on your blog posts and found myself lowering my eyes and sighing deeply at your "all tyrants and would be tyrants are on the right" reaction. It seemed almost nostalgic to me. Pretty much my whole life I've shared a similar outlook but take it from this lifelong left wing liberal Democrat that even just a short time in the Seattle/Portland areas would force you to reconcile this belief against the hundreds and hundreds of hard left "activists" rabidly trying to get you fired from your job by attacking you through your employer or shut down your small business through accusations and bad reviews. They'll steal personal photos from social media and deface them in the most humiliating ways they can think of. They attack children via online school groups hoping to shame families into moving. They'll organize a march to a business or residence and destroy property. They'll block a highway. They'll cut of access. All in the name of equity, justice, mutual respect and tolerance. This is all done based on the way something may appear to be in a photo, or because of an out of context partial quote, or even a complete fabrication supplied by one of the dozens of bloggers acting as journalists promoting themselves through confirmation bias. City Council members have no qualms about lying to the media to further the narrative. They hire their own family members and cronies and appoint like minded people to city, county, and state posts where they can officially declare anyone with differing points of view "hate groups" or a "terrorist organization." Almost none of this gets any attention from local (or national) media as they operate in fear of the social justice warriors.

The big lesson of the Trump presidency for me was that the hard right and the hard left are identical mirror images.

As you can probably tell I speak from first hand knowledge so if you should reference any of this in a blog post I kindly ask that you please withhold my name. -- [name withheld] [2021-12-12]

[A] I'm shocked and saddened at your conclusion, and don't see how any fair and reasonable observer could arrive at it, even from spotty and selective anecdotal evidence. Even if the "hard left" were guilty as charged, that doesn't come close to the level of threat and malice routinely voiced and all-too-often practiced by the right (and I'm not just talking about the "hard" cases of avowed white supremacists and ultra-macho militias). And even if it did, I'd still reject your "mirror image" claim due to core principles: the right believes that order depends on a social hierarchy, where some people are privileged to rule over others, and that it's justified to enforce that order with force and deceit; the left believes that all people are equal, and that none has the right to dominate and dictate to others.

After receiving your letter, I wrote to friends in Seattle and Portland to see if they could corroborate your charges. They didn't. One allowed this much: "The hard right in Portland is the cops who kill unarmed homeless people and get a raise. The hard left yells at people about pronouns. It's not the same thing." Another friend, from Berkeley, did acknowledge several instances of "ultra leftist ideological bullying and excluding." As tactics, that sort of thing is counterproductive, but that doesn't vindicate the right. At most, it shows that some of the bad habits of the right have been picked up by people who identify on the left.

I do believe that leftists need to consider tactics carefully, and become more conscious of how their arguments and demonstrations play in the wider world. The left message promotes peace, justice, equity, honesty, openness, cooperation, and public-spiritedness, and our tactics should be consistent with those principles. But it's hard, because the right controls most of the world's wealth and power, and has no scruples about using them to misinform and manipulate, to obscure and confuse issues, and to deflect their own culpability for their intrinsic inability to cope with many of the world's most pressing problems. We need a politically viable left more than ever. And while not everyone on the left may live up to our ideals, they're the only hope we have. So enough with this "both sides" nonsense.

Needless to say, I could write on this at much more depth. I've been thinking of knocking out an outline of a book I'm unlikely to ever write (but someone should). This would start by rehashing my four-era framework for American politics (Jefferson-to-Buchanan, Lincoln-to-Hoover, Roosevelt-to-Carter, Reagan-to-Trump), then add three more detailed sections:

  1. Why the fourth (Reagan-to-Trump) era is anomalous, from its founding on principles opposite of America's liberal tradition and promise, to its degeneration into a party of lies, self-deceptions, incoherence, and incompetence.
  2. A section on how the world works: the major problems facing us in the near- and mid-term future, to figure out what sorts of solutions work and what don't.
  3. A final section on how Democrats can and should campaign, given the real problems we face and the obstacles and enemy they will have to overcome.

This final section should answer this particular question more thoroughly (or hopefully bury it). Democrats need strategy and tactics which broaden their political support, not by compromising or shying away from principles but by advancing them in ways that show their general worth and necessity.

November 19, 2021

[Q] I read your reviews every week and enjoy them, particularly the jazz reviews. Im curious what you think about the job Biden has done so far. I couldnt stand Trump and was happy the Dems took over but i have to say im disappointed in Biden so far. Based on his experience i expected more. Thanks. -- Bob Moeller, Belvidere Il [2021-11-16]

[A] My wife frequently gripes about Biden, but I for one am quite delighted with what he's done so far. For someone who had spent 40-50 years in thrall to Reagan-era orthodoxy, he seems to have emerged with humanity intact, recognizing the need for new ideas and necessary change. He's never been much as a thinker, let alone orator, so he's not especially good at explaining what needs to be done to other people, but he has shown himself to be open and flexible, and forceful when he's needed to -- most importantly during the troublesome Afghanistan exit. Much of this may be attributed to the people he's surrounded himself with -- and I certainly wish he had better picks on foreign policy -- but in the end presidents do pretty much what they want to do, so give him some credit. He's scored a couple of big legislative wins, against long odds, and he's done a lot of good things through executive orders. And while the post-pandemic economic rebound was likely to happen anyway, this one has two key features thanks to Democrats' broader priorities in the recover and stimulus bills (including the first one under Trump, which given Trump's panic over Wall Street was largely crafted by Schumer and Pelosi): wage increases, especially at the bottom of the scale, and increased savings during the pandemic, which are currently driving more consumer spending.

Unfortunately, the Republican propaganda barrage has eroded Biden's public standing, leading the ever-fickle mainstream media astray, not least in their obsession over "inflation" and "supply chain issues," as well as the perennial that government spending leads to crippling debt. Most of this is bullshit, but Democrats haven't done anywhere near an adequate job of getting out in public and explaining that in terms people (and reporters) can understand. I wrote a bit about this in a Notes on Everyday Life post on the Virginia/New Jersey elections. One might argue that the Republican margins in Virginia were largely due to how well they distanced their candidates from the derangement exhibited by Trump and most of the party, what needs to happen is for Democrats to drive home the point that no Republicans can be trusted to address and solve the nation's increasingly dire problems. That's been totally obvious to me for a long time now, but public figures, including a shameful number of Democrats, let that slip by. In this atmosphere, I no interest whatsoever in ragging on Biden. I don't even care to criticize Manchin and Sinema, although if I had the opportunity I'd point out to them that their public disputes and ultimatums are hurting their party and their supporters, and I'd try to reason with them to get to constructive compromises. I recall many occasions where Reagan cited "the 11th commandment," that thou should never speak ill of another Republican. Democrats should pay attention, especially when the media is so stacked against them.

[Q] I was wondering if you've heard the Rubinoos and what your views are if their albums -- Neil Sidebotham, Belconnen ACT Australia [2021-11-03]

[A] I recall the name, and thought I had at least heard their 1977 debut album, but couldn't find any evidence of it. What I definitely did hear was Beserkley Chartbusters Volume 1 (1975), which includes their cover of "Gorilla," but when I streamed their debut, I also recognized their cover of "I Think We're Alone Now" (and not just the Tommy James & the Shondells hit, which I must have heard but wouldn't have placed). I wasn't aware that the band kept going on forever (at least through 2019), and haven't followed up. My general impression is that their originals were meant to sound like obscure covers but more often were merely forgetable.

In the mid-1970s, my circle of friends who collaborated on the first Terminal Zone were especially into what we might call rock revivalism, the broader tendency behind pub rock and power pop. We dated this to Supersnazz, the Flamin' Groovies album from 1969, and to Dave Edmunds' 1970 cover of "I Hear You Knocking." Greg Shaw's Who Put the Bomp? fanzine focused on our interests, although I leaned more toward the UK pub rock of Brinsley Schwarz and Ducks Deluxe, as well as the post-Velvets glam bands: both seemed to sense to need to restore what was lost when rock and roll contracted to rock. Beserkley was a blip on that scene, remembered (if at all) for securing the shelved 1972 tapes of the Modern Lovers. Stiff played a similar role in the UK, but the real breakthrough only came with punk, which revived not the form of early rock and roll but its spirit. And while 1970s punk led to more brutalist hardcore bands in the 1980s, it also cracked the ice, allowing revivalists to break into the mainstream without getting tagged as nostalgiacs -- Bruce Springsteen and ZZ Top are examples. Thus postmodernism came to popular music.

August 24, 2021

[Q] The subscription-only post excerpt from "The Vanishing Legacy of Barack Obama" was long enough for me as well. Trump has, in the end, embraced being the "heel" of American politics, because that's what the Republican Party needed in the absence of principles, ideas and/or vision. There has been a constant attempt by writers on the right and left to make Obama responsible for the election of this miscreant. Should Obama not enjoy a 60th birthday party, because of the resolute "heel turn" in the Republican Party that followed his popular presidency? Do you think an Obama-like gravitas in response to these accusations and absurdities is the best hope for the future health and sanity of American democracy? -- Eugene, Atlanta, GA [2021-08-16]

[A] Isn't there a famous logical fallacy about assuming causality from sequence? [There is: Post hoc ergo propter hoc.] Trump is almost perfect as the polar opposite of Obama, but his election doesn't prove that most Americans rejected Obama, let alone that Obama's faults demanded such a radical change in direction. It seems probable to me that had Obama been able to run for a third term, he would have beat Trump rather handily, but I've come to have a pretty low opinion of the Democrat Trump beat.

I won't try to explain how writers on the right think, but I can give you several thoughts as to why those of us on the left might blame Obama for the rise of Trump:

  1. Obama wasted his first two years when he had a Democratic majority in Congress through efforts at bipartisan compromise, including making significant unforced concessions on the budget/stimulus bill (too many tax credits, not enough spending, nothing on infrastructure) and health care. He could have raised taxes to (or above) pre-Bush levels, and as long as the recession lasted return the revenues as stimulus. With oil prices crashing, he could have passed a carbon tax, which would have prodded businesses and consumers to limit oil and coal usage, putting us in sligthly better position on climate change. Both of these would have undercut the debt overhang issue (which was phony and hypocritical, but hurt him politically). ACA is messier, but had Democrats killed the filibuster, they could have passed a better bill (e.g., one with a public option). With more to show, Democrats might have done better in 2010, and the longer Congress stayed Democratic Congress, the more he could have delivered. This is clearer in retrospect, but the one thing I've always faulted Obama for was dismantling Howard Dean's national Democratic Party organization, which produced landslides in 2006 and 2008, and only focusing on his own re-election in 2012.

  2. Obama totally bought into the Clinton economic program, with much the same people in charge. He bailed Wall Street out of its mess (and didn't prosecute any of their fraudsters), promoted Silicon Valley tech rackets, undermined unions, and left the less favored parts of the nation -- the same ones hardest hit by the recession -- to fester. He was so locked into the status quo that he reappointed Bush's Fed Chair. He also helped businesses less inclined to help Democrats, especially the fracking boom in oil and gas, and he kept up defense spending. He continued Clinton's efforts at negotiating job-destroying, rent-enhancing trade deals. The net effect was that inequality continued to increase, as it had since Reagan, to unprecedented levels. This engendered frustration and resentment, which left some voters open to Trump's demagogy (especially given that Hillary Clinton only promised more of the same).

  3. He promised to change how America thinks about war, then fell right back into the "global war on terror" rut. He kept Bush's Secretary of Defense, and promoted Bush's generals (even the odious and insubordinate Michael Flynn). He escalated the war in Afghanistan, with no success. He pursued drone strikes and targeted assassinations even more aggressively than Bush. His early diplomatic efforts flopped, and were never restarted (although Kerry negotiated deals with Iran and Cuba, which Trump subsequently trashed, as he did the Paris climate pact, DACA, and everything else Obama did by executive order).

  4. Obama's whole Democratic Party organization lined up in lockstep behind Hillary Clinton as the 2016 nominee, and she lost, taking Obama's legacy with her. Only Bernie Sanders dared challenge her, and came close enough to suggest that she was out of touch with rank-and-file Democrats, but no one in Obama's elite circle seems to have noticed or cared.

None of these things really explain why Trump won. The roots of that go back to the insane reaction of right-wing media to Obama's win in 2008. Trump was the only candidate who had a personality to match the inchoate outrage whipped up by Fox. He was an outsider, relatively free of the taint of partisan Washington, but was still able to line up the billionaire right-wing donors with their crazy economic ideas. They gambled that they could control the demagugue, much like the far right in Weimar Germany thought they'd domesticate Hitler. Due to his laziness and incompetence, they had more luck this time -- not that Trump didn't leave quite some mess.

The problem with the 60th birthday party is that Obama is still primarily viewed as a political figure -- loved by most Democrats, loathed by most Republicans, in a time of intense polarization so the distinction matters a lot -- and one expects a certain sense of decorum from public servants (exempting Trump). But Obama is not too old to contemplate a post-presidential career, and he's decided to do it in show business. From what little I've bothered to glean from the guest lists -- slighting old political allies (like David Axelrod) in favor of celebrities like Beyoncé and Tom Hanks -- his party was aimed at making a social splash for his new career. Maybe he came off as a bit of an arriviste, but that appears to be the intent, and as far as I know, such events are routine in that set. (Of course, I'd have to revise this if you found a lot of politically active and/or merely rich guests on the list. Like the Clintons, Obama spent much of his political career sucking up to the rich, so he could never quite shake the notion that his end game was to be one of them.)

I don't have an answer to your final question other than to note that Obama's "gravitas" -- his reason, integrity, erudition, empathy, sanity, faith in a very idealized America few of us even recognize except as myth -- didn't play all that well, even among people who voted for him because the Republican alternative was unthinkable. And it certainly didn't convert his sworn enemies, or even make much of an impression on the swing voters. Maybe as a black man he felt he had to be perfect to get elected, but that made him a different kind of target. Joe Biden is a much less imposing figure, and that element of fallibility seems to be working for him. We live in a world where a lot of things are going wrong (pandemic, Afghanistan, climate), so maybe it's better to have someone who cares and reacts than someone who supposedly knows it all and tries to project confidence.

By the way, that last word brings up another peeve about Obama. His economic team convinced him that the key to recovery was confidence -- much like Franklin Roosevelt opened his presidency with "we have nothing to fear but fear itself." It's a truism that economies rise and fall on confidence and panic. But you can't reverse a panic just by pretending confidence, which is what Obama tried to do. (Ron Suskind's 2011 book on Obama's economic team was called Confidence Men. At the time, Paul Krugman regularly made fun of their faith in "the confidence fairy.") But the problem isn't just that confidence preaching doesn't work. More important is that you lose the edge you had to blame your present woes on the people actually responsible for them -- the greedy bankers and the Bush administration that let them run amuck (and, hitting close to home, the Clinton administration's deregulation moves) -- and the people currently trying to prevent the government from helping (Republicans, starting with Mitch McConnell and his "one-term" austerity agenda).

June 29, 2021

[Q] If it isn't too much work, it'd be great if you could create an index of graded releases for each year from like 1970 onward like on Christgau's site. I'd love if we could get pre-1990 recommendations from your site, or see non-A records you graded pre-1990, since your available lists start from 1990. Thanks. -- Ricky Erickson, New Zealand [2021-06-22]

[A] Best answer here would be to put all of the data in my "database" files into a real database, like I use for the Christgau website. Then I could write scripts to do queries. Several things make that a lot of work, but maybe some day. What's kept me from doing this is that I've never been happy with the Christgau database schema, and as much as I've thought about it, I've never come up with something I really do like. I could get into the technical weeds on that, but suffice it to say: normalizing artist and label names turned out not to work very well (which is largely, but not exclusively, Peter Stampfel's fault, or Christgau's, inasmuch as he insisted on preserving all of Stampfel's aliases); and I wanted to track recording dates as well as the arbitrary release dates Christgau uses, and that complicates things. Still, at this point I could probably come up with a single table that would work ok. The bigger problem would be correcting various discrepancies in 61,078 data records.

Another approach would be what I recently did for 1971, which was to construct a new file by hand. That took a couple days, mostly in research to verify actual release dates. For instance, I originally had Jack Johnson filed with its recording date (1970) instead of release date (1971). A lot of jazz albums in the "database" only have recording dates, as that's what Penguin Guide uses. Also, I wanted to check the original labels -- the "database" often substitues reissue labels, as that's often what I actually listened to. While interesting as a single-year project, I could see that getting real tedious trying to cover every year.

Finally, there is a third approach: I routinely generate a flat table of everything in the "database," so it's possible to write scripts to pull data from it. This is how I generate my Artist Grade Lists, so I wondered if I could spend an hour or so and write a script to pull out lists by release date. Here's what I came up with. The big problem is that the underlying data doesn't have reliable release date data (indeed, it needs to be modeled differently, which means checked and possibly changed for those 61,078 records -- the number comes from counting the number of lines in the file). A more obvious enhancement would be to sort the records by grade. (Sorting by letter grade is a bit of a nuisance, and the artist name sort is messy, too.) That's a bigger job than my time budget allowed for, but not especially difficult. Another enhancement could be to split the data into new and old music lists, based on a recording date heuristic. One could then apply the style of the 1971/2021 lists, minus rank order. It's hard and nearly pointless to try to rank within grade levels anyway.

[Q] It is well known that one of your all time favourite albums is Winter Moon by Art Pepper. There are of course of more string albums by jazz artists, Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown to name two of them. You made it clear in the past that you are not a big fan of Parker (the horn, not the strings I think) but can you elaborate on why you like the Pepper one more then the Brown. Is it the sappy arrangements, the lack of improvisation, it certainly can't be the tone. And why is there no Brown in your list of 1.000 albums for a better and happy life (not even the collaborations with Max Roach or Sarah Vaughan). -- Ziggy Schouws, Amsterdam [2021-06-21]

[A] The vogue for saxophone-with-strings albums may be something else we can blame Charlie Parker for, but it reflects an idea common in the 1950s that strings are classy, as in classical (respectable) music. The result was a spate of albums with formidable saxophone leads over string-laden murk. Parker's 1949-50 strings "Master Takes" fit that description, as do similar efforts by Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and many others. Still, not all of Parker's strings projects were waste. The smaller string section he used in The Complete Legendary Rockland Palace Concert worked out nicely. Several cuts from that wind up Rhino's Yardbird Suite: The Ultimate Collection, which is easily the best Parker intro ever released, and recommended to anyone who wants to know what the hype is about.

Later saxophone/strings albums are more varied. Stan Getz's Focus is exceptional in that the strings are so distinctive they're worth the attention on their own. The strings on Winter Moon aren't that interesting, but with Pepper's alto (and Stanley Cowell's piano) the album is simply gorgeous -- not a concept I'm especially big on, but there's no simpler way to put it. Nearly everything Pepper did from his Village Vanguard sessions in 1977 to his death in 1982 was extraordinary. I wouldn't say this is better than the rest, but it does stand out.

There weren't many trumpet-with-strings albums, with Brown's by far the most famous. He died in a car crash when he was 25, leaving little more than 3 years of records, but during that brief period he towered above his contemporaries (including Miles Davis). I'm not a big fan of either With Strings or Sarah Vaughan (a Penguin Guide crown album), though I blame neither on Brown, who was rarely anything short of superb. It was sheer sloppiness that I left Brown off my 1,000 Records list. I had 5 of his records in my commented-out candidate list. The obvious pick should have been Study in Brown, although More Study in Brown is on the same level.

I should probably say something more about Sarah Vaughan. I've graded 20 of her albums, none above B+(***), and most well below. Technically, she was one of the greatest vocalists of all time. Her voice was deep and distinct, and her control, especially her timing, was beyond compare. Her early work with Columbia was slaughtered by her string arrangers, but even when given a decent jazz combo she seemed remote up on her pedestal. I have the same reservations about Abbey Lincoln and Betty Carter, who were about as similar as any singers could be to someone as unique as Vaughan.

[Q] What website(s) do you use as resources for new jazz releases, if any? -- Fred, Vancouver, Canada [2021-06-19]

[A] There's no simple answer to that, probably because I haven't found any sites that are broad and complete enough. I pick up information from all over the place, but I only once tried to compile a complete list of jazz releases: back around 2005. Since 2014 I've kept a tracking file, which probably peaked in 2020 with 1891 jazz records (851 rated). I started assembling my EOY list aggregate early, with points awarded for favorable reviews in 50+ publications, mostly as tracked by AOTY and Metacritic, but also including several jazz reviews they didn't track: All About Jazz, Downbeat, Free Jazz Collective, and the jazz columns in Bandcamp Daily (Dave Sumner) and Stereogum (Phil Freeman). I also counted everything Tim Niland wrote about in Music and More. I also consulted the lists maintained by Chris Monsen and Phil Overeem. I also get regular email bulletins from Downtown Music Gallery and SquidCo, although I don't compile them regularly (DMG includes a lot of reviews of old product). I also get a lot of email from labels, publicists, and a few artists, though most of it goes straight into the bit bucket.

This year I've slacked off from my music tracking considerably (thus far, the 2021 file only has 377 jazz records, 252 rated; if you pro rate for 5/12 months, my ratings this year are down 29%, but overall listings are down 52%). One thing I tried was Discogs, but even using their filters { Jazz, Album, 2020s, 2021 } the search offers 3,227 albums, so it's a long slog to find a few items of interest. I've also looked at Jazz Music Archives, but I haven't found a way to scroll back, which really limits its usefulness.

There really should be a free database and software of album release data. I thought about that as a project back in the early 2000s, and was involved in MusicBrainz for a while, but never quite saw eye-to-eye with the project (focus there was on tagging digital files where I wanted to track physical product). I don't know how hard it would be to write an application using their data, or indeed how much useful data they actually have (although a useful ap would motivate people to add data).

[Q] You seem to like her Compass Point output (two A minuses and a B plus), and you've reviewed two of her [Grace Jones] single disc compilations. I wonder what you think of the double disc collection Private Life: The Compass Point Sessions. I would assume it's a no-brainer pick for you, since it contains most of the three albums (looks like about 90%), but it uses longer versions and dub versions etc, so maybe it's de trop? Or maybe the original albums hang together better? Any thoughts? Thanks. -- David, Washington, DC [2021-04-29]

[A] Grading reissues is most often a hopeless and thankless task. By definition, the material is redundant, so its value depends first on whether you already have it -- something the critic doesn't know. If you don't, what effect has age had on interest? There was a moment when it surprised to see the model Jones struck her pose over Sly & Robbie's new wave/dance synthesis, but that moment's passed. I'm not sure anyone needs this music, although I still enjoy (if hardly ever play) the 1980-82 albums, but if you do want to sample it I'd suggest the 11-track Millennium Edition over the individual albums or the 2-CD compilation -- unless you're a DJ, the long versions don't help, and the odds and sods are marginal ("She's Lost Control" is good, but doesn't need 17:00). I'll write a separate review, but it's not good that they left out "Bullshit."

More Ancient