An occasional blog about populist politics and popular music, not necessarily at the same time.
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Monday, April 5, 2021
Music: Current count 35184  rated (+43), 209  unrated (-3).
I had less trouble finding records to listen to last week. I picked some obvious new records off Napster's recommendations list, and decided to follow up Dr. Lonnie Smith's new one with a dive into old catalogue. Aside for a few CDs, most of the rest came from Chris Monsen's 1st quarter round-up, and AOTY's Highest Rated Albums of 2021. I had heard 6 of 20 records on Monsen's (only 2 from promo CDs), so I scrambled to add 9 more, including both of this week's A- records. (Actually, I wrote up Miguel Zenón's Law Years before Monsen posted, so at the time I claimed 7/20, but the review is in this week's batch.) The other five don't seem to be available online, at least complete enough to review.
I'm not tracking reviews this year, so had no idea which albums might be on the AOTY list, and indeed had no idea most of them existed. (The ones I had previously reviewed were: Floating Points, Ghetts -- the former is on the Monsen and Phil Overeem lists, while the latter was the first thing I checked out from the AOTY list. Julien Baker is also on Overeem's list. I've heard 15 of Overeem's 30 records, counting Baker this week.
Just saw Dave Sumner's Best Jazz on Bandcamp: March 2021. I've heard 3 of 14 records. More alarmingly, I haven't heard of most of the artists. More evidence I'm falling far behind.
I'm a bit chagrined over the two A- records this week. Zenón's publicist still sends me most records. I got some email on this one, but the CD never showed up. Takase's label was sending me promos up to some time in 2019, so not getting this one was less of a mystery. I made up for the lost promos by streaming most of their releases on Napster, which is where I found this one. I'd be happy to continue in that way, but their more recent releases aren't on Napster, and one by Alexander Hawkins that came out the same day as Takase's has been withdrawn. Intakt does use Bandcamp, but don't offer complete albums there, so they're no substitute for reviewers. I count six A- records on Intakt last year, so not being able to review their releases will be a major loss.
April should be less stressful -- unless, as forecast, we get hit by an exceptionally rough tornado season, or the earthquakes on the east side of town get more severe. (It is established that they're caused by injection wells between Wichita and El Dorado.) I got my second Covid-19 vaccination a couple weeks ago, and Laura got hers on Saturday. Perhaps we'll soon be able to entertain for the first time in more than a year.
One frequent dinner guest from recent years will be missed. Rubena Bradley died last week. I haven't seen an obituary yet, but have heard from good friends -- two of her six daughters. They've invited us to Thanksgiving several years -- one with all six daughters visiting. A remarkable family. We're fortunate to have known Ruby.
New records reviewed this week:
The Anchoress: The Art of Losing (2021, Kscope): Catherine Anne Davies, born in Wales, grew up in England, got a PhD in "literature and queer theory" (published a book, Whitman's Queer Children), played in Simple Minds 2014-18. Second album, debut was Confessions of a Romance Novelist. Makes a strong impression here, although I'm not prepared to try to figure out whether she's as smart as she seems. B+(***)
Julien Baker: Little Oblivions (2021, Matador): Singer-songwriter from Tennessee, third album (not counting all-star trio Boygenius). Rocks a little harder than her "sad girl" works. B+(*)
Yaala Ballin: Sings Irving Berlin (2021, SteepleChase LookOut): Standards singer, from Israel, moved to New York "in 2004 to study with Sheila Jordan," fourth album -- her second, On the Road (2011), was a personal favorite. Backed by a swing-oriented band -- Michael Kanan (piano), Chris Flory (guitar), and Ari Roland (bass) -- hard to go wrong with Berlin. B+(***)
Jon Batiste: We Are (2020 , Verve): Pianist, from New Orleans, debut 2005, upped his profile in 2015 as music director of Stephen Colbert's Late Show. Title song, with its New Orleans marching band backup, was released as a single in June 2020, inspired by Black Lives Matter protests. Vocals abound -- I count 11 credits, but that includes Gospel Soul Children -- so slot this under r&b, not jazz. Choice cuts: "Freedom," "Sing." B+(**)
John Butcher/Veryan Weston/Řyvind Stonesund/Dag Erik Kriedal Andersen: Mapless Quiet (2018 , Motvind): Tenor/soprano sax, piano, bass, drums; one 49:28 piece, recorded live in Norway. Some strong patches, but seems to run out early. B+(**) [bc]
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis: Carnage (2021, AWAL): Singer-songwriter from Australia, started 1970s in the Birthday Party, has fronted the Bad Seeds since 1983. I've never liked his albums, but many critics do, and it's possible someone could compile a best-of I'd have to show some respect to (a concession based mostly on use of their songs in Peaky Blinders). Ellis joined the Bad Seeds in 1994, and has done a number of side projects with Cave (mostly soundtracks). His trademark is the murky darkness his voice strains against. A couple spots here test my resistance, but I still came away with no interest. B
Michael Dease: Give It All You Got (2019 , Posi-Tone): Trombone player, originally from Georgia, more than a dozen albums since 2005. Jim Alfredson can lay the organ on a bit thick at times, but Gregory Tardy (tenor sax) and Anthony Stanco (trumpet) impress. B+(*)
Dry Cleaning: New Long Leg (2021, 4AD): English post-punk band led by singer Florence Shaw, first album after EPs and singles. Talks over rock solid riffs. B+(**)
Paul Dunmall/Percy Pursglove/Olie Brice/Jeff Williams: Palindromes (2020 , West Hill): Tenor sax, trumpet, bass, and drums, live set at Café Oto in London. B+(***) [bc]
For Those I Love: For Those I Love (2019 , September): David Balfe, Irish, first album self-released in 2019, given a proper unveiling this year. Heavily accented spoken word over electronica. B+(***)
Frode Haltli: Avant Folk II (2021, Hubro): Norwegian accordion player, albums since 2002 including folk and classical as well as jazz. Assembled this group for a 2018 album, with Hardanger fiddle, violin, sax, trumpet/goat horn, organ/synth, guitars, bass, and drums. B+(**) [bc]
Joseph Howell Quartet: Live in Japan (2018 , Summit): Clarinet player, second album, dedicated his debut to Buddy DeFranco, mostly plays Joe Henderson songs here, along with three swing era standards. Backed by a Japanese piano trio -- pianist Keigo Hirakawa is most impressive. B+(**) [cd]
Kari Ikonen: Impressions, Improvisations and Compositions (2020 , Ozella): Finnish pianist, new to me but eight albums since 2001. Nominally solo, but in spots the strings produced so much resonance I wondered whether a guitar or bass had slipped in. B+(***)
La Femme: Paradigmes (2021, Disque Pointu): French "psych-punk" band, some women in the band but founders wee Sacha Got and Marlon Magnée. Third album since an EP in 2010. Genre strikes me as iffy, but first album was called Psycho Tropical Berlin, and I don't have any alternative suggestions, especially as each song points them in another direction. B+(**)
Charles Lloyd & the Marvels: Tone Poem (2020 , Blue Note): Tenor sax legend, also plays some flute, third group album, with Bill Frisell (guitar), Greg Leisz (steel guitar), Reuben Rogers (bass), and Eric Harland (drums). Three originals, after two Ornette Coleman pieces and Leonard Cohen's "Anthem," a 10:26 stretch on "Monk's Mood," a couple others. B+(***)
Pat Metheny: Road to the Sun (2021, BMG Modern): Popular jazz guitarist, composed two suites here, the first ("Four Paths of Light") played by Jason Vieaux ("perhaps the most precise and soulful classical guitarist of his generation"), the title set played by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. Wraps up with Metheny playing a solo piece by Arvo Pärt. B
Ali Shaheed Muhammad & Adrian Younge: Jazz Is Dead 4: Azymuth (2020, Jazz Is Dead, EP): First three albums listed Younge first. No idea why they swapped, but Muhammad is older (1970 vs. 1978), and his tenure with A Tribe Called Quest may have made him more famous (not that I recognized the name). Focus here is the Brazilian jazz-funk group, dating from 1972 up to 2016. This runs longer (8 tracks, 41:25), but is less engaging. B
Ali Shaheed Muhammad & Adrian Younge: Jazz Is Dead 5: Doug Carn (2020, Jazz Is Dead): Eleven tracks, 41:03, so they've outgrown the series' EP start. Carn is a soul jazz pianist, husband of singer Jean Carn, recorded 1969-77 and occasionally thereafter, changed his name to Abdul Rahim Ibrahim by 1977. He mostly plays organ here. High point is a sax solo, probably Gary Bartz. B+(***)
Ali Shaheed Muhammad & Adrian Younge: Jazz Is Dead 6: Gary Bartz (2021, Jazz Is Dead, EP): Alto saxophonist, cut some avant-soul fusion albums in the early 1970s with his Ntu Troop, later struck me as a pure bebop player. His sax nudges this entry back into jazz territory, no matter where the producers go with the rhythm. Eight tracks, 27:35 B+(***) [bc]
Nubiyan Twist: Freedom Fables (2021, Strut): Large British jazz-funk group, third album. B
R+R=Now: Live (2018 , Blue Note): "All-star jazz collective," formed in 2018 for a studio album and a live stand at New York's Blue Note club, Robert Glasper (keyboards) cited as leader, with Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah (trumpet), Terrace Martin (sax/vocals), Taylor McFerrin (synth), Derrick Hodge (bass), and Justin Tyson (drums), plus spoken word on one of the better tracks, but pretty hit-and-miss. B
Dan Rose: Last Night . . . (2017 , Ride Symbol): Rose cut an album in 1979, a couple in the 1990s, released two this year. This one is solo guitar, cautiously feeling his way through standards, some in medleys. B+(*) [cd]
Dan Rose/Claudine Francois: New Leaves (2019 , Ride Symbol): Guitar-piano duo. Francois is French, has an album from 1984 but not much since. Four originals (two each), five more pieces, mostly from pianists (Monk, Silver, Waldron, Bley, Swallow). "Seńor Blues" is especially tasty. B+(**) [cd]
Serpentwithfeet: Deacon (2021, Secretly Canadian): Singer-songwriter Josiah Wise, from Baltimore, grew up in his mother's church choir, studied classical music and was infatuated with opera. Second album, short (11 songs, 29:09). Choice cut: "Fellowship." B+(*)
Skarbř Skulekorps: Dugnad (2020 , Hubro): Norwegian drummer Řyvind Skarbř, several albums since 2009, second under this group name, which includes trumpet, three saxes (Signe Emmeluth, Eirik Hegdal, and Klaus Holm, who also plays clarinet), guitars (including pedal steel), and bass, with a couple guests. B+(**)
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Breathe (2021, Blue Note): Organ player, not to be confused with his contemporary Lonnie Liston Smith (more of an electric piano guy), has wavered between soul jazz and pop, never impressing me much, but this is pretty agreeable. Produced by Don Was, half trio with Jonathan Kreisberg (guitar) and Johnathan Blake (drums), half adding horns (John Ellis, Robin Eubanks, Sean Jones), with two vocals toward the end (Alicia Olatuja on something gospelly, and Iggy Pop crooning "Sunshine Superman"). B+(**)
Veronica Swift: This Bitter Earth (2021, Mack Avenue): Jazz singer, semi-famous musical parents (Hod O'Brien, Stephanie Nakasian), cut a record when she was 10 with Richie Cole and her father's piano trio. (O'Brien was pianist on Roswell Rudd's Flexible Flyer, which is my favorite Sheila Jordan album ever.) Second big label effort, backed by Emmet Cohen (piano), bass, and drums, occasionally others. Standards, some common but most not, done with authority and panache. B+(***)
Aki Takase/Christian Weber/Michael Griener: Auge (2019 , Intakt): German piano-bass-drums trio, the pianist moving from Tokyo to Berlin in 1987. Explosive. A-
Thumbscrew: Never Is Enough (2019 , Cuneiform): Guitar-bass-drums trio (Mary Halvorson, Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara), sixth album since 2014, nary a false step -- a fine context for the guitarist. B+(***) [dl]
Tony Tixier: I Am Human (2020 , Whirlwind, EP): French pianist, has a couple albums. Originally released as a 6-track EP in 2020, reissued with an extra track (bringing it to 25:12). Two solo pieces, the others duets, including a lovely "Someone to Watch Over Me" with his twin brother Scott Tixier on violin. B+(*)
Adrian Younge & Ali Shaheed Muhammad: Jazz Is Dead 3: Marcos Valle (2020, Jazz Is Dead, EP): R&B producers, first volume entertained several guest artists, but the second one focused on a single artist (Roy Ayers). Valle is a Brazilian pop star, started with the bossa nova craze in 1963, and still working at 77. Not sure whether these are new performances or remixes, but the luscious samba groove argues for the latter. Eight tracks, 27:29. B+(***)
Miguel Zenón & Luis Perdomo: El Arte Del Bolero (2020 , Miel Music): Alto sax and piano duo, from Puerto Rico and Venezuela respectively, but have played together often over the last decade-plus. Six songs by as many composers, taken at a leisurely pace (51:47). B+(***)
Miguel Zenón/Ariel Bringuez/Demian Cabaud/Jordi Rossy: Law Years: The Music of Ornette Coleman (2019 , Miel Music): Alto saxophonist, one of the major players of his generation, has spent most of the last decade cultivating his Puerto Rican roots, looks another direction here, for this live set from the Birds Eye Jazz Club in Basel, Switzerland. The others, from various points in Latin America, play tenor sax, bass, and drums, on seven Ornette Coleman compositions. The tunes are as radical ever, and played with aplomb. But for some reason I'm not nearly as blown away as I was on first hearing The Shape of Jazz to Come. A-
Recent reissues, compilations, and vault discoveries:
Roberto Miranda's Home Music Ensemble: Live at Bing Theatre: Los Angeles, 1985 (1985 , Dark Tree): Bassist, born in New York, parents Puerto Rican, long based in Los Angeles, teaches at UCLA, most of his recordings are connected to the "four giants" here: Bobby Bradford (cornet/trumpet), John Carter (clarinet), James Newton (flute), and Horace Tapsott (piano). Band also includes two members of the bassist's family: Louis R. Miranda Sr. (vocals/percussion), and Louis R. Miranda Jr. (drums), along with a few others. Starts with some brilliant piano, works around to give everyone a spotlight, some better than others. B+(***) [cd]
Neil Young: Young Shakespeare (1971 , Reprise): Between After the Gold Rush and Harvest, Young did a solo tour, his set captured here at Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford, Connecticut. B+(**)
Lonnie Smith: Think! (1968 , Blue Note): Played organ on George Benson's early albums, which led to his own 1967 debut, Figer Lickin' Good Soul Organ. Then, as Benson moved into pop, Smith went with a fading but still powerful jazz label, picking up Melvin Sparks (guitar), David Newman (tenor sax/flute), Lee Morgan (trumpet), and lots of percussion. B+(**)
Lonnie Smith: Turning Point (1969, Blue Note): With Bennie Maupin (tenor sax), Lee Morgan (trumpet), Julian Priester (trombone), Melvin Sparks (guitar), and drums. Two originals, three covers: "See Saw" up his alley, "Eleanor Rigby" not nearly as awful as one would expect. B+(*)
Lonnie Smith: Move Your Hand (1969 , Blue Note): Third Blue Note album, live from Club Harlem in Atlantic City. Four 8-11 minute tracks, two original and two covers ("Charlie Brown" and "Sunshine Superman"). Two saxes (Ronnie Cuber and Rudy Jones), guitar, and drums. Vocal on the title cut. B+(**)
Lonnie Smith: Live at Club Mozambique (1970 , Blue Note): Live set from Detroit, issued 25 years after the fact. Two saxes (Ronnie Cuber and Dave Hubbard), George Benson on guitar, extra percussion. Six originals, including a vocal on "Peace of Mind," followed by covers from Sly Stone and Miles Davis. B+(***)
Lonnie Smith: Mama Wailer (1971, Kudu): After Blue Note, one album on Creed Taylor's soul jazz subsidiary (released 39 records 1971-79, 8 by Grover Washington Jr., who plays tenor sax and flute here). Two Smith originals, two covers ("I Feel the Earth Move" and "Stand" -- the latter running 17:20). B+(**)
Lonnie Smith/Alvin Queen: Lenox and Seventh (1985 , Black & Blue): Reorded in Paris. Original release listed drummer Queen's namme first, and added "feat. Melvin Sparks," but the reissue (with an extra cut) swapped the order, and left Sparks on a sidebar, where the organ player's name starts with "Dr." Like everything on this label, leans hard on the blues. B+(***)
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Boogaloo to Beck: A Tribute (2003, Scuffin'): Smith recorded for minor various labels in the 1970s -- Kudu, Groove Merchant, LRC -- and doesn't really pick up until he signs with Palmetto for Too Damn Hot in 2004, or this from a year earlier. First record I can find credited to Dr. Lonnie Smith was The Turbanator in 2000, recorded in 1991. No idea why he'd record a tribute to 1990s rock star Beck unless he was just hard up, which he was. Eleven Beck songs, larded out with plenty of boogaloo (the only one I recognized was "Loser," although Odelay was my favorite album of 1998), with guitar, drums, and "special guest" Fathead Newman (tenor sax) on five. B+(*)
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Rise Up! (2008 , Palmetto): He cut four albums 2004-2009 for Palmetto, this the third, and only one I missed. Mostly quartet with Donald Harrison (alto sax), Peter Bernstein (guitar), and Herlin Riley (drums). B+(**)
Neil Young: Eldorado (1989, Reprise, EP): Released in Japan only, shortly before Freedom, which it shares three songs with (different mixes), plus two songs that don't appear elsewhere, totalling 25:30. B+(**) [yt]
Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Arc (1991, Reprise): Edited from their 1991 tour, picking out noisy bits from various songs and piecing them together into a single 35:00 mixtape. Originally appeared along with two CDs of live songs, packaged as Arc-Weld, then split into separate releases. I skipped both at the time, then accidentally queued up this one while looking for that one. Not as unlistenable as I had been led to believe. B
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Sunday, April 4, 2021
Thought it might be a good time to do another Book Roundup. Last ones were October 16 and October 14, just before the 2020 election, when I was trying to round up anything (and everything) out on Trump. Those followed two more 2020 posts, from May 21 and May 16. I doubt Trump caused more people to read in 2020, but he sure stimulated more people to write.
Ground rules here: 40 books in the main section, some of which got me to tack on a supplemental reading list, and a final section of books I noticed but decided not to comment on (other than minor notes; e.g. on author identity). I may expand on the short listings in the future, but most often I just want to put the books behind me.
Very little out yet on the big stories of 2020: the pandemic, the recession, and the election, but see the Allen and Zakaria entries below -- oddly enough, given how much was written about the 2008 recession, there is as yet very little specifically on 2020's economic downturn. On the other hand, there is a lot about US foreign policy, including the long and interminable proclivity for war. I missed several opportunities to combine entries, but the books I focused on seem like significant ones. I limited my China entry to current affairs, especially the superpower rivalry that has Washington hawks so excited. I found more historical books on China, but didn't get them organized, so they'll wait.
Robert Christgau wrote a review of the Sublettes' book, so I figured I should look at it, even though it's a few years old (2016). At the time, I was reading Michael W Twitty's The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, which covers the same territory from an opposite tack: reconstructing the past from what it's left in the present. I then started looking for other books on slavery, and was surprised to come up with a long set of monographs I hadn't previously noted before. Also surprised to find that most of them were based outside of the US, with some viewing the slave trade from Africa and/or Europe.
Only books I've read from the following list are those by: Mike Konczal, Stephen Wertheim. (I've also read a lot by Millhiser in Vox.) Nothing else on the shelf or on order. I usually find several books I'm eager to read, so this seems like slim pickings, but my writing projects are so up in the air I'm not sure which direction to look. Certainly not to the several right-wing books noted below, which are unlikely to offer anything but evidence of how conservatism has devolved into nothing but more than a deranged and pathetic mental state. I've done similar things in the past, but the supplemental list under Soukup sets a new record for unhinged paranoia. The common perception here is that it's the left that's out to destroy America, which strains credulity two ways: what do they mean by destroy? and who is this left that has so much influence and power? The mind boggles. (Many on the left have chosen not to contest the right over patriotism, given its close association with militarism and chauvinism, but as the right becomes ever more blatant in their antipathy to democracy, we're now starting to see articles arguing that it's the right that's become un-American. A welcome piece here: Zack Beauchamp: The conservative movement is rejecting America.)
I probably have enough books for a follow-up post, but have yet to write much about half of what I'd need. I'm also thinking about doing separate posts on music and cooking books, but I'd be hard-pressed to come up with enough of either, unless I extended by time window.
Jonathan Allen/Amie Parnes: Lucky: How Joe Biden Barely Won the Presidency (2021, Crown): Political reporters for NBC News and The Hill, were first out the gate with their 2016 election book Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign, evidently figured they'd match that with a quickie account of how Biden was similarly doomed, then when he won had 30 seconds or so to choose a new title. The lucky campaigner both times was Trump, but by 2020 he had dug such a deep hole that even his luck couldn't pull him out. More on the 2020 election (ignoring books on how Trump was robbed):
Albena Azmanova: Capitalism on Edge: How Fighting Precarity Can Achieve Radical Change Without Crisis or Utopia (paperback, 2020, Columbia University Press): I don't think I ever heard "precarity" before about a year ago, but it must have popped up a dozen times since. Same root as "precarious," but refers to the general condition, where everything is precarious, which is to say optimized and marginalized to the point where it could break any moment. In 2020, even before any significant numbers of people became infected with Covid-19, before retail stores were locked down, highly optimized "just-in-time" supply lines crippled the economy. Then within a few weeks health care and retail firms broke down due to shortages. For another example, in March 2021 a ridiculously oversized ship got blown into a bank of the Suez Canal, disrupting worldwide shipping. A month before that, a cold snap broke the power grid in Texas, which in turn broke water systems. So yeah, precarity is everywhere. This isn't unrelated to what Naomi Klein calls "disaster capitalism," but shows that Klein was far too optimistic in her expectation that capitalists would continue to profit from disasters. Clearly, there are limits, and that opens up political opportunities for challenging precarity. To cite one example, it's long been clear to me that it's too late to prevent global warming. Sure, there are things one can still do to keep it from getting much worse, and as an engineer I appreciate the advantages of prevention over repair, but the pressing need now is for disaster contingency and recovery. And that may mean rolling back and limiting capitalism's drive for profit.
Nicholson Baker: Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act (2020, Penguin Press): A history of "Project Baseless": "a crash Pentagon program begun in the early fifties that aimed to achieve 'an Air Force-wide combat capability in biological and chemical warfare at the earliest possible date.'" Or perhaps that's just the prism for a book on what we can glean from what the government tries to hide from us, imperfectly illuminated by the law's requirement that the government is obligated to answer (not all that completely) the public's questions. "Along the way, he unearths stories of balloons carrying crop disease, leaflet bombs filled with feathers, suicidal scientists, leaky centrifuges, paranoid political-warfare tacticians, insane experiments on animals and humans, weaponized ticks, ferocious propaganda battles with China, and cover and deception plans meant to trick the Kremlin into ramping up its germ-warfare program."
Vincent Bevins: The Jakarta Method: Washington's Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World (2020, PublicAffairs): Details the systematic massacre of hundreds of thousands of alleged leftists in Indonesia in 1965-66, supported by the US and to a large extent directed by the CIA. This was one of the most egregious examples of a pattern repeated elsewhere, especially in Latin America (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Venezuela), and even more brutally under cover of war (Vietnam, Cambodia). And, of course, most recently with the "targeted [and less discriminating] killings" of the "Global War on Terror." Related:
Rosa Brooks: Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City (2021, Penguin Press): OK, this one is weird. Author is daugher of trained scientist and radical journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, who (among much else) went undercover to work shit jobs and wrote a bestseller about her experiences. Brooks became a lawyer, married a career soldier, got a job working in the Pentagon, wrote a book about it -- more pro-military than I'd like, but not stupid either. For her second book, she immersed again, becoming a sworn, armed reserve police officer in the Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department. She trained like a regular cop but just worked 24 hours per month, patrolling streets and busting suspects, while keeping her tenured job teaching at Georgetown. I read a few pages, and her experiences are interesting enough. I haven't seen her conclusions, but probably not stupid either.
Nick Bryant: When America Stopped Being Great: A History of the Present (2021, Bloomsbury): Greatness, even more than beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. America hasn't seemed great to me since the mid-1960s, and what changed then had more to do with my growing understanding of history than tarnished reality (not that the Vietnam debacle didn't drive my review). By 1970, my disillusionment was so complete that later evocations of greatness, like Trump's Make America Great Again boast, struck me as nonsensical (or maybe just a disingenuous way of saying "Make America White Again"). So I was a bit curious to find an author promising to pin down an actual turning point. However, I doubt anyone will like this book. Bryant is British, which means he grew up with his own delusions of greatness, and transferred them to the America that supplanted Britain as the cornerstone and hegemon of world capitalism. Bryant dates this decline from Reagan's ascendency in 1980, and traces the rot through "Bill and Newt" (3rd chapter title) to Donald Trump (last third of the book). There is real substance to that decline, although you had to actually live here to understand the real impact of Reagan-to-Trump (a good book in that regard is Kurt Andersen's Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America). But the idea of greatness has always depended on blind spots. When Britain was such a great empire in the mid-19th century, wasn't Dickens writing about ragpickers in London? Indeed, isn't pining for greatness some kind of mental illness? Before Trump, the American politician most associated with the word was Lyndon Johnson, the architect of the Great Society. As I recall, Bill Moyers tried to talk Johnson into calling his social welfare programs the Good Society, but good wasn't good enough for Johnson: he wanted great, which turned out to be unattainable.
Francisco Cantú: The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches From the Border (2018; paperback, 2019, Riverhead Books): Born on the American side of the US-Mexico border, descended from immigrants from the other side, the author worked for the Border Patrol, then quit when the "dehumanizing enterprise" got to be too much for him. A memoir, with further investigations and meditation.
Anne Case/Angus Deaton: Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (paperback, 2021, Princeton University Press): "Deaths of despair from suicide, drug overdose, and alcoholism are rising dramatically in the United States, claiming hundreds of thousands of American lives." I don't doubt that predatory capitalism and inequality are to blame, but I'd like to expand the matrix to see how war and debt relate -- not independent factors, but concrete manifestations of more general maladies. Harder to measure is how the conservative creeds of self-reliance and distrust in public social services weigh in. Deaton previously wrote The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality (2013).
Paul Thomas Chamberlin: The Cold War's Killing Fields: Rethinking the Long Peace (2018; paperback, 2019, Harper): The "Cold War" wasn't so cold, and while it could have been much worse, the wars fought for and against "communism" took a huge toll, especially in Asia. Chamberlin cites 14 million dead from 1945-90, which is about one fifth of the WWII death toll and a third of WWI. Focuses on Asia, with early chapters on China, Korea, and Indochina, moving on to Indonesia, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Middle East, but doesn't seem to cover Europe, Latin America or Africa -- significant arenas of conflict, albeit with lesser body counts. Still, while we should welcome a reminder of how high those body counts were, the most extraordinary thing about America's anti-communist crusade was how global it was. The US sought global power, not through direct rule but by installing a hegemonic politico-economic system everywhere, or failing that by isolating noncomforming nations so they're excluded from the world system. It's hard to exaggerate the amount of hubris that mission required. No surprise it led to millions of careless deaths. Nor did it end in 1990. After the Soviet Union imploded, the quest for domination only grew more determined, as did the inevitable resistance.
Steve Deace/Todd Erzen: Faucian Bargain: The Most Powerful and Dangerous Bureaucrat in American History (paperback, 2021, Post Hill Press): I guess hyperbole sells, at least in certain quarters: "#1 Best Seller" at Amazon, "As seen on Tucker Carlson Tonight, As heard on Glenn Beck." I can understand why the authors don't like knowledgeable authorities, but not why they consider Anthony Fauci either powerful or dangerous. He had little effect within the Trump administration, and rarely challenged the rampant nonsense around him. On the other hand, to be the most "in American history," he has to beat out some seriously powerful and dangerous bureaucrats. Of the top of my head: J Edgar Hoover, Floyd Dominy, Harry Anslinger, Andrew Mellon, Alan Greenspan, Edward Teller, Allen Dulles, Henry Kissinger -- when you start getting into spooks and warlords, the list mushrooms. And beneath the Federal level, you get characters like Robert Moses and William Mulholland -- you can make a pretty strong case for them.
Luke Epplin: Our Team: The Epic Story of Four Men and the World Series That Changed Baseball (2021, Flatiron Books). On the 1948 Cleveland Indians, the first team to integrate in the American League (actually in 1947, after Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers). The four men are owner Bill Veeck ("as in wreck"), Larry Doby (young black outfielder), Bob Feller (Hall of Fame pitcher, not one of his better years at 19-15 -- actually Bob Lemon had the better year, at 20-14, 2.82 ERA, plus 2-0 in the World Series), and Satchel Paige (old black pitcher). Whereas Dodger GM Branch Rickey looked for a can't miss black player in his prime (Robinson was a 28-year-old rookie in 1947, hit .297, with 125 runs, 12 HR and 29 SB), Veeck sought to blow up all the rationalizations (at least too green and too old) why blacks couldn't play in the majors. Feller was the team's star, but Cleveland hadn't come close until 24-year-old Doby hit .301 with 14 HR and 41-year-old Paige went 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA. By the way, Veeck continued to break patterns in hiring black players, adding Luke Easter and Minnie Minoso in 1949.
Philip H Gordon: Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East (2020, St Martin's Press): Certified foreign policy mandarin, Obama's Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs (2009-13) and White House Coordinator for the Middle East (2013-15), so he's had plenty of opportunity to see "well-intentioned plans" go awry: Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the coup that ended Egypt's brief democracy all occurred on his watch. He also inherited the longer-term consequences of Bush's signature regime change projects: Afghanistan and Iraq. Not to mention efforts going back to 1953 to decide who rules Iran, and for whom. Despite all this empirical evidence -- and this is just the Middle East; one could write similar books on Latin America, Africa, and the Far East -- not clear whether Gordon spells out the core fallacy behind regime change: the belief that other governments should serve not their own people but US national interests. Still, a step in the right direction. Albeit another example of someone who got smarter after leaving the job, having been replaced by others who have yet to learn the same lessons.
Martin Gurri: The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium (2014; 2nd Edition, 2018, Stripe Press): Former CIA analyst, complains about how the glut of "open media" today limits the ability of elites to hoodwink the public, leaving most people deeply distrustful. Second edition offers an "I told you so" on Trump, although the list of things he claims to have anticipated also includes Brexit and Arab Spring. I read Sean Illing's interview with this guy at Vox, and didn't get anything useful out of it. I suspect two problems. One is that "elites" have become much more compartmentalized over time: while they still dominate their institutions, they are less linked, and as such have less influence beyond their limited spheres of control. Someone should take a shot at updating C Wright Mills' The Power Elite, not that such a task will be easy. The second is that while elites may have had some widespread value in the past, their prime directive has always been self-preservation, and that becomes harder the easier it is for the public to examine their lives. The simplest explanation for the "revolt of the public" is that most people have come to know better than to trust elites. That some charlatans and posers like Trump have taken advantage only shows that the loss of trust has caused some confusion.
Sarah Jaffe: Work Won't Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone (2021, Bold Type Books): Antonio Gramsci had a concept he called Fordism, where factory work had become so thoughtlessly repetitive workers could disengage and let their minds wander, in some sense reclaiming their own time. That turned out to be a phase, as machines claimed most of those jobs. Since then companies have an ever larger slice of worker time and mind share, as jobs (or more fashionably, careers) follow you home and fill your dreams. This surveys a wide range of work, the common denominators that the employer demands ever more while returning what? Since the 1970s, economists have been preaching that businesses have only one purpose, which is to maximalize investor returns, and as that lesson sunk in, management has become hard pressed to offer any comfort to their workers. Sure, workers are encouraged to find their own value in their dedication. But the returns go elsewhere. Related:
Mike Konczal: Freedom From the Market: America's Fight to Liberate Itself From the Grip of the Invisible Hand (2021, New Press): Drawing on a wide range of historical examples, tries to make the case that the path to greater freedom comes through more free things. Eight chapters, each starting with "Free": Land, Time, Life, Security, Care, Health, Economy, and Education. This contrasts with the neoliberalism, which tries to create markets for everything, assuming their magic will always work for the best.
Ivan Krastev/Stephen Holmes: The Light That Failed: Why the West Is Losing the Fight for Democracy (2020, Pegasus Books): Maybe because the West doesn't really believe in democracy? I mean, sure, it's OK for us, within the constraints of corporate-owned media, but what happens with impoverished masses start electing parties that favor popular interests over those of business elites? You get coups like Guatemala, Iran, Greece, Congo, Brazil, Argentina, Indonesia, Chile (all US-backed, 1950s-1970s), or maybe something more subtle, like the "Washington Consensus" IMF, or the ECB's limits placed on Greece's Syriza government. Trump's "coddling" of authoritarians and plots to overthrow left-leaning governments in Venezuela and Bolivia isn't new policy not likely to change in the Biden restoration. Holmes wrote a good book back in 2007: The Matador's Cape: America's Reckless Response to Terror. Krastev runs something called the Centre for Liberal Strategies, in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Charles A Kupchan: Isolationism: A History of America's Efforts to Shield Itself From the World (2020, Oxford University Press): The first thing to understand about "isolationism" is that it was a word invented to discredit anyone opposed to or skeptical of the global interventionism which developed in and around the Second World War and its anti-communist aftermath -- a formula which has led to endless war and great hardships at home. Before the rise of "liberal internationalism" Americans, starting with George Washington, sought to interact with the world without forming imperial alliances or (for the most part) foreign colonies. Kupchan understands this, but still warns about a resurgence of "isolationism" as a backlash against the repeated failures of the interventionists. It's a phony argument, aimed at no one real, its sole purpose to shelter the disastrous record of its partisans.
Diana Lind: Brave New Home: Our Future in Smarter, Simpler, Happier Housing (2020, Bold Type Books): As far as I can tell, another entry in a recent flurry of books arguing for denser urban living -- antecedents include David Owen's Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability, perhaps even Jane Jacobs' pro-urban Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) and James Howard Kunstler's anti-suburban The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape (1993). I suspected this new urbanism took a hit with the 2020 pandemic, but maybe it's more important than ever. Related books:
Bjorn Lomborg: False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet (2020, Basic Books): The "skeptical environmentalist" (title of his 2001 book) is still in business, as one of the most skillful opponents of climate change activism, not really trying to deny the problem but always insisting that we refrain from rash acts and be conscientious about costs, offering the odd proposal that isn't acted on either -- a typical title is Smart Solutions to Climate Change, Comparing Costs and Benefits (2010). He might be more credible had he not been latched onto by companies that profit from burning carbon-based fuels. Related:
Erik Loomis: A History of America in Ten Strikes (2018, New Press): Focuses on pivotal events, from the Lowell Mill Girls Strike in the 1830s to the Air Traffic Controllers (1981) and Justice for Janitors (1990). Some are famous, like the Flint Sit-Down Strike (1937), while others were lesser known -- indeed, Slaves on Strike (1861-65) wasn't an event but a protracted, persistent resistance, like the labor's entire history, only fraught with even more danger.
Valeria Luiselli: Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (paperback, 2017, Coffee House Press): Born in Mexico City, grew up in South Africa, wrote a couple novels, wound up working in US immigration courts as a translator, helping others (mostly children) trying to find their way through the labyrinth and gauntlet. Short (128 pp) and judicious, structured inspired by the questionaires that try to pigeonhole people who rarely fit.
Mahmood Mamdani: Neither Settler nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities (2020, Belknap Press): Born of the Indian diaspora in East Africa, one way British imperialists created minority schisms in their colonies. That's not the explicit subject here, but a viewpoint, as Mamdani devotes chapters to: The Indian Question in the United States; Nuremberg: The Failure of Denazificiation; Settlers and Natives in Apartheid South Africa; Sudan: Colonialism, Independence, and Secession; The Israel/Palestine Question.
Ian Millhiser: The Agenda: How a Republican Supreme Court Is Reshaping America (paperback, 2021, Columbia Global Reports): Covers the courts for Vox, a source I've found to be invaluable. As he notes, from 2011-20, while "Congress enacted hardly any major legislation outside of the tax law President Donald Trump signed in 2017," "the Supreme Court dismantled much of America's campaign finance law, severely weakened the Voting Rights Act, permitted states to opt out of the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion, created a new 'religious liberty' doctrine permitting someone who objects to the law on religious grounds to diminish the rights of third parties, weakened laws shielding workers from sexual and racial harassment, expanded the right of employers to shunt workers with legal grievances into a privatized arbitration system, undercut public sector unions' ability to raise funds, effetively eliminated the president's recess appointment power, and halted President Obama's Clean Power Plan." I think we have a tendency to see disasters as future (and therefore preventable), but the right has long been obsessed with capturing the courts and using their power to force their agenda. While the worst may still be to come, the bad is very much with us. More on law and the courts:
Pankaj Mishra: Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire (2020, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Essay collection, scattered subjects, many pointing out how western liberals have often fallen short of their proclaimed ideals, especially where empires and colonies are concerned. Born in India, based in UK, wrote substantial histories both of western political thought (Age of Anger: A History of the Present) and of colonial efforts to come to grips with it (From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia).
Anne Nelson: Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right (2019, Bloomsbury): On the Council for National Policy, founded in 1981 by "a group of some fifty Republican operatives, evangelicals, oil barons, and gun lobbyists . . . to coordinate their attack on civil liberties and the social safety net," developing into "a strategic nerve center for channeling money and mobilizing votes behind the scenes." The group includes and/or aligns with many of the better known financiers of the far-right, like the Koch, Mercer, and DeVos families. Follows the money.
John Nichols: The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party: The Enduring Legacy of Henry Wallace's Antifascist, Antiracist Politics (2020, Verso): FDR's Agriculture Secretary, and pick for Vice President in 1940, was booted off the ticket in 1944 in a revolt that elevated Harry Truman to president after Roosevelt's death in 1945 instead of the more progressive Wallace. One of the great unanswerable questions is whether as President Wallace would have steered the US away from the "Cold War" conflict with the Soviet Union and made the UN a more viable international organization. Wallace did run in 1948, promising to restore cooperation with the Soviet Union, and was subjected to a merciless barrage of red-baiting, and was defeated so decisively that he was never again a factor in American politics, so whatever "fight for the soul" Nichols imagines must have occurred, and been lost, much earlier. Wallace was a genuinely interesting figure, worth taking a closer look at, though more for his transition from Republican farmer advocate to ardent New Dealer than for his place in any pantheon of Democratic Party progressives. I doubt Nichols is doing anyone any favors by tacking pictures of Jesse Jackson, Bernie Sanders, and AOC onto the cover along with Wallace and FDR. Other books on Wallace:
Robert D Putnam: The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again (2020, Simon & Schuster): Sociologist, wrote the famous Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000), flawed most by the failure of revival. He's still looking and hoping here, the new insight being the recognition that highly individualistic times today aren't unprecedented -- he looks back to the Gilded Age of the late 1800s -- and sees an alternative in the more egalitarian New Deal/Great Society period.
Thomas Rid: Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare (2020, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Starts with the Russian Revolution, which its protagonists saw as the first step toward worldwide class revolution, and its enemies saw as a threat to their class privileges and imperial force. Therefore, the book is largely organized around the Cold War, although the techniques and ulterior motives for lying and misrepresenting are a much broader subject.
Josh Rogin: Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the Twenty-First Century (2021, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt): Washington Post/CNN correspondent, focuses on Trump's incoherent and ineffective grappling with China. One might draw useful lessons from recent history, but Rogin's "battle of the twenty-first century" shows no understanding beyond a flair for headlines. It's not unusual for unreflective people to project their own views onto others, so it's not surprising that many Americans suspect that China seeks to rule the world -- the first fallacy there is that while the US has been fortunate to gain widespread acceptance of its ordering principles, the US never has ruled the world, and never can. Much of the world has tolerated US leadership only so long as it's been benign, which is what Trump's "America First" rhetoric threatened to undo. China's offense has been to play the US-led system to its advantage, growing its own wealth at a rate far exceeding America's, with enough size and technology to match or exceed the US. More on China and/or superpower rivalry:
Amity Shlaes: Great Society: A New History (2019, Harper): Right-wing historian, was employed by the GW Bush library (although I don't see that in her credits; instead, she won a Hayek Book Prize, wrote for the Wall Street Journal editorial board, and "chairs the board of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation"). Her mission in life is to show that everything good in American politics was really bad (e.g., her book on the New Deal, The Forgotten Man), and vice versa (see her Coolidge). This extends the hatchet job to LBJ's social welfare programs, including the immensely popular Medicare. According to Alan Greenspan, this "reads like a novel" (meaning like it was made up?), "covering the high hopes and catastrophic missteps of our well-meaning leaders." The only "catastrophic misstep" I can clearly attribute to LBJ was the Vietnam War, but that's probably now what these right-wing assholes have in mind. The fact is, the War on Poverty [sic] was very successful until Nixon came along and put Donald Rumsfeld in charge of the Office of Economic Development.
Robert Skidelsky: What's Wrong With Economics? (2020, Yale University Press): Has written a major biography of John Maynard Keynes, as well as several other interesting books. Fair to say he follows Keynes' model, but more important is that like Keynes he stops to ask what good is economics for how we live, for us to enjoy our lives. That's still pretty radical within what many of its protagonists like to call the "dismal science."
Jerome Slater: Mythologies Without End: The US, Israel, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1917-2020 (2020, Oxford University Press): A substantial (512 pp) effort to cover the whole history of the conflict, from the Zionist plan to colonize Palestine, British sponsorship of the project, the founding of Israel and the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians, through Israel's subsequent wars with Arab states and the Palestinian people. Extra focus on American attitudes and policies, which have vacillated between peacemaking efforts and reflexive support for Israel's military and colonial projects, which have made peace impossible (or, at least to right-wing Israelis, undesirable). Should take its place as the best introductory text for Americans. Other recent books:
Stephen R Soukup: The Dictatorship of Woke Capital: How Political Correctness Captured Big Business (2021, Encounter Books): Few things are more galling to the far-right than how the very corporations they work so hard to enrich betray them by trying to come off as "woke" -- anti-racist, pro-LGBTQ, sensitive to women and/or the environment. They see this as the sinister effect of the Left's "slow, methodical battle for control of the institutions of Western civilization," as opposed to a mere bottom-line calculation that there's no profit in insulting and degrading diverse customers and citizens. (Of course, where there is a profit to be gained from war, fraud, and/or ruin, there are plenty of corporations eager to jump in.) Of course, this is just one example of the crazed stupidity that the right publishes. For more recent examples:
Paul Starr: Entrenchment: Wealth, Power, and the Constitution of Democratic Societies (2019, Yale University Press). The concept here is how political actors try to perpetuate their rule by locking in (entrenching) their agenda, to make it hard to change or undo even if they lose power. Some of this is baked into the system, like the Constitution's supermajority requirement for amendments and impeachment, as well as built-in biases like equal representation for states. Some have been contrived (but are defended as tradition), like gerrymandering and the filibuster. Needless to say, conservatives are more dedicated to entrenchment than progressives (although FDR made a point how Social Security was designed to make it impossible to take away). The Republican obsession with packing the courts is probably the most obvious and ambitious example of entrenchment. Starr provides historical examples of entrenchment, and sometimes overcoming it, as with slavery.
Ned and Constance Sublette: The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry (2016; paperback, 2017, Lawrence Hill): Major history of slavery in America, from its introduction to emancipation, with particular emphasis on the business of breeding and selling people. Blurb describes this as "an alternative history," but since when does focusing on the real costs of slavery without sparing the feelings of dead politicians alternative? Sounds like what history should do. Ned Sublette previously wrote major books on Cuban music and New Orleans, while Constance Sublette has written several novels. Other recent books on slavery (and its aftermath):
David Vine: The United States of War: A Global History of America's Endless Conrflicts, From Columbus to the Islamic State (2020, University of California Press): The phrase "endless war" is a recent coinage, reflecting the fact that the very definition of the Global War on Terrorism ensures that there will always be challengers, even in the unlikely chance where "victory" appears total -- not that there are any such cases. Still, given the forward-looking concept, it's tempting to also look back, and Vine finds so many wars so far back they all blur into endlessness. More specifically, he reminds us that America was founded in conquest and occupation, bound to belief in racial and cultural superiority, and those factors have tainted all subsequent wars. Indeed, they define the blind fault lines of recent failures. After all, what is an endless war but one that cannot be won by a nation too blind to accept its futility? Vine previously wrote Base Nation: How American Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World (2015, Metropolitan Books).
Stephen Wertheim: Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of US Global Supremacy (2020, Belknap Press): Starts with an introductory section on what "internationalism" meant before interventionists -- the small sliver of elites eager to join the war against Germany, as they had in 1917 -- coined the term to slander those who recognized George Washington's warnings against foreign alliances and standing armies, many of whom were in favor of agreements to limit or outlaw war, and who supported America's "open door" trade policies. The rest of the book covers the evolving thinking of said elites during a narrow slice of time, from the fall of France in May 1940 to the defeat of Germany and Japan in 1945. Early on, when Germany seemed likely to be a long-term world power, those elites flirted with the idea of some kind of regional hegemons, where the US, UK, and Germany could split up the world. (Russia, China, and Japan were afterthoughts, at best.) But rather quickly, the elites gravitated to a postwar aim of world dominance, which became possible as the German invasion of the Soviet Union stalled, and the US entered the war both in Europe and the Pacific. Indeed, by the time the war was won, the US had bases strung all around the world, and a manufacturing economy that exceeded the rest of the world. The book doesn't cover how this ambition and capability for world domination was then refashioned into a struggle against communism and its potential anti-colonial allies, but the notion that the US should dominate all around the world made both the quest and the resistance that resulted all but inevitable. Indeed, the only force that might have throttled those ambitions was the traditional American aversion to empire and foreign entanglements, which was neatly bottled up as "isolationism" and disparaged by the postwar Red Scare. Recent books on post-WWII foreign policy, up to the present moment, where interventionist disasters have led to ever more strident denunciations of isolationism:
Daniel Yergin: The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations (2020, Penguin Press). He wrote a big history of the oil industry -- The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power (1991) -- and parlayed his reputation into a consulting company, closely aligned with the industry and hostile to those pesky climate change obsessives. So his "maps" are closely aligned with the supply of oil and gas, with only the last two (of six) sections briefly considering anything else -- most likely not as necessary change but as marginal risks.
Julian E Zelizar: Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party (2020, Penguin Press): The history of the Republican Party from 1968 on presents us with a series of major figures who tried (and partly succeeded) in moving the political world ever further to the right. Nixon may look like a liberal in retrospect, and Reagan may look like a folksy optimist, but they were among the most successful at finding pressure points that worked for the right. The line moves on through Newt Gingrich, GW Bush, and Donald Trump. This covers Gingrich, who relative to his time was probably the most extreme and ruthless, leaving in his wake an unprecedentedly shameless militancy in the Republican rank-and-file.
Fareed Zakaria: Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World (2020, WW Norton): Always quick on the draw -- his most famous book is The Post-American World (2008, revised as Release 2.0 in 2011) -- he is the first semi-famous person to weigh in on how the pandemic will change things, at least at book length. The most common take elsewhere is that it won't change things so much as accelerate pre-existing trends, something he's collected a huge dossier on. Still, I can't say as I'm impressed by "lessons" like: "What Matters Is Not the Quantity of Government but the Quality," "Markets Are Not Enough," "Life Is Digital," "Inequality Will Get Worse," "Globalization Is Not Dead," and "The World Is Becoming Bipolar." I wouldn't have bothered, but this was the best hook I could find on which to hang -- most "post-pandemic" books published so far are pitched at investors, some appearing as early as April 2020 (I've skipped the earliest):
Other recent books of interest, barely noted:
Stacey Abrams: Lead From the Outside: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change (paperback, 2019, Picador): Retitled reissue of her 2018 book, Minority Leader: How to Lead From the Outside and Make Real Change.
Stacey Abrams: Our Time Is Now (2020, Henry Holt).
Theodor W Adorno: Aspects of the New Right-Wing Extremism (paperback, 2020, Polity): A lecture from 1967.
Nancy J Altman: The Truth About Social Security: The Founders' Words Refute Revisionist History, Zombie Lies, and Common Misunderstandings (paperback, 2018, Strong Arm Press).
Hunter Biden: Beautiful Things: A Memoir (2021, Gallery Books).
John Boehner: On the House: A Washington Memoir (2021, St Martin's Press): Former Speaker of the House (R-OH, 1991-2015).
Hal Brands/Charles Edel: The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order (2019, Yale University Press).
Ian Bremmer: Us vs Them: The Failure of Globalism (2018, Portfolio).
Dorothy A Brown: The Whiteness of Wealth: How the Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans -- and How We Can Fix It (2021, Crown).
Wendy Brown: In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West (paperback, 2019, Columbia University Press): "The Wellek Library Lectures."
Jessica Bruder: Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (paperback, 2018, WW Norton): The book behind the movie.
Robert Bryce: A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations (2020, Public Affairs).
William J Burns: The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal (2019; paperback, 2020, Random House): Former State Department official, Ambassador to Russia (2005-08), now Biden's CIA Director.
W Joseph Campbell: Lost in a Gallup: Polling Failure in US Presidential Elections (2020, University of California Press): Chronicles repeated polling failures from 1936 through 2016, just in time for another one in 2020.
James R Copland: The Unelected: How an Unaccountable Elite Is Governing America (2020, Encounter Books): Conservative think tank fellow attacks the regulatory state. Same title could be written from the left.
Tammy Duckworth: Every Day Is a Gift: A Memoir (2021, Twelve): US Senator (D-IL).
Joan Didion: Let Me Tell You What I Mean (2021, Knopf): Essay collection.
Ben Ehrenreich: Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time (2020, Counterpoint).
Bill Gates: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need (2021, Knopf).
Henry Louis Gates Jr: The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song (2021, Penguin Press).
Ruth Bader Ginsburg/Amanda L Tyler: Justice, Justice Thou Shalt Pursue: A Life's Work Fighting for a More Perfect Union (2021, University of California Press).
Thom Hartmann: The Hidden History of American Oligarchy: Reclaiming Our Democracy From the Ruling Class (paperback, 2021, Berrett-Koehler).
David Harvey: A Companion to Marx's Capital: The Complete Edition (paperback, 2018, Verso): 768 pp.
Theo Horesh: The Fascism This Time: And the Global Future of Democracy (paperback, 2020, Cosmopolis Press).
Wiliam G Howell/Terry M Moe: Presidents, Populism, and the Crisis of Democracy (paperback, 2020, University of Chicago Press).
Adam Jentleson: Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy (2021, Liveright).
Garett Jones: 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less (2020, Stanford University Press).
Irshad Manji: Don't Label Me: An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times (2019, St Martin's Press).
Piers Morgan: Wake Up: Why the World Has Gone Nuts (2020, Harper Collins).
Ilhan Omar: This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey From Refugee to Congresswoman (2020, Dey Street Books): US Representative (D-MN).
Ben Sheehan: OMG WTF Does the Constitution Actually Say? A Non-Boring Guide to How Our Democracy Is Supposed to Work (2020, Black Dog & Leventhal). Executive producer at Funny or Die, founder of OMG WTF in six battleground states, "projects he's been involved with have received over a billion views."
Cass R Sunstein: Too Much Information: Understanding What You Don't Want to Know (2020, MIT Press).
Cass R Sunstein: Liars: Falsehoods and Free Speech in an Age of Deception (2021, Oxford University Press).
Julia Sweig: Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight (2021, Random House).
Michael Swanson: The War State: The Cold War Origins of the Military-Industrial Complex and the Power Elite, 1945-1963 (paperback, 2013, CreateSpace).
Joe William Trotter Jr: Workers on Arrival: Black Labor in the Making of America (2019, University of California Press).
Monday, March 29, 2021
Music: Current count 35141  rated (+28), 212  unrated (-6).
Very little I feel like adding here. Rated count is down. I blame that Peter Stampfel monstrosity, but I probably would have made up the loss had I gotten onto an archive kick. New A-list this week is marginal, but at least it's all 2021 releases. And while I don't feel very certain about Lana Del Rey, I did play it four times, so I figure I gave it plenty of chance. Stampfel only got one play, as did the live doubles from Neil Young and Charles Lloyd.
Life remains stubbornly stuck. Wrote a bit in my memoir, but not much. Spent a little more time collecting bits for a book roundup. I'll probably post that mid-week.
New records reviewed this week:
Nik Bärtsch: Entendre (2019 , ECM): Swiss pianist, has an impressive string of albums since 2000, most with his Ronin and Mobile groups, where he seems more intent on improvising rhythm than melody. This is solo, several pieces looking back. The opener wanders, but he eventually returns to form. B+(**)
Lana Del Rey: Chemtrails Over the Country Club (2021, Polydor/Interscope): Singer-songwriter, seventh studio album since 2012, following up her hugely acclaimed Noran Fucking Rockwell with something slower, softer, harder to grasp. Closes with a Joni Mitchell song, leaving precisely that impression. Not sure that's right, but two plays leave me wondering how much more work to put into it. B+(**)
Floating Points/Pharoah Sanders & the London Symphony Orchestra: Promises (2021, Luaka Bop): British electronica producer Sam Shepherd, three previous albums, puts his classical training and passion for jazz to good use. The saxophonist is the draw here, the other bits of minor interest. B+(**) [bc]
Amit Friedman: Unconditional Love (2018 , Origin): Israeli saxophonist (tenor/soprano), third album, backed by piano-bass-drums, plus oud and/or percussion on a couple tracks. Nice tone. I don't care for the two vocal pieces. B [cd]
Ghetts: Conflict of Interest (2021, Warner): British rapper Justin Clarke, third studio album plus six mixtapes. Grime beats, thoughtful lyrics. B+(*)
Barry Guy: Irvin's Comet (2019 , NoBusiness): British bassist, leader of London Jazz Composers Orchestra, offers an impressively varied solo performance. B+(*) [cd]
Chris Hopkins: Meets the Jazz Kangaroos: Live! Vol. 1 (2020, Echoes of Swing): Retro-swing pianist, based in Germany, mostly records as Echoes of Swing. I haven't found anything else by the Jazz Kangaroos, but they're Australian, led by violinist/vocalist George Washingmachine, with David Blenkhorn (guitar) and Mark Elton (bass). Standards, ends with "Fine and Dandy." Vocals are passable, but the violin moves this into Hot Club territory. B+(**)
Jonathan Kane and Dave Soldier: February Meets Soldier String Quartet (2020 , EEG): Kane plays drums, guitar, and bass. Soldier is credited with strings. Four extended riff pieces, "file under rock-blues-jazz-experimental. B+(**) [cd]
Achim Kaufmann/Ignaz Schick: Altered Alchemy (2016 , Zarek, 2CD): German pianist, fairly prolific since 2004, takes the lead here, with Shick adding more-or-less ambient noise (turntables, sampler, live electronics). B+(**) [cd]
Mark Lewis Quartet: Naked Animals (2019-20 , Audio Daddio): Alto saxophonist, also plays flute, backed by piano, bass, drums. Albums date back to 1979, and title cut here may have been recorded in 1990 (liner notes unclear). B+(*) [cd] [04-02]
Loretta Lynn: Still Woman Enough (2007-20 , Legacy): Fourth album since 2016 produced by John Carter Cash, all including sessions from 2007 plus later songs. I don't know the mix, but she's 88 now, and had a stroke in 2017 which delayed the release of Wouldn't It Be Great. So it's surprising she sounds so steady all the way through this one. Helps that it's short (35:09), mostly built arounnd new versions of her classics, padded out with three gospel pieces (including the creepy "I Don't Feel at Home Anymore." Still, happy to hear her singing so strong. A-
Magnet Animals: Fake Dudes (2020 , RareNoise): Guitarist Todd Clouser, originally from Minneapolis, based in Mexico City, also sings and talks, second album for this group -- Eyal Maoz (guitar), Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz (bass), Jorge Servin (drums) -- also has another trio, A Love Electric, and other projects back to 2006. Not sure about the lyrics, but the guitar improvs stagger, even if they lean to the rock side of fusion. A- [cdr]
Mai-Liis: Mai-Liis on Life (2019-20 , OA2): Singer-songwriter, originally from Toronto, based in Vancouver (or maybe Seattle), first album, gets help from pianist Darin Clendenin with the melodies. Backed by piano trio, plus guest spots on most songs. B+(**) [cd]
Wu Man/Kojiro Umezaki: How (2019 , In a Circle): China meets Japan in Los Angeles with this pipa and shakuhachi duo. B+(*) [cd]
Ben Patterson: Push the Limits (2020 , Origin): Trombonist, originally from Oklahoma, spent 22 years in the US Air Force's Airmen of Note, now based in DC, has a couple previous albums (including one featuring Chris Potter), not the pianist Ben Paterson (who has albums on the same label). Quintet, Shawn Purcell's guitar the other lead, plus keyboards (Chris Ziemba), bass, and drums. B+(*)
Ignaz Schick/Oliver Steidle: Ilog2 (2020 , Zarek): German duo, Schick on turntables and electronics, Steidle drums and more electronics, both with discographies dating back to early 2000s. Feints toward noise, but an early bit with sampled vocals reminded me of DJ Shadow, and the drumming ultimately nudged this over. Their previous Ilog came out in 2015. A- [cd]
Peter Stampfel: Peter Stampfel's 20th Century in 100 Songs (2021, Louisiana Red Hot): One song per year, $60 for CDs (not sure how many, but at least 4) with an 88-page booklet that's bound to be interesting. Stampfel has one of the most distinctive voices ever, but tones down the weirdness that's been his stock and trade, while still wandering eclectically. Hit and miss, especially later years. B+(**) [bc]
Recent reissues, compilations, and vault discoveries:
Edo Funk Explosion Vol. 1 (1980-85 , Analog Africa): From Benin City, in south-central Nigeria, twelve tracks, 78:37, limited to three major artists of the period: Akaba Man, Sir Victor Uwaifo, and Osayomore Joseph. B+(**)
Allen Ginsberg's The Fall of America: A 50th Anniversary Musical Tribute (2021, Ginsberg): Fifty years after publication of the poet's The Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965-1971, adds new music to 20 poems, many read by Ginsberg himself. Dedicated to the late Hal Willner, figuring this is the sort of production he might have done. (Willner produced another Ginsberg project, The Lion for Real, in 1989.) B+(**)
La Ola Interior: Spanish Ambient & Acid Exoticism 1983-1990 (1983-90 , Bongo Joe): I was attracted to this by the fact that it's historically and geographically specific, but it doesn't sound distinct from any generic ambient compilation, anywhere, any time (well, since 1980). B+(*) [bc]
Charles Lloyd Quartet: Montreux Jazz Festival 1967 [Swiss Radio Days Volume 46] (1967 , TCB, 2CD): Saxophonist, debut 1964, by 1967 was playing the Fillmore and Monterey, like a potential star. Young quartet here, fast becoming famous: Keith Jarrett (piano), Ron McClure (bass), and Jack DeJohnette (drums). The leader is hit-and-miss, leaving a lot of space to the band. The drummer is especially sharp. B+(**)
Now That's What I Call Music! Outlaw Country (1968-2015 , NOW): I've never bothered with this series or any of its offshoots -- the flagship line is up to 78 volumes now, and Now This Is What I Call Country is up to 10. Needless to say, this is envisioned as another series, most likely with the usual diminishing returns. Still, "outlaw country" started with a compilation, and that's always seemed like its natural format. No surprise that the core comes from the 1970s. The three post-2000 songs (Chris Stapleton, Jamey Johnson, Miranda Lambert) don't fit the bill, but are gritty enough to fit in. B+(***)
Joe Strummer: Assembly (1986-2002 , Dark Horse): Clash frontman, had a checkered solo career brought to a sudden end by a massive coronary in 2002 (age 50). Three previously unreleased live versions of Clash songs, most of the rest from his three Mescaleros albums (1999-2003). About half of this is also on the 2-CD 001, and every bit as erratic. Too bad. B+(**)
Neil Young With Crazy Horse: Way Down in the Rust Bucket (1990 , Reprise, 2CD): Another bootleg (originally appeared as Feedback Is Back and Home Grown in 1991), given an official release: 19 songs, 6 topping 10 minutes, total 156:59. Slot after Freedom and Ragged Glory, a return to form after wasting much of the 1980s experimenting with electronics and/or horns. Familiar songs here, most memorably from a decade earlier. Can't say as they're exceptional takes, but far from disappointing. B+(**)
Allen Ginsberg: Songs of Innocence and Experience (1970, MGM/Verve Forecast): The beat poet recorded many readings of his works, but this is something else, as he set 18th-century English poet William Blake's "Songs" to music -- drawn on English folk models, but not too rigidly. Aided by jazz-oriented musicians -- notably Don Cherry and Bob Dorough -- Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky sing inexpertly, with others pitching in. B+(***)
Allen Ginsberg: The Complete Songs of Innocence and Experience (1970 , Omnivore, 2CD): Reissue adds a second disc of "Blake Songs" and three "Mantras." Not as much fun as the original, but that's here too. B+(**)
A Love Electric: Son of a Hero (2014, Ropeadope): Guitarist-vocalist's Todd Clouser trio, with Aaron Cruz (bass) and Hernan Hecht (drums), fifth album since 2010. Songs predominate, which may not be the band's strong suit. B
A Love Electric: A Permanent Immigrant (2020, Imagination Demand): Leans harder into the trio's sound, occasionally with spoken vocals which cut against the grain. B+(*)
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Monday, March 22, 2021
Music: Current count 35113  rated (+31), 218  unrated (-5).
More old music than new, again. Probably too early to call that a trend, but the relative ease of processing familiar artists was the main thing that pushed the rated count above 30 this week. Old jazz this week. Started with a friendly link to Drums Parade, which might have rated higher had I given it more time, which would have happened if I had an actual CD to look at while it played. Some good stuff there, especially toward the end. That led to Sid Catlett and Baby Dodds. I might note that The Chronological Cozy Cole 1944 is even better than the Catlett. And the reminder that most of the trad jazz albums on American Music are on Napster pointed me to New Orleans clarinetist George Lewis. I also thought I'd check out Joe Chambers' back catalog after not liking his new album, and didn't much care for the old ones either. Oh, well.
By the way, I counted up Chambers' Blue Note albums for the review below, but held back from noting my guess of how many A-list albums he was on. It think that guess was 10-12, but when I checked, famous albums by Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Sam Rivers, Wayne Shorter, and McCoy Tyner fell short. Here's the actual list (all A-):
Since I'm no longer tracking new releases, I'm having some trouble finding new things I want to listen to. Some records below come from Phil Overeem, who seems to be struggling a bit himself. I doubt I'll ever manage the 7-CD Julius Hemphill box, or for that matter William Parker's 10-CD Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World. (I have a promo sampler of the latter, and haven't bothered to play it yet.) More likely I will check out Peter Stampfel's 20th Century in 100 Songs, as it seems to be complete on Bandcamp (minus the "88 pages of liner notes," which is likely to make a difference).
Laura's been bugging me to stream movies, especially ones that got nominated for awards. I haven't been enjoying them much, but as best I can recall, here's a graded list, consulting the Wikipedia list (also for 2021), plus a few titles I picked up from IndieWire's "50 Best Movies":
The Small Axe movies might deserve higher ratings, but they're very different, and I hedged because we didn't bother with the other three. Collectively, they're more like a limited series, which would move them into another, and more competitive, set. We haven't been to the movie theater since Bill Warren sold out his local chain (roughly a year before Covid-19 shut it down), in large part because my patience for 2-hour movies has worn thin. We watch a fair number of TV series, and I'm much happier with their pacing, character development, and story telling.
I don't have any opinions on actors, except that Amanda Seyfried was good in Mank, and Gary Oldman wasn't. Note no less than three appearances for America's nemesis, J Herbert Hoover, and they were all merciless. The music films bothered me in lots of ways, but rarely for their music -- one minor exception was how Audra Day mastered Billie Holiday's tics but missed the seamless phrasing that made them seem natural. I also didn't like the treatment of Lester Young, who has a story worth exploring on its own (although hopefully not by anyone so ham-fisted). (By the way, neither point figures in Nitish Pahwa's What's fact and what's fiction in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, but if you watch the film, you'll be wondering.)
I feel a bit weird about not writing Weekend Roundup any more, as my Sundays have become days of rest instead of intense pressure in such a sisyphean task. Every now and then I think of writing a standalone piece, but only pulled it off once so far. One idea that appears to have rotted on the shelf was a piece torching Keith C Burris' Two cults column. I'm not sure which is worse: the notion that because the right-wing has become a cult, anything on the left must be equally cultish; or that George Will and Barry Goldwater somehow constitute the vital center of American political thought.
On the other hand, I did finally knuckle down and write a couple pages for my memoir. Not much, but a step toward restarting after February's freeze up. Also, I got my second Covid-19 vaccination last week. Still have a couple weeks until Laura gets her second. After which I hope to cook something for some long-neglected friends. I won't claim that's a return to normal, but seems like a step in the right direction.
New records reviewed this week:
Joe Chambers: Samba De Marcatu (2020 , Blue Note): Drummer, I associate him with Blue Note albums of the late 1970s (I count 24 from 1964-69, including 9 with Bobby Hutcherson), has more than a dozen albums under his own name since 1974. By the way, he picked up vibraphone, which he overdubs here, along with various percussion instruments. One thing I don't associate him with is Brazilian (or Latin) music. Even here, it only enters as occasional whiffs (especially with the two guest vocals). B
Charley Crockett: 10 for Slim: Charley Crockett Sings James Hand (2021, Son of Davy): Hand was a country singer-songwriter, died last year at 67. I sampled two of his albums, rated both high B+. Crockett is much younger, but survived his own health scare in 2019, so that may have factored in here. Or maybe he was just looking for better songs. B+(**)
Rebecca Dumaine and the Dave Miller Trio: Someday, Someday (2020 , Summit): Standards singer, half-dozen albums, swapped billing order with Miller's piano trio on number four. Bright voice, plenty of poise, can't say I enjoyed this particular batch of songs, but they were catchy and nicely turned out. B+(*) [cd]
Michael and Peter Formanek: Dyads (2019 , Out of Your Head): Famous bassist and his unknown son, playing tenor sax and clarinet, probably his first album. Something more than a nice duo album, the bass solos could stand on their own, but the extra color and shading extends interest, in this case all the way to 72:36. A- [cd]
George Haslam/Joăo Madeira/Padro Catello Lopes/Mario Rua: Ajuda (2019 , Slam): Tárogató, bass, percussion, drums; the title the name of the studio in Lisbon where this was recorded. Haslam, also notable as a baritone saxophonist, has a long career in the British avant-garde, thirty-some albums since 1989 (few I've heard, nearly all on this label, which Haslam owns but which has hosted dozens of other musicians). B+(***) [cd]
Marcus Joseph: Beyond the Dome (2021, Jazz Re:freshed): British alto saxophonist/spoken word artist, has a previous EP. Opener is a pretty irresistible groove piece, at least once the tuba jumps in. The spoken word is neither here nor there, but I would have cut the album one track short, omitting singer Randolph Matthews' feature. B [bc]
Reza Khan: Imaginary Road (2020 , Painted Music): Guitarist, from Bangladesh but based in New York, sixth album, silky grooves, often augmented by other slick guitarists (Sergio Pereira, Miles Gilderdale). B- [cd] [03-26]
Joăo Madeira/Hernâni Faustino: dB Duet (2020 , FMR): Double bass duo, Portuguese, Faustino best known for RED Trio, Madeira has a much shorter discography starting in 2015. Sonic range is limited (as expected), but much of interest going on. B+(***) [cd]
Roberto Magris & Eric Hochberg: Shuffling Ivories (2019 , JMood): Italian pianist, couple dozen records since 1990, duo here with the American bassist, recorded in Chicago. Fluid, light touch, very nice. B+(**)
Logan Richardson: Afrofuturism (2020, WAX Industry): Alto saxophonist, impressive FSNT debut in 2006, has been erratic since then. B [bc]
Schapiro 17: Human Qualities (2020 , Summit): Big band, second album, leader Jon Schapiro composed 7 (of 8) pieces, the sole cover from Ewan MacColl, but doesn't play. Roberta Piket (piano), Eddie Allen (trumpet), Deborah Weisz (trombone), and Sebastien Noelle (guitar) are among the better known musicians. Solid group. B+(**) [cd]
Zoe Scott: Shades of Love (2020, Zoe Scott Music): Singer, originally from London, left for Rome, then Los Angeles, acted, sang in rock bands. Has a couple albums, this one leaning toward bossa nova, mostly Jobim and Bacharach, but also slips in Chrissie Hynde, Stevie Wonder, and Amy Winehouse ("I'm No Good). B+(*) [cd]
Archie Shepp & Jason Moran: Let My People Go (2017-18 , Archieball): Tenor sax and piano duo, recorded at two European festivals (Paris and Mannheim). I've lost track of the pianist since he retreated to his own label and stopped promotion, but he is secondary here anyway. High point is Shepp inching his way through gorgeous ballads (like "Lush Life"). Low point is probably his singing, but only when the spirit moves him. B+(***) [bc]
Ruth Weiss: We Are Sparks in the Universe to Our Own Fire (2018 , Edgetone): Beat poet, born 1928 in Berlin, died 2020. She grew up in Vienna, managed to keep one step ahead of the Nazis, moving to Amsterdam in 1938, then to America, eventually San Francisco. She has some twenty books of poetry since 1958, and several jazz albums. Fairly minimal backing, with synth, bass, wooden log, and tasty squibbles of Rent Romus sax and flute -- puts this record over the top. By the way, Romus credits George Russell with introducing him to Weiss (in 2013). A-
Recent reissues, compilations, and vault discoveries:
Emmylou Harris and the Hot Band: Hot Night in Roslyn: 1976 Radio Broadcast Recording (1976 , Hobo): She had a couple solo albums out, and most recently co-credit on Gram Parsons' posthumous Grievous Angel. Parsons provides most of the song list here, with a nod to Patsy Cline ("Sweet Dreams"), Merle Haggard ("The Bottle Let Me Down"), Chuck Berry ("C'est La Vie"), Buck Owens ("Together Again"), Hank Williams ("Jambalaya"), and others nearly as obvious. This surfaced as a bootleg in 2014, but looks to be official now. B+(***)
Juju: Live at 131 Prince Street (1973 , Strut): Saxophonist Plunky Nkabinde and what I take to be a mostly African group -- later known as Oneness of Juju -- including Babatunde on congas and Lon Moshe on vibraphone. The address was Ornette Coleman's gallery, and the music fits the bill. Seven long pieces (114:44), Pharoah Sanders' "Thembi" a highlight, but they're all rearkable. A- [bc]
Byard Lancaster: My Pure Joy (1992 , Strut): Saxophonist (1942-2012), should be better known for his 1970s work, which I think of as black power/avant-garde fusion -- an attempt to make the latter more accessible by making it more political. Starts out with flute here, backed by "Drummers From Ibadan." B+(***) [bc]
Sid Catlett: The Chronological Sid Catlett 1944-1946 (1944-46 , Classics): One of the great swing drummers (d. 1951 at 41), mostly leading his own groups including a quartet with Ben Webster, plus a couple tracks each led by Edmund Hall and Al Casey. Nearly everything directly under Big Sid's name, but he played with everyone from Armstrong and Henderson through Condon and Goodman and Hawkins and Young and on to Byas and Gillespie. I don't have full credits here, but Art Tatum and Barney Bigard are on the jam session opener, and Illinois Jacquet comes along later. Closes with two blues vocals and two boogie tracks. A-
Joe Chambers: The Almoravid (1971-73 , Muse): Drummer, first album as leader, four originals, covers of Joe Zawinul and Andrew Hill, titles rooted in Muslim world. Recorded in three sessions, only one with horns -- Woody Shaw (trumpet) and Harold Vick (flute/tenor sax). B
Joe Chambers: Phantom of the City (1991 , Candid): A live set at Birdland, Bob Berg (tenor sax) getting second tier type, smaller for Philip Harper (trumpet), George Cables (piano), and Santi Debriano (bass). Postbop, seven pieces stretched out, some good spots for Berg. B+(*)
Joe Chambers: Mirrors (1998 , Blue Note): Plays vibes as well as drums in his return to Blue Note. Some quintet tracks with Eddie Henderson (trumpet), Vincent Herring (saxes), Mulgrew Miller (piano), and Ira Coleman (bass), or subsets all the way down to solo. B+(*)
Baby Dodds: Baby Dodds (1944-45 , American Music): New Orleans drummer (1898-1959), brother of clarinetist Johnny Dodds, played from 1918 with Sonny Celestin, Fate Marable, and King Oliver, following Louis Armstrong through his Hot Five and Hot Seven groups. Mostly talking and drum solos -- special interest, but gives you an idea how much thought goes into his craft -- with a few group cuts interspersed. B+(*)
Baby Dodds: Jazz A' La Creole (1946-47 , GHB): Several sessions (some only dated "Mid 1940s"), but the 1946 trio included Albert Nicholas (clarinet) and Don Ewell (piano), and the 1947 quintet had Nicholas and James P. Johnson (piano), plus an uncredited singer (Dodds?). B+(***) [yt]
Drums Parade: From New Orleans to Swing 1937/1945 (1937-45 , Jazz Archives): French label used by EPM Musique for 160+ CD compilations vintage jazz released 1988-2004. I bought at least a dozen back in the day, so when I saw the link, I figured this would be fun. For what it's worth, the New Orleans cuts are few and late: two each for Baby Dodds and Zutty Singleton, all 1940 or later. The only pre-1939 cuts are two with Chick Webb. Also skips luminaries like Gene Krupa, but gives a nod to Lionel Hampton, Sid Catlett, Cozy Cole, and Jo Jones, along with some less famous names. High point: the three-track Cozy Cole sequence (two with Coleman Hawkins). Also an especially hot ending. B+(***) [yt]
George Lewis: George Lewis and His New Orleans Stompers: Vol. 1 (1943 , American Music): New Orleans clarinet player (1900-68), played in various bands in the 1920s but didn't record as a leader until these sessions. In the 1950s he became the most famous of New Orleans revivalists, perhaps because he got in early and never wavered. B+(***)
George Lewis: George Lewis and His New Orleans Stompers: Vol. 2 (1943 , American Music): Eleven pieces, but four are alternate takes, all exciting. B+(***)
George Lewis: At Manny's Tavern 1949 (1949 , American Music): Credits include cornet, two trumpets, and a second clarinet player (Bill Shea), with Lewis also switching to alto sax. B+(***)
George Lewis: Hello Central . . . Give Me Doctor Jazz (1953 , Delmark): Radio shot from San Francisco, the clarinetist leading a septet with trumpet (Kid Howard), trombone (Jim Robinson), piano (Alton Purnell), banjo, bass, and drums. B+(**)
George Lewis: The Beverly Caverns Sessions, Vol. 2 (1953 , Good Time Jazz): I've long considered the previous volume, from the same Hollywood club, to be Lewis' pinnacle, but these are hardly sloppy seconds. Same septet, classic tunes, as buoyant as ever. Kid Howard and Joe Watkins each get a vocal. A-
George Lewis With George Guesnon's New Orleans Band: Endless the Trek, Endless the Search (1962 , American Music): New Orleans trad jazz, shows its roots in old marching bands without getting mired. With Kid Thomas (trumpet), Jim Robinson (trombone), banjo (Guesnon), bass, and drums. A-
George Lewis: At Castle Farm 1964 (1964 , American Music): Relatively late, showing signs of slowing down. Ends with the classics. B+(**)
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Monday, March 15, 2021
Music: Current count 35082  rated (+35), 223  unrated (-5).
Music Week is mostly a function of time, so I should be able to knock these out every Monday, as long as I spend any time listening to new or previously unrated music. That habit persists, although I'm not working nearly as hard at searching out new records. Indeed, I only rarely bother to add things to the tracking file, and I'm not following metacritic ratings at all. In theory, this gives me more time to work on other projects, but that hasn't worked out very well so far. I did finally write a possible first page for the memoir, but even after turning the lines over in my mind for weeks, I have no feel for how good or bad it is.
Seems like I don't have much feel for anything these days. Life's a chore, making it all the harder to get anything done. Took me 30 minutes tonight just to change a light bulb. (Curses on whoever invented G10 sockets! Next time a bulb burns out, I'm replacing the fixture -- and the dimmer, because it won't work with new fixtures.) Still have to do laundry tonight, and the dryer door latch is broken, so that'll be a lot more work than it should be. (Something else I need to fix, but have you ever tried ordering replacement parts?) And those are just among the little things.
Probably my fault that I don't have anything new I really recommend. (In Layers is probably the best of this week's jazz albums.) But the week hasn't been a complete waste. Still scrounging the bottom of the reggae barrel, and finding a few notable albums.
New records reviewed this week:
Baker's Brew: New Works (2020 , Psychosomatic, 2CD): Los Angeles experimental jazz group led by drummer Maury Baker, whose side credits date back to Janis Joplin and "played with" list includes Scott LaFaro (d. 1961), as well as the band Ars Nova. Second album under this name. First disc is "New Jazz Works"; second "New Electronic Works." I rather prefer the latter, although it doesn't sound very electronic. Maybe because the former doesn't sound very jazzy. B+(*) [cd]
Dan Blake: Da Fé (2019 , Sunnyside): Saxophonist (soprano/tenor), half-dozen albums since 2011, postbop quintet with two keyboard players (Carmen Staaf and Leo Genovese), bass, and drums. Runs impressively fast and loose, but not the most appealing sound. B+(**)
Jakob Bro/Arve Henriksen/Jorge Rossy: Uma Elmo (2020 , ECM): Norwegian guitarist, albums since 2003, fifth on ECM, trio with trumpet and drums. Atmospheric, not much beyond the trumpet. B
Ian Charleton Big Band: A Fresh Perspective (2020 , none): Conventional 17-piece big band, the leader composed four songs, arranged the rest, but isn't credited as playing (seems to have originally been a saxophonist). Second album. Nothing new, but well done. Emily Charleton joins for two vocals -- I especially liked her "Everything I've Got." B+(***) [cd] [03-16]
Pat Donaher: Occasionally (2020 , none): Alto saxophonist, also a yogi, based in Boston, Bob Brookmeyer protégé, fourth album, lush and vibrant postbop sextet with Jason Palmer (trumpet), Carmen Staaf (piano), guitar, bass, and drums. B+(**) [cd] [04-09]
Satoko Fujii: Hazuki: Piano Solo (2020 , Libra): Japanese avant-pianist, tons of records since 1995, cut this solo at home in Kobe during lockdown. No idea how many solo albums she has -- certainly fewer than Keith Jarrett or Cecil Taylor, but I'm not sure about anyone else. By her standards, we'll call this "contemplative." B+(***) [cd] [03-19]
In Layers: Pliable (2018 , FMR): Free jazz quartet: Luis Vicente (trumpet), Marcelo Dos Reis (guitar), Kristján Martinsson (piano), Onno Govaert (drums). Nice balance, Vicente continues to impress. B+(***) [cd]
Lukas Ligeti: That Which Has Remaindd . . . That Which Will Emerge . . . (2015 , Col Legno): Percussionist, also electronics, son of famed Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti, studied in Vienna and South Africa, teaches in Los Angeles, widely scattered projects since 1991. This one was the result of a residency at the POLIN Museum in Warsaw, a meditation on the Holocaust. I can't much follow the singer (Barbara Kinga Majewska), so I'm missing that whole dimension. B+(**) [cd] [03-26]
Hafez Modirzadeh: Facets (2018-19 , Pi): No Wikipedia entry -- seems like a pretty big omission. Born in North Carolina (1962), Iranian descent (if memory serves), Professor of Creative/World Music at San Francisco State, has developed the idea of "chromodal discourse," which is the basis of this and other works. Plays tenor sax, in duets with three pianists (Kris Davis, Tyshawn Sorey, and Craig Taborn). B+(***) [cd]
Ben Monder/Tony Malaby/Tom Rainey: Live at the 55 Bar (2020 , Sunnyside): Guitar-sax-drums trio, recorded last March just before lockdown, a piece called "Suite 3320" (3 parts, 61:35). I've never thought of Monder as a free player, but evidently he's had an association with Malaby for some time, playing with various drummers. Good luck this particular night. B+(***)
Gary Negbaur: You've Got to Be Carefully Taught (2020 , BluJazz): Pianist-singer, wrote 3 (of 10) songs, covers include the Rodgers & Hammerstein title song about bigotry ("to hate all the people your relatives hate") and two from Lennon-McCartney. B+(*) [cd]
Reggie Quinerly: New York Nowhere (2020 , Redefinition): Drummer, from Houston, studied at Juilliard and wound up teaching there. Fourth album since 2012, postbop quintet with trumpet (Antoine Drye), tenor sax (John Ellis), piano (John Chin), and bass. B+(*) [cd]
Jason Ringenberg: Rhinestoned (2021, Courageous Chicken): Former front-man of 1980s country-rock band Jason & the Scorchers, cut a solo album in 1992, but didn't get serious about it until 2000, and often as not called himself Farmer Jason. I didn't notice much of that until his terrific 2019 album, Stand Tall. The best parts here are comparable, and it's a good sign that they are all originals (e.g., "The Freedom Rides Weren't Free"). On the other hand, he might reconsider his covers (starting with "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today"). B+(**)
Charlie Sepúlveda: Charlie Sepülveda & the Turnaround (2020 , HighNote): Trumpet player, from the Bronx, cousin of Eddie Palmieri. Hot Latin jazz group plus a roster of special guests, including Steve Turre and Miguel Zenon. B+(**) [cd] [03-26]
Jim Snidero: Live at the Deer Head Inn (2020 , Savant): Alto saxophonist, many albums since 1989, this one billed as his first live album since then, a "safe, limited-audience gig at Pennsylvania's famed Deer Head Inn." Quartet leans retro -- Orrin Evans (piano), Peter Washington (bass), Joe Farnsworth (drums) -- and the program is all standards, from "Now's the Time" to "Old Man River." B+(**) [cd] [03-26]
Steve Swell: The Center Will Hold (2019 , Not Two): Trombonist, cover adds a "featuring Andrew Cyrille," but doesn't mention Jason Kao Hwang (violin), Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello), Robert Boston (piano/organ), or Ariel Bart (harmonica). Strings are a little squelchy here, but the free trombone is superb. B+(***)
Recent reissues, compilations, and vault discoveries:
Derek Bailey/Mototeru Takagi: Live at FarOut, Atsugi 1987 (1987 , NoBusiness): Guitar and soprano sax duets. Bailey (1932-2005) was a major figure in the English avant-garde, with a vast discography I've barely sampled and never made much of. This seems typical of his abstract scratch. Takagi (1941-2002) has at least a dozen albums, from 1971 on, mostly playing tenor sax. B+(**) [cd]
Irene Mawela: The Best of the SABC Years (1982-88 , Umsakazo): South African singer, active from the late 1950s to recent, but her name is usually buried in vocal groups, some as legendary as Dark City Sisters and Mahotella Queens. Twenty-two easy going transcriptions of radio shots. B+(***)
Bob Andy: Bob Andy's Songbook (1966-68 , Studio One): Reggae singer-songwriter Keith Anderson (1944-2020), a founder of the Paragons. First album, actually a compilation of early Studio One singles. "I've Got to Go Back Home" is the one I know best from Tougher Than Tough, but all 12 songs have a gentle, knowing flow, and many have terrific sax refrains. A-
Ken Boothe: Mr. Rock Steady (1968, Studio One): The Jamaican hitmaker's first album, lays his claim to the new style, with bigger hits to follow. I rarely like Jamaican covers of American soul hits, but his "Mustang Sally" is terrific. B+(**)
Dillinger: CB 200 (1976, Mango): Lester Bullock, started as a DJ, emerged as a toaster, gangsta name suggested by Lee Perry. Early album, probably his second, had a hit with "Kokane on My Brain." A- [yt]
Don Drummond: Jazz Ska Attack 1964 (1964 , Jet Set): Trombone player for the Skatalites, credited as "backing band" here, but Drummond (1932-69) is credited with writing all 20 pieces, recorded at Treasure Isle and produced by Duke Reid. B+(**)
Clancy Eccles: Freedom: The Anthology (1967-73 , Trojan, 2CD): More reknowned as a producer and entrepreneur than as a singer-songwriter, although his name claims or shares the artist credit on more than half of these 50 singles -- Eccles has no albums, just a few compilations -- and I recognize few of the other names. Has enough moments that a single-CD edit would rate a bit higher, but still seem minor. B+(*)
Alton Ellis: The Best of Alton Ellis (1968-69 , Studio One): Genre-defining rocksteady star, singles start around 1962, but I can't date anything here before 1968 -- Discogs credits him with 19 singles in 1968, so there's a lot more where these came from, and many more years -- he recorded regularly into the 1990s, and died in 2008. B+(**)
The Maytals: Never Grow Old: Presenting the Maytals (1962-63 , Heartbeat): Vocal trio, with Raleigh Gordon and Jerry Mathias flanking soon-to-be-leader Toots Hibbert. Early tracks, not quite together although the organ points the way. Reissue adds four terrific bonus tracks, starting with their fully formed "Six and Seven Books of Moses." B+(***)
Jackie Mittoo: Now (1970, Studio One): Jamaican keyboard player, hooked up with Coxsone Dodd while still in his teens, recording "thousands of tunes," many with their house band, the Skatalites. Plays organ here, mostly groove-steady instrumentals, Skatalites minus horns. B+(**)
Scientist: Scientist Meets the Space Invaders (1981, Greensleeves): King Tubby protégé Hopeton Overton Brown, proclaimed himself Heavyweight Dub Champion in 1980, and went on to orchestrate dozens of mythic battles, encounters, and jams, of which this is one of the more legendary, although it feels like something he could do dozens of times. B+(***)
Scientist: Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of Vampires (1981, Greensleeves): More dub themes, titles add werewolves, zombies, and "Ghost of Frankenstein" to the vampire mix. Roots Radics plays, the bass gets deeper, and while I've already forgotten what the vocal was about, it was a highlight track (not that I recall which one). A-
Scientist: Scientist Encounters Pac-Man (1982, Greensleeves): Not sure what "Pac-Man" signifies here -- not a collaborator, and not likely anything related to the video game, but the cartoons on the cover suggest some kind of menace. Seems like his average album. B+(**)
Scientist: Scientist Wins the World Cup (1982 , Greensleeves): Original album offered 10 untitled tracks, later grouped as "Ten Dangerous Matches," with the addition of five "Extra Time" and one "Golden Goal." B+(**)
Scientist/Hempress Sativa: Scientist Meets Hempress Sativa in Dub (2018, Conquering Lion): Latter is Kerida Johnson, who has a previous (2016) album, Unconquerebel. She provides a center for his dub early on, although my favorite cut is Ranking Joe's feature on the closer. B+(***)
Sizzla: Bobo Ashanti (2000, Greensleeves): Dancehall star Miguel Collins, debut 1995, prolific since them. After 10 albums in 5 years, thinking rastafari here. B+(**)
Skatalites: Ska Authentic, Vol. 1 (1967, Studio One): Hype sheet describes these as "solid tracks," which is exactly right. B+(**) [bc]
Skatalites: Ska Authentic, Volume 2 (1970, Studio One): Occurs to me that these compilations were recorded over multiple years, but I'm only identifying when they originally came out. More ace grooves, occasionally developed into memorable songs, always with their crack horn section. B+(***) [bc]
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Monday, March 8, 2021
Music: Current count 35047  rated (+42), 228  unrated (-8).
I don't feel like writing much, but have a bunch of things to run through, so let's make it quick.
I finally did the indexing on February Streamnotes, so that's out of the way. Only added 74 albums in February, way down from 273 in January. I expected to cut back after a record-setting 2020, but not that much. I wound up only posting two Music Weeks in February. Illness and injury had much to do with that, but the last week didn't post until March 1, after I had gerrymandered January to leave nothing.
I still haven't moved on to any of the projects I anticipated for 2021, but did make a modest first step in adding the final Weekend Roundups to my compilation of Trump era notebooks/blog posts. You can download a copy, still using its working title: The Last Days of the American Empire IV: Extracts From a Notebook (2017-2021). Beware that it runs 2,750 pages (1,027,184 words), including an Appendix of earlier Trump-specific posts. Also, it's in ODT format, so you'd need a word processor to browse it -- I recommend the free LibreOffice package, but others should work as well.
The title is a leftover from my first compilation of poltical posts, on the Bush-Cheney years (2001-2009). Early in those years there was much bluster about America as an empire, but even then it was clear that the exertion of power against unimpressive militaries but unconquerable nations like Afghanistan and Iraq would fatally erode the post-Cold War assumptions of the neocons. By 2009 the debacle was essentially complete, but Obama came not to bury Caesar but to rationalize him, as if a smarter War on Terror would end differently. Obama's folly was such that I kept adding to the title, writing as much on his first term as I had written on eight years of Bush-Cheney, and writing a bit more on Obama's second term. One clear lesson of America's "endless war" machine since 1945 is that while it is hard to claim anything plausibly resembling a victory, it's much easier to delay and deny defeat -- which is what matters most to politicians. All it takes is deliberate self-deception, lot of money, and sheer contempt for the lives of others. For all his supposed brains, Obama turned out to be as naively deluded as any of his predecessors.
If the title seems less appropriate to Trump's years, that's partly because the damage his "America First" strategies did to America's reputation in the world seems paltry compared to the threat he posed to the Republic. Also, it's unclear how much of Trump's legacy will be quickly reversed and forgotten, and how much will haunt us well into the future. What I am certain of is that the only way Biden's "America's Back" reset works is the US starts working alongside the world instead of against it (as Trump was wont to do). But what could (and should) happen in US foreign policy is a different writing chore. What Trump did is history, even if it seems more incredible.
Next step would be to sift through that file and see if I can come up with a short but still worthwhile version -- although choices over length and utility are likely to be personal and arbitrary, so I'm not especially hopeful. I can only say that when I go back to those old writings -- and there are three previous volumes (one on Bush, two on Obama) that aren't much shorter than the Trump tome -- I'm frequently impressed by the depth of information, coherency of argument, and even the quality of the writing. I dare say most people could learn a thing or two there. But will they?
I also updated a file with my occasional notes on things other than politics and music. I doubt it's of any interest to anyone other than myself. I was looking for fragments of memoir, but didn't find much. I had written a few dozen pages some while back, and lost them among the crashes. Fortunately, it's mostly from memory, and I still have a fairly good command of that.
Listened to a lot of old reggae last week, following the recent deaths of U-Roy and Bunny Wailer. I've been playing the latter's Crucial! a lot recently, so bumping the grade up a notch was the right thing to do. I've been working off a Mojo list of The 50 Greatest Reggae Albums, which strikes me as skewed toward instrumentals and dub, but identified a few holes to plug. One thing I'm especially happy about is knocking off two previously U-graded Big Youth albums: I found Progress on LP, and A Reggae Collection on CD. Finding anything around here always seems like a major victory. None of these records are rating super-high on my all-time list (as can be seen from my reggae grade list). Best choice if you're a neophyte is still the 4-CD box set, Tougher Than Tough: The Story of Jamaican Music. I've been referring back to it regularly over the last months.
Got a first COVID-19 vaccination last week. Laura's is scheduled for Wednesday. I went to the former library downtown, but with Laura's lack of mobility, we'll try the drive-through (which has been harder to schedule, not that mine was easy).
New records reviewed this week:
Albare: Albare Plays Jobim Vol. 2 (2020 , Alfi): Guitarist Albert Dadon, Australian tycoon though born in Morocco and grew up in Israel and France, has released albumsm since 1992, including his previous Albare Plays Jobim in 2020. B+(*) [cd]
Cowboys & Frenchmen: Our Highway (2020 , Outside In Music): New York-based group, two saxophonists (Owen Broder and Ethan Helm), piano (Addison Frei), bass, and drums. Group name from a David Lynch name, but with more cowboys. Third album. The saxes make a strong initial impression, but then the flutes come out, and more postbop doldrums follow. B+(*) [cd]
The Dynamic Les DeMerle Band Featuring Bonnie Eisele: Hot Night in Venice: Live at the Venice Jazz Club (2020 , Origin): Drummer, sings some, reminds me in that regard of Louis Prima, more so when he brings his better half out a third of the way in: second third of the set features Eisele, and both sing toward the end. All standards, most obscure is the funniest ("Woe Is Me"). No horns. They've had hotter nights. B+(*) [cd]
Yelena Eckemoff: Adventures of the Wildflower (2019 , L&H Production, 2CD): Russian pianist, classical training, came to US in 1991 and switched to jazz, has a substantial catalogue since 2010, original compositions, last two albums doubles. She recorded this one in Finland with local musicians, trio plus spots for guitar, sax, and/or vibes. B+(**) [cd] [03-19]
Elephant9: Arrival of the New Elders (2020 , Rune Grammofon): Norwegian fusion band, ninth album since 2008, members: Stĺle Storlřkken (keyboards), Nikolai Hćngsle (bass/guitar), Torstein Lofthus (drums). B+(**)
Frank Gratkowski/Achim Kaufmann/Wilbert de Joode/Tony Buck: Flatbosc & Cautery (2018 , NoBusiness): Free improv: alto sax (plus clarinets/flutes), piano, bass, drums. Can get noisy, but pianist is heroic both as alternate lead and support, and the bassist goes a long way toward holding it together. A- [cd]
Doug MacDonald Duo: Toluca Lake Jazz (2020 , Doug MacDonald Music): Guitarist, albums since 1981 but more frequently of late, with Harvey Newmark on bass, adding depth without making himself conspicuous -- the effect is much like a solo guitar album, but sounds a bit better. Nice mix of MacDonald originals and overs -- "These Foolish Things" is especially tasty. B+(**) [cd]
Sana Nagano: Smashing Humans (2020 , 577): Violinist, from Tokyo, moved to Oregon as an exchange student, studied at Memphis and Berklee, based in New York, first album, with Peter Apfelbaum (tenor sax), Keisuke Matsuno (guitars), Ken Filiano (bass), and Joe Hertenstein (drums). B+(***) [cd] [03-19]
Charlie Porter: Hindsight (2020 , OA2): Trumpet player, third album, all originals, two with lyrics (sung by Jimmie Herrod, plus a rap by Rasheed Jamal and a cut with Hallowed Halls Gospel choir. Various lineups, built around a piano trio led by Orrin Evans. B [cd]
Idit Shner: Live at the Jazz Station (2019 , OA2): Alto saxophonist, based in Oregon, juggles jazz and classical repertoires with several albums in each. This is jazz, backed by piano trio, the band contributing a song each (two for pianist Torrey Newhart). B+(**) [cd]
John Stowell/Dan Dean: Rain Painting (2018-20 , Origin): Jazz guitarist, couple dozen albums since 1977, this a duo where Dean is credited with "vocals, fretless acoustic bass guitar, electric & fretless electric basses, percussion, drum programming." The vocals, mostly scat, are the problem. B [cd]
Theo Walentiny: Looking Glass (2020 , self-released): Pianist, from New Jersey, based in Brooklyn, first album, solo, all original pieces/improvs. Several impressive stretches. B+(*) [cd] [04-02]
Chris White/Lara Driscoll: Firm Roots (2020 , Firm Roots): Piano duets; Driscoll from Chicago, released an album I liked last year; White from Toronto (although Discogs attributes this album to a British saxophonist of same name) but now based in Chicago. five original pieces plus four covers, including Walton and Silver. B+(**) [cd]
Recent reissues, compilations, and vault discoveries:
Don Cherry: Cherry Jam (1965 , Gearbox, EP): Plays cornet here, already famous as part of Ornette Coleman's Quartet but didn't step out as a leader until 1965. Four tracks, 22:24, cut in Copenhagen with a pick up quintet: tenor sax (Mogens Bollerup), piano (Atli Bjřrn), bass (Benny Nielsen), drums (Simon Koppel). All nice. B+(*) [os]
Big Youth: Dreadlocks Dread (1975, Klik): Jamaican toaster Manley Buchanan, his 1972 debut Screaming Target is the definitive classic of the style. Tony Robinson produced this follow up, the riddims seductive but understated, as are the toasts, which tail off toward the end. B+(***)
Big Youth: Natty Cultural Dread (1976, Trojan): Sings more here, not much of a ballad voice although he's enough of a weirdo to get away with most of it. Exception: a pop ditty I wish I could unhear. B
Big Youth: Hit the Road Jack (1976, Trojan): Starts with four covers: "What's Going On?"; "Hit the Road Jack"; "Wake Up Everybody"; "Get Up Stand Up." Nothing terribly interesting there, although he has much more feel for Marley than for Gaye. Rest is his improvisational toasting/singing mix, impressive when he finds his groove, but he's not his best producer. B+(*) [yt]
Big Youth: Isaiah First Prophet of Old (1978, Negusa Nagast): Seems to have rounded off his rough edges without losing his faith. B+(**)
Big Youth: Progress (1979, Negusa Negast): Rasta is real, but few prophets/entertainers have enjoyed themselves more in its service. A- [lp]
Big Youth: A Reggae Collection (1973-80 , Essex Entertainment): Best-of, roughly equivalent to Trojan's 1980 Everyday Skank (Best of Big Youth), repeating 9 songs (of 15), but I happen to have picked up this one somewhere along the way. Still, no best-of matches Screaming Target (1972), but if you want more I'd suggest Blood & Fire's 3-CD Natty Universal Dread 1973-1979, or maybe Trojan's 2-CD Ride Like Lightning: The Best of Big Youth 1972-1976. Still: A- [cd]
Big Youth: The Chanting Dread Inna Fine Style (1973-82 , Heartbeat): Compilation, second on label following 1981's Some Great Big Youth, not much info on when these tracks were recorded, but they were licensed from Negusa Nagast, and they get the general vibe right, albeit modestly. B+(***)
Big Youth: Live at Reggae Sunsplash (1982 , Sunsplash): Live, skips through a decade of material, with a light touch that lets' him flow. Wish he'd skipped "Every Ni**er Is a Star," but it fades quickly as he reverts to rasta roots revival, and after the band is introduced to "Roll River Jordan," his last pop shot ("Hit the Road Jack") climaxes on schedule. B+(**) [yt]
Big Youth: A Luta Continua (1984 , Heartbeat): The struggle continues, the music getting easier while the inspiration gets harder. Still, not a bad balance. B+(**)
Big Youth: Manifestation (1988, Heartbeat): Seems like a perfectly average album, which at this stage could be taken as decline. Still love the riddim. B+(*)
Big Youth: Higher Grounds (1995, VP): His discography thins out after 1988, aside from this and another album in 1995 and another in 2006. Still, this is a pretty solid effort, unlikely to be mistaken for anyone else. B+(*)
Dr. Alimantado: Best Dressed Chicken in Town (1973-76 , Greensleeves): Winston Thompson, Jamaican toaster, producer and DJ, first (and most famous) album, various singers (two for Gregory Isaacs) and engineers (including Upsetter and King Tubby). B+(***)
Eek-a-Mouse: Wa-Do-Dem (1981 , Greensleeves): Jamaican singer Ripton Hylton, second album. Playful name, playful vocals, starting with the nonsense title rhyme. B+(***)
Joe Gibbs & the Professionals: African Dub All-Mighty (1975, Joe Gibbs Record Globe): Jamaican producer, studied electronics, started with a repair shop, built it into a sound system, hired a band, and cut hundreds of hit records. Cover is ambiguous here, with "Solid Gold," and "a Joe Gibbs production" also appearing, but credit is usually as stated. Instrumental pieces, tight, crunchy grooves. B+(***)
Joe Gibbs & the Professionals: African Dub All-Mighty Chapter 2 (1976, Joe Gibbs Record Globe): B+(***)
Joe Gibbs & the Professionals: African Dub All-Mighty Chapter 3 (1978, Joe Gibbs Record Globe): Some vocals here. I don't see the credit, and it may not matter, because they're more like cheers, mixed in with other special effects. A-
Joe Gibbs & the Professionals: African Dub Chapter 4 (1979, Joe Gibbs Music): "All-Mighty" no longer evident on the cover, although some sources still claim it. Omission probably not an admission that this is the first "Chapter" to feel like they're going through the motions. B+(**)
Joe Gibbs & the Professionals: African Dub Chapter Five (1984, Joe Gibbs Music): More, more, more. B+(**)
Marcia Griffiths: Naturally (1978, Shanachie): Jamaican singer, started with Byron Lee in 1964, sang backup and duets with Bob Marley, whose backup singers recorded as the I Threes. Second solo album, nice voice over classic riddim, but only standout song is "Melody Life." B+(**)
The Heptones: Cool Rasta (1976, Trojan): Jamaican vocal trio, one of the first groups picked up by Island/Mango for US release, but didn't have much kick. By the time Night Food (1973) appeared in the US, they tried something more roots/rasta, but it still came out rather smooth. B+(*)
Bunny Wailer: Protest (1978, Island): Second album, like his debut Blackheart Man picked up by Island in US/UK, but has never been as well-regarded -- I missed it even when I was writing the Rolling Stone Record Guide entry on Bunny. Some kind of pop move, betraying its title with soft funk, and reprising his "Johnny Too Bad" as bubblegum. B
Bunny Wailer: Struggle (1979, Solomonic): Jamaica-only album, prime political anthems although one could quibble that he sees his struggle against "the old dragon" (aka Lucifer) as opposed to more mundane sources of injustice. Five (of seven) songs repeat on Crucial! Roots Classics, which is the one you want. Without that alternative, I could have graded this higher. The other two songs are pretty good, except I could do without the "unborn children" line. A-
Bunny Wailer: Rock 'n' Groove (1981, Solomonic): Politics may be a higher calling, but dancehall pays the bills. And he delivers as advertised. B+(***) [yt]
Bunny Wailer: Tribute (1981, Solomonic): Bunny Wailer Sings the Wailers reclaimed the group's early songs, mostly his own, with scant reference to Bob Marley, whose became a huge star after Bunny and Peter Tosh left. But with Marley dying in 1981, Bunny knocked off this quickie, with seven of Marley's most famous songs. Not sure we need the extra versions. B+(**) [yt]
Bunny Wailer: Time Will Tell: A Tribute to Bob Marley (1981 , Shanachie): The label started carrying Bunny's albums in 1983, starting with an augmented reissue of In I Father's House (new title: Roots Radics Rockers Reggae). This is another, reissuing Bunny's Bob Marley Tribute plus two cuts, presumably (not that I'm sure) from the same sessions. "Bellyfull" is nothing special, but "Rebel Music" is. B+(***) [yt]
Bunny Wailer: Marketplace (1985, Shanachie): "The more we live together/the irier we shall be." B+(*)
Bunny Wailer: Liberation (1989, Shanachie): Lots of words on the cover -- one of the ways he's found to make his political points without compromising his dancehall groove. Not what I'd call an ideal synthesis, but has some merit. B+(**) [yt]
Grade (or other) changes:
Bunny Wailer: Crucial! Roots Classics (1979-82 , Shanachie): Neville Livingston claimed the Wailers' spirit even as he left the group to Bob Marley. Still, I've been playing this compilation a lot more recently than I have anything by Marley, not just because it delivers on its subtitle, but because this may be the most inspiring political music ever recorded. Also because the earworms are irresistible. Bunny just died, at 73, so let's give him his due. [was: A] A+
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Monday, March 1, 2021
Music: Current count 35005  rated (+38), 236  unrated (-13).
Last week I speculated that I might nudge this week's Music Week up a day to fit it into February. Of course, it could have been that I was in no mood to wrap up February Streamnotes. (I certainly wasn't.) However, my post on Tom Cotton's Big Plan chewed up all my time on Sunday. Then it occurred to me that February was a wasted month anyway, so why not cut my losses and get a fresh start on March. It was easy enough to move this week's reviews forward. And I can still postpone the wrap up bookkeeping a few days, so no pressure there.
I did make a dent in the new CD queue this week, but still quite a lot to get to there. Admittedly, didn't find much I liked there. Also my attempts at streaming new non-jazz (Willie Nelson, The Hold Steady, Slowthai) were also disappointing, so my only solid recommendations below are old music. I started the week listening to more records by the late Jamaican toaster U-Roy (including two recommended by Clifford Ocheltree), then stumbled onto some more reggae I felt like playing. After floundering around a bit, I decided to look for an expert list, and found this one on Mojo: The 50 Greatest Reggae Albums. I'm not sure it's a very good list, but it gave me some ideas to follow up on. I feel like sticking with it for a while. My own interest in reggae started in the 1970s, when I got on Island's promo list (although I may have had some earlier). Over the years, I've listened to a fair amount (although there's plenty more I haven't gotten to).
The reggae albums were just the push I needed to lift the rated count over 35,000. I was surprised to see that happen this week, but it's a big, round number I've been closing in on, so was just a matter of time before I would hit it. Not something I have to think about any more.
One thing I am tempted to think about is Chuck Eddy's 150 Best Albums of 1976. That was the year before I moved to New York, when Don Malcolm and I were planning out Terminal Zone, when my view of the rock world was at its most idealistic. My years in New York were richer in life experiences, and probably in music, but 1976 was when I started to feel like I really knew something.
Worth noting that Eddy's top two records are probably mine as well: Have Moicy! and Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band. Also that at the time I used to figure I had to have at least one mainstream rock band in my top ten, and he has the year's two best: Blue Oyster Cult's Agents of Fortune (5) and Bob Seger's Night Moves (7). I can't imagine I'll ever warm to Aerosmith or Thin Lizzy or Boston or Crack the Sky or Heart, but I should track down some of his disco obscurities, especially as others are prominent on my list (and we share Silver Convention's Madhouse). Personal fave I'm surprised to see here is Michael Mantler's The Hapless Child and Other Inscrutable Stories (114).
Lawrence Ferlinghetti died last week, at 101. Seems like just yesterday we were touting his 101st birthday, so I'm still more in the mode of celebrating his life than mourning his death. There was a day (many decades ago) when I read a lot of poetry, and he was the North Star everyone else rotated around.
New records reviewed this week:
Franco Ambrosetti Band: Lost Within You (2020 , Unit): Trumpet/flugelhorn player, from Switzerland, debut in 1965, father was a saxophonist (both played with George Gruntz). Group with John Scofield (guitar), Scot Colley (bass), Jack DeJohnette (drums), and either Renee Rosnes or Uri Caine (or DeJohnette) on piano. B+(**) [cd]
Emmet Cohen: Future Stride (2021, Mack Avenue): Pianist, debut 2011, has taken to looking back recently, with four Masters Legacy Series volumes and a mostly-Fats Waller joint called Dirty in Detroit (with glances toward Monk and Cedar Walton). This is a mix of oldies and original reflections thereon, mostly trio (Russell Hall and Kyle Poole), with Marquis Hill (trumpet) on four tracks, plus Melissa Aldana (tenor sax) on three of them. B+(**)
Randal Despommier: Dio C'č (2019 , Outside In Music): Alto saxophonist, from Louisiana, debut album, co-produced by Jimmy Haslip. Title track is a hymn, but with vocals sounds more like a displaced Christmas song. I didn't like it at all, but the instrumental pieces are nice enough. B [cd]
Yoav Eshed/Lex Korten/Massimo Biolcati/Jongkuk Kim: A Way Out (2019 , Sounderscore): Israeli guitarist, based in New York, several albums since 2013, backed by piano, bass, and drums. Nice enough. B+(*) [cd]
Futari: Beyond (2019 , Libra): Duo, Taiko Saito (vibraphone) and Satoko Fujii (piano), mostly the latter's compositions. B+(*) [cd]
The Hold Steady: Open Door Policy (2021, Positive Jams): Craig Finn's post-Lifter Puller group, eighth album since 2004, Tad Kubler (guitar) and Galen Polivka (bass) constants since the group's founding, while Finn has recorded a few solo albums. Something slightly off about the sound here, but the songs are deeply observant -- I doubt anyone else writes more third-person songs about women. B+(**)
Ethan Iverson/Umbria Jazz Orchestra: Bud Powell in the 21st Century (2018 , Sunnyside): Pianist, "Do the Math" blogger, has another big project called "MONK@100," so seems to be focusing on roots recently. Half originals, one Monk tune, the rest from Powell, played by Italian big band horns arrayed aroud an all-star quintet: Ingrid Jensen (trumpet), Dayna Stephens (tenor sax), Ben Street (bass), Lewis Nash (drums). Not sure why I'm not more impressed. Maybe what was radical in 1950 is old hat today? B+(**)
Jazz Worms: Squirmin' (2017 , Capri): Denver quintet -- Ron Miles (cornet) and Keith Oxman (tenor sax) are the best known, with Andy Weyl (piano), Mark Simon (bass), and Paul Romaine (drums) -- cut a debut record in 1987, regrouped here for a pretty straightforward 30th anniversary bash. B+(*) [cd]
Andy LaVerne: Rhapsody (2021, SteepleChase): Pianist, several dozen albums since 1976, played with Stan Getz 1977-79, someone I clearly haven't payed enough attention to (my one database record is 1993's A- First Tango in New York). Quartet with Zach Brock (violin), Mike Richmond (bass/cello), and Jason Tiemann (drums). B+(**)
Johan Lindström Septett: On the Asylum (2020 , Moserobie): Swedish guitarist, also plays "pedal steel and more, group includes saxophonists Per Texas Johansson and Jonas Kullhammar, trombone, organ/piano, bass and drums, plus "special guests" -- Elvis Costello snuck in a lyric, which started the album off in a hole. B+(*) [cd]
Shai Maestro: Human (2020 , ECM): Israeli pianist, sixth album, second for ECM, previous one a trio with Jorge Roeder (bass) and Ofri Nehemya (drums), this one adds Philip Dizack on trumpet. B+(*)
Meridian Odyssey: Second Wave (2020 , Origin): Seattle musicians at one point, since scattered but reconvened in Alaska to record this group album: Santosh Sharma (tenor sax), Martin Budde (guitar), Dylan Hayes (keyboard), Ben Feldman (bass), Xavier Lecouturier (drums). All five contribute songs, tightly wound postbop. B+(*) [cd]
Willie Nelson: That's Life (2021, Legacy): A second volume of Frank Sinatra songs, following 2018's My Way, same producers (Buddy Cannon and Matt Rollings), feels like leftovers, or just an afterthought. I've never quite bought the notion that there even is a "Sinatra songbook" -- he worked the same songs many others did, and while he had an exceptional knack, few strike me as being exclusively his (one here is "Luck Be a Lady"). Nelson can also be a pretty great interpretive singer, but not in the same way, and their hyped association doesn't amount to much more than famous people are conscious of one another. This album's duet partner is Diana Krall, who should be a step up from Norah Jones, but when you queue up "I Won't Dance," the one that's stuck in my head is by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. B
Larry Newcomb Quartet: Love, Dad (2020 , Essential Messenger): Guitarist, Bucky Pizzarelli a mentor, third album since 2015 although he's old enough to have three songs, including featured bassist Jake Newcomb. Quartet adds Thomas Royal (piano) and Dave Marsh (drums). Six originals, but the covers stand out more, especially the closing "The Song Is You." B+(*) [cd]
Grete Skarpeid: Beyond Other Stories (2018 , Origin): Singer-songwriter, from Norway, has a degree in Music Therapy, second album, recorded in New York, produced by pianist Aruán Ortiz, with Rob Waring (vibes), Cameron Brown (bass), and Gerald Cleaver (drums). Originals take a while to sink in, but her cover of "My Favorite Things" leaps out. B+(**) [cd]
Slowthai: Tyron (2021, Method): British rapper Tyron Frampton, debut the memorably titled Nothing Great About Britain, sophomore effort just another of many times rappers have name-checked their given names. Organized as two discs, but they only add up to 35:17. B+(*)
Yuma Uesaka/Cat Toren/Colin Hinton: Ocelot (2019 , 577): Young Brooklyn-based trio, reeds/piano/drums; Uesaka has a debut out in January, a duo with Marilyn Crispell, while Toren's first record dropped last year. This is a quiet record, with an understated strength, the pianist most impressive. B+(***) [cd] [03-26]
Rodney Whitaker With the Christ Church Cranbrook Choir: Cranbrook Christmas Jazz (2020 , Origin): Release date Jan. 15, so they missed the season, and listening to this in February is trying my patience. Usual songs, Vanessa Rubin leads a long list of singers backed by the Choir. Leader plays bass, and Sextet is ably fronted by Timothy Blackmon on trumpet. Not bad if you're in the market. B [cd]
Greg Yasinitsky Yazz Band: New Normal (2019-20 , Origin): Saxophonist, alto probably his main choice but also plays soprano, tenor, and baritone. Big band, or close enough for practical purposes. B [cd]
Recent reissues, compilations, and vault discoveries:
Hal Galper Quintet: Live at the Berlin Philharmonic 1977 (1977 , Origin, 2CD): Pianist, born 1938, steady stream of albums since 1971, always superb but I often need something extra to single out one of his albums. Here it's the horns, with Randy Brecker on trumpet and Michael Brecker on tenor sax. Discs run 51:31 and 36:08, three long tracks each, with the usual bass (Wayne Dockery) and drums (Bob Moses) solos. Superb piano, too. B+(***) [cd]
Juozas Milasius/Tomas Kulavicius/Dalius Naujokaitis/Lithuanian Young Composers Orchestra: Live at Willisau, 1993 (1993 , NoBusiness): Guitar/piano/drums, with extra participation from the "orchestra" -- most credited with "vocal, cymbal, clapping, tramping"; i.e., screams and cacophony. Not to my taste. C+ [cd]
Masauyki JoJo Takayanagi/Nobuyoshi Ino/Masabumi PUU Kikuchi: Live at Jazz Inn Lovely 1990 (1990 , NoBusiness): Japanese free jazz, something of a specialty for this Lithuanian label: guitar, bass, piano -- the pianist (1939-2015) best known for his Tethered Moon group, the guitarist (1932-91) known for several recent reissues on Blank Forms Editions. A bit sketchy, opening up space for all three. B+(**) [cd]
Johnny Clarke: A Ruffer Version: Johnny Clarke at King Tubby's 1974-78 (1974-78 , Trojan): A big star in Jamaica from the early 1970s, working mostly with Bunny Lee and the Aggrovators, signed by Virgin in 1976, and moved on to England in 1983. He released albums through the 1990s, and a few since. King Tubby adds his customary dub echoes, but this leaves me with the question: ruffer than what? B+(**)
Johnny Clarke: Dreader Dread (1976-1978) (1976-78 , Blood & Fire): Same years, but different recordings -- only song in common is "Play Fool Fe Get Wise" (longer here). Bunny Lee's productions are more balanced. B+(***)
Phyllis Dillon: One Life to Live (1972, Trojan): Rocksteady singer, recorded singles for Duke Reid's Treasure Isle label from 1966, leading up to this single LP. Mostly covers of US-UK pop hits, poorly selected ("Love the One You're With," "Something," "Close to You"). B-
Mikey Dread: World War III (1980, Dread at the Controls): Reggae singer Michael George Campbell (1954-2008), trained as an engineer, worked as a broadcaster, recorded with Lee Perry and Joe Gibbs, aligned with dub. Third album. Rasta themes, dense and dark, title track posits war could happen any minute, then attacks with weird whistles, not that he doesn't have better ideas. B+(***)
Mikey Dread: Pave the Way (1982, Heartbeat): Eighth album, but the interval is mostly dub quickies. B+(**)
Keith Hudson: Pick a Dub (1974 , Blood & Fire): Dub producer/toaster, nicknamed "Dark Prince of Reggae," died 1984 (38). Mostly instrumental, hits some unsettling low notes, but carries on. B+(**)
Keith Hudson: Rasta Communication (1978, Greensleeves): He moved to New York in 1976, signed with Virgin, got dumped, and returned with this record. He sings here, rasta/roots themes, not much dub effect. B+(**)
Prince Buster: Fabulous Greatest Hits (1964-68 , Melodisc): Cecil Bustamente Campbell (1938-2016), early Jamaican ska star, associated with Coxsone Dodd. This early compilation misses his early singles (from 1961), but includes his biggest ("Al Capone") and several others (especially "Take It Easy"). A better package may be possible, but this is classic. A-
The Upsetters: Return of Django (1969, Trojan): Lee Perry's band's first album, title a reference to Sergio Corbucci's 1966 spaghetti western Django. Perry kept the group name through 1978 (plus a 1986 album), the titles mostly drawing on movies (most famously 1976's Super Ape). Instrumental pieces, Glen Adams' organ most prominent, with a few vocal intros. B+(***)
The Upsetters: The Good, the Bad and the Upsetters (1970, Trojan): Lee Perry's second album, more instrumentals, more focus on chunky rhythm. B+(***)
U-Roy: 30 Massive Shots From Treasure Isle (1970-74 , Attack): Duke Reid productions, with U-Roy toasting over various singles, some familiar, some obscure. The only ones I've been able track down date from 1970-71, and they represent a small subset of U-Roy's singles from the period. B+(**)
U-Roy: Version of Wisdom (1971-74 , Front Line/Virgin): One of several CD reissues with similar covers. Notes say this combines two albums -- Version Galore (originally attributed to Hugh Roy) and With Words of Wisdom (1979) -- but the 1978-79 dates were reissues of the original Jamaican albums. A- [dl]
U-Roy: The Lost Album: Right Time Rockers (1976 , Sound System): Originally released in 1977 as Dubbing to the King in a Higher Rank (King Attarney, in Canada). A- [dl]
U-Roy: Love Is Not a Gamble (1980, TR International): After his big decade, he seems ready to cruise along into middle age. Tony Robinson produced, capturing his sound and style, and adding a little rocksteady groove. B+(***)
U-Roy: Serious Matter (1999, Tabout 1): Roots throwback, songs feature vocalists, most from back in the toaster's heyday -- Horace Andy, Dennis Brown, Beres Hammond, Gregory Isaacs, Third World, Israel Vibration -- old verities (like "money is the root of all evil"), possibly old tunes too. B+(*)
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Sunday, February 28, 2021
Tom Cotton's Big Plan
Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) launched his 2024 presidential campaign last week with the publication of his bold plan "to send the Chinese Communist Party into the 'ash heap of history'": Beat China: Targeted Decoupling and the Economic Long War. This comes at a time when the Biden administration is making aggressive noises about China, to no small extent because Republicans are goading him on. Biden's rhetoric in turn offers cover and legitimation for Cotton's much more dangerously extreme stance. For an "explainer" on Cotton's scheme, see Alex Ward: Tom Cotton's big plan to "beat China," explained.
Cotton's plan has two major planks. The first is to "decouple" from China's economy, isolating China from world trade, in the hopes that will lead to an economic collapse that will bring down the political order and end Communist Party rule. Something like that did happen to cause the collapse of the Soviet Union, but there are many differences between the two cases, and far more stringent efforts to isolate North Korea, Cuba, and Iran only resulted in the targeted regimes digging in deeper to maintain their hold on power.
The second plank is a set of reforms to the American economy to make it more competitive with China, and to use US power around the world to force other countries to curtail their trade with China and to buy more American exports. This section is less coherent (e.g, "the senator singles out Japan as a place that could buy more American goods, and points to Malaysia and Vietnam as having labor forces that could produce these goods at competitive prices"), and in some cases comes close to admitting that Chinese state-directed methods are more effective than the US "free market" fetish (e.g., in the production of valuable "rare earth" metals).
We need to consider four questions to evaluate Cotton's plan:
If you honestly consider these questions, I'm pretty sure you'll see that Cotton's "plan" is one of the dumbest and most reckless ever. Indeed, the answers are so obvious one might quickly move on to real puzzles, like what motivates Cotton in this case? Romanticism for the lost Cold War? Defense industry graft? The macho certitude that America can always bend the world to its will?
Let's take these questions one by one:
1. What are the risks to the US of forcing regime change on China? Are there risks so great that they would limit US action?
Regime change is a tall demand, one that few rulers are willing to acquiesce to, and consequently one that is rarely insisted upon. Even the US compromised in accepting the less-than-unconditional surrender of Japan in 1945. America's Cold War aim was containment of the Soviet Union, not regime change. So Cotton's call for ending Communist Party control of China is an extremely aggressive stance. Admittedly, the US has insisted on regime change when confronting small and relatively weak countries, like Panama, Iraq, and Afghanistan. But China is not small nor weak. China, like the US, possesses nuclear weapons and missiles that can deliver them anywhere on earth. China is about the same physical size as the US, has a comparably sized economy, and close to four times as many people. While the US may have technical military advantages, China is too big to attack, and there are major limits on how much the US can intimidate China. Conversely, the US is too vulnerable to a Chinese counterattack to risk any existential military threat to China.
Cotton probably understands that much, but is hoping to find some internal flaw in the Chinese system that will cause it to collapse if given a little push -- as happened with the Soviet Union. This view is very naive. Chinese leaders observed the collapse of the Soviet system in Russia and Eastern Europe very closely, and moved decisively to repress dissent, and to direct needed economic reforms from the top down, reinforcing rather than undermining Party power. And they've been very successful, with a sustained 30-year track record of economic growth that far exceeds the performance of any other country or system, not least compared to the US.
2. Economic sanctions are widely regarded as a low-risk alternative to direct military action. But are they effective at achieving Cotton's goals, specifically regime change?
Short answer is no. The US has tried blockades and crippling economic sanctions against a number of much smaller, less self-sufficient nations (North Korea, Cuba, Iraq, Iran, more recently Venezuela), and the net effect has been to entrench existing regimes even further. Moreover, after the US did force regime change in Iraq, there was no groundswell of public support for their "liberation" -- rather, there was an armed revolt against US occupation. The only case of sanctions working was against South Africa, where they threatened long-standing economic ties between the West and the Apartheid regime. (This suggests that sanctions might be effective at influencing Israel to reform its own Apartheid regime, although I can think of reasons to be skeptical.)
The standard response to sanctions is autarky: if you can't import goods, make them yourself. This is tough for small nations, especially those with export-dominated economies. (Cuba especially struggled, most severely after the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia stopped buying up their sugar surplus and providing them with oil, but Cuba survived nonetheless.) China is big, diverse, and already provides most of its own needs. But also China's size makes other nations doubt the value of sanctions. It's easy for a US "ally" to forego trade with North Korea or Cuba or Myanmar, but China is a big trade partner for everyone, with a lot of hard currency (especially dollars) to buy and invest abroad. And China offers the irresistible prospect of a very large market for foreign exporters and investors, and they've long plied this prospect for favorable terms. It's hard to think of major US companies who don't have investments and operations tied to China. That, in turn, buys China political favors, as when they got Boeing to lobby for approval of China's WTO membership.
3. Even if Cotton's plan can be implemented successfully without risk, is it really something Americans would and should want to do?
This is the question least likely to be raised, given how easy it is for Americans to slip back into a Cold War mindset. Right-wingers forget that the Nixon thaw with China was actually a Cold War ploy to isolate the Soviet Union, and that China was long regarded as a Communist country we could do business with. Labor Democrats worried about losing jobs to China, but that only started bothering Republicans when Trump made it an issue in 2016. Trump canceled TTP and played some tariff games, but did nothing to rebalance trade with China, let alone safeguarding American jobs. Meanwhile, neoliberal Democrats took advantage of Chinese abuses of human rights, adding to the list of dictatorships Trump was accused of cozying up to. Meanwhile, right-wingers panicked over the "rising tide of socialism" among Democrats, resurrecting the deep paranoia of the racist "who lost China?" charges of 1949-50.
Still, what difference does any of this make? The oft-repeated charge that China wants to dominate the next century the way the US has dominated the last one, but that only brings up two further questions: has domination really paid dividends to most Americans? And is domination by any country even desirable looking forward? I'd argue both answers are no, and I'd further assert that the charge reflects Americans' own dissatisfaction with their supposed rule. Policing the world is a big job the US isn't up to (and was never much good at). Bankrolling the world is another big problem. Politics in the US has been ceded to special interests, whose orientation doesn't even come close to satisfying domestic needs, let alone those of people elsewhere. Despite the absence of democratic controls, the Chinese government is probably more in tune with the needs and desires of its people than the American system is. After all, over the last 30 years, China has lifted the majority of its population out of poverty, while income and wealth of most Americans has stagnated or declined.
You can also look at the "defense" postures of the two countries. The US projects power through nearly a thousand bases scattered all around the world. The US spends as much on "defense" as the rest of the world combined. China spends about one-quarter as much, enough to control its own population, defend its borders, and deter attack, but has little presence beyond its borders. The main points of contention between the US and China are Taiwan -- formerly part of China, which broke away when Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist Army retreated there in 1949, although it had been occupied by Japan from 1895-1945; after retreat, Chiang continued to claim mainland China, and tried to foment guerrilla war against Mao's government -- and various uninhabited islands in the China Sea, which China wants to exploit economically. These are old claims, which China has been steadfast in but has pursued very cautiously. China has also fought several border skirmishes with India, based on conflicting border claims dating back to British control of India, but China hasn't sought to extend its territory beyond the disputed claims.
Chiang was a brutal and corrupt military ruler, but since his death Taiwan has developed into a stable, prosperous democracy. It would be a shame to see it incorporated into a China that falls far short of those rights, but it would take extraordinary ego and folly for either the US or China to threaten nuclear war over a 70-year-old claim. But this seems more likely to happen if the US manages to push China into a corner than if we retain diplomatic manners. And less likely to happen if China becomes even more secure in a world with fewer arms and more openness.
Of course, various Americans, for various reasons, seize every instance of political repression for propaganda purposes. These are not insignificant issues, but they also aren't things that Americans have much standing to publicize. There are international organizations which focus on human rights issues, who are far better positioned to speak out on China's abuses, but they are supported by the US only in rare occasions of political convenience, and more generally opposed because the US and its "allies" (especially Israel) are often every bit as guilty. For instance, the US complains about Chinese treatment of Uighur Moslems while the US has long detained them in Guantanamo. The situation in Hong Kong is more complex, but again you can find lots of similar examples in US management of its territories.
The US has economic grievances as well, but none are worth going to war over. Two cases Cotton dwells on are "intellectual property" rents and China's monopolization of rare earth metals. The former is a scam to force poor nations to pay tribute to the richest people in richer nations, thus maintaining the global system of inequality. US trade policy has focused heavily on rents because the people who collect them have exploited the corruptness of the American political system for their purposes. We'd be better off abolishing the whole concept.
Of course, China doesn't like "IP" rents not because they care about the principle of the thing, but because currently they'd wind up having to pay tribute to richer countries like the US. But one could easily imagine the balance of payments flipping in the future, in which case China will happily agree. One thing the rare earth venture shows is that China understands monopoly power, at least when they come out on top. In one sense, this seems like a case where a country which does national economic planning can come out ahead of a nation which trusts "the market" to make all the decisions. But this can just as well be viewed as a classic capitalist gambit to corner the market for some rare commodity. We're told that the problem is that these metals have military applications, so it would be bad for the US military to be dependent on a potential rival for resources. Of course, it would be straightforward for the US government to direct resources at breaking this monopoly. It just wouldn't necessarily be the capitalist thing to do. But that doesn't bode well for the argument that we need to kill off the Chinese Communist Party to make the world safe for capitalism.
Cotton goes way beyond these obvious complaints. He wants to prevent Chinese students from studying in US universities, on the theory that they might learn something that could be used against us. He wants to prohibit the Chinese from buying up companies in Hollywood, because he's afraid they'll use their influence to corrupt American culture. (Re-read that sentence slowly to savor every nuance.) But Cotton also thinks that Covid-19 was a Chinese bioweapon gone amok. Or maybe he just finds such inflammatory charges convenient in his crusade to make the US despicable.
It's hard to see anything in this litany of complaints where the elimination of China as a military and/or economic rival would materially improve the lot of most Americans. Sure, there may be some business interests who would come out ahead, but many more would lose markets and/or suppliers. Even professional warmongers like Cotton would be better off preserving China as a token threat than scheming without enemies (not that he wouldn't find new ones).
On the other hand, war never gives you an ideal outcome. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to the most miserable decade in Russian history, where social cohesion broke down and property was sucked up by criminal oligarchs, a situation so dire that Putin's gangsta nationalism looked like salvation. China is far less dangerous under its present order than it would be if smashed into chaos.
4. Aside from the direct costs and risks of waging economic warfare, what are the significant opportunity costs -- other things that the US should be doing -- in choosing to oppose China?
The obvious point here is that China has a lot to say about whether the world comes to grips with climate change. A couple decades ago, China was so preoccupied with development it seemed likely to use up most of the world's coal reserves, but recently they've shifted gears and started to embrace non-carbon sources of energy, quickly becoming more responsible than the United States has been.
Open source technology is another area where cooperation could be advantageous to both countries and to the world. Clearly, both the US and China could have done a better job of coordinating in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. The fact that both nations view one another in a quasi-siege mentality has made cooperation difficult. I suspect that American hostility has added to Chinese paranoia over free speech. While there is no need for Americans to approve of Chinese repression, we do need to be less confrontational about it.
For this, we must recognize and respect that Chinese participation in international organizations is essential. For that, we'll need diplomats who can see multiple sides and look for mutually beneficial solutions. And we'll need to keep "paper tigers" like Cotton locked up in their cages.
As the links at the start of this post indicate, Biden has thus far been cautious in his approach to China. I haven't noticed him doing anything grossly stupid, although he has chosen to surround himself with reflexive hawks like Anthony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, and he hasn't actively challenged the provocations of outright hawks like Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz. The Politico article quotes several "China experts" warning about a "negotiation trap," as if there was any path but negotiations that could ever lead to mutual understanding. (Said "experts" were in fact Trump's China hands, who no doubt contributed to Trump's ineffectiveness.)
On the other hand, Biden did seize his first opportunity to do something really stupid in the Middle East: he ordered an airstrike in Syria in response to a so-called provocation in Iraq attributed to a militia allegedly representative of Iran. (See Stephen Miles: Biden's Syria strikes: A perpetual cycle of endless war.) This is significant not just because it continues the "endless war" model that US president have followed since Bill Clinton found he could relieve his personal anxieties by bombing Iraq, but because Biden jumped at his first opportunity to order death-from-air. As Trita Parsi, in Biden said 'Diplomacy is back!' Then he started dropping bombs: it took Trump four months before he ordered the bombing of Syria. As I recall, the first murder Obama ordered was the killing of Somali pirates, which was an even more personal decision than the sanitized military operations Trump and Biden rubber-stamped. I'm not sure who was the last US president not to directly order some kind of military or covert operation aimed at killing people abroad. (Probably Herbert Hoover.)
Hannah Arendt referred to Eichmann's excuse that he was just following orders as "the banality of evil." I'm not sure whether Biden's callous, carefree order, made simply by approving a plan someone else drew up, is more evil, or just more banal. But the immediate effect is to throw a monkey wrench into prospects for returning to the Iran nuclear weapons deal -- a signature Obama achievement, one that Biden had campaigned on.
That's welcome news in Israel and Saudi Arabia, who never seriously worried about Iran's nuclear program but saw it as a way to manipulate Washington into an unthinking anti-Iran alliance. It's not surprising that Trump fell for the con -- the only thing that really mattered to him was cashing the checks. Nor does Biden's background suggest he's capable of independent thought in this arena, but until he realizes the need to reformulate "American interests" in terms of peace, order, justice, and cooperation, he is likely to be blindsided by the various parties convinced that projecting American power is its own virtue.
PS: For examples of the latter, see Robert W Merry: Keeping the hegemon-addicted in their proper place. Parsi followed up the bombing attack with Iran rejects meeting as Biden's slow diplomacy hits predictable snag. Michael T Klare has some constructive suggestions in: Biden, climate change, and China. Biden also has a recognizing reality problem with Russia, as Dave DeCamp reports: Biden says US will 'never' accept Russia's annexation of Crimea.
Monday, February 22, 2021
Music: Current count 34967  rated (+10), 249  unrated (-4).
I made my excuses in last week's No Music Week, so won't repeat myself here. Not much to report, but also no reason not to kick this out on schedule.
I've been erratic since Wednesday, not writing anything up on Sunday, when I was cooking a fairly serious dinner. (Salmon teriyaki, fried rice, stir-fried lima beans, some frozen potstickers, flourless chocolate cake. Picture on Facebook.) Only played the Sam Rivers album today, figuring it to be the best shot at an A- record -- may have cut it some slack, finishing my review before the long closing flute lead, so phobes beware.
Started of trying to explore the late rasta toaster U-Roy, but didn't get very far, mostly because his discography boggled my mind. I should note that Clifford Ocheltree recommended two records I couldn't find: The Lost Album: Right Time Rockers (1976 , Sound System); and Version of Wiscom (1978-79 , Front Line/Virgin). He carried on into the 21st century, but the 1970s look to be his prime time: my own pick is still the 1969-70 Your Ace From Space.
Percussionist Milford Graves also died last week (1941-2021). He had a pretty sketchy discography since his 1965 Percussion Ensemble. Some highlights include Real Deal (1992, with David Murray), Beyond Quantum (2008, with Anthony Braxton and Wiliam Parker), and Space/Time: Redemption (2015, with Bill Laswell).
Last Monday of the month, but I'm in no mood to turn over my Streamnotes file, so maybe I'll aim for a February 28 Music Week on Sunday, and feel more like it then.
New records reviewed this week:
Recent reissues, compilations, and vault discoveries:
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Wednesday, February 17, 2021
No Music Week
The last two weeks have been brutal. My wife fell and broke her leg. While she was in the hospital, I developed an infection and was sick for the better part of a week. And, as most of you are no doubt aware, it's been brutally cold in the Midwest, even as far south as Wichita (with the whinging even louder in Texas). Second longest stretch of sub-20F weather in history, hitting a low the other day of -17F. Snow more days than not, and while it still doesn't amount to more than six inches, none of it has melted. Looks like it will stay below freezing through Friday, then edge over, then finally warm up a bit next week.
Laura got home from hospital last Friday, and we've been struggling on all accounts -- although the first days were the worst, and we're doing a bit better day-by-day. Haven't been out since Friday, aside from taking the trash/recycle cans to the curb on Monday, where they remain untouched. I made a grocery store run on Thursday. Picked up a chicken (since boiled, then baked under biscuits), a piece of chuck steak (since fried, then baked with mushroom gravy), some hamburger (turned that into sloppy joes), and beef/lamb for a future meatloaf. All old family comfort dishes. Took a break from that yesterday and made a Chinese classic, Ants Climbing Tree, with cellophane noodles and ground pork, with garlic and scallions, bean paste, cooked in chicken stock. I bought the essential ingredients many months ago. We can probably go weeks pulling things out of the freezer, although staples we normally keep fresh like potatoes and onions are in short supply.
One thing I haven't done is listen to new music, let alone write about it. I usually have a bit of a down after wrapping up a year, but lately I've stuck with old reliables, mostly from the travel cases (Mississippi John Hurt at the moment, preceded by Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield). Started to stream Ethan Iverson's Bud Powell album, but only made it four cuts in. When I realized I wasn't going to have anything to report for Monday's Music Week, I reconciled myself to not reviewing anything until I do a "No Music Week" post. Main thing I wanted to accomplish there was to catalog my incoming mail, which I had neglected for a couple weeks. Took me to Thursday to catch up with the "unpacking." The resulting top line looks like this:
Music: Current count 34957  rated (+2), 253  unrated (+20).
The +2 fixes some bookkeeping errors. Related to that, note that I muffed the previous week's count, revising the rated count down from +68 to +58. Still 43 shy of 35,000. Odds of hitting that next week would be 4-6 normally, but this is no normal week. The +20 is the unpacking below. No actual reviews to offer this week, so I'm not even holding anything back. Not sure whether there will be a Music Week on Monday. Depends on whether I can shift out of this rut.
Rush Limbaugh died this week. The only time I actually listened to him was a few days in early 2009. We hired a guy to install tile in our kitchen, and he and his son came in with a big boom box tuned to Limbaugh. I was at first pleasantly surprised to find out that Obama is a socialist, but like all of Limbaugh's spew, that turned out to be way off the mark. But lack of direct contact didn't shield me from his impact. He probably ranks as the most toxic figure in American politics ever. I have yet to find any piece that remotely does him justice -- although even efforts to be "fair and balanced" show him to be totally repulsive. If you want to read something, you might start with Zack Beauchamp: Rush Limbaugh's toxic legacy. As the author points out, "The Republican Party he poisoned is very much alive."
One particular grudge I have against Limbaugh is that he used a book title I had been toying with: The Way Things Ought to Be. I've been thinking about that title recently, as I've found myself less and less interested in either writing about how vile the Republicans are -- a major concern during the GW Bush years, not that anything they've done since has blunted my outrage -- or what the Democrats need to do to more effectively resist and overcome the Republican derangement (more of an inclination during the Trump years than reiterating the obvious). That always struck me as an aspirational title rooted in basic philosophy and ethics, and that's the sort of thing I feel like working out now. Needless to say, Limbaugh's book was nothing of the sort. Published in 1992, it was mostly a hatchet job on Anita Hill. If you recall the name, you'll recognize several of the levels on which that was inappropriate. (One that I wasn't aware of was that Clarence Thomas officiated over Limbaugh's third wedding, two years after the book was published.)
Just noticed that Jamaican toaster Ewart Beckford, better known as U-Roy, has just died, at 78. I strongly recommend the one early record I've heard: Your Ace From Space (1969-70 , Trojan). But many more followed. Maybe I'll check out some more.
Minor bookkeeping points:
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week: