July 2004 Notebook
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Friday, July 30, 2004

Fixed dinner tonight for Jim and Sandy Swan. Chinese for a change of pace: trout with ginger sauce, leak-shrimp-pinenut fried rice, grilled eggplant with peanut sauce, stir fried lima beans, sweet and sour spareribs (actually not so sweet nor sour, the dominant taste coming from the bean paste). Relatively easy recipes -- should post them, especially given that I've made them quite a few times by now. Strawberry short cake for dessert. No complaints about the food.

Movie: Before Sunset. Picks up nine years after Before Sunrise left off, and has a lot to say about what those nine years mean (age 23 to 32 for Julie Delpy's character) -- roughly the transition from having your life ahead of you to having made fateful choices that leave you irrevocably on a path that may not be the one you wished for. Also has a lot to say about memory, and quite a bit more. In fact, does virtually nothing but talk -- even the Paris they spend most of the movie walking through might just as well not be there. I find all the conversation riveting, and haven't been so enthralled by a movie in many years. Maybe since Before Sunrise. A+

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Magazine: Downbeat, August 2004: Last year I did a quick brain dump around their Critics Poll results. Let's try it again, even quicker -- see if I've learned anything over the past year. Ignoring the categories for records (I've written enough on them that anything here would be redundant):

Hall of Fame: Roy Haynes. Beat out the late Billy Higgins. I would probably rank them the other way around. My own top picks among the unelected would be Lee Konitz (#11) and Jackie McLean (not listed), but I would also complain that Art Farmer and Mal Waldron disappeared from the top 14 list last year. I predict that the late Steve Lacy is going to start getting some attention.

Jazz Artist: Dave Holland. He's it because his album, Extended Play (which I haven't heard) won Jazz Album (I would have picked William Parker's Scrapbook), which also copped him a #1 for Acoustic Group. Wayne Shorter won last year, slipped to #2 this year. I would have picked William Parker or Ken Vandermark or David Murray. Rising Star: Jason Moran. Sure is.

Record Label: Blue Note. Big margin over #2 ECM, then Palmetto, Verve, Mosaic, then a big drop to High Note, Fantasy, Arbors, Telarc, and Sunnyside. High correlation here with the generosity of publicists -- something that means a lot more to critics than to the masses. I haven't bothered with Mosaic -- I disapprove of limited editions on principle, and don't esteem completism either (although most critics do). The other one I'm not connected with is High Note, which is something I need to fix -- they do good work. Blue Note's dominance over Verve has a lot to do with Jason Moran. Verve has tons of reissues, but just looking at their website makes me wonder if they're even a jazz labels these days: Diana Krall, Jamie Cullum, Katy Melua, John Scofield (once great, sure), João Gilberto, Al Jarreau? Blue Note is addled by money too, but they've been taking their Norah Jones profits to pick up Al Green, Van Morrison, Wynton Marsalis, and they keep indulging Joe Lovano and Greg Osby, who should be making better records. (Sure, Green and Morrison aren't jazz, but someone's gotta keep them in the studio, and it's an honor.) One label I'd like to point out is Nagel Heyer, which seems to have displaced Concord and somewhat supplanted Arbors in the retro-swing field. They've done this not just by raiding those labels' rosters, but by making a home for Marsalisite conservatives like Eric Reed and Donald Harrison, who have never sounded better. Also Delmark, whose jazz line has gotten quite a bit better as the Chicago scene gains force.

Acoustic Group: Dave Holland Quintet. Big margin over Keith Jarrett Trio, Wayne Shorter Quartet, Brad Mehldau Trio, then a #5 tie for Art Ensemble of Chicago and Bad Plus, which don't have a marquee leader. Although the Jarrett and Mehldau trios are stable and formidable, they are still not much more than expressions of their leaders, in contrast to the distinct groupness of the Bad Plus. Holland's group is somewhere in between: he writes, but as the bassist he doesn't project the group's sound. I find it harder to rate groups than performers, because the groups are more arbitrary. Every pianist plays piano in some context, and over time you can sort out the contexts and focus on the piano; on the other hand, the groups are often mere contexts, and few of them last long or amount to much more than the individual contributions. Rising Star: The Bad Plus. Three albums in, seems like an apt choice. Also note Vandermark 5 (#8), who would be my choice for the big prize.

Electric Jazz Group: Zawinul Syndicate. Not even sure how to define this -- presumably it's just that one or more lead instruments (usually keybs and/or guitar) are electric, not the whole group, given that Dave Douglas, Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton, and Steve Coleman rated. I have no idea. Rising Star: Charlie Hunter Trio. Hunter has yet to impress me, but Nils Petter Molvaer (#11) has.

Big Band: Mingus Big Band. Barely beat out the Dave Holland Big Band, which I thought was a one shot, one record deal (good shot, good record, I might add). Only problem with the Mingus Big Band is that Mingus in a five piece could whup their asses any day of the week. Still, it's wonderful to keep hearing such great music. For my money, the best big band to make the list is the Vienna Art Orchestra (#15), but I haven't heard anything from them in a while. Rising Star: Either/Orchestra. Didn't make the main list, and you gotta wonder why. Haven't heard Italian Instabile Orchestra (#3), which has a good reputation. Starting to warm up to the Peter Brötzmann Tentet, strange as it is to write that.

Soprano Saxophone: Steve Lacy. Not sure when he won for the first time, but if it was after 1963 he got shortchanged. Evan Parker (#6) is his most serious competition, and I much prefer Lacy. Not sure where we go next time. Most of those listed play something else most of the time -- Jane Ira Bloom and Jane Bunnett are the exceptions. Rising Star: Steve Wilson. I associate him with alto; in fact most of the list also play other horns.

Alto Saxophone: Lee Konitz. He goes back further, and is still working harder, than Ornette Coleman (#5), Jackie McLean (#9), Phil Woods (#3), Bobby Watson (#7), and Arthur Blythe (#8), to list the competition in, roughly, career value order. Rising Star: Miguel Zenón. Don't know him.

Tenor Saxophone: Joe Lovano. It may be Blue Note's fault, but I only count one A- record by Lovano since 1995's Quartets, so while I still regard him as major, I can't say he's very hot at the moment. My pick would be David Murray (#12), although James Carter (#6) is still hot, and Sonny Rollins (#2) is still the career value champ. Interesting that Von Freeman (#7) has eclipsed his long-more-famous son. Ken Vandermark is also important -- I find it odd that Fred Anderson (#11) outpolled him. Rising Star: Chris Potter. I would have counted him among the risen (#4 in the overall poll, behind Wayne Shorter and ahead of Michael Brecker), along with Ken Vandermark (#3) and Harry Allen (#10), both older than Potter, but they've worked through much more obscure labels (at least in the U.S.; Allen's big in Japan).

Baritone Saxophone: James Carter. A non-specialist, but a damn good one. Hamiet Bluiett (#3) is the obvious pick among those who specialize. Carter is more legitimate in the tenor category, where the competition is stiffer. John Surman (#5) also plays every reed, but probably belongs here. Rising Star: Claire Daly. Don't know her, nor do I know most of the people on the list, excepting the multireedists. Given that John Surman came in #11, does anyone?

Clarinet: Don Byron. Again, we have non-specialists like Marty Ehrlich (#2) placing. Don't know who I would pick, although I like Ehrlich, Michael Moore (#6), Louis Sclavis (#9), and Perry Robinson (#11). David Murray's marvelous bass clarinet work put him #10 on this list. Rising Star: Chris Speed. Not a bad choice, although I associate him more with tenor sax -- probably doesn't play it more, but for my money plays it better. Moore, Ehrlich, and Sclavis came in #2-4 -- all are pretty well established, although hardly household names.

Flute: James Newton. He always wins. Everyone else who ranked mostly plays something else, except maybe Jamie Baum (#12). I like Robert Dick, especially when he pulls out the heavy artillery. Rising Star: Jane Bunnett. Dick came in #11.

Trumpet: Dave Douglas. Beat Wynton Marsalis 2:1, as usual -- may even be pulling away. I wax and wane on his albums, but admit that he really knows his shit. Wadada Leo Smith (#9) has done good work lately. Rising Star: Jeremly Pelt. Don't know him, but I hear he's a hard bopper. Roy Campbell (#11) is a good candidate.

Trombone: Steve Turre. Thought his early albums were pretty good, but he lost me when he switched to conch shells. Still quite a player. Wonder why Ray Anderson (#8) hasn't been more active lately? Rising Star: Josh Roseman. Seems to be a quality player. Jeb Bishop (#5) was a bit of a surprise, especially considering that he is unlikely to be known outside of the Vandermark 5. Steve Swell didn't make the list, but should have.

Guitar: Bill Frisell. Guitar's not really my thing -- I like Wes Montgomery as much as the next guy, but I don't necessarily like everyone who likes Wes Montgomery, and that seems to be the majority of the guitarslingers out there. Looking at the list -- John Scofield (#3), Pat Martino (#4), Pat Metheny (#6), John McLaughlin (#7), I have to ask what have you done lately? Same for Frisell, whose best work lately has some on Mylab. Jim Hall (#2) has always been too subtle for me. Guess I'd go with Marc Ribot (#10), wondering whatever happened to Wolfgang Muthspiel. Rising Star: Russell Malone. He's #5 on the main list, the mainstream favorite, one of the Montgomerys. The guy who's impressed me most lately is Jeff Parker (#6).

Piano: Keith Jarrett. So many great pianists out there, the list barely scratches the surface (Kenny Barron, Brad Mehldau, Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner, Chucho Valdes, Herbie Hancock, Bill Charlap, Jason Moran, Hank Jones, Fred Hersch, Chick Corea -- Hancock probably has the weakest case there based on recent work, and he's a surefire HOF candidate). How about Marilyn Crispell? Rising Star: Jason Moran. No doubt.

Acoustic Bass: Dave Holland. One of the all-time greats, as is Charlie Haden (#4), but right now the guy is William Parker (#3). Rising Star: Scott Colley. Still don't have any sense of him, although he has a half dozen albums under his own name and a substantial list of sideman credits. Parker came in #6 here, but he belongs in the top category by now. Two very good ones from this list are Peter Washington (#4) and Reid Anderson (#8).

Electric Bass: Steve Swallow. Swallow beat runner-up Victor Wooten by 3:1, but he dominates this category because the serious bassists of his generation were acoustic, and the new guys tend towards funk, which Bootsy Collins does better. I don't know most of these guys, but should work on getting acquainted. Rising Star: Matthew Garrison. Don't know him, but know his father, for sure. Only has one album.

Drums: Roy Haynes. The late Elvin Jones came in #3, with Jack DeJohnette in between. My pick would have been Hamid Drake (#9). Rising Star: Matt Wilson. Don't really know him, although I know the name and reputation, which is considerable. Drake (#7) and Jim Black (#6) are my guys, and I like Chad Taylor and Ted Sirota quite a bit. Lewis Nash (#9) doesn't rank as high as Wilson, Brian Blade (#2) or Bill Stewart (#4) because he doesn't have the albums under his own name, but he's the mainstream guy to go to.

Percussion: Ray Baretto/Poncho Sanchez. A mix of conga players, exotics (Trilok Gurtu, Zakir Hussain), and experimenters (Hamid Drake, Han Bennink) -- hard to compare them. Rising Star: Susie Ibarra. I just think of her as a drummer, and she's good enough one you'd figure she'd rate there.

Electric Keyboard/Synthesizer: Joe Zawinul. Problem with picking Matthew Shipp (#7) here is that he mostly plays acoustic even when Flam is going electric all around him. Problem with Uri Caine (#3) is that this is such a small part of his work. Problem with Zawinul and Herbie Hancock (#2) and Chick Corea (#5) is that they're coasting on work 30+ years old by now. That sort of leaves John Medeski (#4), but that don't feel right either. Rising Star: Uri Caine. Pretty much the same list without the old Miles Davis crew, so confusion reigns. Craig Taborn (#2) is an interesting pick here, since he's probably better at electronics than acoustic, unlike Caine and Shipp.

Organ: Joey DeFrancesco. He has 17 albums out, and I haven't heard any of them. Runners up were Larry Goldings, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and Jimmy Smith, and I haven't heard the first two of them either (aside from a Gato Barbieri album co-credited to Dr. Lonnie), or anything from the latter in decades. C. 1960 the organ was an important instrument, but it's much marginalized now. Barbara Dennerlein is about the only one I know, and she didn't make the list. Rising Star: Sam Yahel. Know the name; haven't heard his own albums.

Violin: Regina Carter. Wrong. Billy Bang (#2). Rising Star: Jenny Scheinman. Right.

Vibes: Bobby Hutcherson. With the old generation now all gone, he's certainly the career guy, but what has he done lately? My choice would be Khan Jamal (#7), followed by Joe Locke (#4). Rising Star: Stefon Harris. Lots of people like him, but not me. Locke (45) came in #2, Jamal (58) came in (#6), Steve Nelson (49) came in #3. I don't know many younger players. Been running into Matt Moran a bit, and he seems good.

Miscellaneous Instrument: Toots Thielemans (harmonica). This is a junk category, with such worthy candidates as Howard Johnson (tuba), David Murray (bass clarinet), and Tom Varner (french horn), all worthy, none comparable, least of all with Richard Galliano (accordion) and Dino Saluzzi (bandoneon). How about Rabih Abou-Khalil (oud)? Rising Star: Erik Friedlander (cello). Not bad. Or maybe Kali Fasteau (all of them)?

Female Vocalist: Cassandra Wilson. I'd have to say Sheila Jordan (#6), who had her best album in a long while last year. I haven't followed Wilson very closely -- she is probably hipper and sharper than the next four on the list (Dianne Reeves, Diana Krall, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Shirley Horn) but as far as I know all four have made better albums. Rising Star: Luciana Souza. Haven't heard her -- at least not for a full record. She barely edged Patricia Barber, who is pretty good.

Male Vocalist: Kurt Elling. I don't care for him, and don't think much of the rest of the list either, excepting the trio of jokers at the bottom of the deck (Bob Dorough, Dave Frishberg, Mose Allison). Jazz vocals have always been dominated by women, and more so now than ever -- Louis Armstrong and Jimmy Rushing were sui generis, and Frank Sinatra seems borderline as a jazz artist. Consequently, I think the category is in crisis, with no real stylistic core (unlike the cabaret schtick that so many women work with), just a bunch of would-be sui generii. Given that, I might as well pick someone like Robert Wyatt, or Billy Jenkins. Rising Star: Peter Cincotti. Don't know him. I notice that Jamie Cullum, with his first heavily hyped record barely out, came in #5, which smacks of desperation. And that Andy Bey, who's old enough to collect Social Security, came in

Composer: Dave Douglas. Well, they all compose, don't they? The only one ranked who doesn't rate equally high as a performer is Maria Schneider (#5), although you could also make a case for Carla Bley (#7) and maybe Toshiko Akiyoshi (#10). At this point in the game I don't know how to separate out the compositions from the performances. The obvious approach would be to look for people whose pieces are also performed by others. That criteria would, in particular, seem to rule out Douglas: a check for "Songs Composed By" on AMG shows a lot of songs by Douglas, but virtually none of them have been performed by groups that do not include Douglas. I don't know who really fits that criteria -- Paul Motian is one I looked up, and he has written several songs done by others, but he plays on so many other people's albums that it's hard to get a good picture. The other approach would be to look for writerly musicians, which might steer you toward someone like Anthony Braxton. But for now I don't have a good answer. Rising Star: Jason Moran. He beat out Vijay Iyer, Stefon Harris, and Greg Osby, and that doesn't mean anything coherent to me.

Arranger: Maria Schneider. I don't know her work, but by reputation she seems like a safe bet. This should be easier than Composer, but offhand I don't have a clue. Rising Star: Steven Bernstein. Don't know him.

Producer: Michael Cuscuna. I haven't been noticing producers a lot, so again I'm at a loss here, although I'm familiar with folks like Manfred Eicher (#2), Orrin Keepnews (#3), and Arif Mardin (#5). Don't have a choice at the moment. Rising Star: Matt Balitsaris. Looks like he mostly works for Palmetto these days, and that's a hot label.

Blues Artist/Group: Buddy Guy. Fair enough. Rising Star: Derek Trucks. Don't know. One trend over the last decade has been young white women, mostly guitarists, like Sue Foley. Another has been folk-blues revivalists like Guy Davis and Alvin Youngblood Hart. But we're talking margins, because the pickings in the mainstream are slim.

Beyond Artist/Group: Norah Jones. She beat Outkast, Steely Dan, Caetano Veloso, Dr. John, Radiohead, Elvis Costello, Al Green, Rickie Lee Jones, the Roots, King Crimson, and Sting. Big world out there. Rising Star: Derek Trucks. How about Buck 65?

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Music: Initial count 9386 rated (+39), 1140 unrated (-17). That there is very little listed below is because I've been working on Jazz Consumer Guide, and those notes are elsewhere.

  • Marty Ehrlich's Traveler's Tales: Malinke's Dance (2000, Omnitone). Paired up against Tony Malaby's tenor sax, this quartet (Jerome Harris on acoustic bass guitar, Bobby Previte on drums) has more bite than anything I've heard under Ehrlich's own name. Even Ehrlich's flute piece works, as he goes for deep eery instead of highfalutin' bebop. A-

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Concert: Ralph Stanley and His Clinch Mountain Boys: Orpheum Theatre, Wichita, KS. Opening act was Brennen Leigh, a pretty blonde with long straight hair and a low-backed red dress, who played guitar and mandolin and sang songs with an old-time country air. She appeared with her brother, who played guitar on the side, a nice combination. Don't know how much she writes -- an amusing putdown (or more accurately pushback) song called "Go Away José" was introduced as a true story, presumably here -- but she got good mileage from covers, especially "Wish I Was a Single Girl Again." She did, however, get tied up in "Homesick Blues," but handled everything else adroitly. Good singer, obviously good taste in her roots music -- which I gather from her website also strays into blues.

Stanley has long been one of the most distinctive voices in American music. He embodies the notion of "high and lonesome": he's able to take a high pitch filter through a thick twang and project it with astonishing power -- the word "piercing" comes quick to mind. Similar somewhat to Bill Monroe, but where Monroe only wielded his trademark high and lonesome pitch, Stanley is able to reach much deeper. But at 77 he paces himself, and while he can still produce his signature effects -- including his by now obligatory acapella "O Death" -- he no longer has the power he once had. Still, he has a capable band, and they spread the work around capably. Stanley appeared after the band had played a number, then introduced each band member for a spotlight song, effectively skipping through eight songs before he had to sing one. Might as well introduce the band here too:

  • James Shelton: guitar; his feature started with a brief figure then he sort of disappeared in it.
  • Jack Cooke: bass, been with the band for 31 years; sang his feature, and whooped it up good.
  • Todd Meade: fiddle, relatively young, contributed quite a bit.
  • John Rigsby: mandolin, sung some, played fiddle on finale; strikes me as an excellent mandolinist and versatile musician.
  • Steve Sparkman: banjo, had a couple of good features, but mostly added a little metallic twang rather than much propulsion. Stanley played banjo on one cut, and I thought he sounded pretty good.
  • Ralph Stanley II: guitar, sang frequently, including the opening song and a fairly tricky almost-acapella piece with Stanley and Cooke; did "Ruby (Don't Take Your Love to Town)" as his feature; looks young (website says he graduated from high school in '96, which would put him in the neighborhood of 25); pleasant country voice.
  • Nathan Stanley: mandolin, grandson, looked to be about 13, played rhythm to Rigsby's lead, but more than held his own; kicked off "Nine Pound Hammer."

By far the most impressive pieces were the ones centered around Stanley's vocals, so he's not too shaky. No encore. Heavy push to sell CDs in the lobby. Didn't see what they have, but I hear they have a couple of exclusives on old live Stanley Brothers concerts. I needed to finish writing my note on the 1956 radio shot that Legacy recently released as An Evening Long Ago. Needless to say, we all were younger then.


Yossi Beilin's The Path to Geneva is a useful book for understanding how the Peace Process failed under the Israel's Netanyahu and Barak governments, and for showing that a reasonable effort on the Israeli side could still lead to a viable peace agreement, as shown by the Geneva Accords. Also useful are the short introductions to the various political players, although (skillful politician that he clearly is) he often presents them more generously than facts seem to merit (e.g., Barak, Clinton). His take on Arafat is decidedly mixed, although he does make the important point that if one wants to make peace with him, it is important to respect his needs and make him look good in the bargain, which is something that Israel has done a very bad job at. Beilin's political prowess is evident: he seems to know everyone, and have good relations with everyone. His roots and continuing faith in Zionism also play largely -- he is unusual, certainly among Israeli politicians, in believing that peace is necessary for the survival of Zionism. (The usual line is more like strength is necessary for the survival of Zionism, and peace will result when the goyim give up their quest to eject the Jews.)

Beilin came up through the Labor Party ranks as a protege of Shimon Peres, which put him into the critical position to negotiate the Oslo Agreement, where Israel and the PLO recognized each other and vowed to negotiate a "final status" agreement within five years. Beilin further negotiated the "Beilin-Abu Mazen Understandings," a jointly agreed set of principles intended as a guideline for the final status agreement (long held in secret as both sides feared that publication would provoke their respective hawks). Beilin was later involved in the Taba talks during the final weeks of the Barak government -- believed to be very close to an agreement in the wake of failure at Camp David. After Barak's loss, Beilin continued to meet with Palestinian leaders, eventually signing, in the Geneva Accords, the final status agreement that had eluded previous negotiators. Given this track record, plus Beilin's exclusion from the Netanyahu government and his non-participation in the Camp David fiasco -- Beilin was Minister of Justice under Barak, and recounts many phone calls from Barak during the Camp David period -- it's tempting to conclude that Beilin is the one and only Israeli necessary and capable of negotiating peace with the Palestinians. Beilin would certainly not make any such claim, but what is clear is that he's the one committed Zionist insider who never faltered in his belief that peace is the only viable option -- indeed the only way to preserve and secure Israel.

One other thing that's more speculative but I think true is that had Beilin defeated Barak in the Labor Party primary in 1998, he would have been elected -- Barak was considered the peace candidate, and elected by a large margin -- and he would have successfully negotiated a final status agreement, sparing us the horrible experiences of the Al Aqsa Intifada and the Sharon regime.

I want to pick out and comment on a few quotes from the book.

On p. 114, Beilin reports Barak's own idea of a final settlement, contrary to the previous Beilin-Abu Mazen Understandings:

In anticipation of negotiations on a permanent settlement, he [Barak] revealed to me his view of what the principle featuers of the agreement should be. The aim of the agreement should be separation between Israel and the Palestinians, requiring a 400-kilometer security fence that would replace the present 700-kilometer border. There would be seven or eight crossings along the border, where it would be easy to cross with a handprint check. The Jerusalem area would remain open, but it could be closed if necessary. No settlements would remain on the Palestinian side of the fence, and there would be an elevated bridge between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Barak preferred economic separation as well, and believed that it would be better for the Palestinians to develop their own economy -- while retaining good contacts with Israel -- than to perpetuate their dependence on Israel. He felt that the area of the Palestinian state did not have to be as large as that proposed in the Beilin-Abu Mazen Understandings. When looking at the map, he said he saw "that even fifty percent of the West Bank looks like a state. A few bridges and a few tunnels, and you have total contiguity." He wanted to have the IDF stationed in the Jordan Valley and in the settlements, "until the peace was assimilated into people's hearts."

Beilin gives Netanyahu most of the credit for wrecking Oslo, and goes out of his way to reiterate how committed Barak was to peace, but quotes like this make you wonder if Barak wasn't being totally disengenuous (as opposed to utterly incompetent). Economic separation severely limits the prospects of an independent Palestine to improve the lot of its citizens. Physical separation behind a "security fence" looks and feels like a prison, and the continued presence of Israeli security outposts looks like guards. Reducing a 700 km border to 400 km implies a massive loss of land. The contiguity provided by "a few bridges and a few tunnels" redefines the term. (Sharon, too, has stated his willingness to offer the Palestinians contiguity.) Most of these proposals are so outrageous that they never made it to Camp David, but Barak's insistence of restarting the negotiations from scratch (instead of the Beilin-Abu Mazen Understandings, which were ultimately the basis of the Clinton proposal, the Taba talks, and the Geneva Accords) did incalculable damage to the negotiations.

Page 132:

The Palestinians, [Saeb] Erekat stressed, felt they were in a pressure cooker which was liable to explode as a result of their frustration. [Osama] Al-Baz stopped Erekat's momentum by asking why he had to portray the worst possible scenario. Erekat answered, "Osama, you too do not understand what is happening on the ground and the extent of the despair in the face of the continued building of settlements and the foot-dragging. For three years we were able to say that everything would change when the Israeli peace camp returned to power. Today we have nothing to say, not to ourselves and not to our people. Arafat needs strategic assets in order to withstand the pressure being applied to him. You do not understand what it means when the members of the Central Council call for Arafat to act like Assad."

The fact is that both sides in all Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from Oslo through Taba were under immense political pressure not to sell out, and each side believed that the other had more authority to act than they evidently had. Consequently, the negotiators held close to their positions, feared disclosure of possible compromises, and expected the other side to cave in to bail them out. But that was the extent of the symmetry. One thing there was no symmetry to was the threat and fact of violence. For the Palestinians, violence was a lose-lose proposition. Violent acts were invariably met by Israel with violent repression, suspension of negotiation, and increased security demands. The absence of violent acts was met by protracted negotiation or no offers at all, which meant that the occupation went on unabated. The mere threat of violence was enough to harden the Israelis, who in any case were making tradeoffs among themselves which undermined the prospects for peace (most notably increasing the investment in settlements).

P. 196, following Sharon's "visit" to the Haram al-Sharif and the start of the al-Aqsa Intifada:

[Barak] went to the Elysée Palace, where he found the French president [Chirac] disgruntled and hostile. This was the same president who only a few weeks earlie rhad been convinced that Barak had gone further than Arafat at Camp David. "Israel is to blame for the riots," Chirac insisted. "It began with Ariel Sharon's provocation, and it was clear to see that this provocation suited you. The IDF used excessive force. It was unreasonable . . . I served as a company commander in Algeria and did things like that. Today I know I made a mistake back then."

We all know that Chirac was the one conservative political leader in Europe who didn't fall into line behind the U.S. on Iraq. This gives us a suggestion why. Only the French are likely to draw any lessons from Algeria that relate to the anti-Arab acts of the U.S., U.K., and Israel, and only those who actually were involved.

Sharon's provocative march has been much noted, but few people have commented on the extent of Israel's "reaction" to the al-Aqsa protests. If you look closely at the actual patterns of violence in late 2000 it is very clear that the Israelis used the occasion to put on an overwhelming show of force. The only thing that kept this from being clear was that there were Palestinian forces who had settled on the need for a second Intifada -- who believed that the only thing that brought Israel to the peace table in the first place was the first Intifada, and who believed that nothing favorable would come out of a Peace Process that then -- with Barak blaming Arafat for not wanting peace, and Clinton backing up Barak -- looked completely moribund. For those Palestinians (which prominently included Tanzim, loosely but suspiciously linked to Arafat) Sharon and the ensuing Israeli violence was the catalyst and al-Aqsa was the symbol to promote the Intifada. The problem was that Israel's security forces were spoiling for a fight as well. Israel's right wing had long opposed any peace settlement with the Palestinians, and viewed Oslo as capitulation to the first Intifada. As time passed, they became more and more convinced that with a free hand they could have crushed the Intifada and avoided Oslo, the legitimization of the PLO, and the loss of Greater Israel. So given the start of a second Intifada, they were determined to come down as hard as possible, to snuff the uprising in the bud. The leader of Israel's security forces was Chief of Staff Shaul Moffaz, and responsibility for the al-Aqsa Intifada as we know it largely rests on his shoulders. By escalating the violence he made peaceful protests impossible, leaving the Palestinian militants with only the desperate recourse of snipers and suicide bombers, leading Israel to its own desperate series of escalations (targeted assassinations, assaults on PA territory, building the "security fence"), and leaving everyone else helpless on the sidelines.

An appendix provides the full text of the Geneva Accords and other relevant documents. I haven't gone through those with much care, in part because I believe that the political process used to bridge the chasm and achieve peace is more important than the details of, for example, how Jerusalem is divvied up. The importance of the Geneva Accords is that it shows us one way to resolve the conflict, and therfore shows us that it is possible through joint agreement of Israeli and Palestinian leadership. Sadly, and critically, there is no elected Israeli leadership willing to do anything to advance peace, let alone to address the far thornier problems of justice.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

I want to underscore two points in my Thomas Frank comments, although they're more important as part of my background:

  1. Class consciousness is by far the single most important factor in forming my own politics and worldview, and this is because I recognize that class more than anything else has affected my life.
  2. Even though class explains much of what is wrong (and getting wronger) with America today, I don't believe that "class politics" has much practical use as a political agenda today.

Both of these points come out of my own experience growing up in Kansas, so I'll elaborate a bit. My own discovery of class started when I was around 10. My parents had both grown up on farms, and moved to the city around WWII to work in aircraft factories. They were poorly educated (which is not the same thing as dumb, but has a lot of limits), worked very hard, and saved money. The effect was that I grew up in a middle class cocoon, which was relatively common in the '50s -- unionized factory workers could afford houses and cars and all the newfangled appliances, including television, and with my mother working fulltime as housewife my home life was all very stereotypical.

The first indication I had that I lived in a world that was out of joint with Kansas norms was when we had a straw poll in my 5th grade class for the 1960 presidential race and deep in Republican Kansas Kennedy beat Nixon by a 2-to-1 margin. That was strange, but later on I started making maps where I would take precinct voting results and color code the maps with different shades of red and blue to identify which were Republican and which were Democrat. Those results correlated almost perfectly with house prices -- the segregated black neighborhoods overwhelmingly Democrat, the strip of huge houses in east Wichita, capped by Eastborough, overwhelmingly Republican. And that was when I discovered that the all-white neighborhood I grew up in -- small tract houses built for factory workers in the '40s, as well as small older houses from the '20s and '30s -- was a good deal poorer, and more Democrat, than the average. More than half of the families in my neighborhood worked in the factories. Others drove trucks, worked in gas stations, jobs like that. Nobody wore a suit to work.

That insight became a prism that helped me understand the city around me, and my place in it, but that was only part of the picture. When I moved into the dorms at Washington University (St. Louis), I got a crash course in the other side of the class divide. One guy told me that he had started cramming for the SATs three years early to make sure that he got into a top-ten rated pre-med school, which Wash U was. Back in Wichita I had never met anyone like that. But at Wash U the dorms were full of them. A couple of years later I had a job in a typeshop and one of the accounts we had was to typeset the high school newspaper for Ladue, the richest and most exclusive of the St. Louis suburbs -- an amazing opportunity to observe the very rich, through the naive jottings of their overprivileged adolescents. They come from a very different world than the one I grew up in, and it's instructive to compare it to the one I grew up in.

One of the things I learned is that doors open for the rich in America that the poor don't even know exist. When I applied to Wash U I had no idea that it was a top-ten pre-med school. All I knew was that a colleague of my cousin's had landed a job there, and I thought he'd be an interesting person to study with. Nobody else I grew up with went to that sort of elite school; few of them even made it to KU. Another is that the rich get more chances after they fail, whereas the poor often just get confused. The rich have rich friends, who help keep them afloat. The poor have poor friends, some who try to latch onto any hint of success, some who just make you feel guilty. Growing up poor weighs you down, and that keeps you apart: I know, for example, that I still get the willies when I wander into an expensive store or a fancy restaurant; that I don't like it when people try to serve me, or call me "sir," or many of the other things that the rich grow up expecting.

Given that class is real and has such profound effects, and given that there are a lot more poor than rich, a lot more us than them, why not politic on that? I think that there are two basic reasons. One is that attacking the rich threatens to destroy wealth, whereas the more desirable recourse is to share that wealth -- to make many of the luxuries and privileges enjoyed by the rich accessible to more people. The poor would rather become rich themselves than to merely make the rich poor, and anyone fixated on the latter goal likely has a few screws loose. The other is that class itself is very mysterious to people: class isn't exactly synonymous with money or education or connections or merit, although it correlates pretty well with those things. (Merit is especially interesting here. Most people agree that a skilled surgeon, say, deserves to be paid more than someone in a trade that demands less skill and education, so they don't begrudge the surgeon relative success. But surgeons tend to come from higher classes, and their success passes on to heirs who don't necessarily have any of their merits.)

Still, I'm not saying that I think that class is something not to talk about. Quite the contrary, I see it as an educational issue. Class is very real. Class has profound effects, and we need to open people's eyes to that. But old fashioned épater-le-bourgeois populism generates more heat than light, and what's needed is light. I suggest the following:

  1. We need to talk about the central importance of labor to everything we value. Wealth comes from labor. If the purpose of economic policy is to increase the wealth of its citizens, then the key to doing that is to increase the productivity of labor. The system we have now is very heavily skewed toward capital and away from labor -- e.g., compare the tax rates on earned and unearned income, which among other things sends the message that one would be better off speculating than working. Many other things follow from this percept: worker safety, motivation, the ability and willingness of workers to perform beyond expectations.
  2. We need to focus on how class limits opportunity, and we need to develop affirmative action programs to counteract this -- to open up more opportunities for people who are currently shut out or limited to far less than their potential. The worst thing that can happen in the future is that we'll have masses of people who are excluded from the system, who have no future other than to try to tear it down.

Two examples in tax policy illustrate positions that push these class arguments forward:

  1. The estate tax needs not only to be reinstated but to be raised, probably to confiscatory levels over some fairly modest point. The basic reason here is that heirs don't earn inheritance -- it doesn't reward labor, and it doesn't reward savings and investment; it's just a windfall which gives them an unfair, unearned advantage in life. Hereditary wealth is the enemy of opportunity.
  2. There should be a progressive tax scale on unearned income -- returns from savings and investments, capital gains, gifts, inheritance (such as slips past the estate tax), etc. -- which starts at a very low rate and increases over the taxpayer's lifetime. Effectively, this would have a low tax rate on one's first million, encouraging people to save for their future, and a much higher rate beyond that -- once the habit is established and the money is flowing in.

These are examples of possible policies that work to correct the debilitating effects of class, that help satisfy people's legitimate desire for a better lot in life without destroying the wealth that the present system has managed to create.

Monday, July 19, 2004

I've learned quite a bit from Thomas Frank's book, What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, but I have quibbles too. The main thing I learned was how the abortion issue raised in the "Summer of Mercy" in Wichita led to the election of some of the worst Congressmen in the U.S. (Todd Tiahrt, Jim Ryun, and Sam Brownback, the latter since moved on to the Senate). Frank talked both to the new right political ideologues and their rank and file supporters, and he gets far enough under their skin to explain much of their fervor and success. Another surprise is how skillfully (and perversely) the right has usurped Kansas' anti-slavery, pro-civil rights legacy.

On the other hand, I have quibbles. Frank's history of Kansas radicalism is something we can argue about -- one of those litmus arguments between those who think the glass half full and those who think it barely wet. I'm also tempted to point out that Frank barely mentions prohibitionism -- the Republicans's most prominent previous campaign for social engineering. But I have many other little doubts and caveats, which I would like to expand on by quoting from Frank's summation, "Red-State America Against Itself," as published in TomDispatch.

I chose to observe the phenomenon [backlash] by going back to my home state of Kansas, a place that has been particularly ill-served by the conservative policies of privatization, deregulation, and de-unionization, and that has reacted to its worsening situation by becoming more conservative still.

There are two assertions here: 1) that Kansas has become more conservative, and 2) that Kansas has become exceptionally damaged by its conservative politics. It's not obvious to me that the first point is even true. I'm not disputing that the politicians of the far right have become a lot nastier and nuttier than comparable politicians from previous generations -- e.g., compare Brownback to Bob Dole, who (pace Frank) never was even close to the "moderate" Republican camp, but who at least could open his mouth without making you doubt his sanity. However, state government has for the most part remained in moderate hands, Republican (Graves) or Democrat (Sibelius), and very few of the ideological tchotchkes of the new right have been implemented as law.

The question of damage is more complicated. Certainly there has been damage, but much of it has filtered down from the federal level -- e.g., the deregulation that led to the Westar scandal. Unions have had a hard time in Kansas, but that goes back to the late '40s, when the U.S. Congress passed Taft-Hartley and Kansas was one of the first states to pass a "right to work" law. Ever since then that has been an open invitation to bust strikes, and there's certainly been more blatant anti-union activities in Kansas, especially since Reagan destroyed the air traffic controllers' union. But I would speculate (and I don't have the figures, so that's all this is) that the percentage of Kansas workers belonging to unions has declined less than in most states. (Frank cites nationwide figures that show a drop from 38% to 9%. This nationwide deunionization has certainly affected Kansas, as it has everywhere else, but it's hard to attribute this specifically to Kansas politics.)

What is anomalous about Kansas is how consistently Republican state politics have been here going back to the 1860's. Sure, there have been minor exceptions -- the Populists in the 1890's, the occasional Bryan Democrat, FDR sweeps in 1932-1936, and the occasional Docking -- but Kansas was built Republican. The state was settled quickly after the Civil War by small homesteaders, creating an overwhelmingly rural economy of small landowners, small towns and independent businessmen to serve the farm economy. It was also overwhelmingly Protestant, reinforcing belief in free labor, hard work, and social cohesion, including more deference to the well-to-do than they often deserved. On the other hand, the elites tended to be more responsible than was often the case, especially further west where minerals attracted those who sought quick fortunes. The old Republican Kansas tended to be moderately progressive, an early supporter of Women's Suffrage, and a strong supporter of Prohibition.

Especially after 1940, Kansas became less rural, more industrial. Wichita had built up a substantial aircraft industry by 1940, but WWII transformed it with huge military contracts, and major bases dotted the state. Gradually the power base in Kansas shifted from the rural farm economy to oil, agribusiness, and the military -- from one old set of natural Republican constituents to the newer one. But the Republicans never slipped from dominance: they were the establishment, and few of them were egregiously irresponsible about it. Until recently, that is. While one may debate how much damage has actually been caused by the new right, there's no doubt but they have a lot of terrible ideas on their agenda.

Somewhere in the last four decades liberalism ceased to be relevant to huge portions of its traditional constituency, and we can say that liberalism lost places like Wichita and Shawnee, Kansas with as much accuracy as we can point out that conservatism won them over.

This is superficially true, but it would help if first we tried to separate out liberalism from laborism (aka socialism, at least in most of the rest of the world), since the two are very different ideas about how the world ought to work, and are often in opposition to each other -- at least as long as they don't have urgenc common enemies, like George W. Bush. The most telling difference between liberalism and laborism is free trade, and it's most relevant to Kansas because it shows that the true liberals here at least are the "moderate" Republicans. Kansas' factory workers clearly suffer under free trade, but most Kansans -- virtually all farmers and businessfolk -- support free trade, even to the extent that they get livid about trade sanctions that keep Cubans from buying Kansas grain.

From Wilson to Roosevelt, the Democratic Party built a precarious alliance between liberals and labor, which lasted basically until labor lost its leverage. As labor slipped, the Democrats tilted more and more to the liberals, who have always been pro-business. They didn't need the conservatives to nudge them; if anything, they were more aggressively entrepreneurial than the conservatives ever were. (Take a look at the political affiliations of the Silicon Valley venture capital crowd, who were so influential and so richly rewarded during the Clinton years.) The one big thing that liberals and labor did have in common was the recognition that there needed to be some form of social safety net, but even that was only to a point: for labor the safety net was only a minimal requirement for a decent society; for liberals it was mostly just a prophylactic against Communist revolution.

Only once you understand that liberals and labor are different does it make sense how liberalism not just lost working class Kansas but screwed them coming and going. Especially because the liberals could always count on the conservatives to keep labor in its place.

The true lesson for liberals in the Kansas story is the utter and final repudiation of their historical decision to remake themselves as the other pro-business party. By all rights the people of Wichita and Shawnee should today be flocking to the party of Roosevelt, not deserting it.

As noted above, liberalism has always been pro-business. Roosevelt, his policies, and his legacy were pro-business too. The Progressives were pro-business too, even with their trust-busting frenzy. There's never been a significant anti-business political movement in America, unless you count Ralph Nader or Eugene Debs. Most labor unions have been pragmatically pro-business too: they could make a pretty good case that empowering labor is good for business, and for much of the last sixty years many liberals bought at least part of that argument. But declining union membership diminishes their clout -- and negatively reinforces it; the less clout a union has the less reason to join it. And since the collapse of the Soviet Union liberals have lost their fear of Communist revolution.

The Democratic Party faces worse problems in Kansas. Labor unions are weak; the working class is mostly unorganized, ill-served both by the unions and by the state, and mostly disaffected; many of the traditional liberal leaders are still Republicans. (As Frank points out, there is very little white backlash in the new Republican right in Kansas. One thing he doesn't explore but should is how different the new Republican right is in other states, especially in Missouri and Oklahoma -- so close to Kansas, but fundamentally different in what the Republicans were minority parties in both until the 1960s and exploited race issues in both with great success.) Consequently, the Democratic Party has virtually no infrastructure in Kansas -- it often doesn't even seem to be an alternative, much less an opposition.

The net effect of this is that the Democratic Party has nothing much to offer Kansas workers, other than protection from the new right. And since the Democratic Party has so little institutional strength in Kansas, they are rarely able to put up credible

Take your average white male voter: in the 2000 election they chose George W. Bush by a considerable margin. Find white males who were union members, however, and they voted for Al Gore by a similar margin. The same difference is repeated whatever the demographic category: women, gun owners, retirees, and so on -- when they are union members, their politics shift to the left. . . . Just being in a union evidently changes the way a person looks at politics, inoculates them against the derangement of the backlash.

What this point suggests is that the cultural backlash issues are ultimately irrelevant: mere union membership is enough to slough them off. The question then is what makes union membership different? Two things are obvious: 1) the decision to join a union (remember that Kansas is a right-to-work state, so union membership is optional even when the union is certified) reflects class consciousness; and 2) unions provide political agency that can be expected to change things in the worker's favor. In other words, joining a union means that you can see the difference and the opposite interests between labor and management, and that you believe that something favorable can be done about it.

Conversely, the success of the right depends on preventing workers from believing that their lot would be improved by joining a union. There are lots of ways this is done, both by preventing unions from forming and by making existing unions as ineffective as possible. (One could write a whole book about Boeing and its unions in Wichita -- a fascinating story, especially given how counterproductive Boeing's efforts have been: Wichita is now the most extensively unionized plant that Boeing owns, which is no doubt a major reason they're intent on selling it off.)

But the right is not only intent on destroying its union enemies: the right is deeply worried about anyone who depends on government, and the same tactics are in play there. The right's major thrust in government is to make it as dysfunctional as possible -- to bleed it of funds, to strip it of power, to demoralize its workers -- because the right realizes that a government that functions to the benefit of its citizens will be supported by those citizens, and one that doesn't will be abandoned. (See Oklahoma for a good example of the latter.)

While leftists sit around congratulating themselves on their personal virtue, the right understands the central significance of movement-building, and they have taken to the task with admirable diligence. Cast your eyes over the vast and complex structure of conservative "movement culture," a phenomenon that has little left-wing counterpart anymore. There are . . . [a long list of examples] . . . And, at the bottom, the committed grassroots organizers going door-to-door, organizing their neighbors, mortgaging their houses even, to push the gospel of the backlash.

It's always tempting to think that it's the issues and ideas that matter in politics, but there is an overwhelming disparity in organization, and that makes a world of difference. There is virtually no infrastructure behind the Democratic party in Kansas, and not a helluva lot elsewhere. All over the nation the Democrats hope for well-heeled egomaniacal millionaires to come forth and finance their own political campaigns, and there just aren't a lot of people like that in Kansas. Bill Roy is as brilliant and dedicated a human being as you could hope for, and he ran two very close campaigns against Bob Dole back in the '70s; he got slimed mercilessly, and never ran again. Frank recounts how Jill Docking got torpedoed by Sam Brownback. Most Democrats figure that they're gonna get beat anyway -- it's gonna cost them a lot of time and money, and the closer they get the nastier they're gonna get attacked, so why bother? Consequently, you find people like Pat Roberts running unopposed. The fact is that Democrats run alone in Kansas. Republicans, on the other hand, are recruited and supported by an infrastructure that goes way beyond the Party to include its business supporters. Jim Ryun was a famous track star -- Republicans love to promote jocks, from Vinegar Bend Mizell to Jim Bunning to J.C. Watts to Ryun. Todd Tiahrt was on Boeing's payroll until he got elected, and will go back on Boeing's payroll when he gets beat, probably with a big bonus (even if he never manages to swing that $23 billion tanker deal that he lobbies for so obsessively that Bush nicknamed him Tanker Todd). Needless to say, the Democrats pay for not offering candidates by not getting votes, and that only makes the situation worse. Each campaign is an opportunity to talk sense to the voters, and spurning those campaigns just lets the Republicans run roughshod.

What the new right has done is to broker a deal between the rich and a set of obsessive culture issues -- pro-guns, anti-abortion, capital punishment, pro-gambling -- then wrap the whole package up with a lot of prayer and flag waving and fear and contempt for the rest of the world. What the rich get from this is a broader political base that defers to their interests. What the issue obsessives get is corporate backing, giving them a subsidized forum to push their pet concerns. This marriage of convenience helped the Republians seize control of Congress and the Presidency, but their triumph is shaky, because the core ideas are so dysfunctional. Success will tear the Republicans apart, if disaster doesn't get them first.

I don't know where that leaves the Democrats. It seems obvious that with the Republicans barrelling toward disaster the Democrats have a golden opportunity to turn the political equation around. But without any sort of infrastructure -- Frank's "movement-building," and then some -- they're very unlikely to put together either a coherent critique of the Republicans and what they have wrought or a practical alternative, and they're especially unlikely to be able to go out and sell their solutions. Almost everything they've offerred so far is just lame beyond belief. Just one for instance: perscription drugs. First, they're not just a seniors problem, because they're a major source of inflation in everyone's health insurance costs. And there's no doubt that they are going to grow in importance over time -- if nothing else, the older we get the more chronic health problems we have, and that's where they mostly come into play. Both parties have plans with different amounts of money raised by different levels of taxes, but neither comes close to the real solution, which is: get rid of drug patents, publicly fund drug development, make all drugs generic, and open up a worldwide market for them. This couldn't be simpler, but who even talks about this sort of approach? (Well, Dennis Kucinich, but who pays attention to him?)

Sociologists often warn against letting the nation's distribution of wealth become too polarized, as it clearly has in the last few decades. Societies that turn their backs on equality, the professors insist, inevitably meet with a terrible comeuppance. But those sociologists were thinking of an old world in which class anger was a phenomenon of the left. They weren't reckoning with Kansas, with the world we are becoming.

History has shown that when the distribution of wealth becomes too polarized it isn't just academics who notice the problem. Ipso facto, it hasn't happened yet, at least in the U.S. There are lots of reasons why, despite unprecedented disparities, this hasn't turned critical. One such reason is what we used to call "false consciousness" -- the sort of thing Frank ascribes to the Kansas lumpens (to use another old-fashioned word). But there are other reasons: the single biggest one is probably that technological progress has raised the standard of living, relative to the past, so much that standards relative to each other matter little. The economy isn't a zero-sum game, so the indisputable fact that the rich are getting richer doesn't necessarily mean that the poor are getting poorer. And what historically drives people to revolution isn't envy over what other folks have -- it's collapse in one's own sustenance.

Of course, the academics are onto something. In the U.S. we are evolving into a class system based on inherited wealth that denies (or at least places heavy debts on) opportunities to those who weren't born on second or third base. This advantages some people who are severely incompetent, while disadvantaging others whose contributions are much needed, and this differential builds up over time, calcifying into ceilings and driving masses of people into cellars. The situation outside of the U.S. has deteriorated much further, to the point where we can already see some nations turning into havens of anarchy and banditry, potential sources of terror for the rich nations that have done so much to impoverish the poor.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Made dinner for 13, including cousins from Idaho and Buffalo. Menu was mostly Spanish -- three main dishes and a mess of tapas, plus two cakes:


Music: Initial count 9347 rated (+22), 1157 unrated (+30). Tried to catch up on some newer stuff while I was cooking, and started to plow through the travel cases, reboxing things and filing as much as possible.

  • Automato (2004, Coup de Grace). Sharp music, smart rhymes. Love the synth piece that closes the album out on an extended up. A-
  • The Beastie Boys: To the 5 Boroughs (2004, Capitol). Another quick spin/premature grade. Could be even better, but offhand I'd say it's their best since Licensed to Ill, a long time ago. A-
  • Busdriver & Radioinactive With Daedelus: The Weather (2003, Mush). The raps sound free associated, which is a polite way of saying they don't make no sense. Comic more in form than substance, and varied from cut to cut in randomly senseless ways. Perhaps that means that they are secondary to the music, but the music is the usual mush mix with its own random senselessness. B-
  • Uri Caine: Bedrock (2001, Winter & Winter). Caine plays Fender Rhodes as well as piano here. Tim Lefebvre's bass sounds electric, and Zach Danziger is credited with "drums and additional sounds." DJ Logic adds turntables on a couple of cuts, and two more guests are credited with vocals, but they don't sing nor rap, they mostly talk. This seems to have been recorded slightly before Matthew Shipp took his electronica plunge in Nu Bop, and the similarities in their jazztronica fusion are interesting. Caine is a somewhat fancier piano player, and the others here are more eclectic. Caine also has a much broader range of interests, which tends to cast this out as a one-shot. So I don't think that this is as good as Nu Bop, but I love the idea, and enjoy the execution. A-
  • Chris Cheek: A Girl Named Joe (1997, Fresh Sound). The two saxophonists here (Cheek and Mark Turner) do not joust; where both play one expands with slight variations on the other. The opener moves at a snail's pace, strangely insinuating. The closer finally moves much faster, the two saxes threading in and out. Between, there is much evidence of careful thought, lines on sax and guitar (Ben Monder) that seem freshly minted and near classic. Nothing rough or unfinished; if anything a bit too carefully crafted. B+
  • De La Soul: Live at Tramps, NYC, 1996 ([2004], Tommy Boy/Rhino). Live rap has always seemed like a commercial afterthought: rock bands cut albums in the studio, then tour to sell them, tape their shows in crummy megastadia, and sell the tapes for further profit. Rap artists frequently tour to shill their product, often in package tours like the very old days of rock and roll, and evidently there are enough fans to keep up the business. But damn few of the shows have made their way to plastic -- like reggae, it's just not built that way. So this is an oddity. Question is, does it work? After all, De La Soul pioneered the break out from the tense beat jungle to some sort of loopy underground shit, and that might be interesting. But the short answer is no, don't work. Partly that's because they tightened up over the years, which gives this a compressed feel, them just spitting out the rhymes. Partly it's that the sound is compressed, thin and narrow and harsh. Partly it's that the show doesn't pick up anything all that interesting from the crowd, at least until the closing remarks. Still, not worthless: the more favorable word for compressed is dense, and they're plenty that. They also have songs and moves. Just not enough. B
  • Neil Diamond: Sweet Caroline (1969, MCA). The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits credits Diamond with 38 of them -- probably more than any other performer who I think so little of that I've never bothered to rate an album by. Found this one in the WPL, so I thought I'd give it a spin. Took a while to figure out the discography, but here 'tis: in early 1969, Diamond released the album Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show, with the title song charting in Mar. 1969. The album originally had the first twelve songs here, but in July 1969 "Sweet Caroline" was released and became Diamond's biggest hit to date (#4; later he had three #1 songs, including "Cracklin' Rosie," "Song Sung Blue," and a duet with Barbra Streisand). MCA then re-released Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show with "Sweet Caroline" added, changing the cover to list four songs: Sweet Caroline / Brother Love's Travelling Salvation Show / Glory Road / And the Grass Won't Pay No Mind. The latter was dumped onto CD sometime in the '80s (don't have the date), with Sweet Caroline on the spine, hence the title I've gone with here. As a singer-songwriter, he started with a sense of how to hook a song, and several of these songs (e.g., the old and new title songs) are wondrous things. Production-wise even at this early date he had a fondness for the kitchen sink approach. His use of horns here is usually deft, but threatens to get out of hand. The net effect is all-or-nothing: either a song blows you away or leaves you disinterested, as most of these do. B
  • The Dixie Hummingbirds: Diamond Jubilee (2003, Treasure/Rounder). Also on the front cover: "75th Anniversary." The franchise was founded by James B. Davis in 1938, and Davis continued to lead the group until he retired in 1984. Even more continuity comes from Ira Tucker, who joined the group as a 13 year old in 1938, and takes most of the leads here (billed as Ira Tucker, Sr.). The rest of the group, now a quintet, are a good deal younger -- don't know how long they've been tied in, but they solidify the sound behind Tucker. The band helps too, or is it the Band? Levon Helm and Garth Hudson are present, as well as Dr. John and Larry Campbell, who also produced. Pretty sharp work, less bluesy than the Blind Boys of Alabama revival, and a couple of slips (including a Bob Dylan song), but upbeat and moving. B+
  • Éthiopiques, Vol. 16: Asguèbba! (2001-03 [2004], Buda Musique). Recorded after the 1998-2000 Eritrea war, another break in civil life that left Addis Ababa all the poorer. The musicians are azmaris, from Gonder and the surrounding region, sandwiched between Eritrea and the highland, a battleground for over 25 years. The music is little more than a backdrop for the singers, who impress with their strong, purposeful, pained, plaintive vocals. Many are accompanied just with a string instrument, some also with drums, or in one case accordion. While the singers come and go, the overall effect is quite consistent. B+
  • Are You Bound for Heaven or Hell? The Best of the Reverend J.M. Gates (1926-31 [2004], Columbia/Legacy). In small doses these preacherly exhortations and excited rejoinders bear witness to the Lord's foundry of rhythm and rhetoric, but strung out well over an hour, the question's answer is hell, and the sooner the better. Get me away from that old time religion! C-
  • Hasidic New Wave: Jews and the Abstract Truth (1997, Knitting Factory Works). AMG files this under "Electronic / Avant-Garde / Minimalist." I'm putting it under "Klezmer" because of its exclamatory Jewish identification, but the main movers in the group -- Frank London (trumpet, keybs), Greg Wall (sax), and David Fiuczynski (guitar) are reputable jazz musicians, and their individual work (often explicitly Jewish oriented, as in Wall's remarkable Later Prophets) I file under jazz. This is really a jazz record as well, the bits of traditional Jewish music stretched and twisted by the improvisors. No reason this shouldn't work as well as any other folk-based jazz improv, but I find that I keep expecting it to catch fire and it never does. B
  • Illinois Jacquet: The Black Velvet Band (1947-67 [1988], RCA Bluebird). All from 1947-49 except for a shot at "Flying Home" with Lionel Hampton's band at Newport in 1967. Jacquet had a thick tone and deep blues roots. He managed to straddle the bebop/honker divide in the late '40s, his penchant for blaring, honking blasts balanced by enough skill to maneuver through any tricky bebop moves. The main weakness here, as is usually the case with Jacquet's '40s recordings, is the presence of indifferent vocal tracks. But the high points are red hot. This has been long been out of print, and I only found it after a long search. A little disappointing. B+
  • Illinois Jacquet & His Big Band: Jacquet's Got It (1987 [2001], Label M). Surprising but this seems to be the only item in Jacquet's discography for the '80s. The big band is pretty sharp, especially on the opening "Tickletoe," but acquits itself throughout. Jacquet's leads are less evident, but he picks up "You Left Me All Alone" and carries it from start to finish. Sounds like he held up pretty well. B+
  • The Brenda Lee Story: Her Greatest Hits (1956-69 [1991], MCA). Her first song to hit the pop charts was released when she was just 15 ("Sweet Nothin's"), but she had hit the country charts four years earlier with her swinging, smashing, sassy deconstruction of Hank Williams' "Jambalaya." Her earliest period is only represented by "Jambalaya" here (what, no "Bigelow 6-200"?). From 1958-68 she fell into the clutches of Owen Bradley, who steered her into Patsy Cline territory (e.g., her #1 hit "I'm Sorry"; she worked with Bradley again from 1971-76). She wound up with 29 Top 40 hits, the last in 1967, then had some success on the country charts in the early '70s -- the latest song on this comp is "Johnny One Time" (1969), which started the latter country string. Remarkable singer, especially on the early cuts which earned her the Little Miss Dynamite sobriquet, but she didn't write, which left her mostly at the mercy of her producers and manager. It's hard to say that they squandered her -- too much success to pass over to say that. With 22 cuts, half of them good and the other half downright remarkable, this is a pretty good comp, but I can't say how much (other than "Bigelow 6-200") is missing -- I wouldn't be surprised if her 2CD Anthology holds up as well. A-
  • Courtney Love: America's Sweetheart (2004, Virgin). This comes out of the gate sounding absolutely great: the first cut, "Mono," is as great a piece of classic rock as I've heard this decade (maybe last decade, too). Second cut doesn't drop off a lot, either. Sure, she had help: Linda Perry co-write both (and most of) these songs, and this sounds as bound-at-the-hip with Pink as Live Through This was bound to Nirvana. I make this out to be classic rock rather than punk because the music is more complex and less relentless -- it does, after all, have bridges, usually slower sections that threaten to break the intensity but mostly flex muscle. But intensity is her strong suit; authenticity isn't, but then who gives a fuck about that? A-
  • The Mekons: Punk Rock (2004, Quarterstick). The idea here is to take songs they wrote/recorded in their early punk phase (song credits from 1977-81) and redo them. Needless to say, they're better musicians now than then, and the musicianship makes a difference, especially on songs that break away from the usual rant, like "Chopper Squad." Rants are good, too. A-
  • The Mountain Goats: We Shall All Be Healed (2004, 4AD). Styled as a band, singer-songwriter John Darneille is so dominant -- sharply strummed acoustic guitar, sharply annunciated words -- that whatever backup exists is buried deep back. He might be deemed limited musically, but his words surprise so often that he repays close listening. At which point the music starts to sort itself out, too. A-
  • Youssou N'Dour: Egypt (2004, Nonesuch). I've been playing this mostly in background spots, and hadn't glanced at the lyric sheet until I started writing this -- the first two songs praise and thank Allah, and it seems likely that the balance follow up with consideration of what it means to N'Dour to be a muslim in a world wrought by the senseless thrash of civilizations -- so my take is partial, but solid enough to register. As background, this is a good deal subtler, less intrusive, and less exciting than N'Dour's last two Nonesuch albums. Perhaps the subtlety is meant to entice the listener toward the music? It does sort of work that way: he can awe you, but he can also seduce; this is not his most awesome work, but it may be his most seductive. A-
  • High Drama: The Real Johnnie Ray (1951-60 [1997], Columbia/Legacy). He had a huge hit in "Cry," which must qualify as an important step in the evolution of rock and roll, and especially as the first classic example of white soul. Beyond that he was a singer who might have fit on the line from bobby soxer idol Frank Sinatra to hip shaking idol Elvis Presley, but nobody (least of all him) quite grasped where that line was to be drawn. So what we have is mostly r&b material with big bands that is neither here nor there, an anomaly similar to that of Ella Mae Morse -- another rock star stuck in pre-rock limbo. Interesting, but not quite there. B+
  • Shango, Shouter & Obeah: Supernatural Calypso From Trinidad 1934-1940 ([2002], Rounder). Old calypso, with a religious hook (several, actually) that can conveniently be ignored by the casual listener. Not as undeniable, let alone comprehensible, as Rounder's previous Calypso Carnival, but strong on rhythm. Also mighty with the Lion. B+
  • The New Archie Shepp Quartet: Tomorrow Will Be Another Day (2000 [2003], PAO). I prefer Shepp's revolution to Amina Claudia Myers' gospel, but Shepp probably seems the same thing in both. He indulges her a lot here, and he sings more than is probably good for him, but there's new fire in his horn, and that's what matters most. B+
  • Frank Sinatra & Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra: Learn to Croon (1940-42 [1999], Buddha). Air shots from early on, lots of Dorsey, a little bit of Frank (sounding pretty good), but nothing all that special. B
  • Todd Snider: Songs for the Daily Planet (1994, MCA). First album, filed under folk but sounds like countryish rock or something like that, pretty nifty, but he gets most of his mileage from his lyrics -- clever, smart, sometimes downright hilarious. One I jotted down from a song called "Alot More": "they work and they slave/just so they can save up/a whole lot to leave behind." Just found out about him with his 2003 live album Near Truths and Hotel Rooms, then saw him open for John Prine. The live album is a better intro, but this one is pretty auspicious. A-
  • The Stanley Brothers: An Evening Long Ago (1956 [2004], Columbia/Legacy). This radio shot gives a vivid picture of the classic bluegrass band in its prime, running through what must have been their typical repertoire, song after song brought to blood-curdling life by Ralph's piercing vocals. I would rate it higher, but all their records seem to be like this. B+
  • The Streets: A Grand Don't Come for Free (2004, Atlantic). Tougher record to handle than the first one. The beats are sparer, sparser, unleashed almost begrudgingly. The monotone rhymes take more work to follow, and rarely penetrate one's mind without paying close attention. Still a unique talent, but his first album suggested that he could have become a transcendent pop star, and this doesn't deliver on that promise. B+
  • The Subdudes: Miracle Mule (2004, Back Porch). New Orleans-based roots rock group, rather fancy for my taste -- multiple singers interleaving, some fiddle, not sure what else. B
  • Hound Dog Taylor: Release the Hound (1971-75 [2004], Alligator). Taylor's concept was that if Elmore James had rocked harder and fretted less he would have had more fun. Taylor sure had more fun. He called his band the Houserockers because that's what they did, and that all anyone needed to know. Bruce Iglauer fell so hard for Taylor that he founded Alligator Records just to record him, and cut three genuinely houserocking albums before Taylor's death in 1975. Alligator went on to become one of the most important blues labels of the last 30 years, but the urge to go back to their roots finally sent them back to the vaults to round up this passel of live scraps. It's loose, sloppy even, not all that well recorded, and, surprise, even more fun than his rock solid studio albums. A-
  • Koko Taylor: Deluxe Edition (1975-99 [2002], Alligator). She puts her name next to McDaniel [bka Bo Diddley] on the writing credits to "I'm a Woman" -- the sort of obvious trick that suits a blueswoman who comes off as a force of nature. A-
  • Luke Vibert/BJ Cole: Stop the Panic (2000, Astralwerks). B+
  • Warp 10+3: The Remixes (1999, Matador, 2CD). B+

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Music: Initial count 9325 rated (+25), 1127 unrated (+22). Back from trip, I tried to knock out what is officially the June Recycled Goods as quickly as possible, and made some quick progress. Still, the unrated total climbed as I unpacked loot from the trip, then unpacked what was waiting for me on return. Will probably spend most of this week on reissues as well, hoping not only to close out the June column but get July done in July. Then it will be back to jazz.

  • The Cardigans: First Band on the Moon (1996, Mercury). Got this from the library. Played it while working on something else, and didn't pay it a lot of attention. Sounds OK -- a girlish voice from a singer who probably knows more than I recognize, and a solid enough band. If the lyrics, which I didn't notice, are exceptionally clever I've underrated them; if not, I haven't. B
  • The Essential Cheap Trick (1976-2002 [2004], Epic/Legacy). Forever younger than Aerosmith, forever older than AC/DC. Famously described as two pretty boys/two bozos. The pretty boys sang, but the bozos had the talent. Obviously there's much too much shit here, but "Surrender" ("mommy's alright/daddy's alright/they just seem a little weird") is good enough it would have made The Who's Greatest Hits. B
  • Chicago Transit Authority (1969, Chicago). Somehow I've managed to never hear this group in the 35 years since they cut this debut, but from reputation I know that: a) their use of horns helped prove that rock can accommodate anything, and b) their records are all crap. Still, on hearing this I have to admit that "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" and "Questions 67 & 68" hadn't actually managed to escape my earhole. The former is at least a fine novelty; the latter is full of bombast (which I guess is German for Scheiss), but not as offensive as I'd expect. Another surprise is "Free Form Guitar" -- not quite McLaughlin, but it's a respectable stab at free jazz electric guitar. Then they do a blues rock piece, then "I'm a Man" (the Spencer Davis hit, done bluesy, done with extended chuggy percussion). Then a soundclip from the 1968 protests at the Chicago Democratic Convention -- a lot of "the whole world is watching." The final 14:39 piece, "Liberation," is more jazz-rock fusion, the guitar the showiest thing there, the brief vocal something of a letdown. Not sure what the verdict is. This is either an ambitious rock-jazz-blues fusion experiment with a lot of flaws, or utterly pretentious. Given the '60s, still much in evidence when this was cut, I'm inclined to the former view, with the caveat that once the initial excitement fades the crap is sure to follow. Especially if they become mega-successful, which they did. B
  • The Dead Kennedys: Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (1980 [2002], Cleopatra). First album, not as hard as hardcore got soon after, but the motormouth vocals keep the action coming fast. Slows down a bit toward the end, which lets "Holiday in Cambodia" come through with some of its irony intact, and turns the country-ish "Viva Las Vegas" into a real farce. Just think. If they hadn't felt so politically fucked over, they might've become the Dead Milkmen instead. B+
  • Manu Dibango: Soul Makossa (1972, Unidisc). One of the few landmarks of African pop to have gotten noticed in the US in real time, the strong suit here features long rhythms and strong sax vamps. A-
  • From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music (1927-95 [1998], Warner Brothers, 3CD). I've had this sitting around for ages, but having mentioned it in my review of Night Train to Nashville I figured this would be the time to come to terms with it. First disc is "The Stringband Era": it keys off DeFord Bailey, a pre-WWII black harmonica player with a notable career at the Grand Ole Opry, but not a lot in print, then mixes in the Mississippi Sheiks and Leadbelly and some lesser knowns. Second disc is "The Soul Country Years": black singers cover songs previously associated with white country singers -- many with horns and choruses and the usual accoutrements that Ray Charles wrought, often to outstanding effect. Third disc is "Forward With Pride": straighter country fare, including four cuts by Charley Pride and three by Stoney Edwards. Missing from all this "black experience" is white folk, whose own significant contributions to country music were substantially influenced by the music of their black neighbors. Good documentation, interesting packaging, some worthy songs you're not likely to find elsewhere (although the Stoney Edwards compilation on Razor & Tie, now out of print like everything else Edwards ever recorded, is worth seeking out, and his "Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul" is a song that everyone should hear). But unless you're dumb enough to never have heard of Charley Pride, you're too smart to fall for this resegregation. B
  • Lowell Fulson: Black Nights: The Early Kent Sessions (1965-67 [2001], Ace). Not all that early as Fulson goes -- his Chess sessions, complete on two highly recommended CDs, date from 1954-63, and Arhoolie has his My First Sessions, dating from 1946-51. This collection basically predates the previously released The Tramp Years (Ace), with the two of them probably overlapping Flair's Tramp/Soul -- haven't heard either of them, although Fulson's work in this period is highly regarded. I don't see any reason to nitpick here. He fits my idea of southern soul better than a blues niche, much like Bobby Bland -- a similar and at his best a much greater singer, but not as consistently grooveful as Fulson. Very solid work here; would love to hear more. B+
  • Days Like This: The Best of Kenny Lattimore (1995-98 [2004], Columbia/Legacy). No relation I'm aware of between him and the '70s soul singer Lattimore. The former Lattimore was a southern soulman, pretty steady but not all that great. This one is a slick contemporary r&b type, which means that he can sing as well as he wants, but he rarely feels the need to put out. The title song has a loose, light, bouncy rhythm. Don't know whether it was ever any sort of hit -- my 7th ed. of Top 40 Hits only credits him with "For You," #33 in 1997. B-
  • Introducing Shiyani Ngcobo (2004, World Music Network). Not sure when this was recorded, but it appears to have been recorded for this release -- "Introducing" is a concept to break hitherto obscure foreign artists. Ngcobo comes from Natal Province in South Africa, plays guitar and sings, in a style known as Maskanda -- described in AMG as "a soft, guitar-based rural style"; by CDRoots as "a musical dance style dominated by lush acoustic guitar 'picking' and distinctive rhythms." Another description (from the Durban government's website): "The music played by the man on the move, the modern minstrel, today's troubadour. . . . Maskanda derives mainly from traditional music, but the genre has undergone many changes over the years. Traditional instruments have been replaced by guitars and concertinas, which have been tuned or doctored to reflect the polyrhythmic sounds of age-old African music. Maskanda singers choose instruments which are cheap and which can be played on the hoof. And whereas Maskanda was originally solo music, in the fifties bands were formed by men living in hostels or in the suburbs, a long way from their homes. Today, Maskanda is performed on amplified guitar, with electric bass and drums kits." It goes on to explain that there are huge Maskanda competitions. (Ngcobo is touted as winning many such competitions.) Actually, the vocals here sound typical of much Zulu pop, e.g. mbaqanga. Ngcobo's guitar introduces the songs, sets up the rhythm, and generally acts as filler, with little or no accompaniment. A-
  • Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues 1945-1970 (1946-69 [2004], CMF/Lost Highway, 2CD). Whereas the Country Music Foundation's previous From Where I Stand [1998] tried to plot the confluence of country music and its black neighbors, this one just takes a look at what was happening on the other side of Nashville's tracks. But this is a little more than a regional r&b compilation: as the country music business expanded, Nashville's studios often did double duty, which leads to the presence here of singers not normally identified with Nashville, like Etta James and Ruth Brown. But the obscurities keep the old music fresh, especially on the first disc, which starts with a Cecil Gant boogie, skips through a lot of jump blues, and closes on an instrumental, Jimmy Beck's "Pipe Dreams." The second disc is '60s soul, not far removed from the more influential Memphis and Muscle Shoals studios, but inspired enough to give us "Soul Shake" and "Everlasting Love." A-
  • Young Girl: The Best of Gary Puckett & the Union Gap (1968-71 [2004], Columbia/Legacy). Rock band from San Diego, had a couple of hits: "Woman, Woman" (#4, Jan. 1968); "Young Girl" (#2, Apr. 1968); "Lady Willpower" (#2, July 1968); "Over You" (#7, Oct. 1968), "Don't Give in to Him" (#15, Apr. 1969), "This Girl Is a Woman Now" (#9, Oct. 1969); plus songs that charted #41, #61, #71. The first three songs are so indistinguishable that the DJs may just have been confused. The other hits are only marginally differentiated: each is heavily orchestrated, built around a melodramatic swirl, with Puckett taking the leading man vocals. The band included keyb and sax, but most of the songs sound like they have extra strings and horns thrown into the onion soup. Another weird thing was that the band dressed up in Civil War (Union) uniforms, probably a nod to Paul Revere's tailor. Some of this is just awful; some of it is inadvertently funny, e.g. the ripe gospel on Paul Simon's "Keep the Customer Satisfied." The hit schtick might have been a forgivable novelty had it been a one-shot, but pounding it into five top ten singles was pretty audacious. Makes me appreciate the earnestness of Jay and the Americans, and the musicality of Kansas. C+
  • Putumayo Presents French Caribbean (1986-2002 [2002], Putumayo World Music). Martinique and Guadeloupe remained French colonies until the 1960s. Haiti, on the other hand, exploded in revolution back in 1797, and has been largely isolated from world culture ever since. Mixing the two doesn't generally work: even though there are general stylistic differences between ex-French, ex-Spanish, and ex-British colonies in the Caribbean, the differences within each linguistic sphere are significant (e.g., between Jamaica and Trinidad). The split here is 5-5, but Martinique (4) and Guadeloupe (1) win on points, especially for Kali's Zoukish "Parfum des Iles." Other good cuts here too, plus the usual mishmash. Includes a bonus recipe for salt cod fritters. Text also printed in French, which presumably doesn't say anything more than the English. B
  • Crazy Blues: The Best of Mamie Smith (1920-31 [2004], Columbia/Legacy). Famous for having recorded the first blues but rarely in print, she's a sassy belter, fronts some hot jazz bands, and late in her career finally got the chance to sing some songs without "blues" in the title. B+
  • Spotlite on Hull Records, Volume 1 ([1994], Collectables). One of at least 21 CDs in Collectables' Spotlite Series -- the only one I have, picked up on a lark during a closeout sale, only because of the familiar name. No info in the liner notes -- actually, no liner notes, just advertisements. From other sources we find out that the label was founded in 1955 in NYC, by Blanche Casalin, with producers William Henry Miller and Billy Dawn Smith. Acts included here are: the Heartbeats, the Elegants (2 songs), the Monotones (2), Shep & the Limelites, Jackie & the Starlites, the Avons, Little Chip & the Chordells, the Belltones, the Sparks, the Carouselles, the Pastels, and the Legends. Hull issued singles into 1966. After 1967 Hull was absorbed into Roulette. So the dates are 1955-66 worst case. Both the Elegants and Monotones had hit singles for other labels in 1958; Shep & the Limelites had a hit for Hull ("Daddy's Home") in 1961, not included here (not on Vol. 2 either). My guess is that this falls in the 1956-60 range, but we really need better ways to look things like this up. Meanwhile, the outtake of "The Book of Love" reminds you that the difference is real between hits and misses. As for the misses, they're pretty good, but not great. I'd rate this higher, but at 14 songs it's short (especially given every indication that there's more worth having), and the lack of documentation should be slammed. B
  • The Best of Spirit (1968-70 [2003], Epic/Legacy). From Ron Garmon's liner notes: "With just four albums, Spirit made as immense a contribution to rock music as contemporaries The Velvet Underground did with the same number. Unlike The Velvets, whose every note and bleat of lyric has kept three decades of rock exegetes in business, the enormity of Spirit's contribution has never been thoughtfully evaluated." Guess not, but what contribution did they make? Descriptions of them as California psychedelica hardly amount to descriptions at all. Comparisons to Pink Floyd are far fetched. (Traffic is only a bit closer.) In Randy California they had a guitar player who liked to wail, but other than that they were too inconsistent and indistinct nail down. Maybe they were America's answer to the all-too-British Move? Or the even-more-too-British Idle Race? C+
  • Introducing Sukke (2004, World Music Network). Klezmer group, from Europe: Merlin Shepherd (UK: clarinet), Sanne Möricke (Netherlands: accordion), Heiko Lehmann (Germany: bass, guitars, vocals). Seems too sedate at first, like chamber music, but I find it growing on me. B+
  • The Sundowners: Chicago Country Legends (1960-71 [2003], Bloodshot). Previously unreleased transcriptions from a Chicago honky-tonk band, originally recorded 1960-71. 24 cuts, old-fashioned country, live, not great sound. They're not even all that good, but once in a while they deliver: one guy does his best Ernest Tubb impersonation on the Beatles' "Something" and it's the best remake I can recall. Then, sensing momentum, they tackle Frank Ifield's "I Remember" and you expect them to break into a yodel. "Things" is another topical cover that pays off. The closing "Cigarette State" redeems them somewhat as a country band, too. B
  • Ernest Tubb: The Texas Troubadour (1936-52 [2003], Proper, 4CD). Tubb is adequately served by MCA's The Country Music Hall of Fame Series sampler, but anyone convinced by that one will wonder how much more there is. The fact is that aside from Bear Family completist excesses, there hasn't been much more Tubb in print for a long time now. So Proper's expanded treatment -- 4 CDs covering a much shorter period of time -- is most welcome. The answer to the quandry is that there's a little more, but not an awful lot that isn't merely redundant. The first two discs here are subtitled "The Hits," and one of the first things you notice is that "My Filipino Rose" is little more than a remake of "Filipino Baby." I also find it annoying that the hits include Christmas songs. (I'd put his "White Christmas" right alongside Der Bingle's, but don't want to hear either out of season.) B+
  • The Unbroken Circle: The Musical Heritage of the Carter Family (2004, Dualtone). Produced by John Carter Cash. This seems almost like a homework project, assuming you buy the line in the June Carter Cash album about how much fun it was for the family to just sit around and sing songs. I guess you had to be there, but none of us had families like that. Old songs, old friends, plus a few perennial hangers-on -- most precious are those by the recently departed, but it worries me a bit that the runner-up seems to be the Del McCoury Band. Of course, bluegrass stalwarts breathe these songs like oxygen; John Prine is a punk rocker by contrast. I like it just fine, but I don't see any reason to pick it over the real thing, even as a breather. B
  • Introducing Vakoka (2004, World Music Network). Aka the Malagasy All-Stars. I'd like to explain something about who they are, where they come from, what they're trying to do, etc., but to do so means (at the very least) reading the booklet and, well, I can't. One of several things I hate about this label is that they have bizarre taste in graphic design for their booklets. In particular, they love to combine text and background colors that have little if any contrast. I've always suspected that they don't want people to be able to photocopy the booklets, but some of the combinations are so bizarre you have to wonder whether they're trying to prevent you from reading them at all. (Then, of course, is the problem that once you've read them as often as not you still haven't learned anything.) But this one hits a new standard: yellow on light gray. As for the music, it's engaging, idiosyncratic -- percussion rushes, idyllic flutes and/or guitars, vocals from several directions. I've never made much out of Malagasy music, but I like this as much as anything I've heard. Madagascar is a world apart, only incidentally related to Africa. B+

Friday, July 09, 2004

Back from my trip, so I thought I'd try to put some notes together. Didn't get much work done -- no big surprise there, although I always think I'll do better. But it was good to meet old friends, and I feel like it took off a lot of stress I was feeling before I set out. Trip went like this:

Wichita KS to Independence KS (114 miles):

To Central City KY (+ 568 = 682 miles):

To Takoma Park MD (+ 718 = 1400 miles):

To Madison NJ (+ 243 = 1643 miles):

To Brooklyn NY, back to Madison NJ (+ 59 = 1702 miles):

To Amherst MA (+ 232 = 1934 miles):

To Buffalo NY (+ 396 = 2338 miles):

To Oak Park MI (+ 322 = 2760 miles):

To Sault St. Marie MI (+ 430 = 3190 miles):

To Duluth MN (+ 514 = 3704 miles):

To Ames IA (+ 395 = 4099 miles):

To Wichita KS (+ 476 = 4575 miles):

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Music: Initial count 9300 rated (+1), 1105 unrated (+19). More of the same, another day older and deeper in debt.

  • The Essential Mary Chapin Carpenter (1989-2001 [2003], Columbia/Legacy). Not sure what the delta is between this and 1999's Party Doll, which I liked a shade better -- I suspect that means the earlier comp had more fast ones, or at least fewer slow ones. Or maybe I'm just settling into a judgment, which is that as much as I like her best songs ("I Feel Lucky," "Down at the Twist and Shout," "Shut Up and Kiss Me" -- all fast ones in a Marshall Chapman mode) I can't find a center to her range, and without a center her range smacks of faddishness. She couldn't resist covering Lucinda Williams' "Passionate Kisses," but she was just using her market muscle to grab an irresistible song. How much credit should one give her for that? Depends, I suppose, on how much weight you put on marketing. I don't begrudge her business smarts, but I do suspect that if she had more of herself in her art it would matter less. B
  • Johnny Cash: Life (1958-77 [2004], Columbia/Legacy). After his label thought they had him summed up with Love, God, and Murder, he died and they discovered Life . . . without looking any further than The Essential Johnny Cash, which summed him up damn well, if less idiosyncratically than here. The latter is not a complaint. A-
  • Johnny Cash: Unearthed (1994-2003, American/Lost Highway, 5CD). Dumped out pretty quickly following Cash's death. It looks like this project had been in the works for a while, the idea being to commemorate the 10th anniversary of when Rick met Johnny with a box of outtakes and a disc of reissues from the four albums they released since 1994. Box is handsome as black goes, with a hardbound booklet and a hardbound wallet of folders for the five discs. The booklet includes song-by-song details, but nothing as pedestrian as when they were recorded. B+
  • Johnny Cash: My Mother's Hymn Book ([2004], American/Lost Highway). Caveat emptor: this is merely the fourth disc of Cash's Unearthed box set, with nothing to indicate that it had been previously released. It's also not clear when it was recorded: he is in reasonably good voice, though his guitar doesn't add much, so there is little here but his voice. That is, of course, more than most people ever have. But for some reason Cash's gospel has never set the world on fire; perhaps because he's always been more humble before God than before Oney? B+
  • Rosanne Cash: Rules of Travel (2003, Capitol). The first cut, "Beautiful Pain," reminds you that she's a very distinctive singer-songwriter, with very little obvious debts to her famous Nashville heritage and a good sense of popcraft, but also a serious woman. The roots do get a nod when Johnny Cash adds his voice to one cut, and the rest settles out quite well. Not sure this ranks with her strongest albums, but it's in the running. A-
  • The Very Best of Jessi Colter: An Outlaw . . . a Lady (1972-81 [2003], Capitol). Aka Mrs. Waylon Jennings: four of these cuts, including a medley, feature Jennings. Her moment of fame was when she appeared with Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Tompall Glaser on RCA's hit The Outlaws quickie. I'm struck by her voice here -- more soulful than you'd have any reason to expect. B+
  • Chickasaw County Child: The Artistry of Bobbie Gentry (1967-74 [2004], Shout Factory). One great hit, plus 22 extra songs. The title one goes back to the well one more time, and "Fancy" mines the same concept, but most wander all over the lot. "Refractions" is especially awful, but it's hardly alone. AMG gives three of her comps 5 stars, unfathomable praise attributing her with a literary prowess that I can't appreciate, even if "Lookin' In" sounds like it might have something to say. C+
  • The Girls: Live at the Rathskeller 5.17.79 (1979 [2002], Abaton Book). Boston art-punk band, whose highest ambition wasn't the Ramones or the Clash -- it was Pere Ubu. First two songs ("Please Don't Be Weird," "Okey Dokey") get off to a protoindustrial groove -- industrial as a genre came later, but the Akron tangent on punk made the most of factory noise. Promising, but doesn't hold up as well as a certifiable Pere Ubu fan might hope. Sound hurts too. B
  • Hedningarna: 1989-2003 (1989-2003, NorthSide). "A retrospective of the groundbreaking Nordic supergroup, from their beginnings to the present day." In the booklet, they tend to be described as a Swedish folk group, but with the implication that they're something more. Not knowing jack about Swedish folk music doesn't help to sort them out, but they sound to me like a rock group gone native. They sing in Swedish (I presume), but the instrumentation is straight rock, as are the beats, and the presence of occasional electronics proves that they are not folkie fundamentalists. B+
  • Ice Cube: Greatest Hits (1989-2001, Priority). Hard beats, phat bullshit: "I started this gangsta shit/and this is the motherfuckin' thanks I get." You're motherfuckin' welcome. Most of this I can take or leave, but it ends string: "The N**** You Love to Hate" is compelling music if not necessarily words, and "In the Late Night Hour" hardly drops off. B+
  • The Isley Brothers: Live It Up (1974 [2004], Epic/Legacy). The title track is one of those two-part groove thangs that they do do so well. Beyond that it gets schlockier, with wah wah on the fast ones, moaning and groaning on the slow ones, and one of those middling pop songs (Todd Rundgren's "Hello It's Me") elevated to soul heaven. B
  • Arto Lindsay: Salt (2004, Righteous Babe). Haven't really sussed this out yet, but first impression is that is the smoothest most consistent, and most satisfying of his Brazilian-influenced albums. Perhaps more conventional and less challenging than Mundo Civilizado, not to mention the best of his Ambitious Lovers work. But I'm not likely to get back to it anytime soon for fine tuning, and not worried about where it'll weigh out. A-
  • Susannah McCorkle: The Songs of Johnny Mercer (1977 [1996], Jazz Alliance). Her first album, the first of many songwriter specials, and as good a place to begin as any. She was a literateur, devoted to the words like a latter day Carmen McRae, but she fell in with good musicians from the start, and virtually built today's jazz vocal vogue. The musicians here were more trad than her collaborators at Concord: Keith Ingham (piano) and Digby Fairweather (cornet) are the best known names. B+
  • Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes (1972 [2004], Epic/Legacy). The hit gains stature in the live bonus cut, which means the album was premature -- otherwise they would have been named Teddy Pendergrass & the Blue Notes. B-
  • Hello: The Best of Lee Michaels (1968-72 [2004], Shout Factory). Michaels has always stuck in my mind for his 1974 album Tailface, which for one memorable side was a monumental slab of dumbed down grunge. Everything here predates Tailface, so the first thing that is clear here is that this isn't the real Best. This reduces 6 or 7 albums that he cut for A&M before he did 2 or 3 for Columbia, after which he vanishes from the public record. Michaels came out of San Francisco psychedelia (if that means much), mentioned by AMG (if that means much) in the same breath as Moby Grape and It's a Beautiful Day (if that means anything). Mostly plays keybs, especially organ, which makes him sound a bit like Canned Heat to me, although he isn't significantly into blues. "Do You Know What I Mean" seems to have been a hit of some magnitude, and it is distinguished here by the clean effortlessness that makes for hits. Everything else struggles more or less, but something like "If I Lose You" churns up an agreeable funk, and his vocals have some of that "white soul" schtick going for them. B+
  • The Miracles: Love Machine: The '70s Collection (1973-77 [2003], Motown/Chronicles). With Smokey gone solo, they hung on for a handful of albums, breaking one big hit ("Love Machine") and recording one of my favorite albums of the '70s, City of Angels (1975). The latter only contributes 3 of these 18 cuts, but they're the high points: "Love Machine," "Ain't Nobody Straight in L.A.," and "Night Life." Since City of Angels is a concept album -- you can tell because the first track is called "Overture" -- it deserves to be heard whole (but couldn't they have snuck "Free Press" in?). Still, without Smokey, or the conceptual drive of City of Angels, they were a backup group without a front. B
  • 30 Years of Maria Muldaur: I'm a Woman (1973-2001 [2004], Shout Factory). This starts with her solo career, skipping over her debut as Maria D'Amato (original name), the Cashmeres (girlgroup pop), the Even Dozen Jug Band, work with Jim Kweskin and husband Geoff Muldaur. A-
  • Maria Muldaur's Music for Lovers (1995-98 [2000], Telarc). Not a new album, just a compilation from the three albums that she recorded for Telarc. She's always an appealing singer, but there doesn't seem to be much here -- slow ballads, slow blues, two good songs from the career-spanning comp (which also has three other songs from her Telarc albums, absent here). Probably programmed not as a best-of but just to set a mood. B
  • 7 Seconds: The Best of Youssou N'Dour (1992-2000 [2004], Columbia/Legacy). Not even close, repackaging Sony's slim pickings (two early '90s crossover misses, a 2000 album released only in France, and a sappy Beatles cover from a Japanese single), yet the casual browser of Sony's "Nice Price" discount racks may still be delighted by the only African to make it that far. B+
  • Teddy Pendergrass: Anthology (1977-82 [2003], Philadelphia International/The Right Stuff, 2CD). In retrospect, the last giant of '70s soul -- not a transitional figure in the '80s wimp-out, but a towering figure overlooked for his limits: principally, a worldview focused on seduction, sex, and nothing else. That's where mainstream soul was headed at the time, and it's only become more limited since then. But this holds up remarkably well. A-
  • Teddy Pendergrass: Greatest Hits (1977-90 [1998], The Right Stuff). Presumably the better bargain: just one disc, so it is presumably more densely populated, plus two of his later songs which hold up just fine. Still, it's not much, if any, better. A-
  • U. Utah Phillips: I've Got to Know (1991 [2003], AK Press). Cut during the first Gulf War; reissued for the second. He was mad then, and he's mad now. Big problem I have is that most of this material later appeared on his albums with Ani DiFranco, and the extra musical texture there helps. One of many memorable lines: "the wealth of the west was built on the backs of draft dodgers/it's an American institution, deserves to be honored." B
  • The Vulgar Boatmen: Wide Awake (1989-95 [2003], No Nostalgia). The dates arbitrarily bracket the three albums that this band released, although this collection adds three previously unreleased tracks and three recent remixes: this is a regrouping as much as a reissue. The song selection includes 7 of 12 from their first album, You and Your Sister (including two takes of "Mary Jane"), 8 of 12 tracks from Please Panic, and 4 more unaccounted for but not previously unreleased tracks, presumably coming from the underdocumented 1995 Opposite Sex album. They sound like a simplified version of the Feelies, or a more constrained version of the Go-Betweens: they love that relaxed rhythm that the Velvet Underground bequeathed to all of America's indie-pop bands, and they can play it forever. The two songwriters live far apart and communicate by mail, each experimenting with a separate set of musicians to make up alternative alt-rock bands. A-
  • Bennie Wallace: In Berlin (2002, Enja). A live record, the sort of standards he's been doing lately ("It Ain't Necessarily So," "It's Only a Paper Moon," "Someone to Watch Over Me"). And this does what you'd hope for from a live album: it plays faster and looser with the music than his studio dates. I just made his latest album a Pick Hit in my Jazz Consumer Guide, so you may count me a sucker for his music, and my reaction here is no different. A-
  • Muddy Waters: Hard Again (1976 [2004], Epic/Legacy). Waters had just crossed age 60, cut loose from his heyday at Chess. Johnny Winter was half his age, the albino blues-rocker, like most blues-rockers in awe of his less popular elders. Then they teamed up for the album of their lives: no look back, Hard Again was the hardest rocking album of the year, a nonstop party that left Waters as satisfied as he looks on the cover. Nobody noticed when the blues had that baby named rock and roll, until the baby grew up and paid its respects. A
  • Muddy Waters: I'm Ready (1977 [2004], Epic/Legacy). Second of the Blues Sky/Johnny Winter albums, with Jerry Portnoy and Big Walter Horton subbing for James Cotton, a further trawl through the songbook, with no real surprises this time. B+
  • Muddy Waters: King Bee (1980 [2004], Epic/Legacy). The third (and last) Blues Sky/Johnny Winter album -- maybe age was catching up, maybe they just took the time to remember, but this one stretches out the old blues rather than lifting them to the rafters. A-
  • Johnny Winter (1969 [2004], Columbia/Legacy): Debut from a blues guitarist who knows his licks and struggles with his limits -- mostly pipes and imagination; memorable verse on a bonus track: "there's so much shit in Texas, you're bound to step in some." B

Friday, July 02, 2004

Movie: Fahrenheit 9/11. A


Book: Nicholas von Hoffman: Hoax

Thursday, July 01, 2004

As I've been travelling, I have to admit that I've become favorably impressed with three technologies that I've never had much (if any) interest in:

  1. Wireless networks: I installed one wireless router (nice that it had four wire sockets), and saw another working just fine. In the latter case my host could turn on her laptop and get instant internet anywhere in the house. That was the goal in the other case, too, and it's hard to argue with the convenience. Don't recall whether my laptop has wireless. If so, I never bothered to try to get it working under Linux, but there's been places when it would have been convenient to have working.
  2. Caller ID: Has been nice while staying in other folks' houses, since it helped me decide to pick up a few phone calls that I would normally have let go to the machine.
  3. Cell phones: Don't have one/never wanted one. But it would have been a big help had folks been able to get hold of me when I was nowhere in particular -- or even when I was at a friend's house but reluctant to give out/pick up the phone. (Never been much good with phones.)


Jun 2004 Aug 2004